Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Adding an historical character

One of the interesting parts of writing and editing is the possibility of new discoveries, which may come through letting fictional characters fully develop. As the writer sees how these people would live, what they may have known, new ideas emerge. That experience enriches the writing both through research and the more complete view of the lives that these people led-- fictionally speaking. This happened to me in a surprising way as I was doing the next to last edit for Where Dreams Go, and I found something to add to the book.

Because I am a native born Northwesterner, my schooling had a lot about the settling of this region from a land of many tribes, to the first fur trappers, then the British control, followed by Americans who were encouraged to come out at the behest of their government and free land. One of the towering figures (literally) in its development was Dr. John McLoughlin. The state of Washington regarded him very much as theirs-- as much as Oregon, at one time, tried to disown him.

McLoughlin led a fascinating and varied life, bigger than any movie could possibly portray given its diversity. For us out here, he was famous for being the factor at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. He was the law in Oregon before it became Oregon Territory. For the twenty years that the land was under his rule, there were no Indian wars. He dealt fairly with the Native American peoples as he did with the new settlers streaming in, some on the verge of starvation-- where instead of turning them away, as Hudson's Bay would have preferred, he followed the Christian precepts he had based his life around. He gave food, a place to stay as these immigrants adjusted to their new home. For that, he was rewarded by eventually being fired by Hudson's Bay, who was concerned that by helping these settlers, he was shortening the time Britain would have sway over the land (they likely were right). 

Fired from the job he had held so long, McLoughlin returned to Oregon City where he had first claimed land in 1829. He had early seen its potential with the falls as a source of power and being on the Willamette River where ships could get to it. He had established a flour mill and built a beautiful home on its bluffs. In 1851, he was elected Oregon City's mayor.

Although he had wanted Oregon, which at the time encompassed what today are Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, to be an independent nation, all his life he helped all arriving settlers, some in conditions of virtual starvation. While Oregon bounced around with where its capitol was to be, there were homestead acts passed that brought in increasing numbers of Americans, which eventually made it very clear Oregon would be part of the United States. 

Not everyone appreciates a man who towers over others. Because McLoughlin had been born in Canada, he was a British subject-- although he became an American citizen. There were those in Oregon's developing government, who claimed he had no right to his land. When Samuel Thurston and Jason Lee wrote the Donation Land Act, they inserted a clause that took away most of McLoughlin's land. They made false claims about him to the Supreme Court to further discredit him. 

Despite being personally attacked, McLoughlin lived the Christian creed. As he had when a factor at Fort Vancouver, he continued to provide aid to new settlers. He built houses, sawmills, gristmills, and a canal around the falls all with his own money. He gave away 300 lots for private and public use. On land he had donated, churches of many denominations were built. 

With failing health and a heart broken by many tragedies, Dr. McLoughlin died in September of 1857 before he had regained title to the land that had virtually been stolen from him. He was buried in the cemetery of St. John's Catholic Church in Oregon City. 

For the moment, all he had done for so many seemed to be forgotten. Except it wasn't in that Oregon did finally make right on the land. It took time but in 1907 Oregon Historical Society President Frederick V. Holman, gave the following eulogy at the dedication of the McLoughlin Institute at Oregon City: 
 "I shall merely mention that conspirators against Dr. McLoughlin took for themselves parts of his land claim and, by means of malicious misstatements, caused Congress unjustly to deprive him of all the rest of his land claim, and thus humbled and humiliated and impoverished the grand, the noble, the generous Father of Oregon." 
It took until 1957, for the Oregon Legislative Assembly to agree and officially declare him to be The Father of Oregon. 

When I was editing Where Dreams Go, I realized that one of my important secondary characters from Round the Bend, St. Louis Jones, would have known McLoughlin. St. Louis had been a trapper, lived with the Lakota when he married a Lakota woman, been a wagon master who brought settlers to Oregon-- his last such trip being in 1851. There is no way he'd have not known McLoughlin. When St. Louis settled, along with the Stevens family, near Oregon City, he would have reconnected with what was likely an old friend. They shared a spiritual, hands-on view of what Christians should do for others. 

My own connection with the stories of McLoughlin had pieces of his life in them in several ways. Where I grew up in Washington was twenty miles from Fort Vancouver. When my parents sold our farm and moved, at the end of my senior year in high school,  I ended up not many miles from where McLoughlin lived out the end of his life. The Methodist church where I was married was a few blocks from his home on the bluff. My husband and I took our early instruction in becoming adult converts to Catholicism in St. John's Catholic Church, where McLoughlin returned to his Catholic faith at the end of his life.

In my historic books, I generally stay away from real historical figures. I do this because even if someone is famous today, it doesn't mean my characters would know them. I did not directly bring McLoughlin into Where Dreams Go, where the story begins in 1855. I did it through St. Louis talking about him. St. Louis doesn't have a point of view in the book; but his philosophy on life pops up now and again as a friend to the heroine and hero. I could have brought McLoughlin literally into the book, fascinating character that he was, but this book is almost too long as it is. I'd have to have had my hero or heroine connect with him. It seemed better to tell a bit of his story through my characters rather than add this larger than life man into the manuscript. 

For anyone interested in more about this part of the history of the Pacific Northwest, there are  excellent museums in Oregon City. The McLoughlin house can be toured (some claim it's even haunted). Downtown Portland has the Oregon Historical Society and museum. Fort Vancouver has been turned into a place to get a feel for the history of an area I have called home all of my life-- not only for its great natural beauty but also its rich history on many levels.

1 comment:

Celia said...

Fascinating story. I hope to visit some of these places when I come to see my Portland sisters this June. Strangely none of us has been to any of them.