When History Meets Romance


Portrait of an English soldier, by Reynolds

Truth lies not in the accounts but in the account books. – Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time

I had a lot of fun researching the Oregon Border Dispute when I was writing The English Lieutenant’s Lady. (Yes, I’m a geek. I like research.) Specifically, I searched for information about the two spies: a pair of British Army officers named Lieutenants Vavasour and Warre. The Colonial Office sent them to Oregon from Montreal, with instructions to pass as gentlemen of leisure on a scenic tour. Their mission was to evaluate the territory and its population to determine whether the British should declare war against America to defend their claim to the land.

The two men travelled across the continent to the Pacific coast, where they tried to purchase the aptly named Cape Disappointment. Failing at that, they went up the Columbia River and then the Willamette, evaluating sites for potential forts and even drawing up a plan to occupy the only town of any size in the area, Oregon City.

My story focuses on a character based on one of the actual lieutenants, Vavasour, and a fictional woman from the Oregon Territory. At least, I thought she was fictional. But looking through the records, there is evidence that the lieutenant was involved with someone while on his mission.

fullsizeoutput_115Looking through the accounts of items purchased by Vavasour at Fort Vancouver, I found evidence that he purchased not only the standard supplies he would need for his stay in the territory, food and such, he also made some intriguing additional purchases. He purchased a pair of ladies shoes and several yards of gauzy material. On a couple occasions he purchased hair ribbons.

All these purchases went on the official record. He was given an allowance to buy what he needed for his mission, and he included these items in the list. Therefore, it is logical to assume he was prepared to justify the act of buying ladies shoes and fripperies as being required for his mission.

Hmmmn… supplies for his mission? Ladies shoes and hair ribbons? Even if I weren’t a romance novelist I would be starting to suspect that love was in the air.

The British in Fort Vancouver held a ball during this time, as well as putting on several plays. Festivities, in other words. Events for which a lady would need special clothes… hmmmmm…

The time Britain and America almost went to war… in Oregon

In 1845, Britain and the United States were both considering going to war over which one of them had the right to claim the Oregon Territory. (Neither side seems to have bothered to consult the people actually living there at the time.)

The British wanted to claim the territory all the way down to the border with Mexican-held California. The Americans, on the other hand, wanted to claim the territory all the way up to the Russian-held Alaska. In map terms, they claimed the border was 40 minutes past the 54th parallel. Their motto was 54-40 or Fight. From their point of view, America needed this land, to provide room for the people coming west to settle. It was their right to claim it. This whole argument was what led to term ‘Manifest Destiny’ being coined.

The British didn’t have a catchy motto. They were mainly interested in the resources, such as lumber and furs. Thanks to the fashion in beaver hats dying out, that meant they really only wanted to hold onto the land for the trees. And they still had a whole lot of trees in Canada. Even so, they didn’t like the idea of giving up land, especially to the ex-colonials with whom they’d already gone to war twice in the last 70 years. The British government decided to send out a pair of army lieutenants on a confidential mission to investigate, see how much work it would take to make the territory defensible against the Americans.

That’s what led to me writing The English Lieutenant’s LadyI was fascinated by the idea of the British sending spies into Oregon, the more so as neither of these men were in any way professional spies. One was a general’s aide-de-camp, with a talent for watercolors. The other was an engineer. The two of them posed as tourists while they drew up plans to occupy Oregon City, build forts on the Columbia river, and keep the Americans out. What if one of them also fell in love while he was in Oregon? There is documentation to support this possibility.

I read through a lot of historical documents while researching the Oregon Border Dispute. Though even as a complete history nerd, I still think it’s a bit extreme to have a coat made up of headlines dealing with this issue.

The history behind His Forgotten Fiancée

Alfred Jacob Miller - Breaking up Camp at Sunrise - Walters 371940142
History can be boring when it deals with economic issues and large, sweeping movements that usually deal with -isms. But history can be fascinating if you look at individual people, the problems they faced and the choices they made.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 stated that a white man could own 320 acres of land in Oregon basically just by asking for it. If he were married, he could claim 640 acres, a square mile. The other 320 acres were considered to be his wife’s claim. The wife could not have claimed the land on her own, however, any more than a single woman could. The only way the wife got control of the land was if her husband died. Good fodder for a mystery novel, perhaps, but not a romance.

