Saturday, October 3, 2015

Author Interview: Melinda Marie Jetté

Melinda Marie Jetté is a history professor and the author of a new book about the history of the Oregon Territory. In her book, At the Hearth of the Crossed Races: A French-Indian Community in Nineteenth-Century Oregon, 1812-1859, Jetté reexamines the role of French-Canadian fur trappers, the French-Indian families they created, and their indigenous kin in colonizing the Pacific Northwest.

Jetté recently answered questions for Rose City Reader:

How did you come to write At the Hearth of the Crossed Races?

As a youngster growing up in Portland in the 1970s, I heard stories from my father about his French-Indian ancestors who settled near Champoeg in the mid-1850s. In addition, we would occasionally visit Champoeg State Park on family outings and family reunions. This sparked my interest in French North Americans and when I set out to pursue the study of American Western history in graduate school, I decided to see how French-speaking peoples fit into the regional history, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Can you tell us a little bit about the French-Indian community in 19th Century Oregon that is at the center of your book?

The French-Indian community that developed in French Prairie (Champoeg, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Gervais) evolved out of early fur trapping expeditions by French Canadians and Iroquois men and their Indian wives in the 1810s and 1820s. When the biracial couples decided to retire from the fur trade they choose the Willamette Valley because it felt like home in a way—it was an attractive space with abundant natural resources. These families had also established relatively stable relations with the Kalapuyans, the indigenous people of the Willamette Valley. Throughout the period of the study (1812-1859), these biracial families sought to advance the welfare of their children and their community. Their farming and husbandry activities did lead to ecological changes in the Willamette Valley that negatively impacted the Kalapuyans. In addition, they faced social, economic, and political changes following the massive influx of American emigrants along the Oregon Trails beginning in the 1840s.

You yourself are a descendant of the French-Canadian men and Native women who resettled the French Prairie. Did your understanding of your family’s history change as you researched and wrote your book?

I would have to say that I came admire my French-Indian ancestors for their fortitude and perseverance in the face of many challenges. I also came to understand the historical pressures and forces that led my family to gradually assimilate into American society and become “white” by the early 1900s.

How did you research the cultural information and detail found in your book? Did you have primary sources? People to interview? Other materials?

I spent many years researching the available primary source record, which proved challenging in many respects because the French-Indian families were largely illiterate and left few written records of their own. However, they peek out here and there in the historical record through official reports, memoirs, and public documents penned by Anglo-Americans. There are also church records written by the French Canadian missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. And finally, there were a few “as-told to” memoirs/interviews left by a handful of French Canadians in latter decades of the 1800s.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

I learned that as a historians, it takes a great amount of time (years in fact) to complete the necessary research, to really delve into the historical record and learn about the period. This process of building a knowledge base is essential for writing accurate, complex histories that also engage with the scholarly literature on the topic. A strong grounding in both the primary and second sources is essential for good historical writing. Equally important is need for creativity in recreating the past for students, scholars, and general readers alike.

What is your work background? How did it lead you to writing your book?

After graduating from La Salle High School in Milwaukie, I spent a year in Paris, France as an exchange student. I then went on to study History and French Literature and Civilization at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After a few years working back in Portland, I completed an M.A. in History at Université Laval in Quebec City and a Ph.D in History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. These programs allowed me both to hone my skills and pursue my interest in French North Americans in American Western history.

Your book inspires further reading. Can you recommend any other books related to Oregon history or the multi-racial history of the Pacific Northwest?

There are a host of recent books on Oregon and Pacific Northwest. Some of the more recent that are very valuable include Gray Whaley’s Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee, Andrew Fisher’s Shadow Tribe, Katrine Barber’s Death of Celilo Falls, and Coll Thrush’s Native Seattle.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author? As a historian?

As both a writer and a historian, I think it is essential to find a subject matter that you are passionate about and persevere in pursuing that topic. It is equally important to ask for feedback on your work and your ideas from colleagues.

What do you do to promote your book? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?

The publisher, Oregon State University Press, uses both traditional and new media format for promotions, including the OSU Press blog, for which authors are invited to craft a blog post on their books. We had a book launch generously hosted by the Oregon Historical Society and I have organized a variety of book talks in Oregon and Washington.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

Upcoming books talk for 2015 and early 2016 include:

What’s next? Are you working on your next book?

I am now at work on an authoritative annotation and translation of a travel memoir, Voyages en Californie et dans l’Orégon (1854), published by Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant. Saint-Amant was a French foreign service envoy who visited Oregon and California in the early 1850s. The project will make the Frenchman’s observations available to American readers as the book as yet to be translated in English.



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