Time traveling to the secrets of our past: Part 1

I was gifted a copy of Washington Irving’s 1836 Astoria from my friend Laurie. Although I have read Peter Stark’s more recent book by the same name, I always meant to read this original volume. Given that my dad and grandfather were Pacific Northwest historians, it might seem a bit surprising I didn’t already have a copy in the book collections they left behind.

As I read the first chapters of Irving’s Astoria, I recognized I needed a buffer. Yes, I understand the era it was written, who wrote it, attitudes of the time. Yet, I decided to concurrently read two other books. The first I checked out from the library, Oregon Indians – Voices From Two Centuries, edited by Stephen Dow Beckham and published by Oregon State University Press. Second, I continued to read the book I had already started, Crazy Brave by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (2012). I anticipated blogging about these books and their differing perspectives. Instead I found myself musing about how we pass on stories; the way those stories and their meanings change with the times.

As I identified how Irving described Native Americans such as the Clatsop People in ways different than acceptable today, it reminded me how upset I was when I first read my great great great grandmother Chloe’s journal attributing the term “savages” to Indigenous People. I do understand that times change, how we hopefully learn from mistakes of our past, and sometimes we make reparations. As uncomfortable as it felt to read some of the descriptions, I also marvel in this shared need of humans to tell our stories through generations. Stories that we edit, alter and often glorify over time. Our writing echoes the voices and controversies of the times, changing with the passage of time.

That being said, this blog has veered in a different direction than what I first imagined, in part thanks to Russ cleaning out the garage (see: About that marble table (or what about all that stuff?). As I finished the books and prepared to deliver two chairs attributed to Chloe Clark Willson, I was reminded for the umpteenth time how much I wish I could travel back to olden days to sit with these relatives of my past. To learn their old stories, and their truths.

Recently I began watching Netflix episodes of Outlander, concluding before I’d finished the first season, that I’d rather simply read the book. Although my Scottish heritage poked at me with interest, I struggled watching the violence, and the main thing I wanted to know was whether the protagonist ever returns to her present time? Distractedly I veered off instead to imagine returning to the mid-1800s to ask questions of Chloe and William. This blog’s simpler story concentrates on furniture; Part 2 will address stories that might be a bit more controversial.

What is the true story about the chairs I delivered last week to the Willamette Heritage Center (WHC), and the set’s table that still resides in my home?

Have you visited the Willamette Heritage Center?
My first visit to Willamette Heritage Center in 2016 when I “met” Chloe Clark Willson.

The chairs were given to me years ago to join a table I had already inherited. Sometimes I feel as though I am the end of a legacy; the daughter who lives locally who still cares about stories and belongings from olden days. The last of Dad’s generation of relatives lives in his two cousins, Ann and Elizabeth, both who are pleased to share old stories with me. Ann and Elizabeth shared J.K. Gill and Frances (Willson) Gill with Dad as great grandparents. I am grateful I can go to them for answers to some of my questions, or in this case, to speculate. I am wise enough to know how the next generation, my daughters and their cousins, are not inclined to prioritize or have space for most of these old objects, nor do they feel the sentimentality that I hold. As I dropped off the chairs, although I felt a glimmer of sadness in losing these remembrances from the past, mostly I felt relief and gratitude to find them a new home.

My mom was sure the table and chairs “Came around the Horn” (Cape Horn, southern tip of South America) with Chloe Clark aboard the Lausanne arriving at Fort Vancouver in 1840. Or at least that’s what I remember her telling me!

