Walking to Forest Grove with Rutherford B. Hayes

The following is an excerpt from Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright 2014 Ken and Kris Bilderback. All rights reserved.

When Rutherford B. Hayes decided to become the first American President to visit the West Coast, he chose Forest Grove as one of the cities he wanted to see, in large part because of the great legacy of education that Tabitha Brown had helped to create.

Unfortunately, he chose a travel planner as inept as Tabitha’s. After four leisurely days in Portland, Hayes was scheduled for an evening appearance in Vancouver, Washington, just about six miles north. His travel planners, however, squeezed in his visit to Forest Grove for his last day in Portland. The 30 mile detour to the west was lengthy back in 1880 under the best of conditions, and the conditions on Saturday, October 2, were far from ideal.

Befitting a visit by the President, a special train was assembled for the jaunt to Forest Grove. The train chugged along smoothly for more than 20 miles, but just seven miles short of its destination the train encountered a major problem: a damaged trestle over Dairy Creek and a ravine. A story in the October 4 edition of The Oregonian explains what happened next. President Rutherford B. Hayes, the First Lady, Lucy, their son Rutherford P. Hayes and the rest of the party disembarked and scrambled down the side of the ravine. The President of the United States and his entourage then made their way through thick brush and weeds, across the creek on “a weak foot bridge” and up the other side of the ravine. To entertain themselves, the reporter wrote, a chorus led by Lucy Hayes sang songs of the day. They walked under warm, cloudy skies for two miles until they stopped, exhausted and hungry. A group of Civil War veterans travelling with the President formed a foraging party and found an orchard, where they picked apples for a Presidential snack. By now hastily assembled railroad crews had repaired the trestle, and the train was able to cross and catch up to the hikers. After a brief stop in Cornelius, the train arrived in Forest Grove to be met by a fleet of carriages. Now too short on time to visit Pacific University, the President was taken to the home of E.R. Merriman, who had served with Hayes in the Civil War. When he finally spoke, 52 of the 310 words in his speech were devoted to complaining about the bridge that delayed his arrival and lamenting the fact that “our intercourse must be short.”

His speech still found a place in Forest Grove history for decades because of his proclamation of Forest Grove as the “prettiest town in Oregon,” which became the town’s motto for many years. But President Hayes used 243 of his words to talk about the town’s status as one of the West’s top educational centers, including Pacific University, which owed its founding to Tabitha Brown, along with missionaries Harvey Clarke and George Atkinson.

There are not many reasons for a 66-year-old, 108-pound woman who got around with the aid of a cane to ride and walk half way across the American continent, but founding a great university would have been a good one. That’s not why Tabitha Brown made her journey, however. In fact, when she first settled in what is now Forest Grove, Tabitha’s first job was sewing gloves, according to her biography in the university archives. Then she persuaded Harvey Clarke to help build an orphanage. Neither Harvey Clarke nor Tabitha Brown had a university in mind, however, until 1848, when the Reverend George Atkinson came to town. Atkinson did not arrive on foot from across the Plains, however. When his superiors dispatched him from New York City to Oregon to establish a Congregationalist university, Atkinson left by boat. He sailed down the Atlantic Coast of first North America and then South America, then around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Honolulu, where he learned of Marcus Whitman’s death. From there he sailed onto Oregon to establish a university. On his arrival, missionaries suggested he visit Harvey Clarke and Tabitha Brown. The orphanage soon became Tualatin Academy, and then Pacific University. Tabitha died more than 20 years before President Hayes paid his visit in 1880, but her legacy was very much alive.

Hayes had come to see another indirect offshoot of Tabitha Brown’s orphanage: The Indian School. By 1880, the Indian Wars had been won by the settlers, at least in the Tualatin Valley, which was named, ironically, after the Atfalati people whose lives revolved around Wapato Lake, about six miles south of Forest Grove in what today is Gaston. When Rutherford B. Hayes arrived in Forest Grove, not much remained of the Atfalatis except for the Americanized “Tuality” and “Tualatin” names that adorned schools and rivers and valleys. Nearly all of the few remaining tribal members had been shipped to a reservation near Grand Ronde, 50 miles away.

But while the battles were over, bitterness remained among many of the white settlers. Some of the area’s most prominent citizens had ventured west across the Oregon Trail with Marcus Whitman, or in his footsteps, to the newly established Fort Hall. While Whitman put down stakes in Walla Walla, Washington, Joseph Meek, Almoran Hill and others continued on to the Tualatin Valley. Whitman, Meek and Hill remained close friends, however. When Meek’s wife died he sent his young daughter to Walla Walla to be raised by the Whitmans, and the Whitmans visited Almoran Hill several times at his home in what today is Laurelwood, on the banks of what was then Wapato Lake. When Marcus Whitman, his family and several others, including Meek’s daughter, were murdered in Walla Walla in 1847, Meek was named as the Oregon Territory’s first official law enforcement officer. One of his first official acts was to hunt down and execute the Native Americans accused of committing the Whitman Massacre. Meek died five years before President Hayes came to the Tualatin Valley, but Hill and many other veterans of the Indian Wars still held prominent roles in the area.

General Phil Sheridan’s Camp Yamhill was gone by 1880 as well, having served its purpose of preventing the Atfalatis from fleeing the Grand Ronde reservation to return to the land that had been taken from them around Wapato Lake. Although there is great doubt that Sheridan ever actually uttered the words most often attributed to him, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” there is no doubt that many of the settlers still held that view in 1880. Against that backdrop, the words of President Rutherford B. Hayes concerning the Indian School on October 2 were noteworthy, even if they did take second billing to his pronouncement of Forest Grove as “the prettiest town in Oregon.”

