The Land Story of St. Michael’s

Through our Reckoning with Racism work thus far, we have extended our land story, broadening it beyond what could be construed as essentially a story of our founders and leaders as creative visionaries. We have learned three powerful things about our land.

The quick destruction of Indigenous lands

In the span of less than 70 years (1853 to 1922), St. Michael’s property had been converted from old growth forest with a nearby Indigenous trail to a platted, suburban, whites-only neighborhood with streetcar service to downtown Portland, and with the sanctuary we use today completed and in use.

A Native American trail located along what is now Sandy Boulevard appears on an 1852 survey map, drawn a year after Portland incorporated on the west side of the Willamette River. Before European settlement, this trail connected the Willamette with large and small Chinook villages along the Columbia, including near the present-day locations of the Portland International Airport and the Grotto. White settlers eventually used the same trail, through farmland and creeks and springs, down toward the marshy area that is now the Central Eastside Industrial District. 

The Chinook peoples spent spring and summer in the Troutdale area, where they gathered huckleberries and camas bulbs and fished. Vegetation maps indicate that the general character of the uplands east of the Willamette River prior to white settlement was Douglas Fir and Hemlock forest. The Indigenous peoples in the area were probably predominantly bands speaking dialects of the Chinook language, including the Multnomah and Clackamas. However, there would have been other peoples speaking other languages, including the Kalapuya-speaking Tualatin- and Salish-speaking groups. We have not yet found Indigenous names for the Sandy River, which the Lewis and Clark expedition named the Quicksand River, later shortened to the Sandy River. White settlers used the same trail, through farmland and creeks and springs, down toward the marshy area that is now Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District.

The creation of land ownership in the Northwest

The Donation Land Claim Act led to the creation of property as understood in the western legal tradition and to the dissolution of any Native claim to the property that St. Michael’s and all other buildings sit on.

In 1850 Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which allowed single white men and ½ white ½ Indian men to claim 320 acres of land in Oregon Territory (a region including but vaster than the current state.) Married couples could claim 640 acres; 320 acres each. To hold the claim, the claimant had to live on and cultivate the land for four years. This meant that old growth forest had to be cleared, with livestock pasture cultivated or crops grown. Soils around St. Michael’s and generally around what is inner East Portland were poor. Settlers typically planted fruit tree orchards or converted the land to pasture.

Beginning in 1853, several treaties were negotiated that led to the removal and relocation of the Indigenous tribes that for millennia stewarded the land where St. Michael’s is now located. The tribes were moved to undesirable reservations in areas far away from these traditional homelands. Importantly, some agreements and treaties were not ratified by Congress and are therefore not binding on those tribes and peoples, leaving them in a legal limbo. The Chinook’s agreement was not ratified by Congress. The Chinook had insisted on their community’s right to occupy their traditional homelands for the purpose of fishing, hunting, and harvesting. Today, the Chinook remain unrecognized by the federal government, in contrast to the 574 officially recognized tribes. They are ineligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For example, they received no COVID assistance.

St. Michael’s land is located within a 640-acre donation land claim within Chinook territory made by Joseph Backenstos and his wife in perhaps 1853, having arrived in Oregon between September 2 and 5, 1853. Joseph died sometime in the 1860s. An approval from President Johnson in 1866 was required to make his widow the lawful owner of this entire 640 acres. We have not been able to find Mrs. Backenstos’ full name.

The Land Claim Act required that all plots and communities follow a north-south, east-west grid, based on the “initial point” for all surveyed lands in the Oregon Territory, generating the grid-square pattern visible today throughout the region.[1]

Beginning in the 1870s, the rigid city grid began to creep eastward, but the Sandy route survived. The first three bridges spanned the Willamette River between 1887 and 1891. By the end of the 19th century, today’s familiar street plan extended to NE 15th Avenue. Communities lying East of the Willamette started as their own municipalities, becoming annexed into Portland in the early 1900s.

Rose City Park, which generally includes what is now the Hollywood District, was platted in 1907, the year that the Portland Railway, Light & Power Co. inaugurated trolly service from downtown Portland to the “suburbs” around what is now Hollywood, using the Sandy route. The Menefee brothers were the developers who subdivided the St. Michael’s property and the immediately surrounding area. They moved to Portland from Santa Rosa, CA. Property records for the area immediately around St. Michael’s show that residences around St. Michael’s began to appear in 1909. St. Michael’s house was built in 1913. 

