Monday, November 2, 2020

A Footnote on Maria Campbell Smith as a kind of First Salemite

The strangest thing about the ceremony for the Jason Lee portrait in 1920 was the bit with Maria Campbell Smith.

"oldest native"
Oregonian, November 20th, 1921

As "the first female white child born in Salem" she was featured during the dedication. Being "the first white child" for an area, large or small, was a common claim and honorific. It appears in multiple obituaries and death notices at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as those born here in the 1840s and 50s died. Whenever Maria Campbell Smith is in the paper, it is mentioned about her.

That claim to fame is her birth and infancy, but the claim is displaced and complicated quite a bit for the portrait ceremony. She showed up wearing "the bridal robe of her sister who came around the horn with Jason Lee on his second trip...." In the tableau, her role is not infant, even grown up. It is bride.

October 27th, 1920

The costume made a big impression, and a few days later, on the 31st in the "Society" column, they noted

Probably no visitor in the Capital City this week was more interesting nor interested than Mrs. Maria Campbell Smith of Portland, whose part in the Jason Lee exercises in the house of representatives Tuesday afternoon, was really the feature of the afternoon....Much interest was manifested by the feminine representatives in the audience, in the quaint gown which Mrs. Smith wore. It had served as a bridal robe for her sister, who had made the journey to Oregon with Jason Lee on his second trip. The gown a deep majente was of pure Lion silk, in a remarkable state of preservation.

What is going on here? Why is the sister as bride the active symbol rather than the baby?

As I read it, she is making a claim to be both baby and mother, a mythic kind of foremother for the race and symbol of generative purity. It's probably not possible to resolve everything neatly; and since it is a bit of a jumble, you may have a different reading of it, but it seems clear her self-presentation at this moment collapses multiple identities and symbols into one.

Here is another instance of "first white child."

February 22, 1904

There are many more, and maybe there will be more to say about the whole of them some time. It's striking how often the claim for natal priority occurs here and how much status is imputed to the child. The "first child in region x" formula varies of course, sometimes for a very large area, sometimes for a distant area, other times for a small area like a neighborhood. And usually it's racialized, the first "white" child.

Generally, this "first" child trope was a thing. And we have seen how one particular example of it has metastasized into a malignant locus of concentrated hate and violence. (Not gonna link to anything or even mention the name.)

January 6th, 1924

It's always racialized, always about whiteness. They do not talk about the first settler, first pioneer, first immigrant, first colonizer, or anything about the action of moving here and setting up a home, what people did. It's always about whiteness and race, about a claim to a kind of being.

The Oregonian photo in a bit for the society page (at top) has a variation, saying "oldest native." This also erases the actual native peoples, and without using the word "white," nonetheless signals that the white membership cancels all other claims. Whiteness is supreme.

So it does not seem very possible or likely to read the descriptions of Maria Campbell Smith in any innocent, untroubled way. On the contrary, they seem charged with a specific ideological and racialized focus.

Fortunately, Maria Campbell Smith never became a symbol for Salemites in the way that the east coast instance became a symbol and center for a vicious ideology. She moved away and it seems we mostly forgot about her.

Maria's father possible designer of house

Still, even apart from the weirdness of her ceremonial role in the portrait dedication, her family had an historical role. It has been suggested her father has a plausible claim to having designed the Jason Lee House. And the shift from a bunch of bachelors running a mission to the establishment of families is a significant one of real historical interest. She is someone we should know more about.

But as we consider Jason Lee and his reception over the years, we should think more about the kinds of white Christian nationalism that directly informed, or were adjacent, to the establishment of the mission and later interpretation of it. That nationalism is no academic matter right now. For some churches and theologies, things have changed for the better, but we should not forget they were not always this way, and there remains work to be done.

Methodism and the mission, November 2nd, 1920

A different Methodism today (at least in Salem)

1 comment:

Jim Scheppke said...

Thanks for this post. Everyone should read "Caste," the terrific new book by Isabel Wilkerson that presents a convincing frame to deeply understand things like this.