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Oregon Historian History


The question: Where are the historians of Oregon and why don’t we hear more from them?

Blame confusion.

Oregon is not England.

There is no long and dramatic history of the King and Queen of Oregon, deciding battles in the Oregon Channel, or telling timelines of Oregon colonizing the rest of the world.

For some, Oregon is a cherished Eden far beyond the power of common words. The aching beauty of a beach at sunset; the ghostly drama of shadows dancing through the Columbia Gorge; the noble fierceness of the Cascades.

History happens somewhere between the natural environment of Oregon and a forgettable county commissioner meeting in Hillsboro, Coquille, or Vale.

Images of Oregon could fill a calendar a thousand months long, but it wouldn’t be history. Notes from county meetings fill archival storage all over the state, but that’s not history either.

What is history, then?

Start with the first question you ask when you encounter new material, or when a trusted source presents something different.

You ask, “What happened?” Or, “What is it?”

This is how confusion begins.

When it comes to Oregon, the first question needs to be, “Where is it?”

Don’t take geographical ignorance for granted. There’s plenty outside the state who think Oregon shares a border with Wyoming, just as there’s plenty in the state who think Rhode Island and the Hawaiian Islands have more in common than they do.

Some hear the word Oregon and immediately shift to Oregon Country, Oregon Trail, the capital is Salem.


There’s no Six Flags over Oregon, even though international powers like Russia, Spain, England, and America jockeyed for position. Who wouldn’t want a piece of a fur trade that generated fortunes?

What happened in Oregon, then? Who will re-tell the journey from farmer, to logger, to fisherman, to Intel and Nike?

Will a scholar with their academic ticket punched at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton show up with the sort of flair and fashion embraced by ‘real history’ people? Will they be a darling of the West Hills and Dunthorpe, arriving with a wardrobe of blue blazers and grey slacks balanced with camel and black and half-frame reading glasses perched on the end of their nose?

At least they would be presentable to Oregonians yearning for more. There’s nothing like conservatively dressed easterners explaining Western history to get you on the edge of your seat.

With any luck, a visiting historian might tip their hand and say, “European history is so done that you’ve got as many layers of revisionism as you do historical eras. American history has been chewed up and spit out at the same table. But the west, in particularly the ocean exploration west, is open territory for sharp minds looking to create meaningful context.”

Patricia Limerick gives it some run.

Stephen Dow Beckham takes his shot.

Rex Ziak swings for the fence.

Where are the historians of Oregon history? Mr. Etulain asks the right question. His answer looks at him in the mirror with his upcoming, “Abraham Lincoln and the Oregon Country in the Civil War Era.” 

Will his new book include examples of Roman roads discovered in Wasco County? Of dark princes in Polk County? Let’s hope not.

Oregon is not England, but we do have worthy stories.

About David Gillaspie

Since I'm from Oregon I know all about wood; It's like writing a blog. For example I once made a four poster bed from rough cut lumber. It broke the first time I laid down. Now it's four foot stools. Every blog post on comes from the same process. Be a good surfer and sign up. You might be sorry, but not that much. Talk soon, David

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