Amanda Laugesen, History Memory and Landscape…in the American West, 1870-1920

Amanda Laugesen,
Australian National University

Through the nineteenth century, vast numbers of people emigrated to the American West to find some land, build a home, and be successful. The lure of the West was bound up in a mythology of wide open spaces, land free for the taking and the opportunity to own property. The creation of an American continent and potential empire added to this personal vision to create a potent mythology. But it disguised an uglier, more painful reality.

Settling the West was hard work. The many failures and disappointments belied the optimism of the mythic West. Even uglier was the painful removal of Native American tribes from their places and attempts to destroy their culture. Additional to this, the settlers often destroyed the land and environment they settled, leaving a legacy of environmental destruction that remains today.

These dark stories make up the stuff of many recent histories of the American West.(1) This school of history counters the stories of achievement, progress, and the fulfilment of American destiny. They seek to uncover the silences of history – the voices silenced by the powerful conquerers, the voices of a multicultural west and even the voices of the land itself, in the burgeoning social and environmental histories of the American West. These histories use the paradigm of conquest to unite the multiple stories of the American West.

My work examines how settler communities in the West created a history. Through various forms of history-making – including spoken and written texts, the building of monuments, historical preservation, and public celebrations – it is possible to find new ways into the cultural process of settlement and conquest.

This work is informed by a growing scholarship that examines the history of collective memory. This scholarship, based on pioneering work by the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, provides fascinating new approaches to the past. (2) The importance of collective memory can be seen in the settler West (that is, the memory of a group, existing beyond individual recollection, although not separate to it, and embedded in a community’s culture and thought, and constantly modified and renegotiated by present concerns). (3)

For the settlers, it was essential to tie themselves to the land they now possessed. History helped estanblish a sense of place and a coherent community identity. The colelctive memory, tied up in myth and the language it was articulated in, provided for forgetting as well. Understanding the process of forgetting is just as important as that of remembering, because by asking what a culture chooses to forget we can uncover some of their deepest concerns and anxieties.

Another pionering area of scholarship is that of environmental history – and for me, the work of cultural environmental history – that is, looking at the cultural constructions around the environment and people’s perceptions and reactions to the land. A great deal of new scholarship in this area has emerged from Australia, where the dictates of environment and humans’ relationship to it has been particularly important. (4)

How then, can these two approaches be usefully integrated? History-making is one area where these two approaches can be applied. For the people settling in the new lands of the American West, place was important. How would they relate to their new environment and make it home? How would they justify the process of conquest, and the blood that had been shed to achieve occupation of this new place? How would the land mark them, and they the land? And how would imagining the past help to achieve all of these things?

For the settlers, place, memory, history, and myth were intimately bound up in one another. The past held a great deal of power, and control of the past underlined conquest. Inscribed in the history-makings of the settler West were the tensions and ambiguities inherent in this process of marking the land with history, and marking the people with the unique identity of their new land and the process by which it was conquered.

I now wish to examine some aspects of my work that illuminate the themes that I have just talked about. I have chosen two examples for this. Firstly, I want to talk about the Pioneer myth – the histories bound up with mythic elements to create a past that defined a settler community. This Pioneer story was established through multiple cultural texts, but I am most interested in those texts that seek to establish it as `true’. Historical agencies and texts wrote the Pioneer story as true, and also helped to define it as the collective memory, it is thus a narrative that displays all the elements of memory and forgetting and history-making. For the community I look at, that of Oregon in the late nineteenth century, this Pioneer story defined their community and gave them their identity – it was also a story intimately bound up with transcendent mythic stories (the pioneer-frontier myth was fundamental to American culture from its beginning) and uniquely grounded in a specific place and environment.

The second example is a specific instance. I want to look at the Columbia River Centennial – a celebration held in 1892 that focused on a distinct `natural’ phenomenon – and thus displayed the ambiguity of the settlers’ relation to the environment while showing the interplay between nature and culture in the construction of histories.

The Pioneer Myth

Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, was settled from the 1830s and 50s by groups of settlers who journeyed across the plains to establish homes. In the mythology of America, the area they were going to was the `Garden of the World’, a utopia. It was also a wilderness, filled with savages that were the obstacle to civilising the continent. These dual visions of the environment the settlers were going to settle in created inevitable tensions. Oregon was not a Garden of the World – it would take hard work to succeed there – it was not a savage wilderness either, but the settlers used any means necessary, including violence, to remove the native American occupants from their homes.

