Portland History

Before the armed militants came to Oregon, there was the Portland pioneer statue

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.

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A story for every stone

My explorations of Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery found lots of fascinating headstones. Each represents a life, a full story, a story that intersects with hundreds of other stories. And how do we remember these former residents, who are now but forgotten. Cemeteries remain a good place to contemplate one’s life and what one does with one’s life. Because ultimately we all return to the earth, and our life is but a speck in the passage in time in an infinite universe. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Two sides of a historic coin and wrestling with the past

The debates over the public and state-sanctioned display of the flag of the slave-holding Confederacy point to the United States’ not-so recent past. No country is pure, and the United States’ evolution is marked by great accomplishments, great divisions, and also some historic acts that leave a painful legacy. Our history of conflict in the 1800s stretches the entire century, from the War of 1812, through the Mexican-American War, dozens of conflicts with Native American bands across the continent, overseas expansion and trade wars (the Opium War), and the Spanish-American War.

in 1902, Portland area residents and war veterans erected a statue honoring the nation’s war veterans at the city’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. The cemetery is filled with graves of many white, Christian early settlers from the 1800s, and latter-day residents of all persuasions. I stumbled on the cemetery accidentally at a staging of Macbeth last weekend.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

I looked up and saw this statue of a Civil War soldier, with memorials plaques honoring veterans of Spanish-American War of 1898, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Indian Wars from 1846 to 1856, which saw most of Oregon and Washington occupied and appropriated as U.S. territory from many native tribes.

There were conflicts, but many of the original inhabitants were perishing en masse due to diseases like smallpox that accompanied the arrival of new settlers. Even after land was ceded by treaties and tribes were resettled on reservations, hostility was pronounced. Eleven years before this statue was erected, in 1891, the Oregon Legislature was passing resolutions with language that characterized the state’s Native residents as “a wild man.”

State lawmakers signed their names to a measure that stated: “… it would only be a fact of evolution to call him a wild animal on his way to be a man, provided the proper environments were furnished him. While the instincts and perceptions are acute, the ethical part of him is undeveloped, and his exhibitions of a moral nature are whimsical and without motive. Brought into contact with white men. whether of the lowest or of the highest, he is always at a disadvantage which is irritating, and subject to temptations which are dangerous.”

Today, what are we to do with such legacies to this time when these attitudes prevailed, and good people erected monuments to their fellow soldiers who fought for their country, and many doing so believing they were in the right and doing it for the best of intentions?

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The Montgomery Ward Building, a Portland landmark

When it opened in 1920, the Montgomery Ward Building was the largest commercial structure in Portland, Ore. It was sold in 1984 and then upgraded with a new glass atrium. The box-like structure sits atop a high plateau overlooking the city’s still industrial properties in northwest Portland, at the base of the affluent mansions that dot the hillside to the west. It is a prominent landmark that can be seen for miles in many directions, and for me is a beacon to the “old Portland” I fell in love with when I first moved here in 1983. This was before the city became a microbeer-brewing, bike-friendly, hipster, green-energy, whatever-you-want-to-call-it kind of city that absolutely fascinates sometimes naive out-of-town reporters, who are oblivious to thousands of homeless residents living on the streets or in makeshift and transitional housing. Meanwhile, the giant white box still stands proud, weathering the changes just fine. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)