Narratives of Indians from Oregon’s Pioneering Days

In the first one hundred years of history writing about Oregon, there occurred something remarkable. Many writers adopted a romantic historical writing style that aggrandized the role of the pioneer, the missions of the churches, and the benefits of the colonization which took place.

Many of these history scholars and writers were the direct descendants of the original pioneers. The writers at the turn of the 20th century were the children and grandchildren of the pioneers. They likely heard stories from their parents, aunts, and uncles, and grandparents of the trials and troubles they had on the Oregon Trail. They heard of the savage Indians along the route and also heard of the Indians in the territory they settled. They heard of the wars, battles and skirmishes between the settlers and Indians. And many of the writers were subjected to education in early theories in anthropology. Some became amateur or professional ethnographers of tribal culture.

The work of these writers spanned a range of literature from anthropology, history, folklore, to speculative history, young adult history, children’s stories, poetry and straight literature. of focus today are the historians who attempted to reconstruct Native histories. One of the main historians who saw much success was Richard Balch. His Bridge of the Gods (1890), was an overnight sensation, was very popular, so much so that other writers and artists used the book as source literature to base their work on. Numerous Multnomah statues were created, the most famous in the MET in New York City called Chief Multnomah. A play, Bridge of the Gods, based on the book was produced and toured around the region for some 20 years.

Balch wrote compellingly about the story or narrative of the benevolent pioneers who came to Oregon and civilized the Indians. He writes of how an Indian, Chief Multnomah, welcome and even aided the pioneers in their journey and mission to colonize Oregon. Balch created the name for his characters and later there is a merging of some of his concepts in his Bridge of the Gods story, with others like Wy-east. He does not actually use the word Wy-east but his book is reimagined in a 1911 play by Pacific College thespians, where they use the name in the play. The Play becomes a hit and is played for more than 20 years throughout the region. This was well reported in the newspapers of the time. We are still researching the play and Balch’s possible contributions to the Bridge of the Gods storyline. His stories, romanticized narratives that reanalyzed the colonial encounter in the West much have been inspiring to the sons and daughter of the pioneers in Oregon. The tribes welcomed colonization, even aided it, in order they would be saved from their savagism. A brilliant re-analysis narrative of the colonization of Oregon. [update, scholars are still looking for a candidate word in tribal languages and they have yet to find one, until then, this is the most plausible. There are a few early accounts from a Cascades woman in Hood River telling a name like this to a minister but it is unknown if even she was influenced by Balch or the play about his book.]

The fame of Balch’s book and the story in the play was so compelling that people began to believe the “facts” in the book as literal truths of the history and culture of Native peoples in the region.  Then, for the past 100+ years, some ideas introduced in the book, became part of Portland area curriculum taught to students as part of their Native American education units in schools. Thus generations of students have now been taught the “facts”of Balch’s historical fiction, as true facts of the tribes.

Thus far, scholars have not found any credible ethnographic information to back up Balch’s names for Chief Multnomah, although it was a common thought of the time that many placenames were based on a prominent chief in the past. It appears that Balch may have created these names. It is likely that he had contact with some native peoples in the region. The name Wy-east is similar to the word Wyam, which is a word for an Indian community on the Columbia and with the possible origin with a Cascades woman, there is a possibility of a native origin.

But, Balch is hardly the only writer in this style. There are many more. One such was S.A. Clarke. Clarke is a noted historian who wrote many books of the history of the region and was an editor for the Oregon Historical Quarterly for some time. Clarke appears not really to be aggrandizing the role of the pioneer and does write histories of Native peoples into his books, which is more than many historians did at this time. In Clarke’s “Pioneering Days of Oregon” (1905) he includes a chapter on the Molalla people (133). The story he presents is a narrative of how the Molalla got to the Cascades, got their name, and had conflicts with the Cayuse. His narrative may have a basis in truth. There are anthropologists who have theorized that the Molalla were pushed into the Cascades by the Cayuse and that their languages may be related. There is even an oral account that suggests this is true. However, Clarke suggests that the whole of the Willamette Valley was named Wah-lam-ut, and that they chose the name Molalla. These “facts” do not appear to be accurate. When Lewis and Clark “discovered” the river, it was called “Multnomah” by the Clowewalla Indian they encountered. The valley had different names by many tribes, none of which was Wah-lam-ut. The name Willamette is a pioneer-era naming of the valley taken from a Clackamas village name.

Similarly, most often the present tribes have gotten their name by being named by their neighbors. Settlers and travelers would ask who the people further west were called and normally many of their names derive from the word for “enemy” or some central characteristic but from a different tribal language. In this instance, the Molalla are likely named after the word Olallie, a name for huckleberry in their language.

Balch’s narrative completely discounts the experiences and feelings of Native peoples that they were dispossessed of their lands and rights, and these same pioneers, many of them participated in wars of extermination. That native perspective was what Balch did not want to tell in his almost science fiction-ish justification for colonization. The unreality of the narrative creates an inauthentic image of Native peoples as accepting of the fact of their own impending demise. In this same period, at the turn of the 20th-century anthropologists were suggesting that since Native populations were collapsing, that there would come a day when all Native people went extinct. This concept may have bothered a few people, in thinking that it is possible that their parents or grandparents had something to do with the extinction of the tribes. Balch’s book must have been a fresh idea that eased their consciousnesses. (The idea has some merit even today as people still want to apologize for what their ancestors did, now many generations removed. In my many presentations about Native peoples, there are nearly always one or more people who offer an apology for what happened,  after my talks. Incidentally, Clarke was critical of Balch’s history, as I read comments by him in OHQ letters. )

Generally, the histories of the Romantic historians always seek to find the higher ideal within the history. That higher ideal is normally what everyone in the narrative accepts as the “mission” of the Americans to take the Oregon Territory, and of how the enlightened Native people also understood this higher purpose and accepted their fate. American’s “Manifest Destiny” was to take the continent as a right of the American peoples, a holy journey of colonization, which included dispossession, assimilation, war and extermination if necessary. Balch delivers this narrative very clearly in his book. I feel that Clarke suffers perhaps an effect of the romanticism in his own scholarship, in the example provided, but does not accept the same mission as Balch.

Clarke’s Molalla account amounts to some historical fiction on his part. This is part of the art of writing history than most historians come to realize. That as time marches forward, more and more information is available about the past. correspondence and journals and government records become available decades after the actual historic events occurred. In our digital world, many of these resources are immediately available on the Internet with a bit of searching. Therefore, later histories will be better, and likely more accurate than previous histories. Regardless, it is important to understand that many early histories do contain valuable information, but it is necessary to analyze the context of the history, the focus of the writer, and the intent behind the research to understand them better. Constant reanalysis is a good habit to get into when reading histories.

I have written on this topic in other essays published on this blog and elsewhere.

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