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Legendary Oregon “authoress” started with poetry, dime novels

Frances Fuller Victor became the founding mother of all Oregon history, and one of its most important writers of all time. By the time she arrived in the Beaver State, she was already a well-known writer.

Frances Fuller Victor as she appeared in 1878, at the age of about 52. (Image: OSU Libraries)

In January of 1865, a poised, attractive 39-year-old woman stood on the doorstep of Oregon legal legend Matthew Deady.

She had come to ask his advice about a new project, which she’d decided to take on. She had, she told him, just arrived in Portland and already had agreed to write a definitive history of the new state, and she’d heard his personal library praised to the skies; would he be willing to let her see it?

No, he would not.

“[Oregon has] suffered enough at the hands of itinerant scribblers,” he told her gruffly.

The woman was shocked and probably a bit incensed at this reception. Defensively, she retorted that she “could not see how knowledge of a country was to be obtained without itinerancy.” She was, she added, a correspondent for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin and had already filed several stories about her explorations around Portland, and she was —

But Deady’s attitude had changed the instant the woman mentioned the Evening Bulletin. She later learned that a few weeks before, another woman had come around Portland soliciting funds for a similar project — the 1800s equivalent of a Kickstarter campaign — and subsequently disappeared with the proceeds. As soon as Deady realized his new visitor was a legitimate, credentialed journalist, the walls came down.

The front cover of “East and West; or, The Beauty of Willard’s Mill,” one of the dime novels authored by Frances Fuller Victor in the late 1850s, when she was a young woman. (Image: Northern Illinois University Libraries)

“The interview ended by a cordial permission to use his library as if it were my own, and from that day until his death Judge Deady was the staunchest and most helpful of my Oregon friends,” she later wrote.

The woman on Deady’s porch that day was just setting out on a project that would make her arguably the most influential Oregon writer of the 19th century. Her name was Frances Fuller Victor.

Frances Fuller was born in 1826 in New York and raised in Ohio. There, she and her sister Metta started writing and publishing poetry — first in local newspapers and later in the New York Home Journal. By age 24, she was in Detroit as editor of her own magazine — no mean feat for a member of “the fair sex” in the Victorian age.

She married a man named Jackson Barritt when she was 27 and quit the literary scene so that the two of them could try to prove up a land claim near Omaha. But three years later, Barritt had abandoned both his land claim and his new wife. So Frances returned to live with Metta in New York, ready to get back into writing.

There, she started writing dime novels — the mid-1850s equivalent of pulp fiction. These were short 100-page novellas printed on cheap pulpwood paper with bright yellow or orange covers. She wrote at least three of them: “Anizetta, the Guajira; or, The Creole of Cuba”; “East and West; or, The Beauty of Willard’s Mill”; and “The Land Claim: A Tale of the Upper Missouri.” She wrote them under her married name: Mrs. Frances Barritt.

The American Civil War broke out while she was doing this. By that time, she hadn’t seen Mr. Barritt in three years, and she’d fallen in love with the brother of Metta’s husband, a Naval engineer named Orville Victor. So in April of 1862, she took legal steps to end her marriage (sources differ on whether it was a divorce or an annulment, but because she was not Catholic, annulment seems improbable). The very next month, she and Victor were wed. The haste with which they moved was most likely because of Henry’s responsibilities to the Navy; he was about to be transferred to San Francisco, and she wanted to go with him.

The front cover of “The Land Claim: A Tale of the Upper Missouri,” one of the dime novels authored by Frances Fuller Victor in the late 1850s, when she was a young woman. (Image: Northern Illinois University Libraries)

And so she did. But naturally, once there, Frances wasn’t about to stop writing. Soon her witty columns were regularly appearing in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin and her short stories were gracing the city’s leading literary magazine, the Golden Era. She wrote under the pseudonym “Florence Fane.”

Frances loved San Francisco. But when Henry retired from the Navy due to a medical condition, he decided Oregon was the place for him; from afar, he had developed a sort of romantic obsession for the Beaver State. And so, to the great dismay of his oft-neglected wife, he went there, dragging her along.

“[Henry is] a sort of shooting-star on his own account,” she once wrote, in what one has to assume was one of her more charitable (or resigned) moods. “He cannot be long content in any part of the globe, and as I am only a lesser light, following in his wake like phosphorous after a vessel at sea, I fall in naturally when he takes up the line of march. Tents being struck in the night-time, the morning sun shines only on the ashes of our campfire.”

The morning sun may have shone on their old home, but it was not much involved with the Victors’ voyage to their new one. It was a horrible, stormy trip aboard the ill-fated steamer Brother Jonathan. But at the end of it, the two of them arrived in Portland for the first time on Christmas Day, 1864.

The first person Frances met in Portland was her husband’s new boss, Addison Gibbs, owner of the Oregon Iron Works. Frances laughingly told him she knew almost nothing about her new home. Indeed, when they had arrived, she had been surprised to learn of the existence of a big river about which all books she’d read about Oregon seemed to know absolutely nothing — a river called the Wallamet, or Willamette.

Gibbs told her that wasn’t surprising, because very little had been written about Oregon yet. And, knowing she was an author of some renown, he suggested that after she’d oriented herself a bit, she might be just the person to remedy that.

“Oh, if that is what is wanted, it is just in my line,” she replied, according to her later recollection; “and I should enjoy studying the country with the purpose of writing it up.”

It was this conversation that led her to Judge Deady’s front porch — and to the subject that would become her avocation and her primary professional interest for the rest of her life. It would be an interest that would transform her from a gifted writer of frivolities, light verse, witty prattlings and potboilers, into a giant of Pacific Northwest letters and, as the Portland Morning Oregonian acknowledged, the “Mother of Oregon History.” And it would also make her a little bitter, as she saw the fruits of her life’s work and the reputation she had earned being appropriated by an out-of-state commercial historian in exchange for the modest monthly salary that she needed to buy her bread.

We’ll talk about Fuller Victor’s career as an Oregon historian in next week’s column.

(Sources: Martin, Jim. A Bit of a Blue: The Life and Work of Frances Fuller Victor. Salem: Deep Well Pub., 1992; Mills, Hazel Emery. “Frances F. Victor in Ascent,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Dec. 1961; Browne, Sheri Bartlett. “Frances Fuller Victor,” oregonencyclopedia.org)