Being a writer with a strong interest in the region’s history, I find myself running across certain names with great repetition. It is hard, for example, not to read about the Ladds in Portland, or John McLoughlin in the pre-territory period of the 1830s and 1840s. Add to them other names that, over time, have become so pervasive that I remember them as a small boy remembers his presidents. The list often comprises of names now best known for application to streets in Portland and Salem. Collected, they sometimes resemble free verse:
Meek. Palmer. Lee. Blanchett. Corbett. Reed. Dyer. Scott. Kamm. Thompson. Deady. Wood. Swigert. Frank. Failing. Markle. Hawkins. Carey.
Rarely, however, do these names emerge from the paper as living, breathing people. Too often, even in the best of our history books, they seem but a collection of discrete facts and figures, to be stored in the brain alongside William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings in 1066, or other high school historical minutae. Some figures become almost marginalized because of it, as if familiarity has bred contempt even here, and worse yet others have become cardboard cutouts of themselves.
Take as our first example Ben Holladay. A frontier wagoneer, the so-called “Stagecoach King,” and a political boss to make Rahm Emmanuel blush, the man spent the last two decades of his life in Portland, reshaping the landscape and sometimes scandalizing society. It is perhaps no surprise that he became exagerated with time. As a determined, ruthless man in business, he made many enemies, and these resulted in history being bent against him.
Consider for a moment the way that historian Joseph Gaston writes of him, more than twenty years after the man’s death:
…Holladay did buy judges, and legislatures and attorneys to betray their clients…. He was a man of splendid physique, fine address, and knew well how to manage the average human nature. He was energetic, un tiring, unconscionable, unscrupulous and wholly destitute of fixed principles of honesty, morality or common decency.” Jospeh Gaston, Centennial History of Oregon, Volume I, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911) 525-526.
Gaston’s description has come to be the accepted norm for Holladay’s place in Oregon and Portland history. Even the venerble, late E. Kimbark MacColl accepted Gaston’s assessment. When MacColl finds a mention in the diaries of Matthew Deady that Holladay has two whores in his house, colored by Gaston’s characterization, he takes the accusation literally.
Gaston’s unreliability is the first clue that things are not as they seem, for Gaston had been a bitter rival of Holladay in the 1860s, when the former was an ambitious young railroad builder and attorney, and the latter a shrewd old war horse who, naturally, won the game. Poor Gaston found himself sold out by his superiors, and never forgot it. And lest we think Gaston rewriting of history is far fetched, he himself admits it. Writing of another controversial affair that he himself had been intwined with, Gaston writes in 1911:
All the actors in the drama are dead but one. All the members of all the old companies are dead but this one. And while he was robbed of his rights and his property by a corrupted legislature, and corrupt judges, he still remains to enjoy in comfort a pleasant home that looks down on the city he has helped build, with all the necessary comforts in life; and what is better than all else, the respect of his friends and neighbors -and lives to write this history of those who wantonly robbed him, and gained nothing in the end by their wrong doing.” Jospeh Gaston, Centennial History of Oregon, Volume I, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911) 526.
It is hard not to imagine a smirk on the writer’s face as these words were penned. It is history written not, perhaps, by the victors, but by the survivors.
Spurned on by a fascination with the High Life legend of Holladay and increasing evidence that Gaston habitually skewed history, my friend and fellow writer/historian Dan Haneckow has been digging into Holladay’s story. Piecing together material from the meticulous Deady, the unreliable and critical Gaston, the admiring light-weight Ellis Lucia, and numerous outside primary sources of the era, a more complex figure is been emerging. Holladay loses none of his taste for the High Life or his thirst for wealth and power, and loses none of his merchant prince amoralism, yet he also become a far more complex character. Holladay not as lecher, but as libertine, not as lowlife in fine clothing, but as a radical in the vein of Portland tradition that is most well-known in the body of Charles Erskine Scott Wood. An early feminist, a moral modernist, a Bohemian, a relgiously tolerant man, a power broker, a subtle observer of human nature. More than any of these descriptors, he emerges as a human being, not a stereotype of a western movie bad guy. And in the end, much of what was written about him may be patently untrue; Dan Haneckow has, for example, roundly discredited the allegation of Holladay’s home full of prostitutes, an allegation that has, through the shallow research of later historians, erroneously propigated itself into popular truth.
Holladay is not alone in being miscast or passed over by later historians, and despite his fascinating mixture of character, nor is he my favorite. Instead I give that title to a man so critical to Portland history and yet so forgotten, the Cosimo di Medici of the Rose City, Captain John C. Ainsworth.
For the “school book history” of Portland, Ainsworth is known as an early steamboat captain, a man who was part of the Oregon Steam Navigation transportation monopoly, and founded the bank that later became U. S. Bank. Beyond that, he rarely gains any depth. His papers, however, survive in the archives of the University of Oregon, and communing with them has changed my assesment of him.
