Observations of John Minto, Salem, Oregon 1874

The following is an annotation to accompany John Minto’s 1874 editorial in the Willamette Farmer newspaper. Minto, a notable settler in Salem participated in many aspects of early Oregon society;  in the formation of the government and in the blazing of various trail systems in the area. Minto was an expert on sheep, was on the board for the early Oregon Agricultural Association, and later he took over as the prison warden  in Salem after his brother died. There are some writings by him in various magazines, newspapers and journals, and he was a notable writer of early Oregon history.

The tribes mentioned, the Kalapuya, Klamath and Molalla are all Oregon tribes. The location of Salem is a central location for the village of Chimikiti (Chemeketa) a band of the larger Santiam tribe. The tribal bands had their own autonomy in their region and owned their lands, and would join with the neighboring tribes to form kinship relations, trade and find support for security from invading tribes. The Molalla lived in the foothill of the Cascades and throughout the Cascade Range in Oregon. The tribe mentioned lived in Dickey Prairie just outside of what is now Molalla Oregon. The Klamath people were from the Klamath Basin at the headwaters of the Klamath river of southern Oregon. They were also in into the arid flatlands of the basin where the Klamath river and tributaries meandered southwesterly to the Pacific Ocean. The Klamath were one of the last tribes to be removed to a reservation in Oregon.

The native religions mentioned, Indian Shaker and Warm House, were newly found religions which began in the era of this editorial. they were mixtures of native and non-native religions translated for a reservation society of native people. Warm House and Indian Shaker missionaries and ministers did travel the region as the religions spread from their origin in Washington State. They spread to Klamath, then into northern California, and then up the Coast to Siletz and Grand Ronde. Indian Shakerism did not take hold in Grand Ronde, but Warm House did, for a time, until it was discouraged by the Indian agents. Parties to the religion went underground and practiced in various households, until it disappears with termination in the 1950s. Its is unclear whether this is an early example of the spread of one of these new religions or this is a traditional ceremony, and may represent both styles in practice.

Worship in the Ancient Form, John Minto November 6, 1874, Willamette Farmer

By the merest accident I was riding past the railroad depot at Salem in the evening of Oct. 11th and noticed many Indians coming from their camping grounds east of the depot.

Minto describes these people as Salem Indians later, and mentions George as the last of the Chemeketas, from this last statement there appears to be a camping ground somewhere to the east of the fairgrounds. It is unknown whether this is a permanent encampment, or one established for fairgoers. But we know that there were a few Salem Indians that lived around Salem for several more decades as well. Some of these people lived also at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation and visited Salem regularly.

At first I thought it might be that one of their numbers had died, but observation soon dispelled that idea and my curiosity was aroused to learn what was going on. Men, women and children were coming from various directions; falling into line they took a course from the city, at a slow pace and in perfect silence. Riding up to the rear of the procession I asked an Indian man of my acquaintance what was going on? He said in a low voice that he did not quite understand; strange people had come among them. I pressed forward and asked another who was carrying a bucket of water, who said he did not know but “may-be it would be like a campmeeting.”

Indian agricultural pickers, 19th century
Indian agricultural pickers, 19th century

The tribal leaders would know and people would gather when they heard something was going on. Campmeeting might be the term for a trade meeting where two or more tribes got together to trade, tell stories and affirm relationships. There were many of these meetings well into the 20th century organized by men like Polk Scott. Interesting that Minto knew that it was something important and knew to be respectful.

Reaching the head of the column, composed of the older men, I put the same question to another Indian to receive another indefinite answer, all speaking in the same subdued tone. Being assured that there was no objections to my seeing what they would do, I accompanied them by a narrow path, into a thicket, where the concourse entered single file. The path led past two tents, into an open circular space that had been cleared for the occasion.

We can assume this was near the fairgrounds. There are photos of gatherings of natives in an oak savannah at the state fair. The fair was a constant draw for the tribes, in other accounts they would attend every year. This is perhaps a replacement event for the campmeeting. The oak savannah still exists at the fair, unused for several years, it looks like a park. The location would have been perfect for a gathering of over 100 natives, there is a cleared area in the center of the stand.

