Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 62/The Emergence of Frances Fuller Victor-Historian

Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 62  (1961) 
The Emergence of Frances Fuller Victor-Historian by Hazel Emery Mills
Frances Fuller Victor portrait.jpg
Frances Fuller Victor (photo by Taber, San Francisco, California, 1878).

The Emergence of Frances Fuller Victor—Historian

Hazel Emery Mills

Mrs. Mills has been working for several years on a biography of Mrs. Victor which she first began as a joint project with her husband, the late Randall V. Mills.

In 1901 Frances Fuller Victor, in frail health at seventy-five, was living in a Portland boarding house at 624 Salmon Street. Illness and poverty had prevented her return to California from a visit she made to Oregon in June, 1900 after an absence of six years in San Francisco. Her chief possessions now were forty acres of hill land in Columbia County, Oregon, a few manuscripts, and a mass of historical documents and correspondence intensively collected since 1865. Her friends in both California and Oregon were helping in various ways to supplement the meagre income she earned by her writing, some purely out of friendship, some in recognition of her services to Oregon history. For thirty-five years research and historical writing on Oregon and the Pacific Northwest had been the driving interest in Mrs. Victor's life. She was in fact a part of Far Western history. The press referred to her as the "Mother of Oregon History" and the "Historian of the Northwest"; and in spite of her physical infirmities and the necessity of doing "pot-boiler" writing she still devoted much time to working on a revision of The River of the West, a book on Marcus Whitman, and articles for publication in the Oregon Historical Society's Quarterly.

Mrs. Victor's visit to Oregon in 1900 apparently had been inspired largely by her interest in the Oregon Historical Society and its newly-launched Quarterly. Since 1897 Professor Frederic G. Young of the University of Oregon had been corresponding with her regarding the documents he was editing and his hopes for the Society, of which he was secretary. In August 1899 he proposed her name for honorary membership.[1] Genuinely pleased, she replied: "I thank you sincerely for the compliment, and the more that it is the first public recognition won by twenty-five years of pains taking work on Oregon historical and otherwise. I shall be happy to give what aid I can to your society in the future as I have in the past to all efforts to bring out the fact-the truth I mean-of history."[2]

Recognition continued to come to Mrs. Victor in her last years. With evident satisfaction she wrote to Professor Young on November 9, 1901:

A week ago I had a very pleasant and entertaining visit from Capt. H. M . Chittenden who spent the day with me. He was on his way home from San Francisco, and could only stop over from the morning to the evening train. I have not seen his book yet in its proper form, but have read most of the proofs, and have already written a notice which was in the Oregonian two weeks ago. ... The McMillan Company has sent me Mowry's book on Whitman with the request that I review it for the American Historical Review, . . . Prof. Bourne also sent me his "Essays," a valuable contribution to historical studies.

Hiram Martin Chittenden had begun to correspond with Mrs. Victor when he was writing on Yellowstone Park and continued to consult and question her on various disputed topographical and historical points while working on his history of the fur trade.[3] When the manuscript of his book was completed in 1900, he sent it to her for criticism. Laboriously she read and made notes on the several hundred pages as a favor, and Chittenden gave her permission to use any material from his work she wished in revising her River of the West.[4] As have all writers on the fur trade since, he had studied The River of the West and praised it as a book that "will always stand, not only as a pioneer, but as one of the ablest examples in historical work of the fur trading era."[5] He also acknowledged her aid in his preface to The American Fur Trade in the Far West.

Chittenden's book may well have stimulated in Mrs. Victor's mind recollections of her first exhilarating year in Oregon. She had left her beloved San Francisco reluctantly, for there as Florence Fane she had won a literary reputation in 1863-64 by her gay witty columns in the Golden Era. Christmas Day 1864 had found her aboard the Brother Jonathan in a terrifying storm as the laboring steamship fought through high seas from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Columbia. And dismal indeed was her first view of Portland at 5 a.m. the following morning as she disembarked in a torrential rain. In the San Francisco Evening Bulletin she quipped in a Florence Fanish manner that Portland was "the Monumental City of the Pacific Coast" and that its monuments were very tall and very black.[6]

Henry Clay Victor, full of enthusiasm for Oregon and its future, was on hand to greet his wife. Moving to Oregon was mainly his idea. He had come to Portland in the fall and established himself as an engineer with the newly-founded Oregon Iron Works owned by Addison C. Gibbs. So it happened that the first Oregonian Mrs. Victor met formally was Gibbs, then governor of the state. During their conversation she laughingly confessed her general ignorance of the true nature of Oregon. Whereupon the governor gallantly suggested that she should write a book to correct the false impressions of Oregon current in the East.[7]

Portage railway and steamship landing at upper Cascades.png
Portage railway and steamship landing at upper Cascades. Part of the blockhouse appears at upper left, and at upper right the steamer Oneonta, on which Mrs. Victor enjoyed a pleasant voyage up the Columbia in 1865. (Watkins photo, 1867, OHS collections.)
Ever a journalist, preferably a traveling correspondent, Mrs. Victor seized eagerly upon the governor's suggestion. Since as a journalist she had come to believe that "it is always interesting to know even a little about the origin of things,"[8] she began to read avidly all she could find on Oregon's early history. Judge Matthew P. Deady became a helpful friend and opened his library to her. Also available was the collection of the embryo Library Association of Portland where Harvey W. Scott was librarian that winter.[9]

She was already familiar with some works on Oregon, for she later wrote in the "Introduction" to The River of the West that when she had read Astoria and Bonneville in the quiet of her New York study (1859-62) she felt no intimations of her future personal acquaintance with the scenes and even some of the characters in those books.

In the spring of 1865 Mrs. Victor boarded a Willamette steamboat on the first of her innumerable journeys to observe Oregon for herself. On the way upriver she stopped over in Oregon City, Salem, Albany and Corvallis meeting some of the oldest settlers in each town and listening with sympathetic interest to their stories of pioneer life.[10] Just ten years before she herself had been living under pioneer conditions on the frontier between the Missouri and Platte rivers north west of the new village of Omaha. Here she and her first husband, Jackson Barritt, staked out a land claim shortly after Nebraska Territory was created, and for three years they struggled with the land.[11] While there she had some times ridden out over the prairie along the fabled Oregon Trail; now she was actually hearing Oregonians themselves tell of their adventures on the trip across the plains. Thus Frances Fuller Victor began to record the reminiscences of Oregon pioneers and incidentally to collect any historical material they were willing to give to her.

