Some Background on Pendleton, OR
This month, I was asked to do research on Pendleton, Oregon – specifically focusing on what it may have been like to live there in the early 1900’s – to provide some background information on the setting for our adaptation of Herakles/Hercules Furens. I’ll be honest: I’m a California transplant who knows nothing about the history of this state. However, what I do know is that while Portland is portrayed as a kind of safe haven, a space where I feel somewhat comfortable looking and presenting as my most authentic self – gay, biracial, and not particularly “manly” – anytime I venture out of the city into the rest of Oregon, I’m met with hostile glances, prolonged stares, and MAGA hats. I think we Portlanders often forget that even this bastion of liberalism we live in only began accepting counterculture in the late 1900’s, and that before that, it was ruled with the same ideals that permeated the culture of every square inch of post-colonial America: the culture of the white, heterosexual, cisgender man.
Pendleton had its beginnings in the early 1860’s when a man named Moses Goodwin purchased property in northeastern Oregon for horses from a “squatter,” a European-American settler who claimed land that was not yet ruled by any government. After making a deal in 1868 with the nearby Umatilla County Court, 2 ½ acres of Goodwin’s land was used for the original town of Pendleton, named in honor of George H. Pendleton, former Senator of Ohio and 1864 vice presidential candidate. (The local Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse peoples had already been forced to move to the Umatilla Indian Reservation, established in 1855.) The city was officially incorporated into the Oregon Legislative Assembly on October 25, 1880, with a population of 730. By 1900, the city had grown to having a population of 4,406, becoming the fourth-largest city in the state.
The city was notorious for attracting outlaws, earning the city its nickname, “The Real West.” Following stereotypical ideas of the “wild west,” this seemingly lawless land was unofficially ruled by fear and power – hypermasculine ideals enforced by the dominant white male culture. This of course meant that anyone who didn’t fall into one of those categories – women, people of color, etc. – was powerless. The city’s large Chinese population (laborers working on the transcontinental railroad who settled in cities throughout eastern Oregon after its completion), for example, was amongst the most at risk for harassment, assault, and even murder. Anti-Chinese sentiments were strong throughout the U.S. – racist propaganda like Yellow Peril and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act propagated these ideas – and punishment for random acts of violence against Chinese immigrants was virtually nonexistent. The Chinese became an easily-identifiable “other” – they were essentially seen as subhuman. In order to survive, they had to become invisible. They lived in ghettoes (Chinatowns) and kept low profiles – so low that the official estimate for how many Chinese lived in Oregon around this time is a complete guess. They went so far as to create an underground tunnel system, within which they allegedly ran entire businesses underneath the city of Pendleton – a city beneath a city, their safe haven.
In 1910, the Pendleton Round-Up was brought into existence. Originally conceptualized as an exhibition of “frontier culture,” it was an annual event showcasing traditional “Western” rituals and competitions. The very first Round-Up attracted around 7,000 people – a number that only continued to rise as years went on. What was interesting about this event was that all kinds of people could participate in activities that were usually associated with the dominant culture of the white man. For example, Native Americans could participate, and local indigenous practices, such as dances, were given reverence as they were performed between events. African Americans could participate as well. Black horse rider George Fletcher was a legendary fan favorite and bucking champion. Women (at least white women) were allowed to compete in a number of activities as well. Bronc rider Bonnie McCaroll was famous throughout the country, often performing before foreign and domestic dignitaries. For a while, the Round-Up was an equalizer, blurring the lines between binaries. But things started to change in the 1920’s. Anti-black sentiments began to flare back up throughout Oregon, and the archetypical image of the cowboy became increasingly associated with whiteness – there is no mention of black competitors after 1920. Bonnie McCaroll was thrown off her horse at the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up, resulting in her death and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association to reconsider women’s participation in the Round-Up. All women’s events were cancelled for a while, and they would never be allowed to participate in bronc riding again. By the late 1920’s, women and people of color were put back where they started – under the tyranny of the outlaw, the cowboy, the white man.