The Oregon pioneers saved the land for America, they paved the way for civilisation – they were to quote one of the pioneers talking in 1877, `Apostles of human liberty, avant-carriers bearing aloft the star of empire and civilisation in the westward march of our country.’ (5) The pioneers created a continental Union, allowed the Anglo-Saxon race to triumph and were in the vanguard of progress.

These mythic elements can be found in nearly every speech given to the main historical agency producing the pioneer myth, the Oregon Pioneer Association. The Association was founded in 1874 and rapidly established itself as one of Oregon’s main cultural producers. They became the custodians of the settler – pioneer collective memory. As an association, they dedicated themselves to collecting the reminiscences of the pioneers, an urgent task before the passing of the pioneer generation. They thus codified the collective memory and also began the process of writing the history of Oregon – with the pioneer story becoming the primary one, at the exclusion of just about everything else.

As shapers of the Pioneer story, they fused together memory, myth, and history in a potent combination. The Pioneer story was seen as defining Oregon -it marked her as unique and the pioneers were given the authority of history to reinforce their social power, and have a shared story of meaning. The pioneer story, becoming rapidly the history, the collective memory for Oregon, thus automatically required forgetting. Other narratives and histories were forgotten – most notably, the experiences of Native Americans were excluded. But they were, by virtue of being perceived as a people without history, likely to have been excluded anyway, they appeared only in the guise of stereotype – as noble savages about to pass from history or as the instigators of massacres and terrorisers of innocent settlers. Further, other minority groups were excluded from actively contributing to the collective memory, including the British and French who had been present in Oregon before the Americans, and the various minority groups who managed to gain entry into the state over the years.

The collective memory, meditated by the Oregon pioneer Association, did not acknowledge these other stories, and if they did, it was to mention them in relation to their own story. After all, it was the pioneers themselves who fashioned this history, they had control of the `official past’.

The pioneer settlers, as they produced this history, perhaps were unaware to what extent that which they sought to exclude or deprive of power in fact shaped them and their cultural identity. The land, in particular, worked to shape the settlers’ perceptions and understandings. As in their everyday lives, the Oregon settlers engaged with the land in their history-making. One of the most obvious ways in which land defined the pioneer was in imparting the story with its unique elements. Pioneer settlement was unique in that it involved moving into a strange, often hostile environment. To settle such a place required special characterisitics, which marked out the pioneers. Settlement meant engagement with the land, not least in the need to recreate familiar settings and to place order and control on that landscape.

As I mentioned before, the land was perceived as both a garden – a place that was a refuge, sacred and special and a wilderness to be conquered and transformed. Both these views were significant in how the Oregon Pioneer defined himself. he (and it was nearly always `he’) was one of the special few. Surviving the arduous trip to Oregon, he was one of the fittest, and was rewarded by his place in the Utopian Garden of the World. He was also the instrument of progress and thus had to view the land in utilitarian ways – what could he make of this land? Pioneers could transform the wilderness, they had the right characteristics.

Land thus was central to the meaning of the pioneer, and the Pioneer Story was not complete without illustrating some engagement with the land. Nature provided a sense of history, and environment a regional pride. This is not to say that the settlers were environmentally aware, indeed, it is often necessary to tease out such stories from the stories of pioneers. Land also imparted a sense of place to the pioneers, giving their stories coherence and extra meaning. Oregon was a unique land with a unique community, it was also their home, their place defined by them owning that land.

Place and memory were intimately intertwined. Establishing an historical connection to the land was important. The land was where memories were located – the place of events established their meaning. For example, the shedding of blood in a place – an element to various stories about Indian Wars – made it sacred. Particular stories and memories became bound up in that location. Another example is the idea of home. Home was central to the Pioneer Story. For the Pioneers, settlement was all about establishing a home, a location for the family – and the family home was sacred. Memory is bound up in home and place, and so again we see how place and memory are integrally tied to each other.

The landscape thus embodied all these meanings – social, cultural, natural, and did not always distinguish between them. Place was both of civilisation and wilderness, and embodied the tensions of settlers attitudes to both.

The Columbia River Centennial

I would now like to talk about an example that more explicitly deals with the intersection of history and environment.

