Building a better Oregon: geographic information and the production of space, 1846-1906

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Carey, Ryan Joseph

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My dissertation is about trails: where they began and where they ended, what traveled over them and why, who built them and who paid for them. Trails and trading routes knit together the economy in nineteenth-century America, but the nation’s social and cultural tapestry often split along these trail-seams. “Building a Better Oregon” explores the intersection of nature and culture by examining the growth and local criticism of transportation monopolies along the Columbia River. I investigate how competing social groups—government officials, corporate managers, laborers, farmers, and Indians—imagined the landscape and their relation to it, to demonstrate how the politics of landscape imagery influenced battles over western expansion and the growth of corporate capitalism. I build on the work of cultural historians who examine the historical contexts of what historian William Goetzmann calls the “West of the imagination.” Using the work of theorist Henri Lefebvre, who contends that physical space is both socially constructed as well as an active force in social relations, I move beyond contextual questions to link ideas about a place to the physical creation of that space. I combine the politics of landscape perception with issues of ethnic, gender, and class identity to investigate the role that perceptions of the Columbia River played in the social, cultural, and environmental history of the river and the region. I begin by examining the “paper landscapes”—maps, surveys, and property deeds—created by corporations. The images contained in these documents became a common vocabulary in a “cooperative imperialism,” the combined effort of corporations and the federal government to lay claim to nineteenth-century America’s ever-expanding empire. The common ground between the state and capital of this imagined West became contested ground when viewed from the perspective of local residents. In the second half, I show how Northwesterners created their own image of the region to criticize industrialization. Farmers and laborers refashioned the idea of masculine independence, while Indians cultivated a unique communal sense of their place in the landscape. Examining the “myth of West” from the West itself helps give westerners a voice in the creation of their own image.