A case for teaching rural history

I live in rural Oregon. There is a lot of anger in rural Oregon. On social media, nearly any subject is likely to arouse anger, even rage. Guns, grazing rights, immigrant labor, hunting, logging restrictions, labor laws, farming practices, education, all enrage some people. Nearly always, people bemoan the loss of rural heritage at the hands of urban elites. They feel forgotten and neglected.

Book cover

The heritage of rural Oregon too often is forgotten, but usually not in the way the angriest people tend to think. The history they expound on social media typically is inaccurate, or at the very least, lacking in context. I don’t say that as criticism, however.

I think back to my college history classes, some of which dealt exclusively with urban history. I also learned about the Oregon Trail and Wild West shootouts. Yet as I began to research our books about rural Oregon, I realized that I had been taught little if anything about the everyday lives of people in areas such as where I live. I went online and found dozens of books about Portland history, many of which I already had read. I found almost as many that included tales of rural Oregon, but most focused on specific topics such as logging or on unusual events such as crimes. Very few offer any real context of rural societal norms or economics.

I also found diaries of early settlers, some very interesting and informative, but also written from a very narrow perspective. Some regale us with tales of bravery and kindness while omitting the story of their buying or selling young girls for indentured servitude, sexual and otherwise, for example.

The most common criticisms I hear about the books we write are that we rely heavily on newspaper archives and that we use too many specific examples to make a point. Recently someone asked me why I use “20 examples when one would do.”

Here’s why. I was curious about the social safety net in rural areas before Social Security and Medicare. Most of the accounts I found in history books talked about extended family. Some talk about poor farms and insane asylums. None mentioned suicide as a solution to old age and poverty. But page through newspapers from the 1890s, for example, and nearly every copy has a story of at least one suicide death of someone bereft of hope and care. Some include several suicides in a coverage area of a few hundred people. How do you convey that story without citing many examples with as much insight as you can glean into personal stories?

When people cite Peter Burnett’s famous assertion that there was no violence among Oregon pioneers, citing 10 examples disputes his point more effectively than citing one.

Another example is the battle over public grazing land, which came to the forefront during the Bundy occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. To justify their anger, the Bundys issued a manifesto on their historical version of federal land management. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden issued a similar version of history. The Bundys’ version was complete fiction, with virtually no basis in reality. Walden’s history was more accurate by distorted by lack of context. Neither addressed the fact the government had tried desperately to give the land to private individuals or that many of the individuals who did claim the land either abandoned or sold it back to the government for profit.

When I found dozens of examples of such cases and of murders committed by people fighting over access to government land, the Taylor Act and other restrictions made perfect sense.  Yet histories that ignore that legacy continue to inflame rage and violence among some people and engender empathy for their actions among others.

So here’s my suggestion: At least in rural Oregon, devote a segment of high school history to rural issues. Talk about Japanese-American farm laborers and the hesitant Braceros brought to Oregon to replace them after internment. Maybe, just maybe, that would reduce the anger over migrant labor. Talk about the carnage inflicted on wildlife by for-profit hunting tourism companies. Perhaps that could assuage at least some of the anger over hunting laws. Talk about William Henry Harrison “Buck” Myers and the phrase “a well-regulated militia” takes on a new interpretation that might ease a little of the rage over gun control.

I always try to understand why things are the way they are before getting angry. Maybe that’s just me.