Betwixt and between the Official Story: Tracing the History and Memory of a Family of French-Indian Ancestry in the Pacific Northwest

By Jette, Melinda Marie | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Betwixt and between the Official Story: Tracing the History and Memory of a Family of French-Indian Ancestry in the Pacific Northwest


Jette, Melinda Marie, Oregon Historical Quarterly


When she got ill, she went into the hospital and we used to go up to visit her a lot there. Some of the nurses were nuns and they all spoke French. She would rattle off French to them like you wouldn't believe. Like that's all she spoke was French. (1)

IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 1931, Marguerite Jette (nee Liard), an elderly woman of eighty, spent the last weeks of her life at St. Vincent's Hospital in Portland. St. Vincent's, founded by the Sisters of Providence, was then still staffed by missionaries sent out from the order's motherhouse in Montreal. What was unusual about this particular patient was the fact she conversed with the nuns in French. Although Marguerite had been born and raised and had lived all her life in Oregon, French was one her native languages. (2) This was the result of her familial links with French Canada. Her father, step-father, grandfather, and husband had all been born in Lower Canada (Quebec).

Marguerite's singularity in 1931 did not end with her French-Canadian heritage. Family photographs depict a stern-faced matriarch with high cheekbones and dark, coarse hair that hint at her Indian ancestry. Her Oregon family roots stretched back more than a hundred years to the initial phase of Euro-American colonization in the Pacific Northwest--when Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) fur traders and trappers exploited the region's natural resources. Marguerite's mother and grandmother were among several generations of Native and metis women who intermarried with French-Canadian men employed by the HBC. Both the men and the women played crucial roles as laborers and cultural brokers in the fur-trade enterprise, albeit with second-class status. During the mid 1800s, Marguerite's parents and grandparents witnessed the United States' annexation of the lower portion of the Oregon Country, Anglo-American settlers' rise to political supremacy, and the settlers' institution of a regime of racial exclusion across the region. Raising a large family under the force of these processes in the late 1800s, Marguerite Jette and her husband Adolphe followed a complex path that led to the relative assimilation of their descendants into dominant Euro-American society by the time of Marguerite's death in the early 1900s.

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Although Marguerite Jette's experience did not make it into the standard history books, the contours of her family's history are part of a much larger continental story. The centuries-long process of Euro-American colonization necessarily involved ethnic intermixing in all of the contact zones where Natives and coloniz ers met and interacted. In recent decades, scholars have begun to explore the ways bi-cultural family and community histories complicate and deepen North American history-what Gary Nash has called "the hidden history of mestizo America." (3) Historians studying the West have underscored the intermediary position occupied by mixed-bloods in the fur-trade economy from the late 1700s through the early 1800s. By the late 1800s, the decline of the fur trade, the great Anglo-American westward migrations, and regimes of racial exclusion effectively marginalized these bi-cultural communities. The majority of those in the United States were faced with the choice of joining their Native kinfolk on Indian reservations, "passing" into the dominant Anglo-American culture, or perhaps, for a small number, migrating to Canada or more remote areas. (4)

Recent studies on bi-cultural families and communities from Cherokee Territory to the Great Lakes and from the Missouri country to the Pacific Northwest suggest that those who assimilated into the dominant Anglo-American society--becoming "white" in the process--tended to down play, if not deny, their Native background. (5) Given the force of racial bigotry and the episodes of racial violence in the American West, an outward (or apparent) acculturation into Anglo-American society was one of several strategies employed by bi-cultural families as they adapted to large-scale socio-economic changes over the course of the nineteenth century. …

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