Open Letter to the Benton County Commissioners on Renaming the County

benton

By Joseph Orosco (June 27, 2020)

Dear Commissioners Augerot, Malone, and Jaramillo:

This June, you issued a statement in response to the historic protests across the globe reacting to the killing of George Floyd.  You recognized that communities were gathering together to “give voice to the centuries of inequality, exploitation and abuse suffered by Black and African American people in our country” and added, “The demands for change cannot go unanswered.”  As part of your commitment, you dedicated yourselves to listening to the concerns of disadvantaged communities and to examining the ways in which the County might participate in historic racism. You promise that “All systems that reinforce oppression and racism must be thoroughly examined, changed where needed and rebuilt in coordination with the people that have been historically disenfranchised.”

I suggest that one of the tasks the Board needs to consider is renaming the County.

Benton County is named in honor of US Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who served in federal government for some thirty years from 1820 to 1850.  He was instrumental in the promotion of settlement of the Oregon Territory.  Though he never set foot in Oregon, he is considered someone whose political career was dedicated to the cause of opening the West for Americans.

However, Senator Benton was a notorious white supremacist.  His championing of the Oregon Trail was so that white Americans could displace Native American tribes who he considered “savage” and “uncivilized.”  He thought that Western expansion was a good idea in order for European and Christian ideals to spread to Asia and transform those cultures.  Though he did work to end slavery in the United States, it was not because he considered African Americans equal to white people, but because the issue threatened the stability of the Union.

In 2017, Oregon State University, responding to student concerns and protests, initiated a review of building names on campus, including Benton Hall.  I was the co-chair of the committee involved in organizing the review process.  A team of professional historians investigated the background of Senator Benton and the naming of the building.  While OSU chose to remove Senator Benton’s name from the building for reasons other than his historical legacy, historians found the legacy of Senator Benton to be “controversial and discomforting” because of his support of Native American removal and a white supremacist promotion of Manifest Destiny.  This report can be found at:

https://leadership.oregonstate.edu/sites/leadership.oregonstate.edu/files/OID/BuildingPlaceNames/Historical-Reports/benton_hall_and_annex_historical_report.pdf

One way to remedy the harm to Native Americans caused by Senator Benton would be to rename the County after the Kalapuya people who were displaced by the United States from this area in 1855.  There is precedent for this in Oregon, since ten of thirty-six counties are named after Native American tribes or use Native American names.  The Board should consider consulting tribal historians and officials from Grand Ronde.  Nearby Lane County is also involved in a process of reviewing its name for similar reasons.

If the Benton Country Board of Commissioners is truly interested in “dismantling” and “deconstructing” Oregon’s history of systemic oppression, then it should cease to honor one of the politicians who dedicated most of his life’s work to laying the foundations for it.