Diary points to issues that are familiar today

  • Wed May 21st, 2008 5:36pm
  • Life

By Beth Helstein

“James Francis Tulloch Diary 1875-1910,” compiled and edited by Gordon Keith © 1978

“If in describing frontier life I might speak plainly of it as I found it, I sincerely hope that what I write for my daughter’s amusement will never be allowed to hurt the feelings of anyone.”

Nice try, but no cigar. Tulloch’s cantankerous voice can still raise hackles, near to 100 years later. His voice, and an image of him as an islander, come through clearly in this disjointed memoir, written when Tulloch was about 70 years of age. His “plain speaking” undoubtedly offends, for a variety of reasons.

I found this memoir of an early settler enjoyable and surprisingly contemporary.

Throughout the book, he rails against what he pejoratively calls “squaw men” — white men who married Native American women. He astutely identifies the practice as deriving from Hudson’s Bay Company policy to prevent “the tribes from raising against” the company.

Many descendants of these settlers, with a different perspective on their Native American heritage, think Tulloch’s ire smacks of racism, and lots of folks rankle at racism. He recounts forming the Orcas Island Anti-Chinese Association and his pride in its nationwide influence. Then, as now, immigrant labor was used by powerful operations like the Roche Harbor Lime Company to cut prices, and a result was a divided community.

Tulloch moved to Orcas Island in 1875, a few short years after the resolution of the Pig War. Before the Kaiser awarded the islands to the United States, the no man’s land created by lack of national certainty provided a haven for a criminal element who would claim citizenship with the opposite country of the one trying to enforce any law.

At the time Tulloch bought land (he paid $250 for 160 acres!), the fledgling community had a large component of people who made their living scamming outside the law. When Tulloch met and married his wife and established one of the first successful farms, he joined this fractured society as a stalwart for honest hard work.

Throughout, Tulloch uses powerful language: “despicable character,” “pesty deer” and “scandalmongers and mischief makers.” He doesn’t pull his punches on the founding of the Episcopal Church: he describes the minister as “absolutely unscrupulous … His great mistake was in not becoming a real estate agent.”

In my mind, Tulloch doesn’t sound very different than many of the voices in support or opposition to the current controversy over the Border Patrol at the Anacortes ferry terminal and their “security checks.” When Tulloch recounts running for elected office, I imagine I can actually hear his irascible voice relating the campaign — and I am not referring to his politics, but to his manner of speaking. He writes of “… a courthouse gang headed by John S. McMillin of Roche Harbor … All we had to show for our high taxes was a ring of high-salaried officials who fed the people on their fine election promises which they never kept.”

The question of racism is still current on these islands. No longer focused on Native Americans or Chinese, now it is Latinos and other immigrants caught up in Border Patrol checks. Islanders are still challenged by immigrants of color seeking opportunity here. Yet we also cherish our community even though we still love to disagree, often acrimoniously.

And we still love to rail against the deer in our gardens.

“James Francis Tulloch Diary 1875-1910,” like all books reviewed in this column, may be found at the San Juan Island Library.

— Beth Helstien is the outreach coordinator for the San Juan Island Library. She may be reached at bhelstien@sjlib.org, or contacted at the library most Wednesdays through Fridays.