“Here be Dragons…”

Fred Gifford, left; Oregon Klansmen with Portland police, and text excerpt.  Note the highlighted text.

Fred Gifford, left; Oregon Klansmen with Portland police, and text excerpt.  Note the highlighted text.


“Some of those that work forces, are the same who burn crosses…”

Rage Against the Machine [1992]


Most people would consider the Ku Klux Klan to be associated primarily with the Deep South.

For reasons too complex to address at length in a short article – post WWI socio-economic issues, the burgeoning eugenics movement, shocking levels of racism, increased US immigration, etc., the KKK reached its highest-ever membership numbers during the 1920s – and not only in southern states.

In 1920, the state of Oregon had a population of around 783,389 souls.

Of that number, between 30,000 and 35,000 were sworn Klan members.  Add in the number of Klan-affiliated women’s and children’s organisations, and we can say that perhaps 1 in 10 Oregonians were directly involved with the Klan in some way, making Oregon by far the largest host to Klan activities west of the Mississippi River at the time.

With 50 chapters statewide, the pervasiveness of the Klan presence ensured that its members had a huge influence on elections, state governance, legislation, public policy, and law enforcement.

Oregon had a relatively tiny African-American population at the time, and much KKK activity was focussed on keeping it that way.  Many of its other activities during the 1920s revolved around an attempt to ring-fence Oregon as a haven for white Protestants.  The Klan’s political clout ensured an ongoing hostile environment for Catholics, Jews, and all non-“white” immigrants – especially Blacks and East Asians.

For a number of reasons, including having some of its flagship legislation deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court (and due to much political infighting), the Klan in Oregon had withered away to a shadow of its former self by 1930, but only after a decade of making Oregon a weirdly distorted and more orderly mirror twin to the sinister social engineering which was unfolding rather more chaotically in Germany at the same time.

Oregon’s last publicly acknowledged “Grand Dragon” would be Fred L. Gifford, who died in 1945, thoroughly unrepentant.

Mr. Gifford could have never envisaged a future world where a lone blogger and podcaster living on the side of a mountain would have access to digitised records documenting the history of his family – its occupations, migrations, and ethnic details.

And this is also why it seems almost certain that Mr. Grand Dragon never breathed a word to his mincing underlings about his “complicated” family.

You see, Frederick Louis Gifford‘s father Benjamin Gifford had been a saloon-keeper back in Minnesota, where his son Fred Gifford was born before moving to the American northwest in the early 1900s.

Benjamin Gifford had children by two different women.  One was Fred Gifford’s mother.  The other wasn’t really a woman.  She was a 15-year-old Chippewa girl who had just managed to turn 16 by the time she gave birth to her first of three children by Benjamin Gifford.

I have been unable to discover how the “Grand Dragon” of the Oregon KKK treated his “non-white” half siblings.

I have also been unable to discover how the “Grand Dragon” of the Oregon KKK reacted when his daughter Loretta married a man of Jewish descent named Leon Rothschild.

Fascists, racists, and bigots rarely leave memoirs saying “I was wrong”.

#klan #racism #oregonhistory #beforewewerewhite

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