The exclusion of non-whites

Congress intended the Donation Land Claim Act to accelerate the displacement (eradication might be an appropriate term)[2] of Indigenous peoples and the population of the Oregon Territory with white Americans (at the time, the British had competing claim to this territory). Section 4 of the Act sets the requirements for land eligibility: “granted to every white settler or occupant of the public lands, American half-breed Indians included, above the age of 18 years, being a citizen of the United States, or having made a declaration according to law of his intention to become a citizen.” The Act explicitly excluded Blacks and Hawaiians. Territory voters about this time both upheld the existing anti-slavery laws and specified that African Americans and Hawaiians would be excluded from Oregon when it became a state.[3] [4]

And what about the Menefee Addition? We have not yet found restrictive covenant language, however the Laurelhurst neighborhood, which historically extended to NE Halsey when developed in 1910, had a restrictive covenant: “. . . nor shall the same or any part thereof be in any manner used or occupied by Chinese, Japanese or negroes, except that persons of said races may be employed as servants by residents.” Our understanding is that the plot on which St. Michael’s sits was originally restricted, like most of the area, to “whites only.”

From our research, we also learned that the Coon Chicken Inn – a theme restaurant whose theme was racism – operated in the 1930s and ‘40s at the present-day site of Clyde’s Prime Rib at NE 54th and Sandy, about 12 blocks from St. Michael’s. The Coon Chicken Inn’s front door was a large, stereotyped Black minstrel face, which pedestrians walked past, and customers walked through to enter the restaurant.

[1] The initial point was established by the Territory’s first Surveyor-General in 1851 with a stake he drove four miles west of current downtown Portland. Its demarcation became the Willamette Meridian.

[2] “To meet constitutional requirements, Territorial Delegate Samuel Thurston had told Congress that extinguishing Native title to land was the ‘first prerequisite step’ to settling Oregon’s land question. Therefore, before lawmakers voted for the Donation Land Law, they passed legislation authorizing commissioners to negotiate treaties to extinguish Indian title and to remove tribes ‘and leave the whole of the most desirable portion open to white settlers.’ The act validated white settler claims in the Willamette Valley and attracted an in-rush of people to the Umpqua and Rogue valleys. In the Willamette Valley, Kalapuya bands had suffered catastrophic losses from seasonal malaria outbreaks during the early 1830s, but bands in the Rogue Valley were still numerous and resisted the incursions of whites, especially miners, in the 1850s. The consequence was something akin to a race war in 1852 and 1853, with white volunteer forces ruthlessly driving Natives from their traditional hunting and gathering grounds. Regular U.S. Army troops eventually removed most of the surviving bands to the newly established Coast Reservation.” accessed April 26, 2022.

[3] Hawaiians had made up a large proportion of the territory’s workforce and most soon returned to the islands.

[4] The Black exclusion clause was rendered moot by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but was not repealed by voters until 1926. Other racist language in the state constitution was removed in 2002.

We feel at least four areas of tension arise for us from our land story.

We ask ourselves: How do we reconcile our current identity, practices, and beliefs with the injustices to Indigenous people and the ecological destruction that made our buildings and grounds possible? What might restorative justice or repairing or reparations look like (consider the potlach, the giving away of accumulated wealth)?

The land story we’ve learned so far relates strongly and tragically to the removal by white settlers and their descendants of Indigenous people and the subsequent obliteration of an ancient forest ecosystem and all the life it nurtured. A very significant part of St. Michael’s current identity is rooted in creation justice and environmental stewardship.

We ask ourselves: How did and do we practice hospitality to and build relationships with our Black neighbors, both residents and businesses?

We have not yet explored the extent to which African Americans are living in our Hollywood community. What might it look like for us to extend welcome and engage with those households?
We have yet to learn how the St. Michael’s community responded to the Coon Chicken Inn. Clyde’s – the current restaurant – was until recently a Black-owned business but is now white-owned. To what extent did St. Michael’s community support it by dining there? Until the recent death of its owner, Reo’s Ribs was (and still may be) a Black-owned restaurant at 42nd and Sandy, about three or four blocks from St. Michael’s. The community subjected Reo’s to various forms of rejection, resistance, and violence ranging from neighbor’s complaints about smoke to fires in 2017 and 2020 that the owner believed resulted from arson. The owner died in spring 2022 without reopening the restaurant. We do not know its current ownership or plans for opening. What was our relationship to the short-lived Reo’s Ribs? Is there an opportunity to support it in its new incarnation, assuming continued Black ownership?

We ask ourselves: How do we practice hospitality and build relationships relating to the houseless people and transients that cluster around St. Michaels?

People with housing insecurity engage in the unauthorized use of St. Michael’s property for a variety of purposes and reasons. Many of these people likely suffer from untreated or inadequately treated addictions or mental illnesses, issues that span all races. The reality of the societal failures that are bringing these people to our doors raise immediate issues around our hospitality practices and our capacity for healing and feeding those in need, as well as raising large public safety and public policy issues. In all this and given other work we are doing: are we being called to work in partnership to provide affordable housing, particularly in current and historic Black neighborhoods?

We ask ourselves: Are our parishioners at our three English-speaking liturgies and one Spanish-speaking liturgy two congregations sharing one building or two communities within one congregation?

The Reckoning with Racism team is not the only group asking ourselves this question. St. Michael’s Immigrant Welcoming Congregation and others, both groups and individuals, are also asking  how we might transition to a more unified, bilingual community, whatever that might look like.