The Spirit of Colonization of Indian Country: Vista House and American Nationalism

The Spirit of Colonization of Indian Country: Vista House and American Nationalism

On June 7th, 1918 the state of Oregon dedicated the Vista House built between 1916 and 1918, at the crest of Crown Point overlooking the Columbia River. The opening of the house, really a scenic vista wayside and pioneer memorial, commemorated and called attention to the opening of the Columbia River Highway. The House was to be the memorial to the spirit and grit of the pioneers who first came down the Columbia to the Oregon Territory.

Interior image, Vista House

Memorial windows and wall panels will tell the story of the development of Oregon, from the days of Indian inhabitation to the period of history when a progressive people discovered that the most wonderful scenic district of America was lying undeveloped at their front door and immediately appropriated 1,250,000 to secure a glimpse of it. The Tablets will provide a study in themselves, and to the stranger will relate some of the splendid incidents of the early history of Oregon. (Oregonian, 1/1/1916 p 5)

Eight carved panels have the following motifs: Chestnut, acorn, pine cone, grape, apple, wheat, Oregon grape, and gingko. The shields of these eight panels will be inscribed with the names of the following revered pioneers: Dr. John McLoughlin, Jesse Applegate, James W. Nesmith, Joseph Lane, Asahel Bush, Matthew P. Deady, Rev. Jason Lee, and Dr. Marcus Whitman. (Oregonian April 28, 1918 p16)


Vista House being built, and schematic plan, Oregonian

The Columbia River Highway was created for a new age of automotive tourism, where throngs of Americans could envoy the amazing vistas of the Columbia River Gorge from the safety of their automobile quickly and efficiently. River travel on sternwheelers took some time to travel the gorge, and there were those necessary portages at falls and rapids where people had to disembark and embark on another sternwheeler at least twice to get to eastern Oregon, because of Cascades Rapids and Celilo Falls. In the 1910’s there still was not locks for raising the schooners over the the treacherous rocks of the falls and rapids at the Cascades and Celilo. Thus, land travel proved faster and accessible to everyone who could afford the new automobiles being produced by Ford.

Postcard with automobiles prominent

Citizen organizations, many working on behalf of the commercial industry really worked to sell the notion of automotive tourism to the public. Whole sections of the local newspapers featured infomercial-like stories that laid out maps with noted tourist attractions and scenery people would encounter on the new paved or improved highway routes along the coast, through the Willamette Valley, or in this case, along the Columbia River Gorge.

New Columbia Highway Route with scenic stops, Oregonian, May 28 1818

Then, Portland’s Rosarians were elected to lead the festivities. The Rosarians in this time were Portland’s quasi-official cultural organization. This is where Portland gained its logo, the City of Roses, from the work of the Rosarians, providing hosting and ceremonial services and producing the Rose Parade every year for over a century. The Rosarians were (and perhaps are) a romantic cultural organization with a king and a queen appointed each year during the Rose festival complete with a court, dancing maidens, and fairies. Their philosophy appears to lie centrally within the Arthurian romanticist tradition of Europe and England. There was a common retro-cultural romantic revivalist tradition (Art Nouveau) in the United States in the era around the 1920s. The culture of the Rosarians is and was heavily Christian built on the Trinity as shown in this logo from 1918.

apparent Rosarian logo 1918, Oregonian

Previous to the dedication of Vista House, on May 28th, the Oregonian published an amazingly detailed scene-by-scene narrative of the dedication ceremony to occur on June 7th. During this period, there is no television, so people could not watch the dedication unless they attended. So the word went out in the newspapers about a week early, of the schedule of the ceremony. Every part of the ceremony is described in amazing detail. Here below is a transcript of the most significant sections of this narrative, which interlinks American nationalism to the colonization of Native lands, and colonization to the righteousness of the Christian royalty to take the land.

Rededication Postcard


Special trains will return from Multnomah Falls… The Queen and party will make a brief stop at Crown Point, where a mammoth American flag is to be unfurled in honor of the Vista House and Pioneer Memorial, and on reaching the East Side the party will be met by the Rosarian and police escort and all will proceed to the Hotel Portland, official headquarters for the queen and retinue.

The ceremony at Multnomah Falls will provide one of the most picturesque scenes ever offered in the state. The scenic beauties of the highway in the vicinity of the falls will form an important part in the scenes to be acted in connection with the dedication event.

The scene opens with a blast of trumpets coming from the picturesque mountain trail above the observation bridge which spans the chasm between the upper and lower falls of Multnomah. This is the signal that the Queen, with her consort, the King and the royal party are viewing Multnomah for the first time. The party will appear to the assembled multitudes as having come over the  Larch Mountain trail to inspect the magnificent roadway through the river gorge.

