How Writers Helped Shape the Myth of a New Eden

When choosing the name for this website, I considered calling it Writing About the Northwest, but I wanted the writing the site would explore to be more than that. It seemed to me writing related to a region like the NW doesn’t only describe it or explain it but also creates it, in the minds and hearts of its residents as well as outsiders. In effect, writers write a region into existence, delineating it characteristics, focusing its concerns, and forming its mythology.

While the core NW states of Oregon and Washington have much in common, they have many different characteristics, concerns, and even mythologies as well. If we go back to the 19th century, when the earliest stories of each were being told for those who didn’t live there yet, the defining vision for Oregon was of an Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail while for Washington–or at least its premier city–it was of a gateway to riches, those of the Klondike first and then of the Orient.

Neither of these visions, or the myths that grew up around them, developed organically or by accident. Before the middle of the 19th century, the NW was home only to indigenous tribes, trappers, soldiers at lonely outposts, and a few white missionaries far from the civilization they’d known. It wasn’t until the first group of migrants headed west from Missouri in the 1830s that Oregon was seen as a permanent destination for ordinary Americans. But once that migration began, the selling of Oregon did too.

Guidebooks about what was called the Oregon Country–similar to the one shown below for California–circulated not only in the Eastern parts of the United States but also in Europe. Outfitters and guides-for-hire advertised not only their supplies and services but also the wonders of the Pacific lands. Once immigrants had settled in the new region, they sent back letters praising their new homeland and encouraged others to move west.

One of the most popular books about the Oregon Trail was Frances Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. The result of a two-month swing through several western states (although, ironically, not Oregon) when Parkman was 23, the book was serialized in Knickerbocker’s Magazine and then published as a book in 1949, when Eastern newspapers were full of stories about California gold. In his review of the book, Herman Melville praised it for its “true wild-game flavor” while excoriating the author for his “disdain and contempt” for the native people he traveled among.

The book launched Parkman’s career as a historian and storyteller while further popularizing the west as a place of excitement and adventure. Other, less-famous books (many of which did include descriptions of the Oregon Country) did the same, and soon what began as a trickle headed to the Willamette Valley became a flood.

Eventually, the British were driven out of what had been a disputed land and not only the Northwest territory but the entire United States had been transformed. Together with the miners and other settlers in California, the new farmers and ranchers in Oregon helped change the perception of America from a country with a tenuous hold in a new land to a place of endless progress and possibility that spanned an entire continent. And it was writers of works both truthful and fanciful who amplified that perception, turning it from speculation into destiny.

Note: In my next post, I’ll explore the very different vision that, a few years later, established Washington State’s place in the American–and world–consciousness.