The Claire McGill Luce Western History Room at the Harney County Library takes the opportunity this Juneteenth to recognize the contributions of author and former Harney County resident Martha Anderson.
June 19th or "Juneteenth" marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday. On June 17, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday.
“If anyone had told me before I began my research that the West practiced slavery in the open, I wouldn’t have believed it, “ said former Harney County resident Mrs. Martha Anderson. Her research dug into the history of Black men and women, like herself, who were making significant contributions to rural and urban communities following the westward movement of Blacks after the civil war. She compiled the stories and information she discovered into a ground-breaking book, “Black Pioneers of the Northwest 1800-1918.”
“The Blacks that settled in the West in the 1800s, she said, proved that “it doesn’t take a million dollars to be a good citizen. Rather, they showed the ability to work under any circumstances.”
Martha Anderson was no stranger to overcoming adversity herself. Together with her husband Walter Anderson, and his brother Oscar and wife, they constituted the entire Black population of Harney County for decades. After spending forty years building a successful cattle ranch in the Juniper Lake area of Harney County, declining health forced Walter and his wife to seek out a different line of work. The couple sold their ranch in 1952 and purchased a small hotel on Portland’s east side. Mounting medical bills and Walter’s death six years later coincided with a downturn in hotel business that put Martha in dire financial straits. Never a quitter, she sought financial advice from good friend, astute businesswoman, and neighboring Harney County rancher, Mary (Neal) Kueny.
Thanks to the generosity of Mary Kueny’s great-niece, Lois Renwick, a year-long series of correspondence between Mary and Martha Anderson has been donated to the archives of the Claire McGill Luce Western History Room.
More than a dozen letters of correspondence were received by Mary Kueny from Martha between 1958 and 1959. Some of the letters detail prospects for buyers of the hotel. Others describe business conditions in Portland at the time. A tone of melancholy prevails throughout.
On November 24, 1958, she writes:
“I am tired and lonely. Tho grateful for good health and strength. My problems seem to get larger and larger and business is very slow. I want to sell out as every way that I have tried to boost the income of this place it has not worked. Some of it I can lay to bad timing. But, it looks like Portland is not a good place for me…I intend to hold up Dad’s name as long as I have a breath. But, all these complications are confusing me…You have had lots of experience in managing things and know how to do business. Do you think I would be wrong in leaving here?... Walt hated a quitter, but truly I wish I was up in the hills with you… This is a cheerful light old building and Dad and I had some happy days here but is seems like it’s time to get to getting.”
Martha Anderson rallied from the setbacks of those troubled years and became a practical nurse before dedicating herself to documenting the history of Black pioneers across the West.
Read copies of Martha Anderson’s correspondence in person in the Western History Room or look for them to appear soon in our online digital collections.
Authored by the staff at Harney County Library!