“History is written by the victors.” This sublime-sounding adage had been uttered so often it seems self-evident. Yet it is clearly wrong. Even if one subscribes to the questionable categories of historical winners and losers, the vanquished have written plenty of history. Thucydides
, an oft-acknowledged progenitor of historical writing, chronicled the Peloponnesian War from the losing side. I contend that a more accurate (if tautological) claim is that history is written by the writers. History is how we attribute meaning to the past, and yet most historians — myself included — look to written texts as source material from which to derive meaning. As a historian of the antebellum American West, I recognize the inherent power imbalance here. If our primary means of knowing the past is through written texts, this privileges those who wrote these texts in the first place. In the 19th-century United States, state institutions and the burgeoning print media generated mountains of written texts. And because white male elites dominated both, they have had an outsized impact on whose stories get told. Anyone who has explored historical archives knows the challenge of trying to find texts that convey the lives of ordinary and oppressed people, as well as indigenous groups that recorded their history through oral rather than written means.
For at least a half-century, social historians have employed various methods to recover the history of people overlooked in earlier accounts, and I wrote my book Dangerous Subjects
as a contribution to that body of literature. My research began as an investigation of Oregon’s early black exclusion laws within the context of the American settler colonization of the Pacific Northwest. I came to this topic as a white person living in Portland, which remains one of the least racially diverse large cities in the United States. While I understood that white supremacy was central to settler colonialism, I was interested in studying racism as a historical phenomenon, one that varies according to time and place. I was particularly struck that in the 1840s and 1850s, Anglo-American elites in Oregon often justified banning black people from living in the region by invoking fears that black sailors would incite Native people to violence against white settlers. As I delved deeper into this topic, I soon realized that traditional “wide-lens” macrohistorical methods of social history would only get me so far.
Instead, I found what I was looking for by going “micro.” As I combed the archives, I kept encountering a man named James D. Saules. Saules was a black mariner who was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1841 and subsequently deserted the U.S. Navy mission in which he served. Saules is most often cited as the man who inspired Oregon’s first black exclusion law when he aligned himself with local Natives and allegedly threatened the life of an Anglo-American settler named Charles E. Pickett. I immediately noticed that most historians have treated Saules as a bearer of an issue and stopped there — none even bothered researching Charles E. Pickett! I also discovered that for a racialized person, there was an unusual amount of information about Saules in the historical record. And although colonial elites were responsible for most of this material, Saules did write a letter to Oregon’s Indian Subagent Elijah White, who, in turn, included it in his report to the U.S. Congress. This startling letter galvanized me to find out as much as I could about Saules, to get some sense of who he was and where he came from.
What made Saules a “dangerous subject” in Oregon is that he continually struggled to maintain his position in settler society despite being racially marked as colonized.
Ironically, once I narrowed my focus to Saules, a much larger story emerged, one that took my research and writing beyond the often-parochial framework of local history. Saules lived his life as a so-called free black man in a nation in which the state institutions of both the North and South severely proscribed the activities of black people, enslaved or nominally free. In addition, Saules was also part of the black maritime world. He worked as a sailor in both commercial and military ventures, and his life was inextricably bound with maritime colonialism and merchant capitalism — global systems of which slavery and racism were constituent parts. By expanding my framework beyond local history, I learned that not only were black exclusion laws enacted in virtually every region of the United States, but also that such legislation — particular in the slave societies of the South — often specifically targeted black sailors as potential threats to societal stability. Finally, by concentrating on Saules, I could track how one man negotiated shifting modes of colonialism in the Pacific Northwest, from the exploitation colonialism of the British fur industry, to the religious colonialism of Protestant missionaries, and finally to the settler colonialism of the Oregon Trail immigrants. The latter, unlike the others, was predicated on the removal of non-white people from settler society. Yet Saules did not come to Oregon in 1841 to be removed — and neither did any other black person who settled there. I found that what made Saules a “dangerous subject” in Oregon is that he continually struggled to maintain his position in settler society despite being racially marked as colonized.
Despite the advantages of the microhistorical approach, Dangerous Subjects
was not an easy book to write. Despite finding several sources in which Saules is mentioned, such material remained scant compared to better-known historical figures. Because of this, Saules sometimes disappears from the narrative entirely as I attempt to reconstruct the social, political, and cultural context of his life. To do this, I endeavored to read my “top-down” sources (government reports, legal documents, public journals, congressional records, etc.) against the grain by approaching them critically and skeptically. As for Saules’s own elusive point of view, I could only speculate — the word “perhaps” appears more times than I am comfortable with. Then there is the daunting question of whether it is even possible to recover the voices of non-elites, a quandary rendered more vivid since I come to this material as a privileged white male of the 21st century. Still, I believe the microhistorical approach helped me resist the tendency to subsume ordinary people within larger groups or cast them as helpless victims to larger historical processes. At the same time, I do not ignore the very real power of institutional restraints. Most importantly, by narrowing my focus to James D. Saules, I was able to write a book about an extraordinary person — but also the kind of person about whom history books are seldom written.
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Kenneth R. Coleman
is an independent historian, writer, and musician. He received his MA in istory from Portland State University with a focus on colonialism, racism, and social relations in the Pacific Northwest. He moved to Oregon as a child and now resides in Portland. Dangerous Subjects
is his first book.