Monday, December 10, 2012

When Mount Hood Was Just a Hole in the Ground

The anecdote I am about to tell involves Joe Meek, one of the original "Americans" in Oregon country. His story is one of the most interesting of any person in our local shabby and neglected pantheon of Historical Persons of Legendary Value. It is well told in the book "River of the West" which was at one time very hard to come by, but is now a downloadable, free Google eBook. I once gave my father a copy (real, not virtual) and he read it over and over until it was dog-eared, relishing each paragraph. We had many a fine conversation about Joe and his antics, especially as a buckskin clad representative of Oregon in the high society of Washington D.C. I highly recommend it as being both entertaining and and as a surprising look into the actual lives of real people at a time when Oregon was as far from civilization as a Mars colony will be in the not-so-distant future.

 This story was told in an 1868 Oregonian under the heading: How it Came—the circumstances which gave rise to the expression, "When Mount Hood was a hole in the ground."

There was an occasion some twenty years earlier when Meek, then the U.S. Territorial Marshal of Oregon came into contact with some gentlemen of the English aristocracy. (It is my assumption the men were not necessarily aristocrats, but at least cultured and educated in the English manner.)  The men were traveling in the West making scientific observations  and were staying at Fort Vancouver when Meek arrived. The Oregonian writer referred to the Englishmen as "Lords," and now I quote:

Like their kind, they thought themselves about the smartest of the whole creation. The conversation turned upon the early days of Oregon, and these thorough-breds thought to quiz the "Old Man of the Mountain." One of them turning to Mr. Meek said, "Well, Marshal. I understand you have been here a great while." "Yes," said Joe, "a number of years." 'Well, Mr. Meek, what great changes have occurred? Has the course of the Columbia River deviated from its present channel, or has the face of the Cascade Mountains materially altered?" Mr. Meek pointed through the open window to the snow-crested summit of Mt. Hood, looming up 15,000 (sic) feet, and asked the Englishman if he could see that mountain, and said to him, "O yes, wonderfully changed, my noble Duke; when I first came to Oregon that mountain was a hole in the ground" The laugh was so hearty, at the expense of Johnny Bull, that he became enraged and left the company in high dudgeon, but his attempt to get the best of Joe Meek gave rise to an expression that will last as long as Mt. Hood stands.

This little tale is not as satisfying to me as it must have been to the original hearers. For one thing, I fail to see how the "Duke" was trying to get the better of Old Joe. It sounds more like pleasant flummery with a wee dash of sarcasm. In those days though, the English were still the "redcoats" in the minds of most patriots, so it didn't take much to light a fuse. The sad thing about it is that this wonderful expression, prophesied to "last as long as Mt. Hood stands" has long gone out of use—in fact I had never heard it before stumbling upon this ancient article. That doesn't mean we can't bring out, dust it off, and start to use it again.

"Why, I started this blog back when Mount Hood was just a hole in the ground." It has a nice ring to it. Try it!