A Lovely but Unpredictable River: Frances Fuller Victor's Early Life and Writing

By Browne, Sheri Bartlett | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

A Lovely but Unpredictable River: Frances Fuller Victor's Early Life and Writing


Browne, Sheri Bartlett, Oregon Historical Quarterly


ON DECEMBER 20, 1864, thirty-eight-year-old author Frances Fuller Victor boarded the Brother Jonathan in San Francisco for a six-day steamer voyage to Portland, Oregon. Leaving the "bay of the good St. Francis," she delighted in "the light and graceful clouds of morning mist, gilded by the sun to a silvery sheen, [which] hung over the town and the islands of the bay." Four days out, the ship passed through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, dropping anchor at Esquimalt Harbor: "Small, land-locked, bounded by forests and hills, and set in a basin of most picturesque rocks covered with beautiful lichen of every shade of yellow, brown and green[;] it makes a lovely picture." Her travel essay, "A Winter Trip to Victoria and Portland," appeared in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin on January 20, 1865. It joined another essay, "Summer Wanderings," and several of her poems, which the Bulletin had published during the previous eighteen months. (1)

Victor's lilting description of her journey evoked the poetic voice she brought to all her writing, whether travel accounts, prose essays, or fiction. As she endeavored to remember each detail of her departure from San Francisco--"in my mind's hall of pictured memories"--Victor's essay echoed what another newspaper had said about her poems, published as a young woman in Ohio. (2) That editor compared her imaginative compositions to the excitement of navigating a lovely but unpredictable river. "A sudden bend in the stream starts and astonishes you with the beauty of the prospect," he enthused. (3)

When Victor moved to Oregon from California in 1864, she was already a successful poet and prose author whose impressive thematic range was shaped by her particular Midwestern, gendered, and cultural experiences. She had lived through the explosion of transportation and communication revolutions, participated in the upheavals and possibilities of unprecedented westward expansion, and witnessed the chaos of the Civil War. Always accompanied by her pen, she crisscrossed the country--from Ohio to Michigan to Nebraska, zigzagging from the Midwest to New York, and voyaging by ship from New York to San Francisco. Writing with facility in multiple genres, Victor observed and critiqued American social inequalities, women's need for economic justice, gender stereotypes and expectations, and myriad effects of the nation's expansion. Victor's work was innovative, witty, ironic, and poetic. In short, she was an intellectual.

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Although she was an adept author in many genres, Victor is remembered primarily for her historical writing, to which she devoted her career after she arrived in Oregon. Shortly after her death on November 14, 1902, William A. Morris presented her as a "careful, painstaking and conscientious" historian. In addition to numerous other works, she had researched and written the History of Oregon (volumes I and II), the History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and all but two chapters of the History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming for historian and entrepreneur Hubert Howe Bancroft's western states history series. Hazel Mills noted in 1961 that "the press referred to her as the 'Mother of Oregon History' and the 'Historian of the Northwest'." Franklin Walker's entry for Notable American Women (1971) agreed that her history writing "is carefully documented and clearly expressed, and remains basic to later studies in the fields which she covered." By the time the first book-length biography appeared, Jim Martin's A Bit of A Blue (1992), it seemed inevitable and correct that any "life and works" treatment of Victor would prominently feature her career as a historian. (4)

Victor's intellectual journey began with poetry, however, and later followed new paths to travel accounts, prose essays, fiction, and book-length histories. It was poetry in particular that enabled her to identify and explore western and national literary themes; to contemplate American social values and norms; to delve into wide-ranging emotions; and to examine thoughtfully ideas regarding the intellect, spirituality, and humanity. …

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