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Review

Oregon’s Promise: An Interpretive History

By David Peterson del Mar

November 4, 2013

Review By Roderick Barman

WHY SHOULD BC Studies review a history of the State of Oregon, situated in another country and some 300 kilometres to the south? For many reasons. Our province and Oregon lie in a single economic-environmental region, the Pacific Northwest, which has constrained and even directed the development of the two societies. That development has been shaped by constant intrusions from the outside world: human migrations, resource exploitation, new technologies, and capital investment. The intrusions have not been precisely similar between Oregon and British Columbia nor has their impact been identical. The resemblances are nonetheless close, so close as to make sensitivity to these intrusions indispensable in the study of any part of the Pacific Northwest. 

Such sensitivity is, of course, a fairly recent development. It has replaced what may be termed the “celebratory” approach, in which the hegemonic social elements perceived the entity in which they live as a unique Eden predestined for their occupation and benefit, something they must preserve unsullied. In Oregon this approach has been tenacious due to a number of powerful “myths,” including the pioneers’ odyssey along the Oregon Trail, the bounteousness of their reward, the resulting society’s homogeneity and cohesion, and its “progressiveness” in its handling of politics and the environment. How captivating, even intoxicating these myths remain for anyone who has grown up with them is evident in this new history of Oregon. 

As his introduction shows (2 and 6), the author is conscious of the problems he faces: “mythic history oversimplifies and obscures the past.” His text struggles to include and give due weight to elements in Oregon’s history previously ignored or suppressed. But, as David del Mar concedes, he writes from within the myths. His ancestors, on his mother’s side, came to Oregon in the late nineteenth century, seeking Eden (2-3). The long years it took his family to achieve “Oregon’s promise,” to use the title’s words, makes that achievement the more precious and continued belief in the myths more compelling. 

The front cover of the paperback edition symbolizes the book’s ambiguities. A photograph of a family of Mexican migrants gathering onions takes up two-thirds of the cover, a picture of Mount Hood one-third. But Mount Hood is placed at the top, in full colour. It rises white and pristine in a cerulean sky from behind green pine trees and a dark blue river. The Mexicans are at the bottom, coloured a muddy orange, which downplays the humanity of the five individuals. In the conflict between the myth and the reality, the front cover asserts, consciously or no, the greater significance of the former. 

Oregon s Promise reflects in structure and approach this conflict and the precedence given to myth. As Chapter I’S title “Natives and Newcomers” implies, the indigenous peoples have significance only as a preliminary to and in preparing the way for Oregon’s promise. Chapter 2 regrets the,elimination of the indigenous inhabitants but essentially views the outcome as inevitable. “It was a transfer, a conquest,” the chapter concludes, “that Oregonians have yet to come to terms with” (62). Little or no attempt is made to facilitate this goal. The ensuing 220 pages contain only seven passages (not all substantial) discussing the indigenous peoples. The author’s final statement, patently sincere, reveals his reluctance, even incapacity, to demolish the founding myths: “We must confront the fact that white settlers shunted aside and killed the people who had flourished here, an attempted ethnic cleansing that still haunts the state’s indigenous peoples – and ought to trouble us all” (280). 

The strength of myth is equally apparent from David del Mar’s treatment of the external intrusions. Those he sees as challenging Oregon’s promise are denigrated, as with the Hudson’s Bay Company, portrayed as intent on interfering with Manifest Destiny. Statements such as “Why was Great Britain willing to give up land that its citizens had occupied for the past three decades?” in respect to the 1846 Oregon Treaty come oddly from the pen of a historian who, having taught for several years in this province, should know that British citizens had never “occupied” Oregon in the sense of land ownership. A further weakness in the handling of the intrusions is that they are viewed seriatim, never as a constant factor in Oregon’s development. This inability to place the state within a larger context explains the author’s incomprehension and even dismay at the recent polarization of the society over issues imported from elsewhere in North America. The author’s final plea (281) is for the homogeneity and cohesion that he regards as Oregon’s promise and that he believes can be achieved. 

Anyone who is looking for a probing, critical view of Oregon’s past had, therefore, best pass this work by. But those who want to understand the foundational myths of that state, their continuing allure, and how they shape Oregonians’ view of their history will find this a very revealing book. The implications for British Columbia’s past are enormous.