Ship that carried the Great Reinforcement to Oregon Country Courtesy Oreg. Hist. Soc. Research Library, 3114

I know that story was far-fetched. Can you imagine? A table and two chairs along with people and supplies from the United States to the unknown west, aboard sailing ship for nine months? Not to mention transport from Fort Vancouver to their next stopping point by horse or canoe? No. Cousin Ann thought maybe they were sent out later by train. As readers of My Music Man might remember, not long after William Willson died unexpectedly in 1856 in Salem, Chloe sold her home and gave her furniture to the Oregon Institute (predecessor of Willamette University) where she was teacher. She bundled up her three daughters, all under the age of 10, and traveled for the first time since leaving the East to visit relatives in Connecticut. This time she traveled from Salem by stagecoach over the mountains of California, ship to Panama, train across the Isthmus of Panama, ship again to Boston and train to Hartford. Certainly she wasn’t hauling any furniture with her! She and the girls did return to Salem in 1863, and she took the job of governess of the “Ladies Department” at Willamette University. (Not long after, J.K. Gill followed, having met Chloe and her daughters while living in a rooming house in Wilbraham, MA. See My Music Man Chapter 16: Books for more on this.)

Did the chairs and table make that return trip with her? Nope. So far I have received differing opinions on the age of the chairs: one asserting they were from the early 1900s, while the other dates them as late 19th Century (later Victorian) like the table. Either way, neither the table or chairs, that we refer to as “Chloe’s” could have been owned by Chloe. Although Chloe moved from Salem to Northwest Portland with her daughter Frances and son-in-law J.K. Gill in 1871, she died in 1874. No longer is there anyone living who knows the truth about the chairs and table, and yet I am pleased to have delivered the chairs to WHC now, and will follow with the table: a final resting place in honor of Chloe and her Salem history, even if they were never actually hers.

What if I were to speculate? Isn’t that what we memoirists do? Perhaps it is my turn to create a story about the furniture that my own daughters might someday share. A story inspired by half truths and bolstered by my imagination: like so many stories that travel the ages.

Chloe moved to Portland, accompanying her daughter, Frances, and son-in-law J.K. Gill. J.K. knew Portland was predicted to substantially outgrow Salem, making for better book business. Although the population of Salem and Portland were similar in 1860 (~2000+), by 1870 Portland had surpassed that of Salem. They moved into this home in Northwest Portland, long since demolished.

J.K. and Frances Gill home on NW 19th Street, Portland

Let us imagine. Perhaps, sometime after Chloe died, her eldest daughter Frances and J.K. spotted this table and chairs. (Hmm, what downtown Portland store might have carried it or would they have had it transported from the East?). They imagined how much their mother/MIL, Chloe, would have appreciated the set. Perhaps this great great grandmother of mine, Frances, insisted the furniture be in the front room of this grand home; after all, it reminded her of her mother. Perhaps, then, they referred to the set as Chloe’s furniture, passing it onward after their deaths.

Dad’s cousin Ann speculates how at some point the furniture ended up with two of Frances and J.K.’s five daughters, Jessie and her younger sister Dorothy who also lived in Northwest Portland on 24th and Northrup. Jessie was divorced and Dorothy, who we called Dobbie, was widowed. Dobbie lived the longest of the Gill Sisters and when she downsized to Terwilliger Plaza, the chairs and table were given to Ann.

Visiting Dobbie at Terwilliger Plaza in 1972. I still remember being told how she had rickets as a child, giving her bowed legs. (We look stressed out, don’t we? However, I do remember how lucky I felt to have those cool blue boots that I begged Mom for.)

A few years ago the furniture made its way to my home. More recently, Ann and Elizabeth gave me their 16 piece set of dinner glasses to hold for my daughters, possessions they have said they would like. Maybe we’ll call them Chloe’s glasses, even though I know better. Because that’s how stories go, don’t they?

This month marks one year since Mom’s death. She left us with so much, including dozens of photo albums and a 300+ page memoir. This memoir reviews her life including her sorrows and lessons. It too contains some secrets and stories not everyone knew. And yet, as her only daughter, I too know it doesn’t contain all of them. And maybe that’s okay. It gives us the opportunity to ponder the what ifs as we think about our own mortality. And we too can use our imaginations as we create our versions of what may have happened. Just like generations of people have done before us.

Learn more about all of Dede’s books.

One thought on “Time traveling to the secrets of our past: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Time traveling to the secrets of our past: Part 2 | Dede's Books and blog

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