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A Peaceable Mob?

 

Riva Dean¸ "A Peaceable Mob": the Lynching of Frank Viles and Community Identity in Asotin¸ Washington¸ 1896."
Interview by David Reynolds¸ History and Biology Major

What was your thesis about?

My thesis examined the 1896 lynching of Frank Viles¸ a "half – breed Nez Perce" in Asotin¸ Washington and the way in which the community used the lynching and the collective memory of the event to create an identity as a white¸ pioneer community. Frank Viles was born during the brief period of accommodation between whites and Indians in northern Idaho and southeastern Washington before the Nez Perce War of 1877. He was lynched for the alleged assault of a white woman in Asotin¸ Washington in 1896. The thesis examined the changes in the region from the late 1860s when the first white settlers appeared¸ through the Nez Perce War¸ the breaking up of the Nez Perce reservation into allotments¸ and the creation of a white¸ agrarian community. It looks at the way in which white farmers used western mythology to create a community identity based upon racial exclusion.

What made you interested in this event in history?
I had been interested in the myth of the West¸ and how communities built a regional and local identity throughout my graduate career. I explored that topic through my readings¸ as well as ideas of "whiteness." When I discovered this lynching¸ I wondered how they described it in their histories. This got me more interested in collective memory¸ and in reading about the history of lynching in the United States¸ I discovered that it was almost always about race and used as a warning. The combination of all of these things was what interested me.

 

Why is this important?

The collective memory of the exclusion of non–whites¸ and the description of the necessity of these acts for our "pioneer ancestors" continues into the present. To use Patricia Limerick´s term¸ it defines a "legacy of conquest" which ties the past into the present. How a culture views its past informs us of current attitudes.

 

How was the community effected the lynching of Frank Viles and how/what identity did this give them?

From what I could find in the primary sources¸ it does not seem that the lynching had an immediate effect on the community. The newspapers in Idaho and Washington all reported it for one week¸ and then it was not mentioned again. However¸ within 20 years¸ the local histories all talked about the event as if the lynching was necessary¸ and demonstrated the pioneer spirit of their ancestors. There was never any mention –in the newspapers or later pioneer histories–that the lynching was wrong.

 

Did this event have a larger regional impact?

The lynching itself did not have a regional impact¸ but was part of the larger story which was the same throughout the West. Violence against non–whites was part of the story of the conquest of the West. The myth of the West was that the region was open to settlement and that Indians were an inconvenience to be overcome.

 

What events do you think led to the end of the cultural exchanges between the Native Americans and the white settlers in this region?

This has been written about by many historians of the West such as Richard White´ s The Middle Ground. The story is only different in the specifics¸ but when the white population was small¸ they had to depend on the Indians for survival. As more whites moved into the region¸ pushing the Indians from their ancestral homelands¸ there were often confrontations which led to violence. The whites then saw the Indians as impediments from taking the land and pushed back with increasing force.

 

Why do you think "half–breeds¸" such as Frank Viles¸ were considered Native American and not white?

This is not something I addressed in my thesis¸ but it has to do with ideas of racial purity¸ which were very prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was an idea that white blood was tainted by any non–white blood. African Americans who could "pass" were still considered African American and this same theory held true with Native Americans and ideas of "savages."

 

What was the Dawes Act of 1887 and what significance did it have on this region?

The Dawes Act divided tribal lands into individual parcels. It emphasized individual land ownership¸ which had a completely negative effect on the Indian tribes. It attempted to assimilate the tribes¸ and to open up the reservation lands to whites. In the case of the Nez Perce¸ they lost 90% of their tribal lands and it had a devastating effect. As they lost their land¸ their tribal identity disintegrated.

 

Do you feel that the Dawes Act acted as a catalyst to the lynching?

It´s impossible to know exactly what happened. Viles had already been threatened over his allotment so it´s possible there was a connection¸ but it´s possible there was no direct connection. The Dawes Act certainly contributed to the notion that it would be a good thing for the Indians to be completely eliminated and that "the only good Indian is a dead" one. The Dawes Act emphasized this existing notion and probably contributed to an attitude toward eliminating Indians¸ and not seeing them as individuals.

 

Was lynching justifiable in this region?

No¸ there was no justification for dragging a man out of a jail cell.

 

You said¸ "The values represented in history are the values the community wants to uphold."  What values do you feel the community of Asotin¸ wanted to uphold?

They were trying to uphold ideas of independence¸ a pioneer spirit¸ and they were asserting their right to hold the land. There were many 19th century notions that the Indians weren´t using their land (they weren´t farming it)¸ so therefore¸ it should go to whites that would put it to good use. All of these notions are part of a pioneer history. They claimed a history of a pioneer heritage¸ even though that land wasn´t truly settled until the 1890s.

 

Do you feel the newspapers escalated/impacted the emotions of the social collective?

I don´ t have any evidence that the newspapers escalated the emotions of the community–the lynching happened immediately after the crime. The newspapers all reported the assault on Olive Richardson and the lynching of Frank Viles in the same paper¸ so those that committed the lynching were not reacting to the newspaper.

 

Do you believe that Frank Viles assaulted Olive Richardson?

I believe that it´s possible¸ but we really have no way of knowing. Because justice was not allowed to run its course¸ we have no statement by Olive Richardson¸ no inquest¸ no trial¸ etc.

 

Do you think the lynching was due to honor¸ justice¸ racism¸ or fear?

I think the lynching was probably tied to all of these things except fear. The whites were already in control by 1896–they were not afraid of the Indians¸ but they used the lynching as a warning to other Indians not to step out of line. The claim made by the newspapers and later histories was that they had to do it to protect their women¸ so there is some notion of honor and justice¸ but without the race issue¸ they would probably have let the justice system take its course.

 

Do you believe that "frontier justice¸" through the form of lynching was justifiable¸ necessary¸ or wrong?

I believe that it was completely wrong. I suppose there may have been times and places where it was impossible to have effective law enforcement in the West¸ but by 1896¸ there was a system of law enforcement. Viles had already been arrested and was pulled out of a jail¸ so there was no justification for the lynching.

 

What is your current career path?

I am currently the Northwest Librarian at Spokane Public Library. I have had a number of jobs in archives and libraries¸ and this is really the culmination of many years experience. I am in charge of a small¸ special collection devoted to the history of the Northwest.

 

What is your current job¸ and how has your MA helped getting this position?

I am currently the Northwest Librarian at Spokane Public Library. I already had a Masters in Library Science and additional archival training. I already had many years of library and archives experience¸ but the library also wanted someone with a background in Northwest History¸ so I believe that it was instrumental in getting me this job.