Studying Oregon's History
Bill Long 7/21/06
Taking a Topic....and Running with It
I first moved to Oregon in 1982, when I was 30 years old. Thus, I didn't study Oregon history in school. Whatever I have learned about Oregon history, I have pieced together by my own study in the intervening years. We are very fortunate in these days to have a resource like the online Oregon History Project ("OHP") put together in the last few years, which, in my mind, presents the history of Oregon in just the right way. This isn't to say that I agree with its presentation at all points or that it is complete enough for me; rather it reflects my approach to education (see "An IEP for All")--that there should be a brief "master narrative" in which almost all of the specific topics are mentioned, and then lots of links to specific topics, with primary texts, secondary summaries and further information for the interested student. The purpose of this and the next few essays is to look at the way the OHP studies one topic in Oregon's history--the coming of the Christiant missionaries--and how one would develop the topic yet further. My aim is to show how a high-school Oregon history class can best use this resource.
The OHP and the Early Missionaries to the Oregon Territory
From the home page of OHP you go to the "Oregon Histories" page, which indexes a series of topics on which there are many mini-essays. The ones under the topic "This Land--Oregon" are all written by historian William Robbins. These essays largely summarize (or vice-versa) his 2005 book Oregon: This Storied Land. Though Robbins' book isn't carefully keyed to the sub-topics on the OHP pages, it isn't a bad starting point. Then I went to the topic (which is a chapter in his book) entitled "The Great Divide: Resettlement and the New Economy." There are about 15 sub-topics in this "chapter," one of which is "Missions in Oregon." If you click on that page, you are brought to Robbins' 700 words or so and then a series of primary texts on the right side of the page. If the student had selected early Oregon missions as his/her topic for the semester, then s/he would begin the work in earnest right here. Let's begin.
When you read Robbins' "700 words" on the subject, you realize how little he says about the missions. Clearly religion isn't his "thing." He mentions the familiar Protestant triad of Whitman, Spalding and Lee, and makes rather vague references to "glowing stories" in "religious journals" that attracted people to the area. Then he moves to an account of the multiple motives that might have informed a move to Oregon. If I were a student, I would ask the following questions: (1) When did these missionaries come?; (2) What were the stories in the religious journals that encouraged them to come?; (3) Who were these missionaries? (4) What was their life like in the Oregon country? (5) What really happened in the Whitman massacre (which everyone has, at least, heard about)? These are some skeletal question which might guide our inquiry.
These are preliminary or "hypothesis" questions, questions that arise at the beginning of our historical journey, questions which will no doubt be refined as we go on. Let's "click" on one of the "documents" on the right of the page and see where it leads us.
The Protestant and Catholic Ladders
I first went to the "Catholic Ladder," dated at 1840. I had never heard of a Catholic Ladder, and so I was intrigued as to what one might be. Well, the page introduces me to several things. First, it talks about the ladder itself (I will give an image of it in the next essay), which was 58" X 6 1/2" long. It was designed by Father Francis Blanchet (ah, so there were also Catholic missionaries in the early Oregon territory--already my knowledge is going beyond what Robbins tells me) in 1839 as he began his mission with the Indians in the Cowlitz area of SW Washington. Second, I learned that the Ladder was devised as a way of giving religious instruction to Native Americans who had a number of different languages. Thus, it was a practical teaching tool to communicate Christian faith to the Natives. I decided to click on the image of the ladder, and I then saw what they meant when they said it was 58" by 6 1/2." But the quality of the images isn't that clear, and I saw I needed to find another picture someplace else.
So, here is what I did. I did a Google Search on "Catholic Ladder," and after going from one search to the next, one of the items that came up was a summary of a recently-written book on NW history by Albert Furtwangler. Entitled Bringing Indians to the Book, this 225-page work was published in 2005 by the University of Washington Press. The one page summary of the book on the UWP web site takes me a bit deeper. It begins by saying that
"In 1831, a delegation of Northwest Indians reportedly made the arduous journey from the shores of the Pacific to the banks of the Missouri in order to visit the famous explorer William Clark. This delegation came, however, not on civic matters but on a religious quest, hoping, or so the reports ran, to discover the truth about the white men's religion. The story of this meeting inspired a drive to send missionaries to the Northwest. Reading accounts of these souls ripe for conversion, the missionaries expected a warmer welcome than they received, and they recorded their subsequent disappointments and frustrations in their extensive journals, letters, and stories."
All of a sudden I was figuratively "in heaven." Now I know why there was mission work to the NW (a delegation of Indians went to St. Louis to inquire about the "white man's religion;" now I know when it happened (1831--which also helps explain Blanchet's 1839 Ladder); now I know there are accounts someplace of this original journey of the Indian delegation; now I understand a little more about Robbins' rather vague reference to "glowing stories" in "religious journals." As a matter of fact, if I were an alert student I would have just understood something very important about the historian's craft--and that is that a single-volume summary work must by its nature cover in one sentence what might really be issues that take months of serious study to uncover and understand. Indeed, I might conclude that Robbins had not given me sufficient information even in such a summary treatment. If I were a student, then, I would then make sure I got Furtwangler's book and immerse myself in the narratives beginning with 1831.
But while you are waiting for Furtwangler's book to come in, there is loads more to do. The next essay describes some of it.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long