“Some persons think that God has decreed that they should die off like wild animals,” he told the assembled pioneers. “With that we have nothing to do. … This country was once theirs. They owned it as much as you own your farms. We have displaced them.” Of the Indian School he said: “I am glad that Oregon has taken a step in the right direction.”

The direction of the school that so pleased the President was not to return any land to the Indians, however, nor even to return these Indian children to their native culture. In fact, not one of the students at Forest Grove’s Indian School was from the Atfalati culture; all of the students came from tribes in Washington, purposely sent far from home to help destroy ties to their heritage. Harry Taylor, son of a teacher at the school, recalled in a November 26, 1925, News-Times article his dismay at seeing the young Native Americans cry upon arrival at the school, where they were stripped of their prized blankets and other tribal symbols, to be replaced with generic uniforms. The direction of the school, as outlined by President Hayes, was that “if this is so, if they are to become extinct, we ought to leave that to Providence, and we, as good, patriotic, Christian people, should do our best to improve their physical, mental and moral condition. We should prepare them to become part of the great, American family. If it turns out that their destiny is to be different, we shall at least have done our duty.”

The Oregonian reporter picks up what happened next. While the presidential party dined at Merriman’s home, staff of the Indian School assembled the students in a line on the lawn, where a crowd of several hundred people surrounded them. After lunch, the President came out to meet the students, where Army Captain Melville Wilkinson introduced him as “the man to whom they had been taught to call ‘the Great Father.’” The Great Father then shook hands with the students, stopping to ask a couple of geography questions and to speculate on the heritage of one “black” student, whose unkempt hair Hayes ruffled. With those words and a tip of his hat, the President then retraced his journey to Portland, this time crossing the rickety bridge by train and making it to Fort Vancouver, Washington, in time for a gala in his honor. The leaders of the Indian School returned to their mission of training new members of the great American family.

Although Tabitha Brown died 20 years before the federal government established the Indian School, its siting was a result of her efforts in the 1840s to turn Forest Grove into the educational center of the Northwest. In fact, in a very real way, Forest Grove began almost as a company town for Tualatin Academy and later Pacific University. That tradition of education was what led Army General O.O. Howard to select Forest Grove in 1880 as the site for his dream of establishing an Indian School.

Howard earned his general stars in the Civil War. According to William Ferrin, a former president of Pacific University, Howard’s experience in that war stirred an interest in the plight of American blacks. After the war, Howard was assigned to be commander of Fort Vancouver, the region’s most important military installation, as battles with Native Americans continued to flare up. Just as the Civil War had awakened within Howard an empathy for the people he called “the Negroes,” so too had the skirmishes in the Northwest created a compassion for “the Indians.”

Howard was familiar with the federal government’s Indian schools in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and wondered why there was no such institution in the West. Interior Secretary Carl Schurz, who was responsible for Indian affairs, also wanted a school in the West, but lacked the resources with which to establish one. In the era between the Civil War and the establishment of the income tax, the Defense Department was about the only government agency with money, but it lacked any statutory power to create schools. Together, Howard and Schurz hatched a plot to circumvent these obstacles, according to Ferrin, a Pacific professor at the time.

From his base at Fort Vancouver, O.O. Howard had become familiar with Forest Grove’s reputation for education, and dispatched one of his captains, Melville Wilkinson, to the town, ostensibly to teach military science at Pacific University. There was no military science program at Pacific, and Ferrin says the whole thing was a ruse; Wilkinson’s real assignment was to create an Indian School under the guise of Pacific sponsorship. A building rose on university property, and the Indian School opened in 1880, just months before the Presidential visit. Forest Grove’s reputation as the educational center of the Northwest was secure. The annual football games between the Indian School and Pacific University quickly became a tradition, but just as quickly faded. With little support from the government, the school struggled financially, and according to the Oregon Historical Society got by in part by hiring out the male students as laborers. The girls had it even rougher, according to Oregon Historical Society records. Of the 321 students who attended the school during its five years in Forest Grove, 43 died, mostly girls and mostly from communicable diseases from which they had no immunity. To add to the problems, the girls dormitory burned to the ground in 1884.

When Melville Wilkinson was replaced as superintendent by Henry Minthorn in 1884, Minthorn lobbied to have the campus moved to near his home in Newberg. The Oregon Legislature became embroiled in the controversy and decided instead to move the campus to Salem. Now called Chemawa Indian School, the school still operates today. Instead of teaching assimilation into white culture, however, it teaches its students their cultural heritage. Forest Grove lost its Indian School, one of the reasons for the first ever visit to Oregon by an American President, to the desires of a man with ties to Oregon’s most direct Presidential connection. The year the Indian School left Forest Grove, a young Herbert Hoover moved from Iowa to Oregon to be raised by his uncle, Henry Minthorn, superintendent of the Indian School.

Although Forest Grove lost the Indian School, Tabitha Brown’s long trek to Oregon was not in vain. Her efforts permanently cemented Forest Grove’s reputation as the ultimate college town. Rutherford B. Hayes’ long trek to Forest Grove had less of a lasting impact, although the story of his train trip makes for entertaining reading. Oh, and his speech cemented Forest Grove’s reputation as the prettiest town in Oregon. Except for one thing. Within the 310 words in his speech, the phrase “prettiest town in Oregon” never appears. He did say Forest Grove was “beautiful,” but otherwise the speech was all about extolling the virtues of education and complaining about a poorly maintained bridge that made him late for lunch.