Thinking about Oregon's History
Bill Long 7/16/06
William Robbins' Book, Oregon: This Storied Land (2005)
In 1989, when he was retiring from 35 years of distinguished service as head of the Oregon Historical Society, Thomas Vaughn spoke to the City Club of Portland about the importance of cultivating and learning the history of this particular slice of land called Oregon. I asked him who, in his judgment, had told the story of Oregon best in the (then) 130 years since Oregon's statehood. He pondered the question for a moment and then said: "Two women: Francis Fuller Victor and Dorothy Johansen." I mused to myself for a while, because I knew that Victor had been dead since 1902 and that Johansen, born in Seaside in 1904, had long retired from Reed College, where I had taught from 1982-88. Her classic work Empire of the Columbia was written in 1957 (2nd ed. 1967) and was still the standard history of Oregon in 1989. I mused because Vaughan had to go back to a time before much of Oregon's history had taken place in order to find historians whom he felt had told the story of Oregon well.
That situation persisted well into the 1990s--until William G. Robbins, a Distinguished University Professor (now retired) from Oregon State University not only told the story of Oregon afresh but did so with a conscious attention to a methodology that had been emerging in the historical field over the previous generation.*
[*His two-volume history of Oregon came out in 1997 and 2004. The first is Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940, and the second is Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000. Both were published by the University of Washington Presss. You might ask yourself, "Why wasn't there an Oregon publisher fit for the task?" That, friends, is another story...]
That is, during the 1960s and 1970s, the work of the so-called Annales historians in France (led by Ferdinand Braudel and Marc Bloch), focused on what we might call "environmental history." By this term I don't primarily mean an interest in "preserving the environment," as we might call it in 2006. Rather, an environmental historian a la Braudel would be interested not so much in events and individuals, which are the standard stuff of history, but the climate, physical features, crops, rhythms of seasons and the "feel" of a place. In Braudel's words, this is "histoire de la longue durée,"--history of the long duration.
The virtue of Robbins' work, then, is that he applies the learnings of "environmental" methodology to the realia of the experience of the Pacific Northwest. The result is the telling of history in a new and provocative way, one that tries to do justice not only to the people who inhabited and shaped the land, but to the land which, no doubt, shaped the people.
Oregon: This Storied Land (2005)
Thus, I was excited when a very dear friend bought me a copy of William Robbins' brief (250 page) recent work on Oregon's history, in which he applies this methodology for the general reader. In the first two chapters of the book, which I only have space to comment on here, he both tells the familiar stories of the earliest European explorers/discovers/exploiters in the region, but he places them in the dual context of the Native American tribes of Oregon and the environment of Oregon. But he doesn't do as much with the latter in this slimmer volume as one would wish. Instead of spending many pages describing the geological richness of the various regions of Oregon, he spends most of his time talking about the way that Native tribes eked out a living for themselves in this territory. Though the map on p. 11 portrays the "native territories in Oregon," I would have wished for more in his descriptions of the sources we have of native culture, the stories that these cultures told, what we know about their battles with each other, how their languages survive (and what we know of them), etc. Perhaps my raising those questions proves that I am not a "general reader," who only wants to get an "impression" of the past; I think, however, that even a one-volume survey ought to bring the reader into the historian's laboratory, so to speak, to understand the way that the historian arranges his/her material from the sources that are available.
Robbins is very "modern" in his portrait of the interaction between the Americans and/or British and the Native tribes, looking at these trade interactions in the context of a global economic market (selling beaver pelts in Europe in the early 19th century or sea-otter pelts in China in the late 18th), a struggle for colonial supremacy and the desires of the Natives to obtain goods that they hitherto didn't have (metallic objects). I would have desired to see some data on Chinese and/or European fashion in this period as well as the nature of the profits made by people from James Cook to the Hudson's Bay Company, but Robbins is mum on those subjects. I understood for the first time, however, the relationship between Astor's settlement in Astoria, beginning in 1811 and the North West Company (England) by reading Robbins' narrative.
He tells a number of interesting stories in these pages (1-38), one of which is just too good to lose. It has to do with the story of the Chinook chief Concomly's (ca 1764-1830) head. The Chinooks resided on the North side of the Columbia River mouth (the Clatsops were on the opposite bank of the Columbia). As Robbins said, by the time of the Lewis & Clark expedition (1805-06), Comcomly had emerged as the most influential Indian leader on the lower Columbia, even going so far in subsequent years to marry his daugthers and extended family to British trading company officials. When the first in a series of seasonal malarial outbreaks took place near the (fairly new) Hudson's Bay Company fort (Vancouver, WA) in 1830, the disease proved lethal to Concomly. Five years later a physican at Fort Vancouver, Meredith Gairdner, sneaked into the burial ground where Concomly was interred, sliced off his head, took off for Hawaii and then sent the boxed skull to a friend in England for scientific study. Craniometry being all the rage at that time, the British measured and weighed the head, and kept it in the Royal Naval Hospital Museum in England for 117 years until, in 1952, the head was returned to the Clatsop County Historical Society (OR). Finally, the head was returned to Concomly's descendants in 1972 after they requested it, and it is now buried near the chief's village site in Ilwaco, WA.**
[**The story is told in more detail here.]
You wonder if the "head of Concomly" will be the prelude for the story of the Elgin Marbles...With this story under our belts, I am ready to see how he handles the "governmental" period of Oregon.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long