In Oregon City Daniel Harvey, son-in-law of Dr. McLoughlin, presented her with copies of two documents which had been prepared by McLoughlin: one written to defend his land claim title, the other to justify to the Hudson's Bay Company his attitude toward the American settlement in Oregon.[12] In Albany Mrs. Victor met J. Quinn Thornton and his wife and heard Thornton's account of early Oregon. Later that year he wrote her many long letters in his illegible hand. These letters she copied in I899 in her own clear hand writing and presented both originals and copies to Professor Young for preservation in the Oregon Historical Society.[13] Later she also gave him the McLoughlin documents.[14]

From Corvallis Mrs. Victor traveled by stagecoach to Eugene and then on to Yoncalla where she spent about two weeks in the home of Jesse Applegate. Evenings there were devoted to historical reminiscences and discussion as Jesse answered her myriad questions about Oregon. Two years later Jesse Applegate expressed his reaction to Mrs. Victor and her visit in a letter to Elwood Evans of Olympia. Evans had sent him for criticism a chapter of the history of Oregon he was writing, and Jesse did not like it. He wrote:

While I have generally succeeded in escaping from male authors and think I could still fight them off—I have been no match for the ladies of the pen. To one of these I have fallen a helpless victim and surrendered at discretion. I held my own while I kept her at a dis tance but in one of my letters I inadvertently said "If you want information from me you must come to me for it." She took me at my word and in about two weeks she pumped me so dry of historical matter that the stores both of memory and imagination were utterly exhausted . . . there was nothing I could conceal or withhold from the keen scrutiny of this lady, and yet she is as little grateful for the information thus wrung from me as you seem to be for my strictures on your 17th chapter ... If you really seek truth go to her. Perhaps she will give you the benefit of her investigations-what she derived from me is now hers. I cannot object if she now gives you my autobiography. The lady is Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor of St. Helens.[15]

Jesse Applegate did contribute much to Mrs. Victor's knowledge and interpretation of Oregon history. She especially made use of three extremely interesting, detailed letters he wrote her in October and November 1865, in which he described Dr. McLoughlin and his character, the activities of the Hudson's Bay Company and its treatment of American settlers, and the actions of the Methodist missionaries and early government officials and their treatment of McLoughlin.[16]

Early in July 1865 Mrs. Victor began her "Columbiad," going first to Astoria to commence at the beginning with some extracts of Lewis and Clark's Journals fresh in her mind and a copy of Irving's Astoria in her pocket. "With the inquisitiveness usual to me," she wrote, "I set out shortly after my arrival in Astoria to peer into the past, the present and the future of the place."[17] She visited the site of the old fort, but found that little remained in 1865 to remind her of historical events there. She also went to the old customhouse and met the collector of customs, versatile William L. Adams, who invited her to his home and presented her with a file of the Oregon Spectator for 1846 and part of 1847.[18]

From Astoria Mrs. Victor traveled by steamboat and portage railroad as far as Wallula on the Columbia and Pine Tree Rapids on the Snake. She observed with interest the town of Vancouver and the site of the ruins of the Hudson's Bay Company fort and the blockhouses at the Cascades where several people had been killed during the Indian war just a decade before. From the Cascades to The Dalles, at ease in a deck chair on the first class steamer Oneonta, she was thrilled by the grandeur of magnificent scenery which she felt surpassed that along the Hudson River. At The Dalles she stopped at renowned Umatilla House and among others in the town met Thomas Condon, who allowed her to examine his collection of fossils.[19]

Early in August 1865 the Oregonian announced that after energetic researches for information Mrs. Victor was now writing the final draft of her work on Oregon and that many things "which were speedily becoming extinct will now be made matters of history." In October the newspaper published an able article titled "Railroads and Railroad Routes in Oregon," stating that it was an extract from Mrs. Victor's coming history of Oregon.[20] This was, of course, her projected descriptive handbook, but it was not published after all at this time. Later she appended a portion of it to The River of the West, and finally published it entire in 1872, enlarged and brought up-to-date by several more trips, as All Over Oregon and Washington.

The manuscript of her handbook completed, Mrs. Victor discovered not only that she had much interesting historical material left over but also that she had become addicted to historical research. So she continued to correspond with the pioneers and to collect material, this time with an eventual history of Oregon in view.

By the fall of 1865 Frances Victor and Elwood Evans were corresponding about Oregon history. Evans first came to Puget Sound in 1851, returned East the next year, then came back to Washington Territory in 1853 with the Pacific Railroad Survey party as private secretary to Governor Isaac I. Stevens. A lawyer by profession who served as secretary and acting governor of the territory and legislator, he was an active participant in history in the making as well as a student of the past of the region. His correspondence with Mrs. Victor continued until at least 1886, and they freely ex changed ideas and information, even historical documents.

In November 1865 Mrs. Victor, writing to Evans, commented:

I am convinced we have very nearly the same understanding of the interest, the mores, and the romance of that history which attaches to the Northwest Coast. Your synopsis of subjects sounds almost as if I had been giving an outline of my own sections of history. It is true, however, as you say, that "the theory underlying our respective works may be widely different; and from the fact of this difference, future historians looking back to us may be able to make philosophi cal deductions in support of the truth... . We, in our humble way may be serving posterity by presenting the several sides of an argument to the dispassionate criticism of another generation.[21]

Then her native skepticism, so essential in historical writing, asserted itself: "Would it be impertinent of me to inquire if you are convinced by the evidence before us, of the complicity of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the Catholic Fathers, in the Massacre at Wailatpu?.. . I do not believe it, and am of course more or less curious to know what facts unknown to me have served to so convince you .... It would give me great pleasure, and profit also I do not doubt, to have an opportunity of conversing with you on these topics; but an Oregon winter is so full of horrors for me that I could not undertake to visit Olympia except after it is over."

