The Myth of Oregon

How much of the territory is real? How much is myth?

From the Oregon Trail to Portlandia, this has been a place of imagined perfection. A place where people dreamed of reinventing themselves, a backdrop for  utopian aspirations, from the Aurora Commune to Rajneeshpuram.

The journey to Oregon is part of American mythology. Not to mention college humor.

I’m betting that everyone, natives and transplant, has some myth they carry about this place. My Oregon myth goes like this:

When I describe my discovery of Oregon I usually say that I first came to Oregon on a church choir tour when I was eleven. But the truth is, I don’t know if that was really how it happened.  Was I really eleven? Was it really Portland I came to.  In my mind it is real.  I remember the green. But which highway I viewed it from, where exactly was I? I couldn’t say with certainty.  Maybe it is just Oregon in my mind.  My personal myth. My claim to the territory.

And maybe that’s not the part that matters.  What matters is what you build on top of that myth.

Do you build a place of progressive values, equity, and openness to  diversity, or do you pursue a utopian fantasy that excludes  anyone different.  Oregon has always been both.

A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940

During the Civil War, the legislature passed the last anti-black state laws, with the exception of the ban on intermarriage passed in 1866. Between 1866 and 1872, the legislature was required to consider ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave citizenship to black people and the right to vote to black men. It was clear, however, that these amendments were unpopular with most Oregonians.

As early as 1843, Robert Newell, who had married an Indian woman, stated his objections to allowing black men to vote.I think we have got high enough among the dark clouds; I do not believe we ought to go any higher. It is well enough to admit the English, the French, the Spanish and the half-breeds, but the Indian and the Negro is a little too dark for me. I think we had better stop at the half-breeds. I am in favor of limiting the vote to them, and going no farther into the dark clouds to admit the Negro.

In 1865, the Oregonian commented:The man who–knowing of the African race in our country-favors the extension of the privileges of citizenship to them, is surely reckless of the consequences, and regardless of the future result . . . The Negroes as a class possess no capacity of self-government, and the few who are intelligent enough to take part in public affairs are offset by the multitude who don’t . . . this nation of the white race should well ponder the question before it admits the African, the Mongolian and the Indian to all its privileges?

The Oregon Statesman, in an editorial published the same year, predicted that giving the vote to blacks would have a revolutionary influence on society. We do not believe that any democratic or republican form of government can successfully govern two separate and distinct races of people in large numbers with equal political rights to both races?  Not only those few qualified blacks, but the masses just released from slavery would be able to vote. Full suffrage would result in a “war of the races,” the editorial concluded.  If we make the African a citizen, we cannot deny the same right to the Indian or the Mongolian (the Chinese, Japanese and other Asians). Then how long would we have peace and prosperity when four races separate, distinct and antagonistic should be at the polls and contend for the control of government?

This legislature also passed another law prohibiting intermarriage. It was directed not only against white/black marriages, but against anyone with “one-fourth or more Negro, Chinese or [Hawaiian] blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood.  It was passed with little debate; the combined vote was forty-seven in favor, eight opposed and three absent. The penalty for disobeying the law was a prison sentence of not less than three months, or up to one year. Any person authorized to conduct marriages who broke the law by marrying two people illegally was subject to the same penalty,

Inside the Territory Part 2: The Myth of Oregon


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: