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Pioneering Oregon historian earned recognition, little money

The “Mother of Oregon History” fell on hard times in the late 1870s. She never quit, but after she took a job writing for Hubert Howe Bancroft, he took credit for the books she wrote.

Frances Fuller Victor as she appeared in the mid-1870s. (Image: Oregon Encyclopedia)

Back in 1867, Elwood Evans, a young lawyer, politician and historian in Washington Territory, started writing a book on the history of Washington’s neighbor to the south — the eight-year-old state of Oregon.

Thinking it would be well to get input from some of the still-living people who had shaped Oregon’s history, Evans reached out to some of them, hoping to get better information. One of these people was Jesse Applegate, popularly known as the “Sage of Yoncalla,” a key player in the early formation of Oregon who had since retired to his farm.

Applegate was a bit of a fearsome character. He was known for being brusque and blunt, not much given to worries about whether others thought him a nice guy, and unwilling to suffer foolishness lightly. But he was the man to talk to about Oregon territorial history. So Evans sent him a chapter of his book with a request for feedback on it, and hoped for the best.

Applegate did not much like it. But instead of actually telling Evans why, and giving a full critique, he did something that may have surprised Evans: He referred the Washington historian to an Oregon competitor.

“While I have generally succeeded in escaping from male authors and think I could still fight them off, I have been no match for the ladies of the pen,” he wrote. “To one of these I have fallen a helpless victim and surrendered at discretion. I held my own while I kept her at a distance but in one of my letters I inadvertently said ‘If you want information you must come to me for it.’ She took me at my word and in about two weeks she pumped me so dry of historical matter that the stores both of memory and imagination were utterly exhausted … there was nothing I could conceal or withhold from the keen scrutiny of this lady … If you really seek truth, go to her. … I cannot object if she now gives you my autobiography. The lady is Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor of St. Helens.”

An illustration from Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains, Frances Fuller Victor’s biography of mountain man Joe Meek. This scene depicts Umentecken, Meek’s Indian wife, holding a bullying trapper named O’Fallen at gunpoint. Having learned that O’Fallen, blaming her for the escape of his two slaves, intended to whip her, Umentecken armed herself with a pistol and turned the tables on him. (Image: Gutenberg Project)

The message was pretty clear. But Evans probably received it with a smile. He and Frances Fuller Victor were already good friends, and had been working together — freely exchanging tips and ideas, mostly through letters — for the previous two years.

Those two years had been full ones for Frances. A chance remark by her husband’s boss had, in late December of 1864, had set her life’s work in a new direction, and she’d lost little time in going with it. She was going to be an Oregon historian — the Oregon historian.  So in spring of ’65 she stepped onto a riverboat for the first of dozens and dozens of voyages of research and discovery around the Beaver State.

She stopped in Oregon City to meet with the son-in-law of Dr. John McLoughlin, who gave her copies of some of the “Father of Oregon’s” personal papers. In Albany, she met pioneer J. Quinn Thornton, with whom she carried on a long running correspondence over subsequent years. And it was on this first trip that she first visited Jesse Applegate.

Two months later, home again, she embarked on her “Columbiad,” a riverboat journey down to Astoria and then back up to the heads of navigation on the Columbia and Snake rivers, the whole while seeking out, learning from and establishing correspondence with local historians and historical figures: Joe Meek, Thomas Condon, Harvey Scott.

By the late 1860s, she was ready to publish “The River of the West,” the first of several great historical works to come out with her by-line on them.

The book was well received, but it made her some powerful enemies. In it, she tackled head-on the myth — the very convenient myth, for some — that Dr. Marcus Whitman had “saved Oregon” for the United States by racing back to Washington, D.C., in the winter of 1842, to lobby the president to send settlers to the state. This narrative has since been thoroughly discredited, but at that time it was a very important part of the beliefs of several influential local churches and missionary societies.

It was about this time that the Victors’ marriage started to fail. The problem was, Henry was a bit of an irresponsible and flighty man. His fortune made by a bonus received for a particularly clever bit of work for the Navy during the war, he immediately got about investing it with that special kind of visionary recklessness so characteristic of a fool temporarily endowed with gold. The financial sharks, whose antennae were carefully tuned to spot that kind of thing, soon circled around, offering a variety of pie-in-the-sky investment schemes. By 1868, the Victors were in financial difficulties and living separately.

The next two dozen years would be, for Frances, a constant struggle to keep enough money flowing in the door to feed her and finance her researches. Some years were better than others — the mid-1870s, when she was researching for a planned history of Oregon’s Indian wars, were especially fruitful and rewarding. It was about this time, with the publication of her brief account of the Women’s Temperance Prayer League activities in Portland, that she started her serious advocacy of voting rights for women.

But in 1878, when Hubert Howe Bancroft of San Francisco reached out to her with an offer to join his staff of history writers, she found herself unable to refuse. Her own resources were by now so scant, and she knew his were virtually unlimited, and she further knew he would be producing an Oregon history volume whether she joined up or not. She knew she couldn’t beat him — so she accepted, and joined him.

In a way, it was a great job for her. She now had the security of a steady paycheck and the ability to focus full-time on the kind of writing she wanted to do, without having to waste time writing fluffy fiction to pay the bills.

But in other ways, it was dreadful. Frances, a seasoned writer and researcher with a great personal reputation, suddenly found herself doing ghostwriting — crafting whole masterpieces of history that would be published, to universal critical acclaim, with Bancroft’s name on the cover as author and her own name nowhere in the book.

Finally, in 1889 — with several hefty Bancroft tomes to her credit — she could take it no longer, and quit.

For the remaining 12 years of her life, Frances eked out a precarious living as a freelance writer, dashing out “pot-boiler writing” to pay the bills, devoting as much time as possible to the historical research she’d come to love and frequently exercising her considerable talents in the service of women’s suffrage. She lived just long enough to be recognized for the critical role she’d played in preserving Oregon history; the Morning Oregonian, in 1901, called her the “Mother of Oregon History,” and the fledgling Oregon Historical Society named her an honorary member at its founding in 1899.

In September 1902, she died peacefully in bed after a brief illness. She was 78 years old.

(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)

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