Melinda Marie Jette’s 2015 book, At the Hearth of the Crossed Races, expands upon previous historical analysis of the beginnings of the Oregon territory, the fur trade and tribal relations in Western Oregon. Jette’s premise, that there has been an “inclination to overlook the French Canadian trappers, and by extension their bicultural families and Native kin,” is well founded. This is a timely addition to the literature of the Oregon Territory.
In my own survey of historical literature, this premise rings true for the past 150 years of Oregon literature. I previously addressed a similar topic in 2014 with my article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly “Four Deaths, the near destruction of the Western Oregon tribes, and Native Lifeways, Removal to the Reservations, and Erasure from History (OHQ, Fall 2014; 115:3). I also wrote a bit about the “erasure” phenomenon within the context of my blog posts.
Jette’s book is organized into these chapters:
1, Native-Fur Trade relations in the Willamette Valley
2. Agrarian Colonization and the Intermittent Fever
3. Methodist Missionaries and Community Relations
4. Catholic Missionaries and community Tensions
5. American Settlers and political Initiatives
6. Under an Anglo-American Regime
Jette applies liberally theoretical notions of the “Frontier”, and the “Middle Ground”. The “Frontier” is a notion first written about by Frederick Jackson Turner, that there is a region beyond the civilized or settled area, a borderlands, a place of unlimited free land, and perhaps freedom, sometimes a place between two nations. The “Middle Ground” is a place of mutual accommodation between natives and persons from various colonial countries. a place were original policies and laws of accommodation must be created by the various cultures, first identified by historian Richard White. Jette’s application suggests that western Oregon and the Oregon territory was such a frontier and middle ground, where French Canadians, Americans and tribes (mainly Chinook and Kalapuyan) had to make some accommodation. She examines the “social, economic and political dynamics that shaped the families” in French Prairie, a region within the Willamette Valley just north of Salem, OR.
Interestingly, Jette addresses Americans as Anglo-Americans. A unique way of addressing the Americans. To tribes in the region during this middle ground period most all of the Whites, either “Bostons” (Americans) or King George men (British) were simply White men. But the term Jette uses distinguishes the French Canadians from these seeming anglo groups to be different. She is suggesting that the Metis French Canadians, or French-Indians, that were half or part Native and part French were different from the Americans or the British. That in published histories especially the French Canadians have been ignored and passed over in favor of giving full credit to the anglo administrators for the actions of history.
This premise makes a lot of sense. Historians have continually uplifted select persons, like John McLoughlin, or Jason lee for establishing what is great in the Oregon territory. They have had statues to their honor placed in the United States Capitol, when the majority of work accomplished within the early Oregon territorial history was accomplished by the laborers, employees of the various fur trading outfits, and the tribes. Beginning with perhaps one of the earliest expeditions, that of Lewis and Clark (1805-1806), they had a good number of men working to make the expedition possible, hunters and canoe pullers, and then one Native women, Sacagawea, to help guide the expedition. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Tribes that the expedition met, had information about their neighbors and nearly all would draw a map for the expedition. Clark would copy those maps into his notebooks. Collective information gained from the tribes helped Clark create a successful set of maps, using fairly accurate information, and eventually helped make the “Corps of Discovery” a successful expedition.
Native families who settled in the Kanaka village outside of Fort Vancouver, were the laborers for the fur traders. They would guide the fur trading expeditions, build fences, plant crops, and carry canoes around a portage. From the earliest day of the fur trade, and for many settlers, Native labor was a part of what made everything work in the region. Yet in histories of the region there is little that gives notice of or assigns credit to these many people who operated with extraordinary kindness towards these invaders to their tribal lands.
Jette’s book addresses the lives and accomplishments of many fur traders who eventually settled in Oregon. She addresses their interactions with the tribes, their kinship with the tribes and for some their adoption into the tribes through marriage or movement to the reservations. Jette’s title is also a bit elusive as Chapter 1, addresses the realities of Native lifeways for the Kalapuyan Indians in greater depth and detail than most histories of the tribes. Jette draws much on the ethnographic and linguistic studies of the tribes to make this chapter a highlight of the book. Jette’s genealogical investigation is one of the best I have seen, and will dovetail well with Jean Barman’s “French Canadians, Fur Traders, and Women In the Making of the Pacific Northwest” (UBC Press 2014).
As I proceed through the chapters, I am finding the book very dense, full of great information I will use in the future in my own writings on the tribes of western Oregon. Jette’s bibliography is excellent and I am already making new associations with published materials yet to be acquired for my research collections. In September I am teaching a class at Willamette University and will be requiring Jette’s book for the class. I met Melinda this past week at OHS in Portland and I am glad I attended, having followed her scholarship over the past few years. I find that Jette’s research parallels my own very well and that of other scholars in the region. This is a welcome addition to my library and would be to any serious research library of the region’s history.