Whereupon she departed early in December for San Francisco and did not return until April. There the Golden Era quoted her as the coming historian of Oregon who after traveling all over the state predicted that "Oregon will equal, if not surpass, any of the Pacific States or Territories in the future development of mineral wealth."[22] Frances Victor now had good reason besides her enthusiasm for Oregon to publicize the resources of the state. In November 1865 she and Henry had purchased from Elizabeth Knighton her remaining part of the townsite of St. Helens, undoubtedly as a speculative venture. At this time the Victors had ample funds, for Henry had received a substantial amount of money from the United States Government for helping while on duty as an engineer with the Union Navy to capture a British prize ship attempting to run the blockade of Charleston. But he apparently was a visionary speculator with little business acumen. Not content to concentrate on the development of St. Helens he bought shares in Santiam gold mines and engaged in coal, iron and salt mining, all failures. His greatest mistake, however, was buying thirty shares of stock in the Oregon and California Wagon Road Company. This investment earned only large assessments which eventually he could not pay and so became involved in a lawsuit. Though the Victors sold much of their St. Helens property, by 1868 they were in financial difficulties and evidently agreed to go their separate ways.[23]

During all the turmoil of speculation, disheartening failures and debt, Frances continued to travel each summer and to gather material for her history of Oregon. Gradually she decided to make Joe Meek the central figure of her book as she became more and more intrigued by the story of his life. Judge Deady had introduced her to Meek in 1865, and he he had started then to send her notes on his experiences and to come to see her often to tell her stories of his life as a mountain man. By July 1868 Mrs. Victor was requesting Judge Deady to send her any stories, papers, or facts he might have regarding Meek's career in Oregon, for she wished to give a correct view of his official acts. "It is as much a matter of bread and butter with me now, as of literary reputation," she confessed. "I must publish my book this winter, and I must get off to New York as early as possible."[24]

On her way back from the East a year later Mrs. Victor stopped over in San Francisco to see Bret Harte, then editor of the Overland Monthly, to offer him her first historical article, "Manifest Destiny in the West." Harte was delighted and published it in the August 1869 issue of the Overland.[25]

Mrs. Victor then returned to Oregon and went to Salem to live for a few months in the home of Governor George L. Woods, Mrs. Woods apparently being her friend. It was fortunate she took refuge there, for as soon as Oregonians began to read The River of the West she found herself under attack. Harvey W. Scott praised the book in fair measure but also forthrightly consigned the author to her historical enemies. He stated that it was certainly the best narrative of early events in Oregon that had yet appeared, and the story, which made Meek quite a hero, was attractively told and would be popular. Then he noted that Mrs. Victor held positive opinions which she did not hesitate to state, and after quoting some of her observations on the missionaries wrote: "We give the above as a specimen of the writer's independent style of criticism, and leave her to those who may be disposed to take a different view of these things, as doubtless such there are."[26]

The missionary contingent in Oregon was deeply offended by The River of the West and never forgave the author. She did make some provocative statements about preachers and missionaries, especially the Methodists, and on page 274 inserted a clever cartoon captioned "The Missionary Wedge." At the end of March 1870 Frances wrote Judge Deady that to her surprise she found herself much talked about, "having forgotten that writers of co-temporaneous history were liable to notoriety—sometimes unenviable." In answer the judge criticized one of her statements about missionaries, to which she replied: "I am such a scorner of hum-bug, that really I cannot find it in my nature to be very sorry that I said it!"[27]

Mrs. Victor moved to Portland in May 1870, but soon took off on a trip to The Dalles, Wallula, Walla Walla, and Lewiston. She was making new observations for her manuscript All Over Oregon and Washington, and daily adding to her historical lore. Of special interest on this trip was her visit to the site of the Whitman Mission where she talked with Cushing Eells, and to the Indian Agency at Lapwai where she met Perrin Whitman and Lawyer, a Nez Perce chief.[28]

When Mrs. Victor returned to Portland she found that in her absence J. Quinn Thornton had challenged the veracity of The River of the West in an extremely long review in the Pacific Christian Advocate. He charged her among other things with having an inveterate prejudice against Methodist preachers in general and Methodist missionaries in particular.[29] Her reply in the Pacific Christian Advocate was prompt and uncompromising, and includes her earliest statement so far discovered in print about her historical methods.

... my course has been from the first, in gathering the material for my book, one of impartial hearing of all sides; ... I . . . sought information from far and wide, of all classes and denominations alike; . . . I felt that I had shaken together and sifted the beliefs of all Oregon in writing my book ... while I gave Mr. Meek's mountain stories as he furnished them to me, as the exponent of a class of men and style of living now passing away, and while I do not doubt the truth of them myself, leave them to the judgment of the public as the tales of a well known mountain man,—I claim something more than that for the historical sketches interwoven with the adventures. Having access to old files of papers—all the books previously written about the country and its history—private papers and public documents, it would be strange if, with a disposition to write the truth without fear and without favor, I had not arrived at some thing approximating to it.[30]

Mrs. Victor then left for her first trip to the Puget Sound country, going overland by stage—a long, light, open wagon with three wide seats—from Monticello to Olympia. Here she finally was able to examine Elwood Evans' superlative collection of material relating to the Pacific Coast—all the published works on the region and carefully preserved files of manuscripts and newspaper clippings. From Olympia she traveled down the Sound on the steamer Olympia which stopped at Seattle, Port Madison, and Port Ludlow. Then she enjoyed several delightful days in Victoria where the highlight of her visit was a meeting with Sir James Douglas to hear his reminiscences of early days in the Oregon Country.[31]

On October 8, 1870, Mrs. Victor departed once more from Portland, this time for California and the East. So she could see more of southern Oregon she traveled by railroad to Salem, then by stagecoach from Salem to the railhead in California at Chico.[32] With the coming of spring she returned to Oregon to resume her travels to gather more material for her book. Again in October 1871 she sailed for San Francisco there to complete the writing of All Over Oregon and Washington and see it through the press. The following April she came back to Portland just long enough to arrange for the sale of her book before leaving for another visit with her mother and sisters in the East.

