The Politics of Oregon History: An Introduction to OHQ's Statehood Sesquicentennial Series

By Johnston, Robert D. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Oregon History: An Introduction to OHQ's Statehood Sesquicentennial Series


Johnston, Robert D., Oregon Historical Quarterly


IN 1959, THE Oregon Historical Quarterly remained, as it had been for decades, an active celebrant of the state's pioneer past. Surprisingly, though, the journal did not take much formal notice of the centennial of Oregon statehood. When it came time to meditate on the big anniversary, powerful editor Thomas Vaughn turned not to a historian, but rather to a poet, to do the honors. From far-off Harvard, David McCord waxed lyrical about the wonders of the Oregon Country. In three short paragraphs of a kind of prose poem, McCord invoked all kinds of mythical wonders. From "the world's most famous trail" to "two decisive mountain ranges," from "rhapsodic Crater Lake" to "the majestic sweep of the Columbia River ... at Crown Point," Oregon was glorious. Naturally. While there were "desolate" areas that had produced "despair" for the squatter, such rain rarely intruded on the state's sunny historical parade. Even human relations were simple, and happy, for "the people everywhere are neighbors and friendly." McCord could conclude in only one majestic, rhapsodic, way: "How tremendous 'Where rolls the Oregon!'" (1)

In 2009, there remains much for us to celebrate in Oregon's heritage. Over the past fifty years, however, the state's historical institutions and scholars of the state's history have become considerably more reflective and self-conscious about the meaning of their responsibility for Oregon's past. In good part, that is because the story of the state's history--the big storyline that provides the foundational bass line for each new article and book--has become much more complex, interesting, and critical.

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Historians, more than any other scholars, should know how dangerous it is to congratulate ourselves on our current enlightenment. We understand that we, too, will be judged, and perhaps even condemned, for our weaknesses, failures, and blindnesses. That said, we should be proud of our recent ability to discover anew the richness, complexity, and pleasures of the past in the Beaver State. Above all, we no longer need to look at history solely as the study of surface fireworks: the deadly wars, the dramatic elections, the lives of great individuals. Instead, we have begun to look in compelling and even captivating ways at some of the deep structures of our past. We can try to figure out how, for instance, a changing relationship between countryside and city has produced modern-day Oregonians, as have the continuities and dramatic transformations of the history of the environment. We can explore how family and gender relations, in ever-continuing transition, have influenced landscapes of personal identity as well as the possibilities of citizenship in modern Oregon. And we can examine the lives of relatively ordinary individuals along with the high and mighty, so we can see more vividly how Oregon has always been a land of varied people and experiences. (2)

TO CONTINUE THIS revitalized exploration of the study of the Oregon past is what we hope to accomplish in this special OHQ series dedicated to the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood, what we are calling the "Statehood Sesquicentennial Series." In the four issues of volume 110 of the Quarterly (throughout 2009), series articles will range throughout the state's past, illuminating some dark corners of Oregon history as well as shining new light on better-known episodes. Yet, while some authors will not shy away from looking at such specific, and traditional, events as Oregon's constitutional convention, OHQ editor Eliza Canty-Jones and I have also recruited scholars who avowedly embrace a more inclusive set of topics as well as novel modes of interpretation.

This approach is in line with recent changes in the historical discipline that are, I believe, generally all for the good. If we look back to the way historical scholarship was practiced in 1959, we generally see a story dominated by presidents, generals, and white men. …

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