Friday, January 25, 2013

A different Oregon history



We don’t know how things will turn out in Egypt, Libya, or Syria, don’t know where the Arab Spring will take the people who are in the midst of it, or, for that matter, what impacts it will have on us, living thousands of miles away but connected by war, trade, and the long threads of family and friendship.  At the same time, we assume an inevitability in our own national history, which we are taught to see as a series of iconic events marshaled and mastered by iconic men—yes, mostly men. 

Our textbooks start with Columbus and give us Washington, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark; Lincoln, Grant, and Lee; Carnegie and Rockefeller; the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. There is “discovery,” then pilgrims, frontiersmen, and the Revolutionary War; The Oregon Trail, The Civil War, Manifest Destiny, the Great Depression, “world” wars, etc. etc. etc.

Our friend Alvin Josephy spent a career putting a different face on American history. He wanted to know why the Indians were dispossessed—and how and why they have survived; why westward expansion took the routes it did, and how the Civil War played out across the entire continent.  He did this by paying attention to small things—the diaries of women, the notes of fur traders, the words of Nez Perce warriors spoken in sweats decades after their War.

Joseph Gale
I am thinking these things while I try to wring the lessons from Governor Joseph Gale and His Indian First Lady: Oregon’s First Governor, a book written by driven amateur historians Lillian Cummings Densley and Aaron G. Densley and published in Baker City in 2010. “Our family interest in writing about Joseph Gale originated in growing up in New Bridge, Oregon, near the Historic Gale home…… we did not know our research of Joseph Gale would lead us to cover the establishment of the old West.”

Eliza Gale-courtesy Oregon St Lib
Densley and Densley trace Gale’s life from his 1807 birth in Washington D.C. through years at sea, in the fur trade, as merchandiser and farmer across the West, to his death in Eagle Valley in eastern Oregon in 1881. They tell us that he did take an Indian wife, and that she was the daughter of Old Joseph, so the half sister of Young Chief Joseph and Ollokot. Her name was Bear Claws, but she took the Christian name, Eliza, after Eliza Spalding, on her marriage to Gale.



When the fur trade collapsed, the Gales moved to the Willamette Valley and took up farming. That was in 1839. There is a good story about building a ship and sailing it to San Francisco and trading it for cattle; the missionaries in the valley apparently had the livestock trade sewn up, and Gale and others broke it with the ship gambit.

The white occupation of the northwest was in its infancy, and governance—or at least control—of the territory, according to the white governments involved if not the Indians who lived here, was held jointly by the British and Americans. In 1843, spurred by the necessity of probating an estate and the problem of predation on livestock, 102 white men gathered to decide on forming a government. The Hudson’s Bay Company urged “Canadians,” mostly Frenchmen, to vote against formation, but the “Americans” were joined by two breakaway Canadians and won the vote, 52—50.

Because of the factions involved—Canadians and Americans—most of them with Indian wives, missionaries, and a new wave of white settlers with white wives coming across the Oregon Trail, an executive committee of three was selected rather than one governor. Joseph Gale represented the mixed families. He served for a year, but with growing pressure from the stream of white settlers and missionaries against mixed marriages—one accused the Methodists of condoning adultery by allowing such a marriage—Gale chose family and he and Eliza picked up and moved to California with the gold rush.

Etc. etc. the Gales eventually come back to Oregon and settle in Eagle Valley. He dies in 1881 and Eliza picks up an allotment on the Umatilla Reservation. She lives until 1905, and is buried in Weston.

But think of the “what ifs”: The ship might have sunk and missionaries’ hands strengthened towards a religious oligarchy. The vote could have gone against formation, and the British hand empowered in the Northwest. The mixed families could have dominated and formed a government and, one can imagine, a state that favored their kind. The happy amateur historians in Baker County might have entitled their book The Tale of Two Votes, and made the Frenchmen Oregon heroes. 

Driven by local curiosity, they tell a tale that, in its rambling way, rouses other possibilities in Oregon history.

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1 comment :

  1. Rich, you hit me with a real zinger on this blog entry because we alway drove to the coast along Gale's Creek in western Washington County. Lately Rob Foxcurran and I have been working on articles about the mixed-bloods and what became of them. You are doing some really good writing that Alvin would have appreciated. John c.

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