Where I saw possibilities for a romance novel was in the part of the act that stated that any single man could claim the additional 320 acres, so long as he got married before December of 1851.

Apparently, there were a lot of marriages that year.

I’ve read secondary sources who claim some men married girls who were too young to be wives; these girls stayed with their parents until they were old enough to live with their husbands.

His Forgotten Fiancée

My First Ever Book!

I set my story in the fall of 1851 because I wanted Liza to face pressure to get married. As a young, unmarried woman in the Oregon Territory, she encountered a lot of single men who wanted to marry her. I liked the conflict it set up for Matthew: he did not want to marry a woman he couldn’t remember proposing to, but at the same time it bothered him to think of her marrying someone else. The poor man wasn’t being very logical. But if I’d had every memory of my past stripped from me, I might not be very logical either.

Put a bonnet on it


Actual Oregon Trail prairie bonnet, modeled by a kind docent at the Newell Pioneer Village

The Newell Pioneer Village in Champoeg is a fabulous place to visit if you want to know about how the Oregon Trail pioneers lived. A lot of families donated the clothing the pioneers wore, or the string beds they’d slept in, or old flintlocks, schoolbooks, all kinds of things.

Plus, there are kind, knowledgable docents who can explain the stories behind the artifacts. One lady was nice enough to model a bonnet for me. She said it made her feel like a horse wearing blinders. It cut of all peripheral vision.

Beautiful horse head profile
On the one hand, it’s good to have something to protect you from the sun, especially when you’re out harvesting the crops in the blazing sunlight. They didn’t really have much in the way of sunscreen back then. Plus, being tan was seen as lower class. The fashion was to have skin as pale as possible.

On the other hand, I would hate to feel like a horse wearing blinders.

I liked the idea of using details from daily life in my story, so I made this a point of conflict between Matthew and Liza. He wanted to keep her protected from everything, including the sun, while she wanted to be free and independent.

“Women’s fashions are often ridiculous, but there is some merit in wearing a bonnet. It will protect you from the sunlight.”

“But I’ll be able to better see what I’m doing without it.”

“It’s not proper for a lady to go bare headed.” They had arrived at the wheat field, and he handed her the bonnet again.

She squinting up at the sky, then around at the fields on every side. “Who would I shock? The birds?”

“You are not taking into account the feelings of this innocent, young kitten. They’re very sensitive at that age.” One corner of his mouth twitched up, as if he were trying to restrain a smile.

“I am starting to wonder about this kitten. No matter how often I offer him food, he never seems hungry. Are you still feeding him snacks at odd hours of the day?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, straight faced.

“I think I should name this kitten here Elijah. The ravens must be bringing him food.”

I think you are trying to change the subject.”

“It is my head, and whether I put a bonnet on it — or not — is my decision.” She draped the bonnet over a stump.

Liza knew she was being stubborn on this issue, but it seemed important to make that point clear. He was trying to look out for her, protect her. That was his instinct with women. But he could not have it both ways. He could not protect her at the same time he was planning to leave her.

– His Forgotten Fiancée

Not a 19th century RV


Replica of a covered wagon

When movies and novels show pioneers traveling west across the country in a covered wagon, the people are always sitting on the wagon as the oxen pull them along.

I strongly suspect that the people who wrote those books and movies had never seen a covered wagon. A covered wagon was not the 19th century equivalent of an RV.

The first travellers to cross the country learned early that the larger the wagon and the more you carried, the less likely you were to get your wagon over the mountains.

“In procuring supplies for this journey, the emigrant should provide himself with, at least, 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon; ten pounds of coffee; twenty pounds of sugar; and ten pounds of salt.”

– Lansford Hastings’ Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,
published in 1845

People not only packed their wagons with food for the journey, they also packed seeds for planting in the new territory, pans to cook with, quilts and blankets to sleep in, rifles and ammunition for hunting and protection, and any mementoes they couldn’t bear to part with. But they also had to keep the wagons small enough to be hauled for thousands of miles.