On her return to San Francisco in April 1873 Mrs. Victor found invitations from Jesse Applegate and Oliver C. Apple gate to visit them in the Klamath country and write the history of the Modoc War. The proposition proved irresistible, and May 1873 found her in Portland preparing to leave for Ashland where she was to join the Applegate families returning to their homes in the Klamath country now that the Modoc War had ended. The party traveled with an ambulance, a baggage-wagon, and horses, riding or walking as they chose, taking three days for the seventy-mile trip across the mountains to Linkville. As they walked along Jesse among many other things told Mrs. Victor of the opening of the southern immigrant road in I846. At night they set up camp and after a dinner of fish or venision roasted on sticks over a log fire sang songs and told stories.[33]

Mrs. Victor spent most of her six weeks in the Klamath country at the Klamath Indian Agency learning about Indian life, customs, and mythology from young Oliver C. Applegate. With hinm as guide she witnessed the trial of the Modoc Indian prisioners at Fort Klamath and traveled to the lava beds, to Yainax, Clear Lake, and Crater Lake.[34] The trip to Crater Lake proved the crowning event of the summer. One evening at sunset she crept out on a mass of rock which overhung the lake to see better the exquisite reflection in the deep blue water. This place later was officially named Victor Rock; today it is the site of the Sinnott Memorial.

While living again in Portland during the winter of 1873-74, Mrs. Victor gathered material for a general history of the Indian wars of Oregon which she had decided to write instead of a history of the Modoc War alone. General Jefferson C. Davis provided her with an office at his headquarters and gave her access to all of the military documents. As she made notes from them questions constantly rose in her mind which made her wish for Oliver Applegate. "This is the military side of the subject alone," she wrote him, "and I must needs get at the other to become a faithful historian."[35] Then she asked him for many facts and explanations which reveal her critical ability and her insight into the problem of obtaining the information necessary to illuminate the intricate Indian question.

Mrs. Victor also consulted many others at this time for their experiences and observations on the Indian wars. To Captain J. M . McCall of Ashland, for example, she wrote:

Mr. Waymire instructs me to call upon you to relate the incidents of the campaign of 1864, in the Snake country; and to describe a battle, in which Lieutenant Watson was killed. I know there is some labor in this demand: but then consider the importance to history of a correct view of the facts! Your labor will have no reward but itself (like virtue) but so, I apprehend, will mine; and as mine is the greatest, without even the privilege of figuring in my own pages as a hero, I find myself growing in confidence to ask enormous favors of those who are to be immortalized.[36]

After all of her exertions to collect all possible material Mrs. Victor never published her projected history of the Indian wars. But she gained excellent training and back ground for her work on the Bancroft histories and for the later writing of her own Early Indian Wars of Oregon.

Hubert Howe Bancroft in his Literary Industries tells of his travels through the Pacific Northwest in May and June 1878 to collect everything he could for his library to be used in the writing of his planned History of the Pacific States. After a profitable month in Victoria, he visited the chief towns of western Washington and obtained much valuable historical material including extensive collections from James G. Swan and Elwood Evans. In Oregon he acquired considerable additional material and at the meeting of the Oregon Pioneer Society in Salem was able to take dictation from many pioneers in a few days' time. He had hoped to see Mrs. Victor, whose writings on Oregon he admired above all others, but she was away on a trip to the coast. When he returned to San Francisco he wrote to her offering her "an engagement" in his library.[37]

Mrs. Victor accepted Bancroft's offer with some reluctance, for she disliked having to sacrifice the writing of her own history of Oregon, but knowing Bancroft and his plans and resources, she decided her only course could be to join him. So in October 1878 she sailed from Portland for San Francisco. With Mrs. Victor's services Bancroft gained not only her extensive knowledge of Pacific Northwest history but also the use of her large collection of historical material.[38] However, she apparently retained much of her collection, for many letters and manuscripts were still in her possession when she died in 1902. What happened to most of them subsequently is still undiscovered.

The contribution Frances Fuller Victor brought to the Bancroft enterprise was well summarized in an editorial commemorating her birth, titled "Centenary of a Western Historian" published in the Oregonian May 26, 1926:

The original conception of such a history of Oregon was hers; she already had collected a rich store of material for the purpose when Bancroft appeared on the scene. In doing this she performed a service of inestimable value to the state, since its builders were then nearly all alive, and facts concerning the beginnings of the common wealth were well known to them, and had it not been for Mrs. Victor, would have been lost to posterity.

The question of the authorship of Bancroft's Works has been ably considered by Dr. John Caughey in his Hubert Howe Bancroft, Historian of the West.[39] The question is a most complicated one, for though Bancroft's assistants did write all but about ten volumes of the Works, they owed so much to the Bancroft Library, the organization of its materials for their use, and to Bancroft's master plan for the enterprise and his editorial supervision that is is difficult to claim without qualification the authorship of individual volumes for the staff members.

Bancroft himself never properly acknowledged which portions of his Works were written by his staff. The case for the staff members was well stated by Henry L. Oak, who claimed ten volumes, in his "Literary Industries" in a New Light issued in 1893 to correct Bancroft's account of the writing of the Works.[40] Oak's statements about Mrs. Victor's work largely substantiate her claims made during her lifetime which were set forth at length after her death by William A. Morris in the December 1903 Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society.

Morris' article, "The Origin and Authorship of the Bancroft Pacific States Publications," apparently created quite a stir in historical circles of the day. Later a history professor at the University of California, Morris was at this time a young high school teacher in Portland where he lived in the same boardinghouse as Mrs. Victor and became her friend and champion. She mentions him in several letters to Professor Young, and they held many discussions on historical matters. Morris' article on Bancroft and his Works is based on these discussions, the notes Mrs. Victor had made on the authorship of the histories, on her correspondence with Bancroft and others regarding her work, and her scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. The administrator of Mrs. Victor's estate, Edward H. Kilham of Portland, allowed Morris the use of these materials, most of which seem to have vanished including the Bancroft letters.