The Assembled Multitudes

The Rosarians guards for the royal party, escort the Queen and her retinue down the trail to the throne. Here the Queen with her court holds sway. The entire court will be in costume and in addition to the royal personages will include a dozen representative court officers. The Rosarian band will have a part in the ceremony and the selections to be played will form an important feature of the event.

After the court has taken its place in ceremonial fashion the pillow-bearers will bring forth the rose garlanded crown and the King will place it on the head of his regal partner.

Indians to have Part

While this ceremony closes there will suddenly appear above the falls Indians on horseback, Warwhoops will serve to bring the attention of the crowds to a figure rushing excitedly down a trail. As the figure approaches it will be recognized as a redskin.

“Chief Multnomah”

The Indian character will depict Chief Multnomah, as the guardian spirit of the great falls. On this day he will return from a successful hunt and with his braves, advance to protest against the invasion of civilization.

His journey will end on the platform where the royal party is assembled. He will proclaim majestically he is the ruler and guardian of the falls and demand to know by what right the white Queen and her court have assumed jurisdiction over his domain, the heretofore impregnable retreat of his tribe.

During the ceremony his braves will remain above the falls on their spotted ponies, awaiting the return of their chief from his interview with the paleface invaders.

The Queen, in sorrow for the deposed chief and with feeling, will extend her hand as a token of friendship. The big warrior will refuse and, throwing his blanket over his shoulders, turn, and, for the first time, will be amazed at the great number of whites present. Realizing defeat, he will cover his eyes for a moment, trying to think it is all a troubled dream and not real.

Finally, realizing that his days of rule are over, he will lay down his bow and arrows and walk from the platform. Taking the trail, the chief will disappear near the base of Multnomah Falls and the scene will end.

About this time progress and rapid transit will make its appearance in the person of Miss Columbia, followed by two boys rolling a winged wheel representing the new order of things. The Queen will accept Miss Columbia as a member of the royal household and crown her Queen of the Highway. Queen Muriel will command that the crown be brought forward and will place it on the head of Miss Columbia and the two rulers will sit sides by side. Miss Columbia will inform Queen Muriel that her dancing girls are present and fairy dances will be presented. While dancing the fairies will scatter rose petals about the court scene.

As the dancers fade away the Queen will step forward and, touching a silken cord, a mammoth American flag will be unfurled in front of the falls to complete the ceremony.

The King and Queen will enter the royal automobile, President Dundore will hand the silver urn to the Queen and she will sprinkle the highway with water from the falls and declare the highway dedicated to the world’s tourist travel. At this time carrier pigeons will be released and the beautiful birds will carry messages far and wide declaring the highway formally dedicated. Messages will be sent to commercial organizations over the Northwest.

Queen Muriel, Oregonian June 7, 1818

Leaving Multnomah Falls, the official party will proceed directly to Crown Point, where there are to be ceremonies in connection with the dedication of the Vista House site and Pioneer Memorial.

Raising the American Flag with Indian Inset, Oregonian June 7, 1818

President Wilson is to press a button in Washington that will release an American flag. the Queen and her maids will scatter roses over the site for the Vista House and dancing girls will take part in the ceremony. (Oregonian May 28, 1918, P 2)


The Rosarian King and Queen 1918

Above we see the interlinking of numerous nationalistic concepts within the ceremony. The deified Miss Columbia, Queen of the Columbia and, the reigning Queen Murial of the Rosarians, are joined in the creation (birth?) of this new highway, and American culture, of touring all vistas of Oregon, the crowning structure of which is Vista House, on Crown Point, perhaps the literal throne of these deified Queens.

Columbia, John Gast 1870

Native peoples, represented by the romantic figure of the mythical Chief Multnomah (a newly created figure- see Bridge of the Gods- Balch 1889) gives up his weapons and retreats in the face of throngs of tourists and the deified retinue in front of him. The ceremony symbolically represents the righteous colonization of Native lands, because the two Christianized Queens approved of it.

Interestingly, the creation of Miss Columbia, as a spirit of American progress and colonization of the West, also represents the right of white colonization and progress among the Native peoples. The hint of white nationalism is too great to ignore as well in the ceremony. Needless to say, all parts in the ceremonial drama were played by white people.

A truly amazing drama. This is one of the ways in which the descendants of the pioneers created and promoted the mythological figures in the history of Oregon; figures like Miss Columbia and Chief  Multnomah, and the Princess of Multnomah Falls. They were created to bring Oregon into the white Christian American tradition, and to legitimize the colonization of Native lands, and, to rewrite the history of the area to declare outright that this was a righteous conquest, that the actual facts of what happened did not matter, only the mythology of the pioneers as created by this progressive civilization.

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