Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"The white men fired back. That is the story."

I was doing some research in the Oregonian the other day and came across a 1931 interpretation of Euro-American settlement of Oregon that will likely strike some modern readers as quite dated:

"But They Fought Back," Morning Oregonian, June 20, 1931, p6.

In case you're not able to read the text, the pertinent and eyebrow-raising sections are as follows:
    Oregon pioneers are justified in rising up against the modern tendency to consider them the aggressors in the Indian wars. There is no way of making them out the aggressors, unless mere entrance into the Oregon country is to be considered an act of aggression. The arrival of the Americans, with their eyes on the farm land, inflamed the natives, who shined up the rifles they had bought with furs and began shooting. The white men fired back. That is the story.
    . . . we quote from the introduction to Bancroft's "History of Oregon," . . .:
      Aside from the somewhat antiquated sentiments of eternal justice and the rights of man as apart from man's power to enforce his rights, the quick extermination of the aborigines may be regarded as a blessing both to the red race and to the white. The two seldom profitably intermix . . . However merciless the conquerors, Spain's government, aided by the church, was ever tender of her native American subjects, and we see the result in Mexico and Central America. The British fur traders would not permit the killing of their hunters, and we see the result in British Columbia.
    While subscribing in no degree to Bancroft's assertion that the principles of eternal justice are antiquated, and in no degree to his crass approval of the extermination of a race -- which approval, by the way, was much more common in his day than ours -- nevertheless it is true that the American handling of the Indian problem has proved superior in the long run.[1]

The above is the editorial voice of one of the state's leading newspapers of the time. I'm not sure precisely what sources or advocates the editor refers to when he writes about "the modern tendency" to discuss Euro American aggression toward Indians in the nineteenth century. Perhaps there was some recent historical scholarship on the topic that challenged earlier interpretations, or maybe some tribal members' stories were finally beginning to be heard by a larger audience?

In any event, it's interesting to contrast the Oregonian's perspective in 1931 with a section from historian Charles Wilkinson's 2010 book on the history of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, The People Are Dancing Again:
    In that frontier society [early 1850s Rogue Valley, Oregon], the miners, sometimes supported by the settlers, took the law into their own hands. They organized as "volunteers" . . . In Southern Oregon, however, many of these groups acted independently of official military leadership and paid no heed to the promises of "peace and friendship" in the [1851] treaty that Governor Gaines had negotiated . . . These vigilantes, who would make life miserable for the tribes and interfere with federal officials for the next three years, committed many slaughters and atrocities, including lynchings.
    For their part, the tribes also had people who carried out raids, thefts, and killings. Some villagers believed they were not governed by the treaties . . .
    It is a mistake, however, to think of this and later stages of the Rogue River War in terms of equivalency, as a conflict between where blame should be equally allocated between the two sides. By 1850, the tribes had reached an accommodation with the settlers; the implicit live-and-let-live understanding was an uneasy, delicate one to be sure, but it had promise. The Gold Rush changed everything, as the miners and their vigilante groups threw southwestern Oregon into turmoil. Joel Palmer, superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory from 1853 to 1857 and the senior federal Indian official in the region, wrote these sentiments in 1856 . . .:
      The cause of the present difficulty in southern Oregon is wholly to be attributed to the acts of our own people. . . . The Indians in that district have been driven to desperation by acts of cruelty . . . that would disgrace the most barbarous nations of the earth. . . .[3]
This interpretation is a far cry from that of the Oregonian in 1931.[2] Comparing the two interpretations, the Oregonian's comes across as quite defensive and reactionary, while Wilkinson's is much more nuanced and direct.

Also interesting to me is that the Oregonian editors draw a quote from Bancroft that lauds the extermination of Native Americans, and then off-handedly disavow sharing the sentiment; I, for one, am left wondering why this quote was chosen if not to imply support for Bancroft's position? The editors claim that they don't support this position, yet they conclude that "the American handling of the Indian problem has proved superior in the long run," and "the American handling of the Indian problem" was, in many ways, an attempt at extermination.

A moral of this story is: One can't always believe what one reads in the newspaper.[4]

[1] "But They Fought Back," Morning Oregonian, June 20, 1931, p6.

[2] Or that of Son of the South, ca. 2000, for that matter.

[3] Wilkinson, The People Are Dancing Again, 83.

[4] I know this will come as a shock to most people. [insert smiley face here]