Morris in the course of his article credits Mrs. Victor with the authorship of the History of Oregon, volumes I and II; the History of Washington, Idaho and Montana; the History of Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming, with the possible exception of the first two chapters on Nevada; the political and railroad chapters in the History of California, volumes VI and VII; the account of the Modoc War in California Inter Pocula; a chapter on the Oregon Question in the History of the Northwest Coast, vol. II; and nearly a volume of The Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth.[41]

Some of Mrs. Victor's personal letters written to Judge Deady and Elwood Evans during the time she was actually writing the histories credited to her throw considerable light on the extent of her actual part in the process of authorship and substantially validate her claims. The first volume of the History of Oregon was the first of the state histories written in the Bancroft Library, and in it Mrs. Victor helped get the pattern for the others. It was she who made a point of including the biographies of all the pioneers possible and a list of each year's immigration.[42]

As she began her work she was confronted with many problems. Early in December 1878 she wrote to Judge Deady, on whom she always leaned heavily for information to supplement the Bancroft collection:

I have not yet seen your dictation to Mr. Bancroft-there is such a mass of matter here that it will take a long time to wade through it. A good deal, however, is comparatively useless and not to the point. There are two things that I particularly want done. 1st Somebody to take the Oregon archives from the beginning to the formation of the State Government, and go through them with comments on the acts of the legislature, that is where an act was of sufficient importance to deserve comment. Of course I can see the act, but I cannot know the motive or the circumstances that prompted it. Who could do this for me?

2d I want biographies of all the men of any mark, in early times and later. How am I to get them? ...

I should be glad of pen pictures of the first Territorial officers. How is the Statesman for clear facts? It is so hard to steer a way between two partisan papers like the Statesman and Oregonian and do everybody evenhanded justice. Write to me of these things. Of course this is Mr. Bancroft's history: but I am getting everything in shape as he never could—not being so familiar with the ground and if we agree about it when I am ready to begin, I shall probably write it. In any case it is my conscientious desire to do my work faithfully.[43]

In explanation it should be mentioned here that most of the material in the Bancroft Library—books, periodicals, newspapers, and manuscripts—had been indexed by subject for all references in each item to historical material to be used in the writing of the Works. Moreover, with the index as a guide, notes had been extracted and filed on each subject. It was this excellent system of indexing and note-taking devised by Bancroft, Henry L. Oak, and William Nemos that made possible the writing of the histories from original sources with such dispatch and accuracy. With the drudgery of indexing and note-taking performed by others, the assistant doing the actual writing was free to begin at once with a critical examination of his sources and the gathering of any needed additional information.[44]

Mrs. Victor's letters in December 1879 reveal the progress she had made toward a clarified knowledge of Oregon history in a year's study of the sources available to her. To Deady she confided that she had been forced to the conclusion that the views she had expressed in The River of the West had been far too mild. By this time she had completed much of volume I of the History of Oregon, and to Elwood Evans she wrote: "I should be glad if you could go over some of my Oregon chapters—and you would be delighted. I have entirely and completely unravelled the tangles that troubled you (and me) in 1870. The whole story is as plain as A. B. C. You would enjoy the unfolding."[45]

While Mrs. Victor enjoyed her work, she found onerous the labor of writing original history. To Elwood Evans she also described the condition of her work for Bancroft:

I doubt if you would have the patience to work as one of Mr. Bancroft's assistants. Last year I wrote or worked fifty-one weeks every day except Sundays from 8 o'clock in the morning until 6 in the evening, with one hour at noon for exercise and luncheon. This year I am doing the same .... I often wish to do something for myself... but have not the strength left. But I find time to write letters that concern my work-I write a good many to find out things, and put a good deal of material into the history which would not otherwise be there: in short, work just as conscientiously as if I were doing it for my own glory, and put into Mr. B's hands and under his name all the results of my long preparation for this particular work ...[46]

Mr. Bancroft did express his appreciation of Mrs. Victor's devotion to her work in the first version of his Literary Industries: "I have," he wrote, "found Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor during her arduous labors for a period of ten years in my library, a lady of cultivated mind, of ability and singular application; likewise her physical endurance was remarkable."[47] The last part of the remark was a real compliment coming from Bancroft who could stand at his desk writing for eleven or twelve hours a day. But he did not expect Mrs. Victor to stand and furnished her, as the only woman assistant, with a private study.

In May 1883 Bancroft sent Judge Deady and a few other men in Oregon who knew the state's history the proofs of Oregon I for criticism. A month later Mrs. Victor wrote Deady that she was glad he was reading the proofs and hoped that he would get those of Oregon II also, for in that volume there would be more occasion for corrections. Then she added some comments on Bancroft's editing of her work.

I find that Mr. B is given to make disparaging remarks not really necessary to the truth of history, of some of the most prominent men of early times, such as Pratt and Lane. Wherever he alters anything I have written it is usually to put in a paragraph of that kind. He made particular war on Pratt, using such words as "infamous" and "disgusting", and where I had given Pratt some just praise, cut it out entirely. It is a piece of personal malice because Pratt would contribute nothing to the history. On the other hand he was well pleased with Thornton.... I happened to know Thornton well enough to weigh his evidence carefully, or whatever he said about being author of the land law, and other misstatements would have gone in more as he desired. What I am getting at is to put you on your watch for these passages, and that you may criticize them when the proofs go to you. Mr. B. will regard your remarks ... I should have said further about the Pratt business that I used your name to get him to take out some of the most obnoxious expressions. He calls Lane an "Indian butcher" and the like, which is not, as I tell him, historically true, but Lane is dead, and will never buy a set of the histories.[48]

Though completed years before, the first volume of Oregon was not published until October 1886 in its projected place in the sequence of the histories. It was almost not published even then, for both the plates and the manuscript of Oregon I were lost in the disastrous Bancroft Company fire of April 30, 1886.[49] By good fortune two of the first copies of the book to come from the press had been taken to the library building on Valencia Street. In answer to a note from Judge Deady congratulating her on Oregon I after its publication, Mrs. Victor made some further comments on Bancroft's editorial methods:

As far as I could, I made note of each immigration as it came, giving names. I had done this down to 1852, but after '48 they were cut out for want of room-and then Mr. Bancroft decided to add at the end of each vol. in the manner you complain of, everybody who subscribes! It is poor taste, but he thinks it necessary to financial success. The plan I followed was to include everybody in the immigrations and whoever made himself notable afterwards was duly mentioned in the place where he did something to signalize himself....

