But there is much here that’s often overlooked, even by your average Portland native, well-schooled by the Oregon Trail computer game. Nelson ably narrates, for example, the time we almost went to war with Great Britain on account of the heartless murder of a farmer’s errant pig on the San Juan Islands. Likewise, the Japanese submarines and naval shelling off our coast—as well as their military’s charming habit of sending bombs down the jetstream via hot-air balloon—aren’t often commented on, even though they were the only attacks by a foreign nation on U.S. soil since the War of 1812. Most likely, this is because pretty much all of Japan’s efforts in that regard were sorry, awkward failures.
The meat of Nelson’s book, however, is devoted not to transoceanic intrigue but to the very local and very personal disputes among Oregon settlers, various Native American tribes and the U.S. Army between about 1840 and 1870. This is where the whole thing gets interesting.
Even though the temptation is understandable, Nelson doesn’t idealize two sides in an epic struggle: evil U.S. versus peaceful tribes, aggressor versus victim, big bad bully versus you in the third grade. Instead, he leaves out much of the editorial, and seeks to humanize the history by showing the long chain of small disputes, misunderstandings and treacheries on all sides that led to the Northwest’s share in one of our country’s greatest tragedies—the near-depeopling of a continent.
In fact, the picture painted by Nelson is dishearteningly familiar to watchers of recent news reports from Iraq (right down to the occasional belated rebuke from the New York Times ). The history of the Oregon country involves no small amount of good intentions and peaceable instincts on the part of the settlers and army that were overridden, more than anything, by the absolute chaos and greed and nervousness of individual people—miners, militia volunteers, panicky settlers, politicking governors, tribal sell-outs, betrayed chiefs—and by the common inability of settlers to see the native tribes as anything but some threatening Other.
When you look at it this way, the literal decimation of the Native American people seems less like an inhuman, unrepeatable atrocity and more like a series of mistakes, betrayals, misunderstandings and outright criminal acts that seem eminently human and very possible even today. In fact, we’re probably doing it again right now. .
Kurt R. Nelson reads from Fighting for Paradise: A Military History of the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday Aug. 15, at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm. Free.