From May 11 to May 12, 1892, the community of Oregon flocked to the shores of the Columbia River and the river town of Astoria to celebrate. They were revisiting the scene of the discovery of the mighty Columbia River by an English seaman, Captain Robert Gray who had discovered it on May 11, 1792.

The celebration was not linked to the pioneer past. It celebrated an historic moment that preceded them, and indeed preceded the presence of America in the Far Northwest. But it celebrated a river that had great significance for Oregon.

The celebration marked a moment of conquest – the naming of the river after the discoverer of the New World, Christopher Columbus, and marking a moment when a timeless entity was given time. It marked attempts to tame the river, and to use that river as an aid to the progress of Oregon. They recognised the river on its own terms – the mighty Columbia – but also used the celebration to serve a larger symbolic purpose – the taming of the wilderness. The river was a mighty force, it was even almost an historical person, but it was a force that the human settlers had to negotiate and attempt to control.

The Celebration itself focused less on the discoverer, Robert Gray, who was, after all, an Englishman, than on the Columbia, events involving her and the surrounding environment. A great deal of effort went into organising the events of the day – a special society was formed to organise the proceedings and elaborate preparations were made. They held excursions, banquets, and even a concert. The records of the day believed as many as 10,000 visitors from outside Astoria were in attendance. The banquet held on the first evening was for 600 persons who were all fed on ‘a bountiful supply of Royal Chinook salmon.’

On the following day, Centennial Day itself, a great street parade was held, with a procession consisting of pioneers and various visiting and local civic and military organisations. The records of the day remarked on the many thousands of people that were in attendance to watch the parade. The celebrations focused on the harbour, with many ships gaily decorated and on prominent display. In the night a torchlight procession fo steamers and fishing boats was held.

Historians of collective memory have asserted that periodic assemblies help to retain collective memory. The setting aside of time for people to assemble and contemplate together things they cherish and wish to preserve is important. Was the Columbia river Centennial a way of preserving the collective memory then? Yes and no. In one way, this celebration was historical in nature, it focused on a significant discovery relevant for all Oregonians. In that sense, the Centennial aided in creating a historical memory – not directly experienced, but relevant for the community. It helped to mark the process of settlement – the taming of the Columbia and the transformation of her into an important economic resource. The celebration also provided for the preservation and transmission of tradition. It reminded the attendees of the significance of their state and its past – for example, in the focus on various events that had occurred on the shores of the Columbia. It tapped into peoples individual memories and emotions in this way – everyone would have some link to the river, a story that involved their engagement with it.

On the other hand, this celebration was extremely presentist, and points to the way understandings of the past always relate to the present. There was a great deal of patriotism and nationalistic fervour bound up in these celebrations. The United States in the 1890s was gripped by a culture obsessed with nationalism and visions of an American Empire. They looked beyond the farthest west to find new lands in Asia and the Pacific. Even for those not wanting to extend America’s territory, a spirit of fervid patriotism was involved.

In this way, the Centennial Celebration functioned as a moment to be inscribed on the collective memory itself. Beyond the events it purported to celebrate, it was intended to be an event that performed important work – it would united the community, promote patriotic and national spirit and celebrate progress and civilisation. The records of the day were caught up in this vision:

The scene was one never to be effaced from memory. To stand upon the deck of one of the vessels, to hear the familiar strains of the songs of freedom, to see the Red, White and Blue flapping from hundreds of masts and to view the mighty guardians of this mighty country, glittering with the most efficient `trappings of war,’ and eloquent with the voices of power, was to feel a thrill which seemed to electrify the vast audience. (6)

This this celebration of history was located very much in the work of the present. But beyond such speeched the very visual effects of this celebration served to underscore the relationship between the settlers and the forces of nature. They had tamed the Columbia, and could use the river to further their progress; but underlying this was the need to compromise with the river, to recognise it as a might force.

Bringing the environment into history helped to underscore the settlers’ relationship with nature. It asserted dominance over the timeless, it symbolised their conquest; but it also acknowledged that these forces had shaped them and in their limited way they could recognise this.

Landscape and the environment impinge strongly on culture and society. They help shape our perceptions and our memories. Our ongoing negotiation with our environment requires us to acknowledge how we construct that environment in our understandings. History-making and the shaping of collective memory are essentially cultural processes, but our views of nature also help construct these understandings.