I labored under the disadvantage of having my ms reduced by another—Mr. B. performing this editorial work. As he did not always take in the value of certain matters, and as my ms overrun terribly, he slashed in the wrong places often, and I knew nothing of it until it came before me in the galleys and could be changed but slightly afterwards. But considering all things, I do believe the history is more nearly correct than any original history you can point to before the Bancroft series was begun, and I am glad to have your favorable judgement upon it.[50]

By 1886 Mrs. Victor had completed the major portion of the writing she did for Bancroft. Even under the ideal working conditions of the Bancroft Library the production in eight years, largely from primary sources, of the histories of seven states was a real achievement, especially when it is taken into consideration that the original manuscripts of Oregon I and II and of the section on Washington were all much longer than the printed works. Some interesting comments by Mrs. Victor on Bancroft's cutting down of her manuscript on the history of Washington occur in a letter to Elwood Evans labeled confidential:

It was my wish, and judgement, that Washington should have a volume to herself. Mr. B. however, finding that his work was going to be so extensive, decided to cut it down (after it was written) and put it into the vol with Idaho and Montana. Still as the earlier hist. of Wash. is contained in that of Or. it is pretty full as it is. But I was disappointed, thinking that you, Swan, and others would be so, because Mr. B . took out of Wash. the chapter on the San Juan difficulty, and, also a chapter on the Puget Sound Agric. Association, to make room, and put them in other vols of the Northwest Coast. He also cut down to nothing, almost, the account of the Stevens and Wool war which I had written out fully. He changed my estimate of Stevens, apparently, without any good reason—about the only important change of coloring given anywhere.[51]

During the next two years Mrs. Victor was engaged in writing the political and railroad history of California. By 1888 she was growing restive because of Bancroft's promotion scheme of publishing The Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth. She did not approve of a money-making project where men paid large fees to be included, especially since Bancroft did not increase her salary for writing the biographies. She complained to Deady that Bancroft had never paid her more than $100 a month yet sent all the most difficult work to her desk. However, Ban croft did persuade her to remain long enough to write several of the most important biographies and most of the history of railroads in the transportation volumes of The Chronicles of the Builders.[52]

Mrs. Victor resigned from the History Company in May 1889, and soon returned to Oregon. She published Atlantis Arisen in 1891, and in 1892 was commissioned by the Secretary of State or Oregon to write the history of the early Indian wars in Oregon, which had been authorized by the Legislative Assembly.[53] However, she found it increasingly difficult to earn a living as a free-lance writer, which may have been one reason why after her resignation she began to present her claim in newspaper articles to the authorship of the volumes of Bancroft's Works that she had written. Also in 1893 when asked to exhibit her works as a California author at the Mechanics Fair in San Francisco, and later that same year as a New York author at the Chicago World's Fair, she included with her own works the four complete volumes of Bancroft's Works she claimed to have written, placing her name along with Bancroft's on the title page and spine of each volume with a special preface in each to explain her action.[54]

While this claim of authorship increased Mrs. Victor's reputation as an historian, probably her participation in the bitter Whitman controversy brought even more attention from historians in the East. The chief points in the long drawn out dispute over the validity of the so-called Whitman legend are well outlined in Clifford M. Drury's biography of Whitman.[55] Drury notes that Mrs. Victor appeared to be the first to contradict the Whitman Saved Oregon story publicly, but does not develop fully her part and influence in the controversy.

In her first historical writing for the Overland Monthly and in The River of the West Mrs. Victor had accepted much of the Whitman legend, though she did express doubt that he exercised any real influence in Washington, D. C. And she never did accept the idea that he was the moving force in the emigration of 1843. Later she repudiated the entire story and stated that she had been misled by following W. H . Gray's account of Whitman's acts and motives in the Astoria Marine Gazette.[56] When Professor Edward Gaylord Bourne of Yale entered the controversy he wrote of her reversal of opinion that "it is but justice to say that Mrs. Victor enjoys the lonely distinction of being the only writer, as far as I know, who, having once published the legend, upon a more careful study of the evidence has had the open mindedness to see and declare its legendary character."[57] Mrs. Victor first became suspicious of the story in 1870, but is was not until she began sifting the evidence on Oregon history in the Bancroft Library that she fully realized her error. Gradually she convinced Elwood Evans of the legendary nature of the Spalding-Gray account, and together they later fought the opposition in the newspaper columns. In December I879 she wrote Evans that "Dr. Whitman and his wife should have a monument ... but the Daniel Webster story, and the Codfishery story and all the rest is bosh. I have read all the diplomatic correspondence, and the United States had no intention at any time to give up any foot of ground south of the 49th parallel."[58]

Under the title "Did Dr. Whitman Save Oregon?" Mrs. Victor published the first denial of the Whitman legend in The Californian in September 1880, presenting evidence she had gathered for Bancroft's History of Oregon.[59] The article was written to refute Samuel A. Clarke's "How Dr. Whitman Saved Oregon" which had appeared in the July 188o issue of The Californian. An even more scholarly article by Mrs. Victor in which she still more completely demolished the Spalding-Gray story was published in the Portland Oregonian, November 6, 1884. It was appropriately sub-titled "An Exhaustive Examination . . . of All the Points of the So Called Whitman Controversy." It is not only exhaustive but also exhausting, covering almost an entire page in very fine print, with almost two columns of footnotes in even finer print. This article touched off a renewal of the controversy with Elwood Evans supporting Mrs. Victor and Myron Eells, W. H. Gray, and E. C. Ross opposing them. The argument was again revived after the publication in 1886 of the first volume of Bancroft's History of Oregon. This time Judge Deady came to the aid of Evans and Victor.

