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Feb. 6, 2023

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Clark County History: Benjamin Shaw

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Benjamin Shaw earned his place in history by shedding Native American blood. At 15 years old, the Missourian traveled west with his family, settling in what is today Marion County, Ore., in 1844. He and his father, William, fought four years later with the Oregon Regiment in the Cayuse War. Afterward, he ran a business near Olympia for a few years, where he supported Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens.

Reputedly, Shaw was the only white man able to translate Chinook, the 300-word lingua franca of trade, into English. Stevens named him the interpreter for Native treaty negotiations. As a result, Shaw’s name appears on the five treaties Stevens forced 80 percent of the Northwest tribal population of about 22,000 to sign.

In 1856, Stevens commissioned Shaw as a lieutenant colonel, then sent him east of the Cascades to punish Natives for their supposed violations of the unratified 1855 treaty. (It remained so until 1859.)

On July 17, 1856, Shaw and a brigade infamously attacked a summer village of Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse families at Grand Ronde meadows near present-day Summerville, Ore. For 15 miles, 200 soldiers chased the Natives, killing 60 men, women and children.

When Stevens became the Washington Territorial representative in 1857, Shaw returned to Marion County, then moved to Vancouver sometime around 1870. A year later, Shaw married Cynthia Nye, the widow of John Wirt Nye (1829-1866), who had six children.

Nye was Ulysses S. Grant’s partner in the potato patch fiasco that was likely on Nye’s land claim. Shaw and his wife had two sons while living on the land Nye’s wife inherited from her husband. Their 640 acres stretched along the Columbia River, encompassing land now home to Vancouver’s Water Resources Education Center and Marine Park.

Several years after Cynthia’s death, Shaw married Agnes Baker in 1890. Together, they had a son, Frank. J.W. Shaw, a son by Cynthia, was born on the Nye claim and attended Stanford University. J.W. Shaw returned to Vancouver to work in the lumber business. Like his father, he was elected state senator and was Vancouver’s postmaster for nine years.

The colonel became one of the best-known men in Western Washington. He was also very involved in Vancouver’s community and considered the region’s “Democratic war horse.” He served as Clark County treasurer in 1886 and was elected state senator in 1890. Some considered Shaw for governor in 1892. Instead, he appeared on the ticket for state senator, running against an opponent wanting to divide Clark County. President Grover Cleveland appointed him land commissioner in 1897.

Shaw remained an advocate of Stevens’ ill-fitting treaties throughout his life. Upon his 1908 death, Harvey Scott, Oregonian editor, who’d served under Shaw, said that as a leader, he was “slow and careful in judgment, yet intelligent in action.”

By its nature, cross-culture communication favors the powerful. A 2016 legal history of fishing rights doubts Shaw’s translation accuracy. It claims his translation of Stevens’ English into Chinook was retranslated by Native translators to tribal representatives. With its limited vocabulary, it says Chinook was incapable of handling the legalese of the treaties, making its content ambiguous.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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