In other words, there wasn’t all that much room to sit around inside a covered wagon. Only the very young or the feeble spent much time in the wagon while it was traveling. Women used to prepare dough and set it aside to rise, timing the rising of the bread so that it would be ready to bake when they made camp that evening. At night, some families would spread a mattress on top of the stores and sleep there. But most of the time, the pioneers did not sit inside the wagon all day long just being carried passively along. They walked.

Something to be thankful for, if you’re planning a long car ride to visit friends and family. You don’t have to walk.

Adding scenery to a scene

Sometimes  writers are strange bunch. But if being strange helps get the story written, then I can live with it.

The other day, I was writing a scene and looking to add some physical description. Thankfully, I have a very useful primary source I can draw on. Lewis and Clark wrote detailed descriptions of the locations they camped at. One of their last campsites before settling down for the winter was at Tongue Point. Clark’s journal mentioned that the river had astonishingly beautiful little stones there.

The Shore on the Side next the Sea is Covered with butifull pebble of various Colour …” [Clark, November 29, 1805]

When I read these words, I thought that was an odd thing to mention. A website quoted Moulton saying these were probably quartz and cherts, but to me, rocks are just rocks and who cares about that? Still, I wondered about it. Those words were written by a man who had travelled thousands of miles over the course of several months to get to that point. He must have looked at a whole lot of rocks in the course of his travels. Why did he notice these in particular?

And then came one of those moments that sound really strange if you’re not a writer. I could hear my character’s voice, in my head, saying “But look at these!” And he scooped up a bunch of pebbles from the river and held them out.

He opened his hand. On his palm were a collection of pebbles that glittered like jewels, a translucent milky stone flecked with gold, rose quartz, topaz agates, carnelian and moss-green stones, glistening with water and sparkling in the sunlight.

Sometimes, it can really help your writing if you have tangible objects to look at and to hold. And while I have always considered a bunch of rocks to be pretty boring, they seemed important to my hero. I wrote a rough draft of the scene and then went off to the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks & Minerals to look at rocks. I had to try to find out why my hero was so convinced they were beautiful. I think I can understand him a bit better now.


So yes, I just brought a bunch of rocks home because I wanted to understand my hero. It sounds crazy. But it helped me write the scene.

Have you ever done something odd to help get a scene written? I can’t be the only one who finds it helpful to have tangible objects. Probably it’s just as well I don’t write about billionaires with fancy cars and luxurious mansions!

Exploring Oregon’s Past

I took a research trip over the hill and across the Willamette to Champoeg (pronounced “shampoo-ee”). If you’re curious what life was like in Oregon in the 1850s, then I highly recommend a trip to the Newell Pioneer Village.

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I came on a Saturday afternoon, and since I was the only guest at that time, the docent gave me a personalized tour. There’s a replica (a bit larger than the original) of a log cabin, with authentic furnishings, many of them donated by descendants of pioneers who came west on the Oregon Trail. Up the path is the Newell house, which was the “posh” house on the hill when it was originally built. When the town of Champoeg was destroyed in a great flood, the Newells ended up sheltering most of the town. The attic houses a collection of inaugural gowns worn by the First Lady of each governor of the state of Oregon. There’s also a selection of quilts and of native baskets and tools.

My interest on this trip was the school. The original Butteville school and jail are on the grounds. The jail is sited about 10 feet away from the school. I needed to research details about schools in Oregon, so the docent unlocked the cupboard and brought out several textbooks from the era to show me. She also provided lots of information, the sort of details that often get missed. It was like having access to my own personal historian.

When you’re writing history, there’s always the worry that you’re going to get some details wrong. It really helps to be able to walk through a piece of history, to stand where your characters would have stood and experience something of what life would have been like for them. If you get a chance, go for it. This site is less than a quarter-mile from Champoeg State Park, which has a nice exhibit on the native people of the area as well as some bike trails and a campground. Fun!