Before the meteoric rise to fame–and then collapse–of a small group of well-armed militants professing to be on a mission from “god,” there were others who came to Oregon more than 170 years ago on a not-so-different quest. Oddly, they too were looking for land to farm and ranch as well, and they carried guns and brought their bibles. We call them the Oregon pioneers, and they are celebrated with the Promised Land statue in Chapman Square, in downtown Portland.
The one chapter missing from this statue is what happened to the Native Americans who were living here when these settlers arrived. At the time the American pioneers began pouring into the region by wagon train, Native tribes were experiencing large-scale public health disasters, from malaria, smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis and other diseases that destroyed entire villages and decimated the original inhabitants of the region. Nine out of 10 lower Columbian River inhabitants lost their lives to disease between 1830 and 1834 alone. When many settlers arrived, they truly found land emptied because of these radical changes brought about by these diseases.
The more recent group who wanted to “reclaim” federal land also seemed to have forgotten that the land once belonged to others, before it was lost in the very painful chapter of history in the region. Yet the legacy that we see is the family, with a bible, a gun, and a wagon wheel.