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Before Curtis, there was Gibbs

Beckham presentation on pioneer scholar set for LO Reads

Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham

George Gibbs was almost like the Zelig of mid-19th century America.

Born into tremendous wealth and prestige, Gibbs more than lived up to his tremendous advantages with an outstanding career as an ethnologist, naturalist, geologist, historian, adventurer, artist, author, diplomat and adviser to the mighty. He had a brilliant mind and was as brave as a lion.

During the New York City draft riots of 1863, Gibbs volunteered to defend the home of John C. Fremont.

Gibbs’ biggest contribution to his country, however, was his work at preserving the language and culture of Native Americans at a time when the only concern of the vast majority of Americans was how to remove them from the land.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to the memory of this remarkable man. A web search of images shows just one very small photo of Gibbs. He looks like just another 19th-century guy whose beard was too big.

However, Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham is trying to change this situation. One of Oregon’s most distinguished historians, the longtime Lake Oswego resident will be giving a presentation on Gibbs as part of Lake Oswego Reads on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Oswego Heritage House.

Why Gibbs? Because without him, Edward Curtis, the focus of Lake Oswego Reads, would have been just another photographer and not an artist who played a monumental role in preserving the history of Native Americans. And Beckham is probably the world’s greatest authority on George Gibbs.

“Gibbs is a man unknown, but he has an incredible background,” Beckham said. “He went to the most prestigious prep school in Boston (Bancroft), and his parents were among the wealthiest people in Boston. He went to Harvard, where his roommate was Charles Sumner (an American senator during the Civil War era).”

When it comes to people born with silver spoons in their mouths, Gibbs must lead the list. In the home of his super-wealthy grandfather in Rhode Island, there hung portraits of the first five American presidents painted by renowned artist Gilbert Stuart. Awesome.

Many people so lucky at birth go on to play cards and drink heavily for the rest of their lives, but not Gibbs.

“Gibbs was fascinated by languages,” Beckham said. “He started Indian ethnography (the scientific description of the customs of cultures). He went 11 years on the West Coast, and he had input on treaties that guarantee fishing rights for Indians that are still in effect today. His research paved the way for Curtis when he went on the Harriman expedition to Alaska.”

Unlike the rest of America, Beckham became so obsessed with his research on Gibbs that he finally got sick of the subject and put it aside for decades. Beckham did not write the book he had planned to write on Gibbs. But that situation is changing. Beckham has traveled the country to serve as an expert witness on 37 court cases involving Indians, and the subject of Gibbs has again come alive in his life.

“It’s been 51 years since I started work on Gibbs,” Beckham said. “Since then I’ve traveled around the country and found more and more material on Gibbs. He was really a man of interests.”

Lake Oswego Reads was lucky to line up a historian with Beckham’s sterling qualifications. He was the Dr. Robert Pamplin Jr. Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College, has written 18 books of history, and penned 110 reports as an expert witness.

“I’ve done so much work on history, everywhere but here in town where I live,” Beckham said. “Bill Baars (director of the Lake Oswego Public Library) is a terrific librarian. He came after me to do Lake Oswego Reads.”

Soon, Beckham may get around to some unfinished business.

“I’ve produced a lot of stuff on Gibbs,” he said. “Maybe I will write that book.”

Lake Oswego Heritage House is located at 398 10th St.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..