Oak Savannah at the Oregon State Fairgrounds 2015, likely location of a gather like this over 100 years ago.
Oak Savannah at the Oregon State Fairgrounds 2015, likely location of a gathering like this over 100 years ago.

The men and boys ranging themselves around the South side, the women on the North, seating themselves, and the men and boys reverently uncovering their heads, excepting three or four young hoodlums who kept outside and occasionally made jeering remarks in an undertone, because as I afterwards learned, they did not believe in the rites about to be practiced.

This presents aspects of the assimilation occurring for the tribes. Some people are no longer learning the old ways and so make fun of them, not understanding their importance. The arrangement of men and women is important, same arrangement in the plankhouses, separation of men and women for some ceremonies.

Chief Quinaby (Standing), Chemeketa indian who lived at Grand Ronde and came into Salem periodically.
Chief Quinaby (Standing), Chemeketa Native who lived at Grand Ronde and came into Salem periodically.

I became satisfied that I was about to witness devotional exercises in the Old Indian form of worship. I questioned George, the last man of the Chemeketas, who once owned the site of Salem, and he assured me that my presence was not offensive.

This again is significant that they accepted Minto. Startling today, but I am wondering if white men were more accepted back then, if they were respectful. Minto was a known entity, having been among the tribes in the valley for perhaps 30+ years at this point. George is an interesting figure who deserves more research. Is this another name for the other known Indian around Salem? And it is mentioned that he originally owned the site of Salem, so is he old enough to have been party to the treaties, and so then appear on the Willamette Valley Treaty? George is obviously Minto’s friend.

John Minto
John Minto

The inner circle was complete and a second had formed outside of it, when a middle aged man of robust form and strongly marked features passed out of a tent nearby, bearing blankets that he spread down on the west side of the circle, inside, returning to come again with another man and two women. These women were painted with white marks down each cheek, edged with stripes of red. The man first mentioned had some red on his face, but, but the second had no paint, and his countenance, strong in its outlines, was sedate even to melancholy. Moving deliberately and without a word spoken, he shook hands with every adult person in the circle before seating himself on the blankets.
He was evidently the priest, preacher or teacher. He asked Jo Hutchins, head man of the North Santiams, to take a seat inside the circle. Joe’s wife, of the chieftain line of the Molallas, and the last of that line, was seated on the left of her husband and the strangers, at the head of the female portion of the assemblage.

Chief Alquema/Joseph Hutchins
Chief Alquema/Joseph Hutchins

Respected positions for Hutchins/ Alquema and his wife. Jo’s wife was daughter of Chief Coastno (Coosta) of the Molallas. She seems powerful and important for the tribes in this account, perhaps more so than Jo. The notion of North Santiams, assumes a South Santiam band as well. The main band was known to inhabit the area around Scio, Oregon.

The exercises commenced by the strangers lighting the calumet and passing it amongst the men. Then the priest commenced a series of questions in the Klamath language which were answered by Mrs. Jo. Hutchins in the Chinook Jargon. My knowledge of the Chinook wa-wa has grown rusty by disuse, but I have since learned that I was right in my idea of the questions and answers.

Minto would have known the language quite well, and interesting that he calls it Chinook wawa, a term newly adopted by the tribe but existing for some time. It seems interesting too that in this account they use three languages, Chinook wawa, Kalapuya and Klamath, and all the Indians seem to understand.

One question was: “Do you remember when all this country belonged to your people?” The answer was in the affirmative. “Do you remember when your people were many in numbers; when you had many young men and many old men?” Do you remember when many of your people died? Did your heart sorrow for the death of your people? These questions evidently had allusion to the terrible “cold sick” that swept such numbers of the Indian off.

Speaking to an audience that were old enough to have remembered the sickness, implies people over 30 years old, perhaps more like in their forties. The main epidemics began in 1829 and continued until about 1850. These people lived during the time of the death of many people through a massive decline, and then went to the reservation.

Indian Fishing At Willamette Falls 1841, Drayton woodcut.
Indian Fishing At Willamette Falls 1841, Drayton woodcut.

