Book Review: Fighting For Paradise

Fighting For Paradise: A Military History Of The Pacific Northwest, by Kurt R. Nelson

The author, a local criminal justice professor at one of the Portland area’s community college systems, writes this one-volume military history of the Pacific Northwest with a few clear and obvious aims in mind. For one, few authors have written about the military history of the Pacific Northwest at all [1], making it an area where an author may find a distinctive niche as a researcher. For another, the author clearly wishes to point out the evils of the early Oregon settlers in their treatment of the local indigenous population, which was driven to despair, to rebellion, and finally to near destruction. In his discussion of the long struggle between imperial nations over the Pacific Northwest and between settlers and their culture’s militaries and the native local population, the author has a melancholy overarching theme of paradise lost, as if the Pacific Northwest was some sort of Eden lost through the immense greed and land hunger of settlers.

In terms of its contents, the book contains almost 300 pages of material divided into several chapters. Paradise lost discusses the way that the introduction of horses and later guns from European settlements elsewhere in North America disrupted the traditional life of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest and led to drastic social changes that increased the status of war leaders and made the need for self-defense in the face of growing and raiding tribes of Shoshoni and related tribes of vital importance. The second chapter, Paradise Contested, looks at the competition between the British and Americans, with their very different goals for the regions, and to a lesser extent the Spanish and Russians who had early claims in the area. The third chapter, Oregon divided, examines the early period of American settlement into Oregon country and its eventual division at the 49th parallel. The fourth chapter, transition, looks at the early attempts at settlement and territorial organization in the Oregon country under American rule. The core of the book, The Great Outbreak, examines the lengthy rebellion of a large group of tribes in the region under the encouragement of the Yakima chief Kamiakin, an area of history that is largely unknown but that was a total war involving over a quarter of the local settler population in the direct military effort, leading to the total defeat of the rebellious tribes. The rest of the book looks at the melancholy aftermath of this outbreak with regards to the Snake Indian wars, the flight of the Modoc and Nez Pierce from Oregon country in the face of their settlement in restricted reservations, the last wars against various Shoshini-speaking peoples, and the examination of the role of the Pacific Northwest in the Spanish-American War, Philippine War, and World Wars I and II.

This book offers some interesting food for thought among the patterns that it reflects on. For one, the author connects military power to issues of logistics and demography. Despite the presence of skilled local indigenous leaders among various tribes and some ability at cooperation, the demographic strength of local settlers overcame disadvantages in leadership and led to the relentless destruction of the indigenous resource base, leading to their dispossession, a process marked by frequent wars and the presence of battles and massacres that are scarcely remembered at all, in contrast to the much better historical memory of the Atlantic seaboard with regards to its local military history. This complicated and worthwhile book, for all of its pro-native bias, suggests that the local settlers had a more grimly realistic understanding of the nature of their conflict with the local tribes, and that American troops did not initially have the same sort of ferocity about ensuring the availability of tribal land for white settlement as the locals, leading to a strong militia tradition to enforce settler claims. That said, the author also makes it clear that it was this same demographic strength that led to America’s eventual strong position in the Pacific Northwest despite the much earlier and more pervasive existence of British fur trading forts like Fort Vancouver in the Columbia River basin, as American settlement trumped the much more limited presence of British traders and coastal vessels. The end result of this book is a focus on historical memory and a recognition both of the vibrant life that was destroyed so that settlers could be established, and also that the behavior of settlers had massive geopolitical results, and that the mindset established during the Indian Wars continued as America became a fully imperial nation and flexed its might abroad, lessons that remain relevant today.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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