A week or so ago, Feliks Banel put out a challenge to find the origin of the name of Thanksgiving Island. Thanksgiving Island was a small piece of land that you can see on some old maps on the stretch of the Columbia River between the Gorge and where the Snake joins. The image of an “Island of Thanksgiving” stokes the imagination. But the actual history of the naming is pretty pedestrian.
I think I ended up winning the challenge by finding a 1968 Oregonian article that covered geographic features that would disappear after the inundation by the John Day Dam reservoir. According to the article, Thanksgiving Island was named after an event. A steamboat landed on the island on Thanksgiving. That is a pretty normal sounding explanation, especially when you cross-reference the steamboat era of the Columbia River with when Thanksgiving as a national holiday was first coming into focus.
Thanksgiving Island disappeared under thousands of cubic feet of water of the John Day reservoir in 1971. Because even when it did exist, it was an island in a river, its existence was always temporary. These kinds of islands are formed and destroyed by erosion and sedimentation caused by the river moving back and forth across its flood plain, cutting new channels.
And this ethereal existence of Thanksgiving Island gives us a useful way to think about history, how we know anything in history and what we do with it.
Thanksgiving Island itself is interesting not because it tells us anything about ourselves, but because it was the only Thanksgiving Island recorded, and it is late November and people think about these kinds of things now. But there is a lot more to know about that particular stretch of the Columbia that we have forgotten.
During the Bannock and Paiute War in 1878, the U.S. Army outfitted a steamboat with a Gatling gun and set it to patrol the Columbia. Lt. Mellville C. Wilkinson commanded the gunboat Northwest as he and his crew patrolled the Columbia River. Wilkinson’s mission was to prevent a tribe from the Oregon side from crossing to Washington. He would commit one of the countless under-recorded massacres of Indians by American soldiers.
In the afternoon when we had reached Thanksgiving Island, a band of Indians with a large number of horses were discovered on the north bank, evidently coming west. At this locality, there are a series of three high hills presenting rounded fronts and sloping down to the narrow flat area between the base of the hills and the river. The hill separated by deep draws or canyons which is the general formation of the Washington shore in this section.
On first sight of the Indians, they were just coming up out of the draws and crossing the front of the next intervening hill. They were about two miles upstream from us and perhaps 500 feet up the hillside. They were evidently surprised at seeing the boat and began hastening to the next draw, for a hiding place.
When the Indians didn’t respond to the whistle of the steamboat to stop running, “the Gatling gun was prepared and brought into action… The capacity of the gun is 400 shots a minute, and we fired at them for several minutes.”
Steaming down from Wallula, he fired his artillery and Gatling gun without the slightest provocation into a group of peaceful natives camped there, killing at least two men and one woman, wounding others, and laying waste to the entire camp. Even some of the settlers of the period reacted to his action with distaste, (A.D.) Pambrun calling it a “massacre” and stating flatly that “there was no excuse” for what Wilkinson had done. The following month the Walla Walla Union heaped scorn on the lieutenant’s action…
…a band of Indians crossed the Columbia at Oom-i-tal-lum and pitched camp on the Washington shore. There were women and children in this camp, all peaceable, the men not having many arms. A steamboat came down the river, and without any warning opened fire on us with what seemed a machine gun. A man named Wah-la-lowie, belonging at La-qwe on the Columbia, was shot in the belly and killed. He was a middle-aged man. A middle aged women named Wah-lul-mi from Ti-che-chim, on the Columbia, was shot in the forehead, and fell dead. The Indians scattered and hid.
I had a single breech-loading rifle which I grabbed and ran among the rocks and lay so they could not see me. A few horses were killed. They fired at where I lay hid but did not reach me. Finally the boat went away without landing. Indians lost a lot of things, for they did not try to gather up their belongings.
The white people from The Dalles, they all organized and got guns and got a steamboat and went up to the village and they killed all the old people, [who] don’t do nothing, all the old ladies and all the old men and before these Indians got back to their home they were all dead so part of them went up to the Umatilla River and then part of them went up the Columbia River and crossed the Columbia River …and they came there to a white man and his wife and some of the Indians says, “Here the white people have killed our fathers and mothers and they were not doing any harm, now I am going to kill this white man to make even.”
The murder Shaw-ou-way-coot-shy-ah talked about is the much better documented revenge killing a few days later of two white people.
We know why Wilkinson’s Thanksgiving Island Massacre is forgotten and the murder of Blanche Bunting Perkins and Lorenzo Perkins is remembered. It is the same reason we keep up the statue of John R. Rogers and say nice things about Senator Slade Gorton after he dies.
The history we know is skewed. We don’t write down nearly enough, and we seek to remember the things that keep us near our already existing legends. And, pulling the ends of history, so we can better understand episodes as clearly misremembered as the Whitman murders, is hard.
Every historian should feel chastened by the last election in Virginia. The common trope is that one of the reasons Democrats did not do well was because voters were afraid of how history will be taught in schools. Targeting the 1619 Project puts the continued understanding of history in the bulls-eye. There is a real force behind not continuing to research the years our civilization has existed, because the information we surface is contrary to the accepted narrative.
We absolutely forgot why Thanksgiving Island was named what it was. We also forgot the Thanksgiving Island Massacre. But we didn’t forget the Perkinses. And knowing what we know and why we know it helps us see ourselves and the harm we caused. And if we find echos of that harm in our lives and our communities, we can try to make it better.
A good apology includes two things: an explanation of what you did wrong and what you will do to fix it.
And like the geomorphology nature of Thanksgiving Island and the landscape capture of the John Day dam reservoir, our understanding of what happened in the past has ebbed and intensified.
To be honest, the name Thanksgiving Island is trivia. It was a fun adventure, it gave me a chance to chat with a cool historian, but it doesn’t help us move forward.
Re-remembering the Massacre of Thanksgiving Island is much more instructive. It gives us a peak into the brutality of the Bannock and Paiute War and how our country came to dominate our region. Knowing what we did is the first part of a good apology. Knowing what harm we created.
The second part of a good apology is much harder.