Standing where it happened. Standing where they stood. It’s one of the ways we experience history. We travel to the place where the something happened or drive long distances to see the something that is still there. We get there and say, “wow!” snap a few pictures, then get back in our cars and go. It is that, and sometimes it’s more, a connection with the past that can transcend space and time.
Stand where they stood for the 52-50 vote for the Pacific coast’s first provisional government. American and French-Canadian fur trappers and farmers stood on a hill, up the bank from the Willamette river in Oregon, May 2nd, 1843 and voted to have a form of government to protect their interests and each other. This vote changed the future of the Pacific Northwest so that now there are Oregonians and Washingtonians! On this site, someone called for a “divide,” meaning those who supported a provisional government were to stand off to one side, and those opposed were to stand the opposite.
I stood where they stood for the divide, in the very same place! I read over the carved names in the 1901 marble monument that commemorates the event and wondered, “Was anyone from the 1843 event present when this monument was dedicated?” I reached out an ran my hand over the etched names, like perhaps an attendee of the event might have done. Did anyone do that over his own etched name? Probably so! Francis Xavier Matthieu, the last living member of the 1843 vote, was photographed on this site at the 1901 monument unveiling. Photographs of the event show Matthieu next to the monument, leaning on his cane and holding an American flag that had covered the marble piece. I looked out over the Willamette, just as they would have done and up at the same black cottonwood tree that shaded them in 1843 too. So close to the physical event, yet so distant from it by time.
Curious side note: Turns out that Matthieu came to this spot a year prior with Oregon’s governor in order to officially determine the spot of the vote. On the day they were to meet, Governor T.T. Greer had ridden his bicycle up from Salem to meet Matthieu who had forgotten their meeting and went off to Portland for the day. Greer waited and passed the time playing horseshoes and mowing the lawn (Hussey 245-246).
A town grew on this site as well… Champoeg (pronounced Sham-POO-ee).
Stand where the town used to be. Look up, up, up in the tree to see the sign that shows the 1861 flood level. The second of two major floods from the Willamette wiped out the town of Champoeg. As you look out over the prairie grass that blankets the townsite, the wind wisps are the only sound. The tall grass whips on the wind near the ghostly pillars that bear witness to the layout of the former townsite. They indicate the street corners that used to be. What stood at the corner of Montcalm St. and Longtain? What prompted Napoleon Street’s naming? Two men owned the townsite land; on the American owner’s side, American president street names; on the French owner’s side: Napoleon and other French named streets. But now, every trace is gone. The wooden foundations lifted off with the waters. Even the school’s bell washed to the next town (and is still there).
We can be where “it,” the something, happened even though generations have passed, seasons have come and gone, and sometimes everything is gone like at Champoeg. But it is a visit that gets as close as we can to the history that happened.
Friends of Historic Champoeg , 2008.
Hussey, John. Champoeg: Place of Transition. Oregon State Highway Commission. 1967.
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