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Family was a witness to history

College's display reveals Portland link to Nez Perce past
by: , Young Erskine Wood went to visit the Nez Perce at the invitation of iconic leader Chief Joseph, a friend of Erskine’s father.

In a hallway right next to its Boley Law Library, Lewis and Clark College has evidence of a connection between a prominent Oregon family and one of the most stirring icons of the American West.

For most of the 20th century, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, his son Erskine Wood and his grandson Erskine Biddle Wood practiced law in Portland, often colorfully.

The lives of the three men reached into many corners of the state's culture and history, never more than when young Erskine Wood spent time with the Nez Perce tribe and its legendary leader Chief Joseph. That chapter is well-documented in a small display at Lewis and Clark this month.

Part of a collection of items given by the Wood family in 2003, the exhibit features reproductions of correspondence between family members, images of young Erskine Wood with the Nez Perce and accounts the boy provided for national publications.

'There's almost 2,000 letters from three generations of the family,' says Doug Erickson, head of special collections. 'To find all this correspondence no one knew existed was a real treasure.'

The small exhibit, in a hall named for the Wood family, is open to the public. The larger collection may be viewed by appointment.

When Chief Joseph surrendered to the U.S. Army after a heroic retreat in 1877, the now-famous words he spoke in defeat - 'I will fight no more forever' - were translated and recorded by a 25-year old second lieutenant and West Point graduate - C.E.S. Wood.

Wood, a budding writer who barely hid a distaste for the regimented codes of the military, was troubled by the war that had begun when Joseph and others refused to sign away tribal lands.

Erickson says relations between Nez Perce and the white people had been harmonious since the days of Lewis and Clark, whose expedition might have become a sad footnote in American history if not for the tribe.

'Without them,' he says straightforwardly, 'they would never have made it back.'

Even as white settlers began to move into the tribe's Wallowa Valley homeland, relations remained good. But the U.S. government reversed itself on allowing the tribe to remain in the valley, forcing the Nez Perce to either fight or flee.

'There had never been war between the Nez Perce and the whites,' Erickson says. 'When the land was taken away from them, there was conflict.'

Joseph led members of his tribe in what some regard as the greatest strategic retreat in all of military history, defeating or eluding a superior force countless times.

C.E.S. Wood served as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Oliver Howard, who led the campaign to capture Joseph, but he also had befriended the chief.

'Joseph wouldn't surrender to Howard,' Erickson says. 'He did surrender to Wood. Wood must have been extraordinarily persuasive and trustworthy. He took down the surrender speech. He was the only person that recorded it.

'Joseph and Wood remained in contact.'

'The last surviving remnant'

Wood would go on to prominence in Portland. An outspoken anti-imperialist, labor advocate and anarchist, he represented Emma Goldman and numbered Mark Twain, Ansel Adams, Charlie Chaplin and John Steinbeck among his friends.

He was also an influential civic leader who was instrumental in the founding of both the Portland Art Museum and the public library. A poet and painter, he brought artist Childe Hassam to Oregon and then squired the impressionist around the state, the two painting side by side.

But before that, he'd sent his 12-year-old son to spend parts of two summers with Joseph and the Nez Perce at a reservation, Nespelem, in northeastern Washington.

Paul Merchant, special collections assistant, says the elder Wood accepted an offer from Joseph himself to have the boy as a guest.

'He was thrilled to have his son be with the Nez Perce. I think C.E.S. had enormous respect for them,' he says. 'They were the last surviving remnant of a complete, unspoiled native race.'

The exhibit at Lewis and Clark conflates history, linking a towering figure from the Old West to the growing urban center on the Willamette River. Young Wood sent a letter to his mother the day before he left to visit Joseph and his people. It was written on stationery bearing the letterhead of his father's downtown Portland law office.

Alongside the letter are photos the boy took during his visits and a worn copy of the popular boys' journal St. Nicholas that features a story he wrote, 'A Boy's Visit to Chief Joseph.'

Elsewhere on campus, but not open to the public, is a re-creation of C.E.S. Wood's personal library, part of the 2003 gift to the college. It's filled with rare books, bronze busts struck by Olin Warner (who also created the Skidmore Fountain) and artifacts that include embroidered leggings Chief Joseph wore and later gave to Erskine Wood.

The history you know

Vancouver, Wash., photographer Erskine Wood is the great-grandson of C.E.S. Wood. After many years in Eugene, the former architect, 64, recently moved into his grandfather's former home in East Vancouver.

He knows his grandfather and great-grandfather were part of a history he didn't always appreciate fully.

Of C.E.S. Wood he says: 'I really admire the fact that in his time, in that day and age, he appreciated who the Nez Perce were. It was rather unusual at that time for someone to stand up and say, 'These are significant people.'

'Over time, as you get to understand the story, it becomes meaningful. Many, many years ago, there was a movie about the plight of Chief Joseph,' he says. 'My grandfather saw the movie and said it was quite accurate. He really only had one criticism.'

Wood says Joseph is portrayed in the movie as dropping his head and lowering his eyes at the moment of his surrender.

'My grandfather said he would never have bowed his head,' Wood says. 'He was too proud a man.'

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Wood Family Collection

When: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Where: Lewis and Clark College, Wood Hall, 10015 S.W. Terwilliger Blvd., 503-768-7254, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.