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WSU Vancouver historian explores Oregon pioneers’ legacy of violence

By , Columbian staff writer
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Loyd Montgomery was hanged for a triple murder in Brownsville, Ore.
Loyd Montgomery was hanged for a triple murder in Brownsville, Ore. (Contributed by Peter Boag) Photo Gallery

On Nov. 18, 1895, an impoverished farmer named John Montgomery slapped his 18-year-old son, Loyd, across the face and told him to get back to the chores left undone when Loyd had unexpectedly disappeared overnight to go hunting.

Loyd Montgomery exploded in rage. He retrieved that same hunting rifle and shot his father in the head. He shot his mother, who was nearby. He shot a visitor who’d just arrived — his father’s creditor, aiming to collect. Then Loyd pursued his wounded mother and finished the job.

Loyd Montgomery eventually was hanged for the triple murder, which took place just east of Brownsville, Ore. While some in the area still talk about the shocking crime and ponder Loyd Montgomery’s motives, Washington State University Vancouver historian Peter Boag said many more don’t know — and don’t want to know — about the grim realities and violent history of the American West.

Boag’s new scholarly book, “Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon,” is a kaleidoscopic study of the whole societal context surrounding the Montgomery crime. It expands outward from standard criminology turf — the murderer’s troubled psychology, health problems, history of bad behavior and possible domestic abuse by his father — to explore the grinding economic depression of the late 1800s and the complex financial and social pressures felt by Willamette Valley farm families.

The book is “kind of a spider web that started spinning out from this family,” Boag said. “So many things are happening at that particular moment. When the murder happens, it seems to tug on all these strands that are connected outward into society and the nation — and the world.”

Boag, who grew up in Portland, started digging into his own family history while in college in the 1980s. Among his ancestors he discovered Oregon Trail pioneers of the 1850s who had settled in Brownsville.

“I had no idea we were a real Oregon Trail family,” he said. “I was really interested and proud of that.”

Boag became a historian of the American West. He was doing dissertation research in the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville when he stumbled upon the Montgomery murder story. He found the first newspaper report about the crime tucked away in a folder.

“It had nothing to do with my research, but it was so fascinating and intriguing,” he said.

After that, across decades, Boag kept amassing related materials from regional libraries and archives while working on other projects.

“I just collected so much stuff,” he said. “When COVID came about and I was trapped in my office at home, I said, ‘I’ve got to start working on this.’”

Lowest rung

In the late 1800s, the American ideal of wholesome, prosperous farm life was giving way to a hardscrabble reality. Loyd Montgomery’s pioneer ancestors had staked huge donation land claims in Linn County, but Loyd’s own father fell to the lowest rung of the economic ladder, sharecropping on a relative’s land.

By the 1890s, “this branch of the family was in extreme poverty,” Boag said. “John (Montgomery) was going deeper and deeper into debt.”

And his son, 18-year-old Loyd, was on the cusp of manhood but unable to make a start in life.

At that age, young men would move out and have their own families, but given the Montgomerys’ desperation, Loyd had no options other than staying put and laboring for his poor father, Boag said.

The contradictory contents of local publications like Willamette Farmer marked how times were changing, Boag writes.

“Appearing alongside … articles, commentaries and advice columns that admired and touted farming, country living and rosy-cheeked rural children was also the very real news of agricultural instability, slovenly farms, rural death and despair, and the imperiled farmer’s son,” he writes. “The greatest social anxiety haunting late 19th century rural America was the drift of its boys to the city.”

Boag said Loyd Montgomery’s boyhood would have been awash in violence, trauma and competing ideals of manhood: the responsible, wholesome, Christian citizen idealized by Willamette Farmer versus a violent, ungovernable, testosterone-driven wildness that spurred social reformers to call the “bad boy problem” an outright plague in Oregon.

Violence was an essential part of the pioneer and post-pioneer landscape, Boag writes. In Loyd’s day, the original Oregon Trail pioneers who were starting to die off both celebrated and whitewashed their own long history of violence.

“One of the things that is fascinating to me is how, just when Loyd commits his murders … the pioneers who founded Oregon are both mourning and celebrating, and what’s so central to the celebration is violence,” Boag said.

That violence was “cleaned up, spruced up, explained away or swept under the rug,” Boag said.

It’s not known whether the topic of Loyd Montgomery came up during the 1896 reunion of the Linn County Pioneer Association, Boag writes, but it’s hard to imagine those pioneers seeing the crime as anything but an aberration, not an outgrowth of their example.

Now that “Pioneering Death” is out, Boag added with a chuckle, he’s not sure how he’ll be received in Brownsville, where a pioneer society still gathers to celebrate.

“I explore the unpleasant side of what they celebrate,” he said. “That’s a hard thing for a lot of people who have a lot invested in their community and their identity. That’s happening all across America today.”

‘Crossing Boundaries’

Boag’s scholarship about the American West often focuses on gender, sexuality and culture. A museum exhibit that he developed in partnership with the staff of the Washington State Historical Society, called “Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender West,” won an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History.

“Crossing Boundaries” recently closed after a run at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

Boag’s book “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past” provided much of the research for the exhibit, which highlighted the stories of specific transgender people in the American West from 1860 to 1940.

“The Washington State Historical Society’s support of this work, and now this award from the American Association of State and Local History, are validation of our queer lives today and the past personages whom we are indebted to,” Boag said.

Boag and the museum are developing a traveling version of the exhibit, he said.

For a recorded talk about “Crossing Boundaries” by Boag and museum exhibitions curator Gwen Whiting, visit www.washingtonhistory.org/exhibit/crossing-boundaries.

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