Pacific’s past: A reflection on the university’s origins

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Pacific University with the ball, down the field and touchdown… on native land of the Tualatin Kalapuya people. 

Though Homecoming brings out excitement and Boxer jubilation, it can be easy to forget Pacific’s past beyond the return of football and vast health professions growth. But the university — now complete with centers dedicated to diversity and gender equity — though always committed to those values, was not always so open to discussing and making reparations for its negative community actions.

Once called the West Tualatin Plains, Forest Grove’s history is closely tied to Pacific’s. The Tualatin Kalapuyas had been living in the area for generations, but sadly contact with European-Americans brought diseases that wiped out more than 90% of their population. White settlers and missionaries who arrived in the 1840s only saw the few survivors of the epidemics. When they claimed land around what is now Pacific, they were taking land that had belonged to the tribe.

In 1848, the Congregationalist missionary Harvey Clark gave a cabin to a woman, Tabitha Brown, to use as a school house. She began teaching local children who had been orphaned or abandoned by their parents.

“Then the Whitman Massacre happened and missionaries from other places in what’s now Eastern Washington, Oregon and parts of Idaho were told to evacuate,” Eva Guggemos, Archivist & Associate Professor at Pacific said. “They came down first to places like Oregon City and then they all sort of ended up gathering in Forest Grove.”

The evacuees met up with Clark, Brown and others who had already settled on the West Tualatin Plains. Most were Congregationalists, a protestant Christian denomination that highly valued education. They wanted to expand Brown’s school. Another missionary, George Atkinson, encouraged them to formalize their plans, and in 1849 they submitted a charter for “an Academy” to the Oregon legislature.

Thus, Tabitha Brown’s orphan asylum became Tualatin Academy, which offered high school level classes. Old College Hall was built the next year. In 1853, a new charter established Pacific University, which would be run in conjunction with Tualatin Academy. The original founders recruited Sidney Harper Marsh, a Congregationalist minister whose father was the president of the University of Vermont, to be Pacific’s first president.

“People often think, ‘Oh we were a high school and then we became a college’ or ‘We used to be Tualatin Academy and then became Pacific University,’ but that’s not quite true and the two actually coexisted up until the nineteen-teens,” Guggemos said.

And while it’s fair to say Pacific held culturally religious ties for much of its history, Marsh went against the grain by pushing the university to remain nonsectarian, unlike other nearby schools such as George Fox University and Linfield College. 

“The Congregationalist church, now known as the United Church of Christ, has always been very pro education, and believed everyone regardless of gender or race should receive an education — and that belief goes way back,” Guggemos said. “So if you look into the twentieth century, even though we’re not directly tied to them anymore, we still have a lot of cultural things in common.”

Pacific didn’t begin to resemble what most students would deem a “regular college” until the late 1890s and early 1900s, with the introduction of study specializations (majors), campus clubs and a variety of athletics. However, like the church, the university has since begun to question themselves about their past and attempt to reconcile the damage done to the pre-existing tribal communities that thrived long before its creation.

“Of course there’s a very negative part of our history as well,” Guggemos said. “We were a part of a big system of cultural superiority that said ‘We want you to integrate and be educated… by losing everything that is not us.’”

This alludes to the university’s indirect involvement and support of the Indian Training School present in Forest Grove as well. Recently, Pacific’s has become much more transparent about its history. Guggemos sees this as less of a separation or rejection of the past, but more of an acknowledgement of actions we now recognize as wrong.

“In the past — as in a very long time ago — we actively celebrated parts of our history that weren’t so great. Then there was a long period where we didn’t say anything about it,” Guggemos said. “Now we’re moving forward with this idea of actually acknowledging our past and being proactive about making amends.”

President Lesley Hallick presented a land acknowledgement at May Commencement ceremonies last spring, recognizing the school was built on land of the Tualatin Kalapuya people.  Pacific is also looking into returning some artifacts back to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde — the modern tribal nation which absorbed the Tualatin tribe — according to Guggemos.

“We’re looking at a couple different ways we can actually strengthen our ties with the Grand Ronde and there are discussions going on about what we can do that are actions and not just words,” Guggemos said. “We also don’t expect this to be something that is ever just done — we expect this to be more like growing a new relationship, which is something that will never end.”

So, when historians look back on Pacific, Guggemos simply hopes there are new interpretations that are, “even more just and more nuanced,” than what we have now.

The archivist is even working on a book centered on the nearby Indian Training School of Forest Grove. With no specific publication date set, Guggemos says she’s constantly learning more about the history that was once a part of the growing city and institution.

More can be learned about Pacific history by reading “The Splendid Audacity of Pacific University”, Mike Francis’s article “A Tragic Collision of Cultures” and the exhibit in the Tran Library, “The Church Next Door: Pacific’s Relationship with the United Church of Christ,” up through Homecoming weekend Oct. 18 and 19.


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