Sunday, May 17, 2020

Read Elisabeth Walton's 1965 Thesis on the Jason Lee House, Mill Place

The City and Historic Landmarks Commission has published the third and what is, it seems, final installment of videos on the archeology project at the site of the Jason Lee House.

It's a little anti-climactic, however. Rather than building towards any new insight or discovery, it is mostly a wrap-up with lots of thanks, and rehearses bits already in videos one and two.

In all three of the videos a notable absence was Elisabeth Walton Potter, who must be our foremost expert on the house. Perhaps she was not interested in participating, but it is a remarkable silence.

Jason Lee House as occupied by John Boon
Kuchel & Dresel's "map" of Salem, 1858
Willamette University Archives
She may feel she has already had her say. The Mill has now published a scan of her 1965 masters thesis on the Jason Lee house, "Mill Place" on the Willamette: A New Mission House for the Methodists in Oregon, 1841-44. (366pp)

Still doing history, Elisabeth Walton Potter in Salem Reporter
via Twitter
It is fascinating both as a discussion of the Methodist Mission and early Oregon history as well as study of local historiography and the founding of Mission Mill and what we now know as the Willamette Heritage Center. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 followed her thesis by one year, and she went one to be one of the original, founding staff of the State Historic Preservation Office of Oregon. The thesis itself, the forces to which it was responding, and the nascent preservation efforts to which it contributed, are themselves legitimate objects now of historical research. It is itself an artifact! There are many levels on which to approach and appreciate the document - including the way it testifies to a long and distinguished career.

Elisabeth Walton Potter
on the National Historic Preservation Act
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2016
So if you are interested in local history and want to go beyond the videos published by the Historic Landmarks Commission, this is a helpful, interesting, indeed essential read.

Three Tidbits: Boise Occupancy, First Real Estate Ad, Ruth Rover 

The typescript has not gone through OCR it seems, so it is not conveniently searchable. You gotta just read it. There were lots of interesting bits on a first reading, and more is sure to surface on a closer reading. So these are superficial observations and notes on interesting trivia.

The house after 1844, transition to Boon
One thing it really makes clear is that the archeology project that just wrapped up is nearly certain to be more about the Boise family, who owned the house from 1877 to 1940, than anything much about the Mission generally and Lee specifically. The Mission period was too short, ending in 1844, and later owners modified the building and disturbed the site. Old Boise china that broke in 1900 and was tossed away might have been 50 years old and now, when found by the archeology team, would instead look like some pre-Statehood antebellum artifact. From even before the circa 1970 construction and fill, the site looks like it poses a lot of interpretive challenge.

Naively also, I was thinking the dig would be larger and embrace more of the site than it turned out to do, and it became clear the "units" they actually excavated were few and small, and were intended to represent only a sample of the whole.

So it is possible that the participants themselves also feel a bit of anti-climax at the conclusion of the dig and this comes through on the video, even as they seem to strive for a more glowing final assessment. (There is a politics here also, of course, as making bridges and good feeling is the order to set up further collaboration and projects in the future.)

Very early notice, probably the very first, of Salem lots for sale
Oregon Spectator, August 20th, 1846
Back to the thesis, one great tidbit was a reference to what must be the first real estate ad for Salem from 1846! The newspaper's now digitized, so it was not difficult to find. (So we should take a moment to recognize scholarly labor in sitting for hours, days, weeks at microfilm or in archives, and the fact that a newspaper like this was largely inaccessible just a generation ago.)

Here from a couple of years later (and not in the thesis) is a plat, presumably with the lots Willson was selling.

A plat of Salem from 1848,
"Champoeg County Oregon"
via State Archives and Twitter
This map is dated 1848, but our official history says
Willson drew up the first plat of Salem, covering an area thirteen blocks by five blocks, bounded by the Willamette River and Mission, Church, and Division streets. The plat was recorded by the Marion County Clerk in 1850.
The real estate ad is a terrific curiosity, but it has shadows. The origin, roughly in the decade between 1845 and 1855, of our chain of land ownership remains murky, and is something that deserves wider notice and analysis. There were competing claims by J. B. McClane, Chloe Willson, and of course the Kalapuya. The Donation Land Claim Law was from 1850, the treaty with the Kalapuya was ratified in 1855, and Statehood came in 1859.  So what exactly is the status and authority of a real estate ad from 1846?

August 15th, 1918
In many ways the earliest claims of ownership from the 1840s lack even the proverbial fig leaf of legal coverage. It's almost like in the act of selling off the lots, Willson retroactively constitutes a prior legal claim to those lots. There's a lot of hand-waving and magic and retconning going on here! Might makes right, too. We should talk more about the mechanisms of dispossession, theft, and power in the origins of our property system, and highlight more of the contingency in our present arrangements. They may seem stable now, but the moment of origin is rather uncertain and morally ambiguous.

Citing a 1839 letter from Margaret Jewett Smith
Margaret Jewett Bailey makes an appearance in the thesis, and that's an area where a scholar in 2020 would likely approach the matter in a different way. In Ruth Rover Jewett Bailey's lightly fictionalized narrative of 15 years later would provide evidence to be weighed and discussed. The role of women at the Mission generally would also receive more attention. Scholarship and historiography change over two generations.

15 years later: Original 1854 title page
via Wikipedia/Oregon Encyclopedia
So anyway, go check it out! It's wonderful that the Mill and Walton Potter are making it available, it is interesting in many dimensions, as straight-up history it offers a longer narrative than the City videos about the significance of Jason Lee's residency, and again it testifies to a long career in local history we should celebrate more.
Online now

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Anthropologist and tribal historian David Lewis offered notes on his reading of Walton's thesis. Mostly he writes about the pre-Chemeketa phase of the mission, though.