Monday, December 19, 2011

Why do we still call it Thurston County?

It was early 1852 and the legislature of the Oregon Territory was meeting. One of the topics being discussed was the creation of new counties. Over 50 delegates had signed a petition for the creation of a new county on Puget Sound including much of what is now the urban core of the region. There was agreement all around that the new county north of the Columbia should be created, but there was dissent from one corner.

The disagreement came from the man for whom the county was supposed to be named, Mike Simmons.

Apparently the honor was too big for Michael Troutman Simmons, or "Big Mike," an early American settler of the Puget Sound region. And, in the early days, there was no likelier living candidate for a county to be named after. Despite being "unlettered," he was "generally liked," well known and influential. He led one of the early wagon trains into Puget Sound, but when it came to naming the first Puget Sound county after himself, he demurred.

With the delegates north of the Columbia set on Simmons, the rest of the Oregon legislature chose to honor recently deceased Samuel Thurston, the territory's first delegate to Congress. Between Simmons and Thurston, you probably could not have found too more dissimilar candidates.

Here are the contrasts:

Book learning: Simmons wasn't, Thurston was a lawyer.

Attitudes about race: Simmons helped George W. Bush find a foothold north of the Columbia, Thurston inspired and helped write Oregon's racist exclusion laws:
In 1850 Thurston also lobbied the territorial legislature to discriminate against free blacks, of whom few had already traveled to Oregon. Playing to the racial fears aroused during the Seminole Wars in Florida, he wrote legislators that allowing free blacks into Oregon would be “a question of life or death to us.” As runaway slaves had done after seeking refuge with the Seminoles living in the Floridian swamps, free blacks migrating to Oregon would “associate with the Indians and intermarry … there would a relationship spring up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensure inimical to the whites … and long bloody wars would be the fruits of the co-mingling of the races.”
How's that law degree working for you, Sam?

Attitudes towards the British: Simmons benefited from the the kindness of the chief factor of Fort Nisqually, while Thurston tried to cheat British settlers:
Section 11 of the Land Claim Act was a vendetta against former Hudson’s Bay agent Dr. John McLoughlin, and sought to deny him a land claim in Oregon City.  Methodists wished to build a mission and settlements on the same property and by the time Thurston arrived in Oregon, the dispute was intense. Siding with the Methodists, Thurston falsely testified to the United States Supreme Court, discrediting McLoughlin on the basis of citizenship. He further accused McLoughlin of repeatedly trying to stop territorial development and personally profiting from land sales. John McLoughlin was now an old man and Oregon had been his home for many years. He had retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company and applied for U.S. citizenship. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 held that McLoughlin's claimed property at Oregon City be given to the state legislature.
By the way, while lots of places claim Thurston perjured himself in front of THE Supreme Court of the United States to hurt McLoughlin, I haven't found any actual evidence of this. In his journal during the time he was in Washington D.C. as a delegate he never mentions appearing before or communicating with the Supreme Court or any federal court.

Also, in the years he was in Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t hear any cases out of the Oregon Territory. Its more likely Thurston perjured himself in front of the territorial court, which is federal court and is still a bad thing.
Ironically, if north of the river delegates had held off for a year or so, we might not be saddled with Thurston County right now. The summer before the creation of Thurston County, agitation for the "Columbia Territory" began with a July 4 speech in Olympia. That eventually led to a convention at Cowlitz in the late summer of 1851, where the creation of counties north of the river was also proposed.

It took one more convention in November 1852 and an act of Congress in early 1853 before the new territory was created. A similar naming change happened at the territorial level as well, with the residents requesting Columbia, but with Congress replacing it with Washington. No word if the Columbia River itself disputed the honor.

Its important to note that in the creation of the new territory the folks from Puget Sound showed the important differences between themselves and their "Willamette masters." They delegates of the new territory early on rejected the racist laws Thurston himself put into place. A law proposing the exclusion of  "Negroes and Indians" from voting was rejected overwhelmingly.

So, this gets back to my original point: Samuel Thurston is (in my opinion) not a worthy candidate for the name of our county. More over, we should go back to the original idea and name the county after Michael Simmons.

Three basic reasons why:

  • Thurston was a liar and a racist. Mike Simmons was not
  • Simmons is now dead too. So, like Thurston at the time, he is unable to reject the honor.
  • Also, Oregon can't tell us what to do anymore. So there, we'll name it whatever we want.
This renaming Thurston County thing isn't at all new, as George Blankenship put out in 1923 that we should change the honor to McLoughlin's. 

I'm not that sold on McLoughlin, but I would entertain other entries. For example, I like the idea of a Quiemuth County or taking Mason County's original name of Sahewamish County.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sweet post
love the idea of looking at different names for 'Thurston Co.'