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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 201

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This is the grave of Peggy Pascoe.

One of the finest historians of the 1980s and 1990s, Pascoe was a pioneer in women’s history and legal history, particularly in the American West. In the 1980s, the field of Western history, by which I mean the U.S. West, long considered something of a backwater, exploded with new scholarship around the New Western History, which sought to rethink western myths and focus on the exploitation of people and the land that defines the region’s history. Despite great outrage from some who wanted to believe that Wild Bill Hickok or whoever was a hero and not look too much deeper, this history has come to dominate the field and influence the larger narratives of American history. Peggy Pascoe was a key figure in this story, especially because she brought a critical interest in gender and sexuality to the conversation. She taught at the University of Utah for several years before becoming the Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon in 1996. This was the fall after I graduated and I never knew her, unfortunately. She taught at Oregon for the rest of her life.

Pascoe wrote two books. The first, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, which Oxford University Press published in 1993, was a critically important book for my burgeoning understand of Western history as a graduate student. This book examined female missionaries in the West and their attempts to “save” different minority populations–Chinese women, Native American women, and Mormon women–while both challenging and reinforcing gender norms and racial hierarchies simultaneously. Pascoe’s second book, which I confess I have not yet read, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, published by Oxford in 2009, was an award-winning study of the topic that focused on the criminalization of interracial marriage in the 1860s and how Americans fought against that over the next century, culminating in the Loving v. Virginia decision of 1967. This brought critical race theory into her analysis and by all accounts was a key book on understanding the constantly shifting meanings of race in this country. This book won many of the top prizes in all of history, from the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.

It was also a tremendous burden for Pascoe to publish this book as the last few years of her life were dominated by a cancer diagnosis that eventually killed her. She died in 2010 at the age of 55, far too young for a historian whose work we desperately needed.

Peggy Pascoe is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery, Eugene, Oregon.

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