The most precious of his papers is a composition notebook containing his handwritten memoirs. Having started a family late in his life, and often ill, Ainsworth began the volume as an extended letter to his children, primarily his young son George, in hopes of providing fatherly guidance to the child in the event of his death. “I must not waste the time alloted to this work,” he writes on April 1st, 1877, they day of birth for his first grand child, “as I cannot tell how soon I will break down altogether.” (Ainsworth memoir, 35.)
Ainsworth also has a sense of how important his words will be to history (emphasis added by me):
In looking over a few of the last written pages, it occurs to me that the detailed business portion of the steamboat arrangements, will prove dry reading to most of you, but it will probably be the only correct history of steam boating on the Columbia River that will ever be written. The fact is, that the real inside history of the Oregon Steam Navigation Co., is only known to R. R. Thompson and myself, therefore conclude that the statements I will make will increase in interest, as years roll on, and the historian will be searching for material to write of the early history of Oregon.” (Ainsworth memoir, page 47.)
As one of those writers of history, you cannot imagine the sensation this had for me. Reading through the man’s memoirs, I suddenly found that he was addressing, specifically, me. Ainsworth reached out through the ages and connected, hard. Making it all the more precious, my own research suggested that only two historians of prominence had been through the volume before me, the first being a woman who wrote an article for the Oregon Historical Quarterly in the 1920s, and the second being MacColl when preparing his manuscript for the eminently readable and more accurate Merchants, Money and Power.
The story Ainsworth relates in his memoirs is in its own right a fascinating piece of history. We learn, not without outside substantiation, that it is Ainsworth who is the mediator that binds many important projects together. The many forces within the OSN are combative and split, and it is consistently Ainsworth who is putting out fires, voicing reason, and sometimes scheming to oust troublemakers for the benefit of the group. When the Northern Pacific Railroad goes under in the Panic of 1873, it is Ainsworth in Portland — not the many directors of the railroad in St. Paul, Minnesota — who is reluctantly called upon to manage the company during its period of crisis. Still later, when Henry Villard and Frederick Billings nearly errupt in financial warfare for the fate of this company, it is Ainsworth who is called upon by both parties to travel to New York and mediate the dispute, a task he suceeds at doing. Cautious, a keen observer, a shrewd financier, and almost always shying from the spotlight, he is every bit the cultural heir of Cosimo di Medici, who likewise advised his sons (in vain, it turned out) to never seek public power, and weild private power with great care.
Beyond the narrative, however, is even greater depth in the observations and opinions of the man. Take, for example, his conflicted assessment of Villard:
Mr. Villard is a shrewd financier and has made a great sucess of growing out of the purchase made of me; he is now in the zenith of his financial power, controls capital for new enterprise at will, makes a sucess of everything he undertakes. He is a good man, of noble impulses and generous disposition, he is a capitol leader, as long as sucess fills every sail, but I should greatly doubt his ability under adverse circumstances, he would not be a good General, if superior numbers were to force a retreat. I trust he may always be sucessful, but I doubt it.
(Villard himself is a fascinating character. Over his packed life, he was a failed German revolutionary, a founder of the Republican party and a strict abolitionist, a famed Civil War journalist, a major railroad financier and stock manipulator, and last but not least a major supporter of Thomas Edison co-founder of General Electric.)
Written in 1881, Ainsworth could not have predicted Villard’s future more aptly. Villard did indeed become forced to retreat, and faced with difficult circumstances lost much of his financial prominence and power within a few short years. But more than the prescience is the keen ability of Ainsworth to read character, and his knowing sense to place it down on paper as a kind of cautionary tale to his son, as if to say, “George, Villard is a great man, better than most, but don’t become too enamoured of him.”
Perhaps I am simply too enamoured myself, of history in general, but I think not. The more time I spend getting closer to who these people were, the more they seem to speak to me. If now find myself digesting various interpretations of history, and stating things like “well, that’s what Ainsworth would say.” His personality has, ghost-like, imbued the pages of his memoir, and now accompanies me. And now, as Dan continues to dig into Holladay’s story, he too begins to leap from the page as a fully formed human being, capable of judgement, thought, and emotion. And though Holladay remains a bit of a scoundrel, Dan notes that he is suffering a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where he is concerned. It is more than a mere liking, however, for I find that even his self-proclaimed Nemesis, Gaston, has begun to take on a sense of reality. The very documents that condemn him as a corrupt and ambitious man — transcripts of an 1880s court case before the Oregon State Supreme Court — also reveal him to be spirited, confrontational, intensely idealistic, and highly complex, a man who will willingly cheat the law but only for what he thinks is a noble cause. Gaston and Holladay probably hated each other, and yet I find myself knowing and liking them more and more.
This is, perhaps, what we miss most in history: the sense of humanity. Too often we reduce our stories to facts, dates, and figures. Yet my curiosity carries me deeper, to dig as close to the source as resources allow, and I find that I am rewarded by the strange sensation of making friends with dead people.