While it is impossible to go into all the phases of the Whitman controversy, the writings of Professor Bourne are of particular interest. He became concerned about the Whitman legend because of its general acceptance, at least in part, by professional historians, including Scudder, Burgess, McMaster, and Von Holst. Bourne attributed this acceptance to the influence of William Barrows' Oregon: the Struggle for Possession, published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1883 in the American Commonwealth series. In his Essays in Historical Criticism Bourne stated, "The propagation of the legend of Marcus Whitman is simply amazing, in view of the almost concurrent publication of Bancroft's Oregon, in which the true history of Marcus Whitman is told and the legend dismissed with a contemptuous footnote."[60]

Mrs. Victor first learned of Professor Bourne's interest in the Whitman legend when in December I900 she wrote the American Historical Association offering them an article on Whitman for the American Historical Review. She was rather upset to learn that Bourne was reading a paper on the Whitman legend at the meeting of the American Historical Association that month and that it would later be published in the Review. Historian Franklin Jameson, the managing editor, assured her, however, that she would be pleased with Bourne's article since "he speaks of your labors in the most handsome way and agrees with you substantially in the main contention."[61]

In the January 1901 issue of the American Historical Review Mrs. Victor found a tribute to her work in a footnote of Bourne's article:

As the avowed author of Bancroft's Oregon, working under his editorial supervision, every student of Oregon history is under obligations to her for her scholarly and honest presentations of the facts derived from the unparalleled collection of materials gathered by Mr. Bancroft.... It is a rare experience in a critical examination of sources to find in any general history so faithful and trustworthy a presentation of the contents of those sources as in the parts of the first volume of Bancroft's Oregon that I have subjected to this test.[62]

Mrs. Victor was concerned about Bourne's publications on the Whitman myth because in 1900 she was still trying to find a publisher for a book she had written on the subject in 1898. Elliott Coues, who Mrs. Victor once said was as kind to her as a brother, read and praised the manuscript and was attempting to have it published when he died in December 1899. She rewrote the book after Bourne's article appeared, completing it in March 1902.[63] The fate of the manuscript remains unknown as does that of her revision of The River of the West.

Thus Mrs. Victor after her return to Oregon in June I900 experienced some disappointments and frustrations as well as recognition of her work as an historian, maintaining to the end her intense interest in history despite her pathetic struggle to sustain herself in Portland during the last two and one-half years of her life. On February 18, I902 she wrote Professor Young:

At the moment there lies before me all this:

  1. Chittenden's book to be reviewed in extenso.
  2. Notes for the article on the Astoria, etc.
  3. References for the article on the Oregon Question (English).
  4. Material for a novel-half done
  5. A half written book on the Whitman Legend
  6. Material for an article on Oregon Literature
  7. Notes on books for Newberry Library-and many incidentals, correspondence, etc. And nothing to show for it! "All work and no pay."

Through the kindness of Professor Young she did receive a small compensation, however, for some of her articles published in the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly. In addition to her historical writing she also found time to encourage young William A. Morris in his interest in history, and provided Professor Young and the Society with ideas for basic planning of the Lewis and Clark Exposition besides writing prominent historians in the East to ask for aid for a history building.

Always living life as it came and looking to the future, Mrs. Victor in 1901 expressed the hope that she would be strong enough to take an active part in the Lewis and Clark Centennial, but this wish was not granted her. In September 1902 she moved her possessions for the last time in her long unsettled life from her quarters on Salmon Street to a pleasant comfortable room in the boarding house of Mrs. Emma M. Gilmore at 501 Yamhill Street.[64] During the moving she suffered two or three breakdowns, and on November 10 wrote Professor Young a brief last letter to tell him she could not send him that month a manuscript on steam transportation because she had been seriously ill again. At three o'clock on the morning of November 14 with Mrs. Gilmore at her bedside Frances Fuller Victor passed away peacefully from the effects of old age.

Since Mrs. Victor was a member of the Unitarian Church her funeral services were held in the First Unitarian Church of Portland on November 17, with Dr. T. L. Eliot, the beloved pastor emeritus, conducting the services. In spite of the extremely stormy weather many of her faithful Oregon friends were present but only one relative, James B. Wilson, a cousin from Walla Walla. Her only surviving sister, Celia F. Van Pearse, lived in Ohio and could not come. In the course of his eulogy on Frances Fuller Victor Dr. Eliot summed up her achievements and attributes:

In some respects this hour and this occasion is most peculiar. I doubt whether similar conditions can ever bring us together again within our State, when one of so varied a life and work, so representative an American woman, and so completely identified in her work with the history of the Northwest as is Mrs. Victor, shall again claim our commemoration.... Her public monument is the work of her pen in her labors as an historian; her abiding memorial, for all who knew her best, is her strenuous intellect, her singleness of purpose, her transparent affections, and aspiring soul.[65]


