Sunday, February 12, 2006

Joel Palmer Drops By !

My name is Palmer. Joel Palmer. I was born one thousand and eight hundred and ten years after Jesus was born. In the year Eighteen Hundred and Ten. I am famous for being the Super-In-Tendent of Indian Affairs out in the Oregon country. You can ask the American Indians if I was any good at being Super-In-Tendent of Indian Affairs and they will tell you I did the best I could. When I was a kid I was a Quaker and the Quakers believe everybody is part of one big Soul. Each one of us has a little piece of God right here next to our hearts. It don't matter if you are a kid or a grown-up. It don't matter if you are a man or a woman. It don't matter if you are from Africa or China or the North Pole. We all have that little piece of God in here. President Abraham Lincoln called it "The Lamp of Liberty."

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Joel Palmer to the Calapooia Indians, 1854
"The whites are determined to settle on your land. We cannot prevent them and in a few years there will be no place left for you. Then what will you do? Will you live in the mountains like wolves? The deer and other game being killed off you will have nothing to eat, your women and children crying for food, and freezing from cold; there will be no one to care for you. I tell you this will be so. Then be wise. Take good counsel. Sell your lands. Agree to remove to such places as the Government may hereafter select for you, where they will protect you and provide for your wants."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Now I came here today to tell you what it was like for kids on the Oregon Trail. When I was a kid, folks would sometimes get into trouble paying their bills. They would say, "I can't pay my bills. So then. Take one of my kids." And that's how I got to be an In-Dentured Servant. Lots of kids got sold like that. One time an Indentured Servant like me ran away from the man who owned him. This kid's name was Andrew Johnson. His owner put posters up all over town, and they all had Andrew Johnson's name in big black letters on them. These posters were just like the ones that were put up when an African American slave ran away from his masters. The posters said: "Don't try to hide this run-away. Don't help him. Don't give him a job. Or you will go to jail. It's against the law to help him run away from his owner." And that's what they would have said about me if I had run away. But I did not. It was only for four years and it wasn't so bad.

You may hear about Andrew Johnson. He later became President of the United States. (President Lincoln had hired him as his Vice President and so Andrew got to be President when Lincoln died.)

Anyhow I was an Indentured Servant for only a few years and I was not treated anywhere as bad as those African- Americans. I was sent to school so I could learn how to read and write (which are things you don't teach a person if you want him to stay a slave.) But the other kids did make fun of me. They'd say "There goes that indentured servant!" and it made me feel bad.

One thing I noticed at that time. White people like me could be slaves (even if they called them "In-Dentured Servants.") African-Americans could be slaves. But I never did see an Indian being owned as a slave. "How come they don't make slaves out of the Indians?" I said. The answer was "You can't make slaves out of Indians. They're too wild. Nobody loves freedom more than an Indian. It's what makes them so uncivilized."

I said, "I want to go be with the Indians then." So I went to Saint Joe Missouri and I said, "When does the next train leave?" The answer was, "It left over an hour ago on the Oregon Trail. The next one won't come along until about a year from now." I decided not to wait another year. I outfitted my horse and rode off to catch up with that wagon train.

Now the Great Plains ain't as flat and easy to see across as you might think. There was a lot of tall grass in those days. A kid could get lost in there. There were lots of low rolling hills and even a grown man can't see over them if he gets off his horse. But I stayed on my horse and followed the tracks of that last wagon train and caught up with it just in time. The sun was just going down and these folks had stopped to rest for the day. They was having a party. It takes about sixty days to get to Oregon, and they was celebrating because they only had fifty nine days left to go! They had come to the end of their first day on the Oregon Trail.

I got in with them and they was singing these silly songs. "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "Clementine" and "Turkey in the Straw."

I come to a river and couldn't across.
Paid ten dollars for an old blind hoss.
Wouldn't go ahead and wouldn't stand still.
So he jumped up and down like an old saw mill.


What kind of sense does that make? But anyway I got in with them and pretty soon all I knew was I was lying on the ground, waking up from being sound asleep.

It was quiet! It was dark! I almost thought maybe I had fallen into a hole in the ground and they had covered me up and left without me. But then I remembered to open my eyes. Then I saw the starry night. It was so pretty and clear and bright I almost believed I could climb a tree and pick a hand-full of those stars and put them in my pocket and take them home with me.

That was kind of silly thought, I guess. I was still half asleep when that thought came into my head. But then it was followed by another thought, and it cleared out all the other thoughts in my head. And that one thought was:

"Where is my home!?"

And then another thought crowded that one out and this one brought me to my feet in a hurry! This thought was like the kind of big signs you see for the circus coming to town, with pictures of trumpets and elephants dancing around in their Sunday clothes. This thought was blinking on and off and it was saying:

"Your home is in OREGON!"

"You're really going there, boy! You ain't just talking about it. You ain't just telling people you're going to Oregon. You ain't just planning to go there! You're really on the Oregon Trail!"

And that was the happiest thought that I ever had.

--Presented at Gaarde Elementary School, Tigard, Oregon, February 10, 2006. For the facts behind Clyde List's fanciful portrayal of Mr. Palmer go to the OREGON BLUE BOOK

2 comments:

Lilly Morgen said...

There is a Joel Palmer literary award given by Oregon Historical Society each year for the best history article in the OHS Quarterly journal.

jaycee said...

Well maybe somebody around here should try for it.

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