In former conversations George has told me that when a boy he was at the falls of the Willamette during the prevalence of the cold sickness; that the sick were so numerous that many would jump from the sweat houses into the river, die in the water and float away down stream, no attempt being made to take them out for burial. It scarcely needed my knowledge of Chinook to understand the nature of the reply so full of pathos was tone of the answer. She spoke in particular of the death of a little boy as making her heart very sad.

This story of death at the falls is important, and give a character and dimension to the epidemics. Populations went from hundreds to dozens in a short period of time. This could account for the lack of burials in the vicinity of the falls too.

Being asked some questions about the sale of their lands by her people, she expressed an enduring love for her native land and an abiding sorrow that it had been parted with, by expressed herself free from malice or hate on that account. She was submissive but sorrowful. These questions seemed intended to revive the love of country, people and former condition in the hearts of the audience, and so make the coming form of worship more effective and impressive.

A recitation of the trauma, a way to come to terms with the fact that it occurred and find ways to heal. Yes traumatic, but we need to heal and move on, not hold hate. That is a trap that many cannot get out of. The love of the land is more important that the hate for what occurred.

The stranger then commenced a recital of traditional history, which was interpreted by the woman to her own people in her language (not the Chinook) and for nearly two hours he talked to them in that manner, then the pipe was again lit and passed around.
The other stranger now took the lead commencing a song in which the Indians all joined, the two stranger women placing themselves behind the two men. Eight pieces were thus sung, each in a different measure.

Eight songs is important, ceremonial. Does this relate to Warm House or Indian Shakerism?

Time was kept by striking hands; some of the women swayed the body in unison with the music. Then a stranger delivered a short exhortation and was followed by Jo Hutchin’s in a similar strain and at greater length. The company up to this time had been seated, except one whose duty it was to feed the fire in the circle. They now arose to their feet, the drum was struck at intervals of about a minute, the people uttering a low sound after each stroke. After some time so spent, some of the Salem Indians commenced to sing, the women beat time, and the circle joined hands and swayed first to the right and then to the left, first partially and then entirely around the circle and back again. When the dance commenced many of the women adorned themselves with head dresses of painted features and some of the eldest entered into the spirit of the exercises with great enthusiasm, as if animated by recollection of other days. They preserved through all a solemnity of demeanor equaling that of Christians at their devotions. About one hundred persons participated and the exercises continued for about five hours, all was conducted “decently and in order” without indecorous act or sign of impatience.

The style of the songs is very traditional, with the striking of hands, stamping of feet and stamping of a pole if no drum was available. Minto has to say this to dispel the characterization of the tribes as being wild and savage. He talks about the event as if he respects it as much as any other ceremony.

This was the first of a series of seven meetings held here by those people during the week of the State Fair, during which time these two men of the Klamath tribe, propagandists if the ancient Indian form of worship (as I have since learned from Jo. Hutchins, they were) did their best.

Again mention of the Klamath, and their form of worship, may very well be missionaries of the Indian shakers or even Warm House.

I have no doubt to convince their bearers that God’s revelations to man were not all made through books, as the white man believes, but that in times past the Great Spirit made himself manifest to Old men of their race by natural objects and by dreams, when they saw “Tawanamas,” which I understand to mean spirits or angels. John Minto

Minto seems personally open to what the natives believe as a legitimate form of worship. He does not degrade it, but suggests that its reverence is on par with Christianity. He even equates some of the spiritual beings of the region with similar aspects in Christianity. This sort of comparison is out of place for this time, as normally this would be called savage heathen rituals or something similar. He was pretty far advanced in understanding other cultures and peoples.

The depth and description of this account is ahead of its time. Minto was obviously very intelligent and was practicing participant observation, well before the term was created by anthropologists. in fact anthropology as a science was not formed at this time as many scholars and research collected information they were interested in, mostly language. The earliest studies at the Grand Ronde reservation at about 1877 by Albert Gatschet, so Minto was well ahead of the scholars.

The ceremony represents a significant event for the tribes. I feel this is a way the tribes had traditionally to confront, heal and come to terms with death and devastation that they all lived through. There are similar ceremonies today for some tribes.

Special thanks to the Historic Oregon Newspaper Project for making many of the early Oregon newspapers available free online.

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