Saturday, August 27, 2022

A kind of Erratic: Boulders, Plaques, and Pioneer Commemoration 100 Years Ago

A minor centenary just passed and it might be worth a little comment.

100 years ago the Chemeketa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a boulder at the Capitol to mark "an old trail."

DAR plaque and boulder, detail
(Robert West, 2006)

The plan had been announced in January of 1921. At that time it was going to be a commemoration of "the pioneer fathers and mothers of Oregon." They intended to install it in March of that year.

January 21st, 1921

Not surprisingly, it took a little longer and the exact commemoration changed slightly.

August 26th, 1922

The next year, on August 25th in 1922 they placed the boulder and announced a plaque for later in the fall. This time the announcement said it was "to mark the old pioneer trail through Salem and to honor the pioneer fathers and mothers of Oregon."

The plaque and dedication, too, was a little delayed, and finally took place on February 22nd, 1923. The report called it the "trail monument."

February 23rd, 1923

Significantly, Peter D'Arcy also talked about "Oregon Mothers." The national magazine for DAR was more specific about which mother: "Hon. Peter H. D'Arcy paid a glowing tribute to the Pioneer Mother."

The final design for the plaque says "marking an old trail dedicated to the Oregon pioneers." (It's ambiguous whether the trail itself is dedicated to the pioneers, or whether we should read an elided "and," like this: "marking an old trail and dedicated to the pioneers." The 1923 report on dedication suggests the latter is correct.)

Modern materials from the Chemeketa Chapter modify it even further. They call it the "French Prairie Trail Marker" and say

Placed by Chemeketa Chapter, DAR, on August 25, 1922. At Salem, in Willson's Park, southwest of the State Capitol; a native boulder with bronze plate inscribed:

Marking an old trail dedicated to Oregon Pioneers. Placed by Chemeketa Chapter, D.A.R., August 25, 1922.

The boulder was moved to front of building when the Capitol Wings were built and now rests in its current position in the gardens on the side of the capitol.

The full state list mostly echoes this.

Part of full state list, Oregon DAR

It would be interesting to know more about how it was originally sited in relation to the second Capitol building. The Chemeketa materials say it was moved for the wings on the third Capitol, but was it also moved for the 1938 completion of that Capitol?

In any case, there is the theme of the origin for the boulder. It's not imported stone. It is "native." Yet there is no actual link between what the stone and plaque commemorate, a trail, and this particular site. The site is significant because that's where the Capitol is, not because there is any trace of a trail there. The 1923 piece on the dedication says "the boulder is near where an old trail...was located." How near is not specified. Nativeness, the idea of origins and location, functions very flexibly here.

A Second Boulder

And apparently there was a thing for boulders in the 1920s.

WU Collegian, Feb 28th, 1923

Not far away on the campus of Willamette University, there is another boulder and plaque, commemorating "the first building on this campus." The Class of 1926 placed it. But it may not be tied very closely to the actual site of that building.

Class of 1926 monument (2014)

You may recall earlier this year the City announced the "Oregon Mission Indian Manual Labor Training School Archaeology Project." This year's dig was over at the Mill and focused on the Parsonage, and it looks like next spring they will focus on the school building on the Willamette Campus. Its findings could create a specific directional link to the boulder and plaque. Maybe it will turn out to be closer to the building site than I supposed.

Performance and Politics

There might be more to say. A brand new dissertation, completed in May of this year and not available in full online, "Performing the Oregon Trail: Belonging, Space, and Historical Representation in Settler Colonial Oregon" discusses trail markers and the way their installation "performs" and instantiates a particular interpretation and politics of the trail and of history. It would be interesting to know if there's a larger context for the boulder monuments.

The boulders were moved. They migrated. They were not found in situ. They might have moved by glaciation, even. And yet at least the one is underscored as "native." There's definitely a performance of nativeness here.

March 19th, 1921

You may recall the overall theme of white supremacy in DAR's 1921 state convention held here in Salem. Who is native and what counts as native was a site of anxiety, contested and defended, all too precarious if examined too closely. There is something of overcompensation in this insistence on native stone, as if that was deeply significant for the monument. In important ways assertions about nativeness are not descriptive, but are prescriptive, and harnessed to the project of creating a new understanding of native that excludes actual indigenous peoples.

The marker now is no longer very significant. The plaque and boulder at the Capitol is not at all a focal point for the whole Capitol complex. The 2010 "State Capitol State General Park Plan" does not seem to mention it, though it highlights several other instances of statuary and monument. Maybe we are just conveniently forgetting about it.

In the end, this is not at all a very effective or evocative monument. It is separated from any real trace of a trail, visually it is hidden in the shrubbery and not impressive, and with its original context of the DAR's racist agenda in 1921, maybe it's something that would better go in a museum with more context and interpretive commentary.

Boulder at No. 6 (State Parks WalkingTour)

The centenary is not one we need to observe today. But as you walk around the Capitol grounds, it's another bit of trivia and wayside history to consider.

Previously see:


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Edit: Added map and location from State Parks Walking Tour)

Also, here's a crowd-sourced DB of historical markers with a good image of the boulder and its site.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I found it interesting that you wrote about various historical plaques around Salem. I was just looking at photos from the Library's collection and came across a rock with a plaque about Jason Lee that marked the spot where he set up the first Christian mission. I was wondering where that rock is now. Do you know if it is down by Mill Creek where the mission was originally or was it moved to Mission Mill?

A couple of years ago I was assured that after the new police station was finished that there would be some sort of historical display marking the Mission location, original building sites and such. How could one find out more?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

If you are thinking of this image and rock, I'm pretty sure it was in or near what is now Willamette Mission State Park. The La Follett family had orchards there, and the plaque calls out 1834 rather than the later date for the complex in what is now Salem near Boon's.

I do not know where that plaque is today.

As for any marker at the Police Station, I think the Historic Landmarks Commission would be the place to start!