White Supremacy and Manifest Destiny in one of Oregon’s Most Liberal Counties
By Joseph Orosco (September 1, 2015)
Alaska has had two renaming controversies this summer. Most recently, President Obama announced the official renaming of Mount McKinley to the native name of Denali. But earlier this year, an effort began to remove the name of a Confederate solider from a census district. These districts are used by the government to section off areas of the state for population counting and they have no other state function. However, they are about the size of counties in other states. (The story of how a census district could be named after a Confederate is here). This made me wonder about the naming of counties during this season of renaming, particularly the name for Benton County, in which OSU is located.
Across the United States, there are at least nine different counties, including Oregon, named Benton. Seven of them are named after the US Senator from Missouri Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858). Benton served five terms in the Senate, failing to gain a sixth term in 1851 because of his opposition to slavery.
Benton’s legacy in Oregon comes from the support he gave in the Senate for acquiring the Oregon Territory. In 1842, he and the other Senator from Missouri, Lewis Linn (whose name adorns the country next to Benton), sponsored an idea to flood the Oregon Territory with American settlers so as to overwhelm the British administrators and pressure them to give up the area. The plan did not pass, but it did provide the groundwork for the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850. The bill offered settlers hundreds of acres of land title if they could show they had worked it for several years.
The effect of this act is still felt today; if you ever ask why there are so few people of color in Oregon, then part of the reason is the Act of 1850. It prohibited Blacks, Hawaiians, Indians, and Asians from owning land in the state. Moreover, in preparation for the act, the territorial government of Oregon had started to negotiate with Native American tribes in the 1840s in order to remove them to reservations so that land would be available. This obviously led to tensions as some of the Native groups did not want to leave their ancestral lands. In the1850s, war broke out between settlers and Natives in the Rogue River Valley. Eventually the remaining Natives were corralled together and sent off by the US Army, forming today’s Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations.
Benton was out of office by the time the Rogue war took place, but he was instrumental in creating the environment in which it happened. He wouldn’t have been too upset about the developments, however. In 1846, he told Congress:
“The Red race has disappeared from the Atlantic coast; the tribes that resisted civilization met extinction. This is a cause of lamentation with many. For my part, I cannot murmur at what seems to be the effect of divine law. I cannot repine that is this Capitol has replace the wigwam-this Christian people, replaced the savages-white matrons, the red squaws . . . . Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the trace of the advancing Whites, and civilization, always the preference of the Whites, has been pressed as an object, while extinction has followed as a consequence of its resistance”
In other words, Benton was a proponent of Manifest Destiny. At least in his version, the white race had a divine calling to expand its control from the eastern part of North America to the Pacific and to extend the reach of government and Christianity to other “races”. Part of his justification for the settlement of Oregon was that he believed the state could be the launching point for the white race to begin interbreeding with Asians and, thus, improve their culture and society:
“The sun of civilization must shine across the sea; socially and commercially the van of the Caucasians, and the rear of the Mongolians, must intermix. They must talk together, and trade together, and marry together. . . . Moral and intellectual superiority will do the rest; the White race will take the ascendant, elevating what is susceptible of improvement-wearing out what is not”
Benton also called for expansion into other territories. He advocated for reneging on a treaty with Spain to acquire some of its territories in the Caribbean and he was a supporter of Texas independence from Mexico. However, he was not a supporter of the Mexican American War of 1846-1848. Unlike many of his fellow white supremacists of the time, Benton believed that Mexicans were actually white people—a different branch of the Caucasian race than the American “Anglo-Saxon-Celtic” people, but still white. (Sam Houston, the first president of the Lone Star Republic, on the other hand, called Texas independence a matter of a conflict between “Anglo Saxon chivalry” and “base” Mexican marauding.)
So Benton leaves an odd legacy. Oregon is here largely because of his life’s work. But he saw his life work as bringing white civilization to save the rest of the world from its “savagery” and “backwardness”. His policies were instrumental in excluding people of color from the state and for the genocide of Native peoples in the Northwest. And while he did not support the tremendous land grab that was the war with Mexico, he did so only because he saw Mexicans as white cousins who only needed a bit of a push to modernize their way of life and certainly not destruction of it. (However, Benton was father in law and supporter of John C. Fremont, who gives his name to the Fremont Bridge in Portland.
Fremont led several expeditions into the West, including Oregon, and was a US army officer. His forces murdered an entire Klamath Indian village in 1846 before he returned his attention to stoking the fires of hatred between Mexicans and Americans in California. Under Fremont’s orders, Kitt Carson and others murdered three prominent Mexican Californians who were coming to see about the conditions of some of their relatives held prisoner. Fremont later ran as an anti-slavery Republican candidate against James Buchanan.
Benton’s legacy complicates the political mood around renaming these days. Most efforts at renaming public property focus on changing schools, parks, buildings or roads that commemorate Confederate leaders. The Confederacy was indeed a political movement dedicated to secession and founded on slavery. Yet, it’s important to realize that the Confederacy did not suddenly arise out of nowhere. It was nourished by an anti-black white supremacy that had much deeper roots in the United States and that was embraced by leaders who might not have backed the Confederacy. Thomas Hart Benton stood against slavery and it ended his political career; but that does not mean that he did not leave in his wake forced dislocation, murder, and a sense of racial superiority that still affects the lives of scores of people in the state of Oregon.
A good source for Benton’s views:
Reginald Horsman. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.