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October 10th, 2012 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know: Historically Heinous

How come Oregon has a county named after someone as despicable as Gen. William S. Harney?

drknowILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall

How come Oregon’s Harney County is named after a guy who beat his slave girl to death and led troops in slaughtering 86 Indian men, women and children? Did our past fears overrule our moral outrage?

—David K.

Um—is this a trick question? Moral outrage always gets overruled; that’s what makes it moral outrage. It’s sort of like how nobody feels the need to call it a “moral victory” when you actually win.

I can’t dispute your history—by all accounts, Gen. William S. Harney was a major-league asshole. Still, two points in defense of the folks who decided to name their new county in honor of this genocidal rat bastard:

First, it was 1889—a time when the popularity of genocidal rat bastards was pretty much at its zenith. Place names from this period honoring those who mistreated slaves or massacred native populations aren’t exactly rare.

Second, they didn’t pick Harney because he was a dick. They picked him because, as former commander of U.S. forces in the Oregon Territory, Harney was the hero of the Pig War.

I am not making this up. The Pig War was an 1859 military standoff over the then-disputed San Juan Islands, begun when an American settler shot a British pig for eating his potatoes.

The Brits threatened retaliation, and soon Harney and his men, with many a cry of “None shall pass” and “I have not yet begun to fight,” were steaming toward Puget Sound with every intention of starting World War III (or, at least, World War I).

When news of this dust-up reached the White House, President James Buchanan—with a face-palm audible in Duluth—recalled Harney from his post, and cooler heads prevailed.

If it’s any consolation, Harney County’s largest town, Burns, is named after poet Robert Burns. So, y’know; win some, lose some.

 
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