  1. F . F. Victor to F. G . Young, August 24, 1899, in Victor letters, Oregon Historical Society. She, along with Hazard Stevens, was elected an honorary member of the Society at a meeting of the board of directors, June 16, 1900.
  2. F . F . Victor to F. G. Young, August 24, 1899.
  3. References to the correspondence are found in Mrs. Victor's letters to Oliver C. Applegate, September 27, 1896 and to F. G . Young, September 23, 1899. The Victor-Applegate correspondence is on microfilm in the Special Collections, University of Oregon Library.
  4. F. F. Victor to F. G. Young, September 13, 1900, in Victor letters, OHS. She published a long review of Chittenden's book as an article, "The American Fur Trade in the Far West," in the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, III (September, 1902), 260-70.
  5. Mrs. Victor in a letter to Oliver C. Applegate, September 16, 1896, quotes this comment from one of Chittenden's letters to her.
  6. F. F. Victor, "Wayside Pictures from Oregon; Up the Willamet Valley," San Francisco Evening Bulletin, July 14, 1865 (hereafter "Wayside Pictures").
  7. F. F. Victor, autobiographical sketch, Salem Daily Oregon Statesman, June 16, 1895, p. 2, c. 1-5 (hereafter Victor autobiographical sketch).
  8. Comment in her Atlantis Arisen (Philadelphia, 1891), 286.
  9. Victor autobiographical sketch.
  10. Victor autobiographical sketch; also Victor, "Wayside Pictures."
  11. Orville J. Victor, "Frances Fuller Barritt," in William T. Coggeshall, Poets and Poetry of the West (Columbus, Ohio, 1860), 510-11. Documents relating to the land claim are in Record Group No. 49, The National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  12. F . F . Victor, "The River of the West Vindicated: Reply of Mrs. Victor to Judge Thornton; Important Original Documents Furnished," Portland Oregonian, July 14, 1870, p. 1, c. 4-8; July 15, 1870, p. 1, c. 4-8 .
  13. F . F . Victor to F. G. Young, November 13, 1899, in Victor letters, OHS.
  14. F . F. Victor to F. G. Young, June 24, 1900. The documents are in the Oregon Historical Society collection.
  15. Jesse Applegate to Elwood Evans, October 13, 1867, in Applegate letters, OHS.
  16. Jesse Applegate to F. F. Victor, October 15, 29, November 12, 1865, in Applegate letters, OHS.
  17. F. F. Victor, "A Voyage Up the Columbia River," San Francisco Evening Bulletin, September 2, 1865.
  18. Victor autobiographical sketch.
  19. F. F. Victor, "Summer Wanderings," Oregonian, June 21, 1870, p. 1. 20.
  20. Oregonian, October 11, 1865.
  21. November 15, 1865, in Elwood Evans, correspondence and papers, 1843-94, Western Americana Collection, Yale University Library.
  22. January 7, 1866.
  23. There is very little information on the last years of H. C . Victor. He was drowned in the wreck of the Pacific off the Washington coast November 4, 1875. The newspapers listed him as from Tacoma, and described him as the husband of authoress Frances Fuller Victor.
  24. F. F. Victor to Matthew P. Deady, July 30, 1868, in Victor letters, OHS.
  25. The Oregonian reprinted "Manifest Destiny in the West" on page 1 of the issue of August 2 and 3, 1869, but without the author's name, stating only that "it is from a pen which has furnished many excellent contributions to the literature of the Pacific slope."
  26. Oregonian, March 8, 1870.
  27. Victor to Deady, April 5, 1870, in Victor letters, OHS.
  28. Victor, "Summer Wanderings," Oregonian, June 27, July 2, 7, 1870.
  29. Thornton, "Review of the River of the West," Pacific Christian Advocate, May 21, 28, 1870, p. 1.
  30. June 11, 1870, p. 3.
  31. Victor, "Summer Wanderings," Oregonian, July 27, August 1, 2, 6, 10, 1870.
  32. Victor, "A Stage Ride in Oregon and California," The American Publisher (Hartford, Conn.), I (August, 1871), 2, and I (September, 1871), 2.
  33. Victor, Atlantis Arisen, 178-82.
  34. Victor to O. C. Applegate, November 21, 1899, microfilm copy in Special Collections, University of Oregon Library.
  35. Victor to O. C . Applegate, November 15, 1873.
  36. January 12, 1874, in McCall papers, Mss. 911, OHS.
  37. H. H. Bancroft, Literary Industries (New York, 1891), 293.
  38. F. F. Victor, "The Bancroft Historical Library," The Californian, VI (December, 1882), 493. There are several letters in the manuscript collection of Bancroft Library written to Mrs. Victor in the 1860s and 1870s before she joined Bancroft's staff when she was collecting material for her history of Oregon and the history of the Indian wars.
  39. University of California Press, 1946.
  40. Published in San Francisco. There is also in Bancroft Library a manuscript by Oak setting forth his estimate respecting the authorship of Bancroft's Works, and in this he also incorporates William Nemosestimate.
  41. William A. Morris, "The Origin and Authorship of the Bancroft Pacific States Publications: a History of a History," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, IV (December, 1903), 287-364.
  42. F. F. Victor to Matthew P. Deady, November 3, 1866, in Victor letters, OHS; Victor autobiographical sketch; Morris, "Origin and Authorship . . .," OHQ, IV:331.
  43. Victor to Deady, December 8,1878, in Victor letters, OHS.
  44. Caughey, Hubert Howe Bancroft, Historian of the West, 255-56; F. F. Victor, "The Bancroft Historical Library," The Californian, VI:494.
  45. Victor to Evans, December 9, 1879, in Evans, correspondence and papers, Western Americana Collection, Yale University Library.
  46. Victor to Evans, January 7, 1880.
  47. H. H. Bancroft, Literary Industries (San Francisco, 1890), 237-38.
  48. Victor to Deady, June 18, 1883, in Victor letters, OHS.
  49. Caughey, Hubert Howe Bancroft, 309.
  50. Victor to Deady, November 3, 1886, in Victor letters, OHS.
  51. Victor to Evans, in Evans, correspondence and papers, Western Americana Collection, Yale University Library.
  52. Among the manuscripts of Bancroft's Works in Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley is a manuscript of over 400 pages on the history of railways in Mrs. Victor's handwriting which with relatively minor editing by Bancroft was published in The Chronicles of the Builders as Chapters 8 and 9 of Volume V and Chapters 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 14 of Volume VI.
  53. Oregon Secretary of State, Biennial Report, 1891-92 (Salem, 1893), xxiv. A record of the appropriation and payments of warrants to Mrs. Victor appears in the Legislative Appropriations ledgers of the Secretary of State for 1891/92 and 1893/94, in the Oregon State Archives, Salem.
  54. H. L. Oak, "Literary Industries" in a New Light, 37-38.
  55. Drury, Marcus Whitman, M.D., Pioneer and Martyr (Caldwell, 1937).
  56. F. F. Victor to Elwood Evans, January 7, 1880, in Evans, correspondence and papers, Western Americana Collection, Yale University Library.
  57. E. G. Bourne, "The Legend of Marcus Whitman," American Historical Review, VI (January, 1901), 288n.
  58. Victor to Evans, December 9, 1879, in Evans, correspondence and papers, Yale University Library.
  59. The Californian was published in San Francisco, 1880-82, by the publishers of the Overland Monthly, which ceased publication in 1875 and was revived in 1883.
  60. E. G. Bourne, Essays in Historical Criticism (New York, 1901), 42.
  61. Jameson's statement is quoted by Mrs. Victor in a letter to F. G. Young, December 10, 1900, in Victor letters, OHS.
  62. E. G. Bourne, "The Legend of Marcus Whitman," AHR, VI:288n.
  63. Victor to Young, March 30, 1902, in Victor letters, OHS.
  64. F. F. Victor to Mrs. Josephine H. Foster, September 21, 1902, in letter in possession of Hugh F. Scanlon, Torrance, California.
  65. In Memoriam. Frances Fuller Victor (Portland, 1902), 3, 8.

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