The American Historical Review/Volume 6/Review: McLoughlin and Old Oregon
McLoughlin and Old Oregon: A Chronicle. By . (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co. 1900. Pp. viii, 382).
Among the latest writers in the prolific field of the Northwest is Mrs. Eva Emery Dye, who has presented us a chronicle of old Oregon, with Dr. John McLoughlin as the central figure. There could hardly be a more interesting combination, and Mrs. Dye has brought out the salient features, to the point of being spectacular. The impression left upon the general reader is very similar to that received from a drama. But the student of history, however the action in the play may entertain him, regrets the mingling of fiction with historical truth in a work which is likely to be mistaken for a wholly serious one. Mrs. Dye refrains from referring to her authorities, although she uses with great freedom all those who are well known, and many of which no account is given. This method leaves her free to put her characters on the stage in any picturesque dress or attitude which she may choose. Where this irresponsibility deals only with the purely romantic it is in a degree pardonable, since it enhances the attractiveness of the book. But when, either by assertion or by implication, it leads the reader to believe that which is essentially erroneous it becomes mischievous.
Mrs. Dye holds a facile pen, which is directed by a lively imagination, qualities which the public writer must possess, and which the present reckless period in literature to a large degree demands. There is a great deal of romantic truth in Oregon history, the simple verity of which renders it charming, or wonderful. The proverbial "short step from the sublime to the ridiculous" is what threatens the writer who undertakes to improve upon the original.
All who have known and have written about Dr. McLoughlin, especially all American writers, agree that he possessed a splendid physique and a grand manner—that he was in the highest degree dignified. Mrs. Dye herself probably means to convey an impression of his majestic personality, but in this she fails. In some passages he is made to roar with rage, in others to be able only to say "tut, tut, tut," while in others still he is "gay and brusque." Such quotations as are given of his social sayings are the weakest possible. To this portraiture his descendants and surviving friends strongly object. Probably no man quite touches his own ideal, or the ideal image of him created by loving admirers. Dr. McLoughlin came as near to doing that as it is given tried humanity to do, and the worst that can now be said of him is that he was "too good" to the undeserving.
It is impossible to refer to the many instances in which the author of Old Oregon distorts her picture of those days. Choosing here and there, we will say of page 170 that the missionaries here referred to were a party of Presbyterian recruits who joined Mr. W. H. Gray on his return from the States in 1838, and whom Mr. Ermatinger of the Hudson Bay Company was kindly escorting from Green River Rendezvous to the Columbia, by the usual Indian trail travelled by the Company. It was a wide, plain and smooth trail, made so by constant use and the custom of the Indians in hauling their heavy property, and sometimes their children, on drags made of poles attached to the saddles of their pack-horses. This made a good road except in those rocky passes of the Blue Mountains through which the trail ran. There was no "jungle" on the route, and no "forest," except on the Blue Mountains, where the growth could not have been heavy, since forty men of the immigration of 1843 in five days cleared a wagon-road over the range. Neither were there any "snow-drifts" on the range in the month of August, when the party crossed. Therefore Mr. Ermatinger was not "slyly taking the missionaries through the most difficult goat-trails over the mountains," to convince them that a wagon-road was impossible. Even the necessity of introducing the element of villany into melodrama does not excuse the perversion of history. Rivalry there was between British subjects and Americans in Old Oregon, but criminality, even inhospitality, never.
On page 235 Dr. Whitman is made to say that his wagon went to Oregon, or at the least this is implied; but on page 155 it is admitted that the first wagon to reach the Columbia was that of Joseph L. Meek, in 1840. On page 217 Sir George Simpson, at that time governor of the Hudson's Bay territory in America, is said to have left Fort Vancouver late in 1841 on his journey around the world, via Siberia, as he did, but on page 234 Daniel Webster, in Washington, is quoting Sir George as saying to him (so it must be understood), that wagons can never get over the Rocky Mountains; that he has "traversed those wilds from his youth," etc.; whereas all the travelling ever done in Oregon, or west of the Rocky Mountains, by Sir George, was when he was on his journey from Montreal to Vancouver to inspect the forts on the northwest coast, and especially to settle some troubles at Sitka, whence he departed for Siberia, and reached London in due time via Petersburg, Russia; never in his lifetime, so far as discovered, having been in Washington, or having discussed international questions with American statesmen. Sir George was simply a fur-trader.
There are many more unjustifiable instances of this struggling after dramatic effect in serious matters in Mrs. Dye's book. In unimportant matters, such as representing Eloise McLoughlin as an equestrienne, we must say "wrong again." At Vancouver the rules of the Company forbade the participation of women in any social functions, and Mrs. McLoughlin and her daughter were forced to live in almost conventual seclusion. With her nimble pen our author ought to improve upon this performance.
Frances Fuller Victor.