The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted.
The resulting Article 1, Section 35 of the Oregon state constitution:
No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws, for the removal, by public officers, of all such negroes, and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ, or harbor them.
The voters who overwhelmingly embraced this exclusion rationalized it not as blind hate, but as a progressive move that was simply keeping their new land “pure.” Utopia often means starting from scratch, and just as often it means excluding undesirables.
As one “pioneer” voter who would later become a Republican state senator and a member of the U.S. House explained at a reunion in 1898:
Some believers in the doctrine of abstract human rights interpret this vote against admission of free negroes as an exhibition of prejudices which prevailed agains the African who was not a slave, but I have never so regarded it. It was largely an expression against any mingling of the white with any of the other races, and upon a theory that as we had yet no considerable representation of other races in our midst, we should do nothing to encourage their introduction. We were building a new state on virgin ground; it’s people believed it should encourage only the best elements to come to us, and discourage others.
Technically the state’s exclusion laws were superseded by federal law after the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. But Oregon had a rather complicated relationship with that particular Amendment. Having ratified it in 1866, the state then rescinded its ratification when a more racist state government took control in 1868. The move was more symbolic than anything, but Oregon gave the sign that it wasn’t on board with racial equality. Astoundingly, it wouldn’t be until 1973 (and with very little fanfare) that activists would get the state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment yet again.
Naturally, the state’s quest for an all-white utopia also included the oppression of other groups — especially those of Chinese and Japanese descent. Though Asian people were not specifically called out in Oregon’s constitutional exclusion laws, the white people of many towns large and small did their best to drive out non-white people any time they got the chance.