How come so many nasty Nazis live in the nice Northwest? How come these guys aren’t celebrating Hitler’s birthday in Bangor, Maine? Those are the sorts of questions that linger in the wake of neo-Nazi Buford Furrow’s LA rampage that left one person dead and several others—including young children—wounded.
One answer is that the West in general, and the Northwest in particular, has always been America’s storm drain of ideas. From free-love colonies on Puget Sound to the Bagwan’s Oregon compound, from Coeur d’Alene to Salt Lake City, the national playing surface for Utopian ideals seems clearly tilted in our direction, so the loose nuts roll here.
Our history is no stranger to dreadful acts of racism and prejudice. Wasn’t the settlement of the West, in essence, one big hate crime? Whether it’s the genocidal war against the Native Americans, the expelling of Chinese workers from Seattle, the giant Ku Klux Klan rallies of the 1920s (the largest ever was in Issaquah), the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, or the murder and castration of labor activists, it’s safe to say that grandpa knew how to hate.
One bit of history might get us a little closer to the roots of intolerance. The Northwest as it is today was largely settled and shaped during the mid-19th century, when race was the nation’s open wound. The question of slavery in the territories was a hot one, and the far West was dominated by Democrats, many of them Southern sympathizers. In the early 1850s, their ideas began to win acceptance. California, a non-slave state, took away the right of blacks to give evidence against whites, essentially stripping them of their ability to protect their lives and property. Apartheid, anyone? In 1857, Oregon chose a constitution that handled the slavery issue by banning slavery—and black people entirely—from their new state.
As the Civil War approached, Southern sympathizers revived the notion of an independent West, an idea that had been kicked around since Thomas Jefferson. They proposed a Pacific Confederacy that would consist of California, Washington Territory (which also included Idaho), and Oregon—perhaps more. In selling the idea, they played on themes that still echo in today’s Republican rhetoric and militia jargon: independence from federal “despotism,” local control, lower taxes, fewer bureaucrats. Racial exclusion and exploitation was, at the very least, a strong subtext. By the late 1850s, black settlers were leaving Oregon and California in droves.
Secretly, many Western pols coddled or conspired with the movement, including Oregon’s pro-Southern governor and senator Joseph Lane and Washington’s territorial gov, Isaac Stevens (who also cheated the Indians and declared martial law to get his way). In late 1860, an Oregon newspaper gave a fairly detailed description of the new country they had in mind. This, according to the Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, “was to be an aristocracy after the model of the ancient republic of Venice, all the power being vested in an hereditary nobility, the chief executive being elected on very limited suffrage. Slaves were to be procured by inviting coolies, South Sea Islanders, and negroes to immigrate to California, and then reducing them to slavery.” Sounds like the land of milk and honey—for white supremacists.
A majority saw the Pacific Confederacy as treasonous, even delusional, once the Civil War began, but Southern sympathizers kept it alive through secret societies such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, a kind of precursor to the Klan that was active in the Pacific states during the war; some towns and counties even flew the Confederate flag.
In 1861, gold was discovered in the Idaho portion of Washington Territory, and with it came a huge influx of men, a great many of them Southern sympathizers no longer welcome in pro-Union California. Many others were draft dodgers who didn’t want to serve as “white niggers” in Mr. Lincoln’s army, to use the phrase of one Corvallis, Oregon, newspaper.
In light of this, we shouldn’t be so surprised that neo-Nazi thugs and survivalist loons—and their dystopian dreams—flourish here. It’s something of a tradition.