Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Maybe Gaines Street Needs a New Name. Gov. Gaines Owned Slaves

Councilor Hoy has announced he's floating the idea of renaming Center Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. The word "center" is a bit of a null, not very descriptive of anything in particular, and since the street has already been renamed from Asylum Street, with a word we no longer use for the institution, "Center Street" has no great tradition behind it.* It's also a long street, connecting different parts of Salem. I'm not sure there will be any compelling objections to the proposal that are more than objections to change in general.

At the same time, the particularities of this proposed name change respond more to national developments than anything specific to Salem. But there's at least one street in Salem that does have a problematic local name on it, and if it is not considered grand enough for someone of King's stature, even more than Center Street it should be a candidate for renaming.

Gaines is not a household name here, but we have Gaines Street named after Territorial Governor John Pollard Gaines, who is remembered mainly because Abraham Lincoln declined the appointment and Gaines was the backup choice. He also wanted Oregon City rather than Salem to be the Capital. Joseph Lane then defeated him twice, once for Territorial Governor, then Congress. Gaines may not, after all, be very distinguished, at least as a person invested in Salem, and even on those grounds alone we might find other names more worthy and choose to rename the street.

But more than this, there is also the matter that John Pollard had slaves and sold them to his brother Archibald. The Boone County Library in Kentucky offers this from the Kentucky side of history:
Born to Elizabeth and Abner Gaines in 1795, John P. Gaines moved with his family from Augusta County, Virginia to Boone County, Kentucky shortly thereafter. Gaines volunteered for service in the The War of 1812. After returning to Boone County, Gaines practiced law and became a member of the Kentucky State Legislature. From 1846 to 1848, he served in the Mexican War. Gaines was elected to Congress in 1847 despite being held as a prisoner of war, and his opponents' urging that “votes for gaines might be votes for a dead man.” He was then appointed Governor of the Oregon Territory by President Taylor in 1850, a position that future President Abraham Lincoln would turn down. After selling his slaves (including Margaret Garner) and farm in Richwood to his brother, Archibald K. Gaines, Gaines began making preparations for his long trip to Oregon. Gaines' seven-month-long journey to Oregon by ship would prove fatal, as two of his daughters died of yellow fever along the way. Dissent brewed in Oregon, due to the length of his absence and the rest of his term would prove just as tumultuous. Shortly after he took office, in 1851, his wife, Elizabeth died after been thrown from a horse. He left office in 1853, but stayed in Oregon with his second wife Margaret. Gaines died in Oregon in 1857 of typhoid fever.
1856, via Cincinnati Museum
Margaret Garner, in fact, has the more enduring legacy now.
The Boone County Library adds:
In January 1856, 17 slaves from Boone and Kenton counties crossed the Ohio River. Included were Robert and Margaret Garner and their children, who were owned by the Gaines family of Richwood Road (now Maplewood Farm). They made their way to the home of a former slave in Cincinnati, where they were apprehended by deputy marshals. Fearing the family would be sent back to slavery, Margaret cut the throat of one of her children and attempted to take the lives of the other three before being subdued. Hoping for a sympathetic jury, abolitionist lawyers attempted to have Garner tried in Ohio for murder, but failed. After a stay in a Covington jail, she was sold to a new owner farther south.

Garner's story became the basis of the novel Beloved, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
Morrison also worked on an opera, "Margaret Garner," which occasioned a long NPR piece, "A Mother's Desperate Act."

There are of course also additional untold layers that may not be knowable, and in an essay on the opera The Michigan Opera Theater also speculates, "that John Gaines was Margaret's father is therefore a reasonable supposition."

It is surprising to learn about this Salem connection to the horrors of Beloved, and the Gaines family, John Pollard himself and his brother, does not seem like a good fit at all for a street name here. It is Garner, not Gaines, who should be better remembered in history.

As for Gaines' time in Salem, there are further uncertainties.

Writing in 1908, T.W. Davenport (Homer's father), writes that he thought Gaines was "discretely silent" on slavery.

"Slavery Question in Oregon" - OHQ
By contrast, a generation later, RJ Hendricks, the "Bits Man" at the Statesman, recounts local oral history, nothing very quiet at all, about Gaines having slaves and a slaves quarters at his home in the Skyline/Liberty area of South Salem.

August 29th, 1929 and February 12th, 1930
Gaines' House, circa 1950 - Salem Library Historic Photos
This claim is merely asserted and there is no documentary evidence cited, and there are other points Hendricks makes that seem dubious, so this by itself does not count as a reliable report. It's not much more than rumor or legend. But it does suggest that further research is necessary. Davenport's notion of "discreetly silent," also suggests people who did not wish to question very closely, a kind of tacit collaboration, and there might very well be more to the story. There are questions here, a little bit of smoke hinting at some kind of fire.

Gaines died in 1857, is one of our Veterans of the War of 1812, and is buried in the IOOF Pioneer Cemetery. The obituaries there don't mention any slaves.

In light of all this, it is interesting that our Gaines Street NE does not have its original name. It was renamed, probably in the renumbering of 1904. Originally, before that portion of town was incorporated into the city limits in 1903, it was North Oak Street.

1895 Sanborn map - Library of Congress, notes added
It would be interesting to learn more about why Gaines Street was chosen here at that moment and if there was any ideological reason behind it beyond the mere fact of recognizing a former Governor.

Gaines today is not remembered. Gaines Street has no effective memorial function, and is just some random street name. In this sense Gaines Street is very different from a statue to a Confederate General, slave trader, or other famous figure associated with slavery. But he also has no positive legacy like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who also held slaves, but whom we recognize for world-historical contributions. Historian Annette Gordon Reed says
There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years....No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T.J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T.J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet.
Because we have forgot Gaines, his name even more of a null than "center," maybe there is no great need to rename Gaines Street. But if we are looking for streets to rename, Gaines Street, already once renamed, is an excellent candidate. John Pollard Gaines offers no sweet to go along with the bitter.

* Addendum and Partial Correction, June 24th

Shoot. You know, Center Street is in fact old, and the section downtown, inside the first city limits at the creek, had an identity apart from Asylum Avenue (not street) outside the city. They joined at the creek and 14th Street.

Center Street and Asylum Avenue meet at 14th Street
(1895 Sanborn Map, LOC)
Center Street appears to be pretty old, maybe part of the original, very first grid.

Oregon Argus, June 1st, 1863
From the 1871 Business Directory
(upside down orientation!)
Willamette Farmer, December 27th, 1873
This does not seem like a fatal objection to the proposal, but it does qualify the argument that Center Street has already been renamed. Only the section east of 14th Street has been renamed.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added a note on the downtown section of Center Street and the age of its name.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

There seems to be a gathering movement to dename and rename Lane County, and anthropologist and tribal historian David Lewis has a note about his petition in support of that.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Center Street might be hard to rename because it is in both City of Salem and in Marion County. It would be required to get the consent of both the Salem City Council and the Marion County Commissioners....good luck with the latter!

Anonymous said...

Leave my ancestors home and family name out of renaming it. The house is not there anymore. He didn't have slaves Oregon was a territory white populated area. Margaret Garner was more of their made than anything not a slave or enslave. If he did have them he would have been working on his brother's farm in Hot Springs Arkansas which was still a free state as well! Don't let my family's name get political for your gain on your viewers. I don't know if he sold any of them or not. Because of records. My mothers side is Gaines. We descended threw his brother William H Gaines.