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"At the hearth of the crossed races" : intercultural relations and social change in French Prairie, Oregon, 1812-1843 Jetté, Melinda Marie


This dissertation investigates two interrelated questions within the context of a local case study: What were the dynamics of intercultural relations in Oregon's Willamette Valley during the early colonial period (1812-1843); What does this history reveal about social change in the Pacific Northwest during the same period? The French Prairie area of the Willamette Valley is one of the oldest sites of extensive, continuous contact between the indigenous Kalapuyans and Euro-Americans in western Oregon, eventually becoming a major locale for agrarian settlement. This study opens with an overview of pre-contact Kalapuyan lifeways and then reconstructs the early decades of Kalapuyan-fur trader encounters. Later sections examine the establishment of a bi-cultural French-Indian agrarian settlement, the arrival of Methodist and Catholic missionaries and small groups of American settlers, and inter-community debates about the creation of a local provisional government. Owing to the social, political, and demographic dominance of Anglo-American settlers following the great western migrations of the 1840s, a tenacious "founding mythology" became deeply ingrained in Pacific Northwest historiography. This mythology followed a common trope in rendering Anglo-Americans as the central actors in a progressive, triumphant settlement of Oregon. In this pioneer-centric narrative, Native groups, fur trade personnel, and their families are absent from the course of historical events, or they are portrayed as obstacles to Anglo-American settlement. The present study of French Prairie offers a more complex picture of intercultural relations and the dynamics of social change in the Willamette Valley prior to American resettlement. At differing periods, social relations in French Prairie were marked by tension, miscommunication, mutual self-interest, cooperation, and genuine compassion. Drawing on their experience in the fur trade, as well their connections with both aboriginal and Euro- American cultures, the French Prairie settlers tried to negotiate a middle course within the context of competing forces, especially at times when cross-cultural tensions were high. As a result, the early colonial history of Oregon was neither marked by irresolvable ethnic conflict nor unilateral Anglo-American dominance. While the bi-cultural French-Indian families sought a middle course in their relations with all their various neighbors, their very presence also ultimately contributed to the Euro-American colonization of the Pacific Northwest. By establishing the first farming and husbandry operations in the Willamette Valley in the late 1820s, the French-Indian families initiated a process of social and ecological change that was accelerated following the overland migrations. This re-examination of Oregon history through a local case study of French Prairie thus contributes to a revisionist interpretation of Pacific Northwest history. It also contributes to larger discussions of contact zones, demonstrating not only the early multi-ethnic character of the Pacific Northwest, but also the historic connections between the British North American fur trade, the French Canadian diaspora, and the Anglo-American colonization of Oregon in the 1840s.

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