By Amy Wang, The Oregonian/Oregon Live —
Jesse Applegate, a white 19th-century emigrant to Oregon, worked to keep slavery from becoming established in Oregon. Abigail Scott Duniway was a leading voice in advocating for women’s rights, particularly at the ballot box. Richard Neuberger stood out as an environmentally minded liberal Democrat in the 1950s U.S. Senate, representing a notable break from Oregon’s usual delegates.
They didn’t stand with the majority in their time, but left legacies that resonate to this day in Oregon.
Their life stories are told in the new book “Eminent Oregonians: Three Who Matter,” which brings together biographical essays by R. Gregory Nokes on Applegate, Jane Kirkpatrick on Duniway, and Steve Forrester on Neuberger. Forrester edited the book.
Nokes is a former reporter who has written two books about 19th-century Oregon history, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory” and “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.” Kirkpatrick has written 40 historical novels and nonfiction books, primarily about women in the American West. Forrester is president and CEO of EO Media Group, which owns 15 newspapers and two magazines in the Pacific Northwest and published “Eminent Oregonians.”
Forrester said he’d been thinking for decades about such a book, inspired by English writer Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book “Eminent Victorians,” which in its sketches of four leading figures of the era set new standards for biography. After deciding to go ahead with the book, he contacted other writers to gauge their interest in contributing essays.
“The two keys to this book was finding writers who were fascinated with their subjects and who had the tenacity and professional qualities and experience to bring their chapters to fruition,” Forrester said.
Forrester asked Nokes to write a chapter, and Nokes selected Applegate as his subject. Nokes, learning that Forrester wanted to have a woman author write about Duniway, connected him with Kirkpatrick.
Forrester said early response to the book has primarily been of the “I didn’t know that” variety.
“For the icon that Duniway is, I’ve been surprised that so many don’t know of her,” Forrester said. “Ditto for Applegate. In Neuberger’s case, that is absolutely the case. He is a forgotten figure – in Oregon and in Washington, D.C.”
Duniway arrived in Oregon from Illinois in the 1850s while in her teens and became a newspaper publisher, business owner, public speaker, novelist, poet, essayist and mother of six. “Schools and parks and hotels and street names celebrate this woman who never stopped fighting for women’s rights despite personal pain and electoral defeats,” Kirkpatrick wrote.
For her biographical essay, Kirkpatrick took inspiration from a 2000 exhibit at the Women of the West Museum (since merged with the Autry Museum of the American West) whose themes were landscape, relationships, spirituality and work. “I often use those four lenses in fiction but not as overtly as I did in this book,” Kirkpatrick said.
Applegate’s name rings a bell for many Oregonians because of the Applegate Trail, which he helped create to give fellow emigrants an alternative to the more perilous Columbia River route into Oregon Territory. But Nokes was more interested in Applegate’s anti-slavery stance.
“Jesse Applegate played a little-known but vital role in steering Oregon away from becoming a slave state,” Nokes said. As a member of the Oregon Territory’s legislative council in the 1840s, and later as a delegate to the 1857 constitutional convention, Applegate blocked attempts to allow slavery in Oregon.
Neuberger was, in Forrester’s words, “like a meteor, a brilliant light streaking through the night sky and suddenly gone.” His first career was journalism; by his junior year at the University of Oregon, he had editorship of the student newspaper and numerous professional bylines under his belt. Following a 1933 visit to Germany, he sold an article to The Nation warning that Hitler was building “a fortress bristling with hate and martial fervor.”
Neuberger entered politics as a New Deal Democrat, joining the Oregon House of Representatives in 1941 as a member of the minority party. In 1954, he became the first Oregon Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in 40 years and “a beacon for those who supported environmental stewardship,” Forrester wrote. Neuberger’s Senate career was cut short with his death from cancer at age 47 in 1960.
“Eminent Oregonians” isn’t meant as a be-all and end-all collection: “There are many other names” worthy of a sequel, Forrester said. In the meantime, these three deserve to be remembered.