Remarking the imaginative landscape
map shows 1910 Punjabi Columbia River communities from Hood River to
Seaside, Oregon. By listing the name, religion, occupation, age, and
political activities of men in these communities it reconstructs a
formerly invisible social landscape. Center for Columbia River History
2010 James B. Castles Fellow, Johanna Ogden, created this map with GIS
assistance from Gregory A. Greene.
collected the information illustrated in the map above through various
sources. I searched for the names Khan and Singh in the 1910 U.S. Census
for Oregon and in city directories for Portland and Astoria; in Multnomah
County Circuit Court document archives and in newspapers such as the Oregonian
and St. Johns Review. Indian historical accounts also provided names of
activists and the towns in which they operated. Finally, my accounting,
minus the names and life details, of Punjabis living along the Columbia
River are roughly corroborated by the total of men reported present by R.K.
Das in his 1923 report entitled, Hindustani Workers on the Pacific Coast.
hope this map is jarring. Today, most people know nothing about the
historical presence of Punjabi communities along the Columbia River. But
Punjabis were not invisible people during their time in Oregon. They
worked side-by-side with other men; storekeeps sold them produce and bank
tellers took their money. Townspeople sold them land and title clerks
recorded the purchases. Wardens listed them as prisoners. Local sports
pages covered inter-ethnic wrestling matches that included Punjabi
competitors. Mainstream and radical newspapers reported on riots against
them and on Punjabis’ desire to overthrow British rule in India. But
today scant records exist, take extreme effort to locate and haven’t
been used by historians in the United States. Ironically, Indian
historians provided a roadmap to the tiny Oregon towns - Winans, Bridal
Veil, Astoria - where Punjabis lived, worked and organized. I am indebted
to those scholars who detailed, from the other side of the globe, the
political activities of men they consider heroes for their formation of
India’s Ghadar Party. They led me to look more closely at the region’s
Oregonians then were aware of the Punjabis’ presence why is this story
largely unknown today? Historical silences occur through the exercise of
shared assumptions and work in devastatingly simple and effective ways.
White pioneers are Oregon Country’s first settlers despite large and
longstanding Native communities. Logs of “pioneer” names or of local
deaths don’t list the name “Singh” despite their having been
neighbors or co-workers. Sheriff’s arrest ledgers where “nativity”
contrast “American” with Jew, Negro, or Punjabi likewise expose and
reinforce a certain notion of belonging. A thousand seemingly benign acts
of erasure undergird and feed the persistent myth of Oregon as a white
pioneer land. The result is that many of the immigrants whose labor made
the American or Canadian West are perpetual outsiders, historical sidebars
or simply forgotten altogether.
I have written thousands of words about the forgotten Punjabi communities
of the Columbia River, for me this map is central. With it I want to place
the Punjabi community back into the Northwest landscape and challenge us
to rethink the narratives about who we are.
This essay courtesy of the Center for Columbia River (ccrh.org).
Oregon and Global Insurgency: Punjabis of the Columbia River Basin
by Johanna Ogden. A
MA Thesis in the Faculty of Graduate Studies
University of British Columbia (Vancouver) April 2010.