Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cowlitz Mission

Stevenson Cemetery

I am by intellectual temperament a fatalist. In my world serendipity rules the roost. I’m not convinced of the probability of random behavior or of choice. That I happened to be driving past Saint Francis Xavier Mission on the Jackson Highway was not simply a matter of chance. The universe has been conspiring for 14 billion years to get me there. That sounds pretty awesome until you realize that the universe has also been conspiring for 14 billion years to get me into a 7-11 yesterday to buy a Pepsi. Having your life written out ahead of time doesn’t mean that it’s all glamor.

But enough about me. I’d just come from the Toledo Cemetery, which wasn’t on “the map” either. “The map” is that supplied by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) names project GNIS, and as used by ePodunk. The USGS, for reasons known only to itself, routinely ignores significant, and often old, cemeteries and they list none for Toledo, Washington; but while driving through town I said to myself that this place has to have a cemetery and that, if I looked closely, I might even see it. And I did. Cemetery District No. 7, says the sign, and I found graves going back to 1886, but there are probably earlier ones; I didn’t look that closely.

It was shortly after leaving Toledo and was wending my way northwards towards Seattle that I passed the complex of buildings for St. Francis X., as they are wont to call him. Another sign announced the presence of Cowlitz, WA, though there are no other buildings and the highway doesn’t slow down there; but once more I found myself talking to myself saying, missions always have cemeteries, and I wheeled around and headed back to the church. The cemetery is just past the church on Jensen Rd., which intersects with the highway.

St. Francis Xavier Cemetery

Now, anyone who knows anything about early Oregon history knows that Lewis and Clark was a cozy little expedition but that the real heavy lifting, after and probably before them, was done by the Métis from Red River. Métis are another Canadian shibboleth like zed, eh, that distinguishes Cannuks from Los Americanos. If you know who the Métis are, you’re probably Canadian. Or know something about Oregon history. The Métis were the folks who introduced farming to the Willamette Valley. They came in as trappers and, more importantly, haulers with the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Company saw the Willamette Valley as the place where they could grow the food for their entire northern operation and hence began early investment in farming in the region. They didn’t encourage their trappers to settle down in the valley, but they didn’t prevent them and in the end provided much necessary support. There’s a lot of history here, much too much for this blog, but suffice it to say that the Métis, who are a tribe of half-primarily-French and half-Native-American stock, were the backbone of the foundation of modern Oregon.

St. Francis Cemetery

The Métis were Catholic and their religion in the form of missions came along with them. The next mission north of Fort Vancouver on the route to Red River was the Cowlitz, now the Saint Frank, Mission. The Company was forever trying to talk the Métis into farming at Cowlitz and Nisqually instead of the Willamette, but the Métis were no fools and knew good land when they saw it. It was not until forced by the Americans out of French Prairie, their Willamette home, did some of them turn to the Cowlitz before retreating further east to Idaho or back to Red River. The displacement of the Métis signaled the end of phase I of the conquering of Oregon by the Euro-Americans, and with it the raison d’être of the Cowlitz Mission came to an end as well.

Regardless, the mission is still there and so is the cemetery, though it doesn’t have many recognizably Native-American or Métis names. A white cross embellished with engraved morning glory leaves and flowers for Josie Wahawa (1885-1893) probably marks a Native-American grave, and Leon Chevalier (1863-1887) sounds Métis, and I’m sure there are more, but it’s nothing like the agency cemeteries of Pendleton, say. The one claimed Métis grave I have in my collection is for Albert Doney (1936-2000). He has a Red River cart and the words “Chippewa Métis” carved into his stone at Stevenson Cemetery in Stevenson, WA. Surely he never rode in a Red River cart, but presumably an ancestor did.

St. Louis Cemetery

The French-named towns of the Willamette Valley have their origins in the Métis, as well, but only one cemetery there retains anything of the feel of what it was like a hundred-and-fifty years ago, Saint Louis. It’s still out in the country surrounded by fields and next to a traditional, white-steepled church. It’s an unusual cemetery in that many of the stones are set at right angles to the others, for no apparent reason. It has at least one Charboneau grave, and Charboneau was a Métis scout who accompanied Lewis and Clark and took Sacajawea as his wife. You might want to wonder why Lewis and Clark took a Métis with them, and what did they know about the Métis that we’ve forgotten? Besides that they existed?

Like knowing the way, for instance.

None of this, of course, takes the Cowlitz Indians into consideration, and they were a powerful tribe in their own right and their own day and reason enough to put a mission into their homeland. The Cowlitz, for example, would occasionally come downriver and spank the Chinook, who were just as likely to head upriver and do the same to the Cowlitz. In any event, the mission represents an important locus in the birth of modern Cascadia and deserves protection and recognition as such. It maybe even deserves pilgrimage. At least, if you love it here.


Decouverte Nature said...

Hi Very useful information about history...just a word, not only Métis were the backbone of modern Oregon... but at first their father, a lot of the staff from the Hudson Bay post were from French Canadian and French origin,born in Québec or in France.
Yes some Métis came from the Red River, but a lot more in the Willamette valley, Walla Walla, and other places, were the childrens of this French Canadian and French guys with local woman. Métis born in Oregon and Washington state

Anonymous said...

I have had the same experience: in 2007 ( I dreamed of this building pictured the night before witnessing it), 2008 as I looked into the history of this mission in Chehalis, Washington ( I broke down in tears looking through the archives), and also, driving by in 2009, I remembered the orchard, and looking at Mt. St Helen's prior to it's explosion, plus memories of this building pictured. I am convinced that I have ancestors buried in this place: the history of the cemetery is gruesome; people burned to death twice in it's history...I don't think the Catholic church records do justice to the pain of the people buried here, and I will find out more...

Laura Ackerman

It's part of our collective experience somehow, I will be in the area around Thanksgiving: maybe I can gain some more light on the trauma surrounding this beautiful area.... I am empathetic to a certain extent, but not in control of it,