The heroic figures who settled the West, and claimed it for the United States, were not always so heroic. As we have come to understand in this era of intense introspection into historic events and deeds, looking through the prism of race can materially alter perceptions.
The destruction and dismantling of statues of early pioneers in Portland and Eugene — of the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in Portland’s park blocks, and even an iconic elk in downtown Portland — reflect this introspection. That continues to be the case whether this writer applauds the destruction or not — and in most cases, he does not.
Our history shows that having flaws didn’t prevent men — and women — from great achievement. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, for example, yet led the country to independence.
One of these flawed heroes in our own region was Jesse Applegate. His resume as a leader would impress most, but probably not the Native Americans who stood in his way, and possibly not the daughter, Gertrude, whom he shunned for running off with a Confederate sympathizer.
I write about Jesse Applegate’s life in the new book, “Eminent Oregonians: Three Who Mattered,” available online and in bookstores. In the book, women’s suffrage champion Abigail Scott Duniway is profiled by Jane Kirkpatrick, a distinguished Oregon author, and the late Senator Richard Neuberger by Steve Forrester, the book’s publisher and president of the Oregon-based EO Media Group newspaper chain.
Joining Jesse on the two thousand-mile journey were his brothers, Lindsay and Charles, both of whom, like Jesse, seem to have been successful farmers. They brought their families and established farms near one another in present-day Yoncalla in Douglas County.
Jesse and Lindsay’s homes are long gone, but that of Charles survives. Owned and cared for by his descendants, it is listed on the National Historic Register.
Jesse would be seen today — and maybe in his day as well — as something of an odd fellow. He refused to have his photograph taken because he considered himself ugly, so a sketch by a nephew is the only indication we have of his appearance.
While Applegate adamantly opposed slavery in Oregon, his best friend for years was the pro-slavery judge Matthew Deady, although they did later have a falling out over other issues. Moreover, while others around him dodged their debts, Jesse did not, eventually costing him his home.
Applegate’s later years would end in sadness and tragedy. However, his contributions to Oregon were considerable, beginning with his success in helping lead the 1843 settlers to Oregon.
Elected to Oregon’s pre-statehood provisional government in 1845, he helped write some of Oregon’s first laws. He also took the lead in developing a new emigrant trail into southern Oregon, known as the Applegate Trail, that avoided the perilous trip down the Columbia River where Jesse and Lindsay each lost a son in an overturned raft in 1843.
But it was the issue of slavery where Applegate made perhaps his biggest contribution to shaping the future Oregon.
Jesse was a delegate to the 1857 Constitutional convention in Salem where legalization of slavery was the dominant issue facing delegates. And the convention was being chaired by the pro-slavery Deady.
Addressing the delegates early in the session, Applegate sought to derail debate over slavery. “The discussion of the subject of slavery by this body is out of place and uncalled for, and only calculated to engender bitter feelings among the members of the body, destroy its harmony, retard its business and unnecessarily prolong its session,” he declared.
A historian of that period, Timothy W. Davenport, said Applegate “feared a trick would be played … and slavery be forced upon the people of Oregon without their consent.”
As it turned out, the convention did not endorse slavery, but referred the question to voters. Voting was exclusive to white males at the time, but they soundly voted it down.
However, voters overwhelmingly approved another referral from the convention, an exclusion clause prohibiting Blacks from settling in Oregon. And it was not removed from the Oregon Constitution until 1926.
Incensed over the exclusion clause and other racist restrictions, Applegate walked out of the convention and refused to sign the constitution emerging from it.
Applegate was to fall on hard times when someone he had supported, Secretary of State Samuel May, was accused of embezzling money from the state. Jesse and others had posted a performance bond for May, but only Jesse stood by his bond and he lacked the means to cover it.
Plunged into bankruptcy, he lost his house and property on Mount Yoncalla. He rejected state assistance to help to pay his court-ordered debt, instead heading to Northern California’s Siskiyou County with his wife Cynthia to work for a rancher.
In California, Applegate became deeply involved in the run-up to the 1872-73 Modoc war. He sided with settlers in a dispute over land along the Oregon and California border claimed by the Modocs, including the land where Jesse then lived. Many of the Modocs died in the fighting and their surviving leaders were hanged.
At other times, Applegate had befriended and supported Native Americans in disputes with whites.
After his beloved Cynthia died in 1882, Applegate seemed to decline mentally. Largely penniless, he was temporarily confined to an asylum in Oregon.
Upon his release, he lived out his life with one of his sons. He died on April 23, 1888, at age 76.
Following his death, Applegate was lauded for his achievements by the prominent Salem newspaper publisher, Asahel Bush. “In all that constituted useful and honorable citizenship, Jesse Applegate was for 40 years one of the foremost men in the territory and state … ” Bush wrote. “His honor and truth no man questioned and his life was without stain.”
Applegate did have moments of self-doubt and remorse during his life. In fact, he questioned whether he should ever have left Missouri.
There was also this: Following the early death of his daughter, Gertrude, just 25, whom he had shunned for years, he made the coffin used for her burial in the family cemetery on Mount Yoncalla. Gertrude’s headstone, a white marble obelisk, is the largest in the cemetery. Jesse and Cynthia also took Gertrude’s child, Jimmy, into their home at the request of Gertrude’s widowed husband, James D. Fay. Fay was later found dead of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide.