Over the years, I have made innumerable presentations about the history of the Oregon Tribes. My history is developed from my own research into the tribal histories and I have addressed many topics which have been important to understanding the history of the tribes, and why tribes live the way they live today. I have delved into topics which have not been well covered by past or current scholarship. Much of the information is not taught or known about by many Oregonians.
I have used this statement many times to catch the attention of people who admittedly never learned the history of the tribes of Oregon. “The settlers tried to exterminate the Indians.” I have used the words extermination, and genocide, and even holocaust on numerous occasions across the state. I might have turned a few people off by stating this as I think many do not want to address these deeper topics as it perhaps addresses their own family history in Oregon. Some folks might have assumed that I was being inflammatory and that extermination did not occur at all. Many may have assumed that I was simply a history revisionist.
I am absolutely a revisionist. I feel that much of the history of what occurred to the tribes is not at all represented in our history books. That hints of racism were eliminated because it was just not American to think in this way. It’s not possible that Americans perpetuated extermination because that’s not an American thing, never do we see images of histories where Americans are participating in extermination. and when the statement is made, then that person obviously has an agenda. Yes, I absolutely have an agenda, to tell the truth about what occurred to Native peoples, a truth that somehow has avoided attention in so many history books for over 150 years. I am also not a historian, I am an anthropologist who delves into history, more of an ethnohistorian.
The fact is that Americans participated in a war of extermination in Oregon and California for several decades. In fact, some newspaper accounts casually state that the activity of participating in Indian extermination is a reason for moving to the west. Apparently, they were people who simply wanted to join the effort, to rid the west of all those pesky Indians. ironically, or perhaps significantly, similar arguments were made to exterminate wolves, and that effort succeeded in many areas.
Genocide is not a minor insignificant act. In Oregon and California and in many other locations in the United States, whole villages of people were killed, men, women, and children. These are sometimes called massacres, but they are attempts to eliminate a whole tribe, which is genocidal extermination. Holocausts were also a reality. Those who know world history know that there is The Holocaust, which referred to the extermination of over six million Jews and other ethnic minorities by the Third Reich of Germany during WWII. There, millions died in concentration camps in gas chambers, through mass shootings and even immolation (burned alive). In the literal dictionary definition of a holocaust, it means to burn. On the northern California coast, the Tolowa Deeni peoples experienced a literal holocaust when people were burned alive in their dance houses by fires set by settler volunteer militia, several times, in a sequence of racialized violence. That is a holocaust.many of these same Rangers came into southern Oregon and continued practicing extermination on the Chetco peoples at the two Chetco villages.
It is this history that is normally thought too terrible to make it into our history books. Its thought by many teachers and administrators that children cannot handle this truth. That is a theory that has not been tested yet. Students in my college classes have been telling me for years that this is absolutely what should be taught in schools. It is the lack of this level of deep historical information that students crave, they want the truth, and I have a feeling that students know they are being lied to. They know that they are being fed is a history full of lies of omission. Many of these students are survivors of the historic war of extermination and deserve the truth.
The following is a verbatim transcription of some of the most egregious historic media and correspondence entries about extermination. The area in question is roughly southwestern Oregon, but some of these account address more broadly the policy in Oregon or presidential policies in the United States.
During the night of the 24th, Gen. Lane, with a small party of citizens also joined us, and we had now quite a formidable party. From the time we have been searching about in the mountains, destroying villages, killing all the males we could find, and capturing women and children. -R.S.W.
Head Quarters Dept. of the Pacific, San Francisco 29th March 1854. To Joe Lane
Almost every mail brings us information of some outrage by either the Whites or the Indians. Generally the latter are quiet and peaceably inclined, but are frequently goaded to acts of cruelty by the conduct of the Whites, of whom many consider them no better than wolves, and apparently take as much pleasure in killing them as they would the latter. -Gen. John E. Wool
From General John E. Wool (Department of the Pacific) to Governor Stevens (Washington Territory), Feb. 12, 1856.
Whilest I was in Oregon, it was reported to me, that many citizens, with due proportion of volunteers, and two newspapers, advocated the extermination of the Indians- This principle has been acted on in several instances without discriminating between enemies and friends, which has been the cause, in Southern Oregon, of sacrificing many innocent and worthy citizens, as in the case of Maj. Lupton and his party (volunteers) who killed 25 Indians, eighteen of whom were women and children. These were friendly Indians on their way to their reservation, where they expected protection from the whites. This barbarous act is the cause of the present war in the Rogue River country, – Gen. John E. Wool
The Oregon Argus (Oregon City) December 22, 1855, page 1
General orders no 10. Headquarters, Territory of Oregon, Portland, OCT 26th 1855. Information having been received that armed parties have taken the field in Southern Oregon with the avowed purpose of waging a war of extermination against the Indians in that section of the territory, and have slaughtered without respect to age or sex, a band of friendly Indians upon their reservation, in spite of the authority of the Indian agent and the commanding officers of the United States troops stationed there, and contrary to the peace of the Territory. … E.M. Barnum Adj. General, Governor
The Oregon Argus May 24 1856 Page 3 (The Trail of Tears, removal of the tribes from Table Rock to the Grand Ronde Agency)
General: The existence of a war of extermination by our citizens against all Indian in Southern Oregon, who by recent acts appear to evince a determination to carry it out, in violation of all treaty stipulations and the common usage of civilized nations, has induced me to take steps to remove the friendly band of Indians… I have received intelligence that meetings of the Citizens of Willamette Valley residing along the route to be traveled by these Indians in reaching the designated encampments , as well as those in the vicinity of the latter, have resolved upon resisting such removal, and avowing a determination to kill all who may be brought among them as well as those who sought to effect that object. Horace Greely (formerly published int he New York Tribune)
The Daily Mountaineer (The Dalles, Or) November 7, 1965 page 2
With the assistance of the Veteran regular troops which have arrived, or will arrive, in this department, the volunteer forces now in the field, would, during the coming winter, pretty well exterminate the Snake Indians now at war with the whites in south-eastern Oregon, and the south-western districts of Idaho. It is a measure of common justice that the savages should be put down in some way or another…. Co-operative parties of citizens from Boise, Owyhee and Powder river, might be raised, and thus the Indians would be effectively surrounded. There are hundreds among the miners who would gladly participate in such an enterprise, from the double motive of a fondness for adventure and a desire to see the country. … The interests of the State require the development of resources of the eastern section and without the subjugation of extermination of the Snakes, this cannot be done.
Oregon Sentinel, (Jacksonville, OR) November 2, 1872, page 1
Grant’s Policy of Peace
There has been much sentimentality wasted in the Indian, and yet it is also true that great injustice has been done him. By some he is considered little better than a wild beast, the lawful prey of the hunter, with no rights to be respected, with no wrongs worthy of redress, others hold him as a fir subject of plunder, and use him as a go-between in swindling the government. They assume the shape of traders, agents, and sometimes go in the garb of the Church, to rob him of the bounty which the Government bestows. …
There are two ways to dispose of the Indian. One is to exterminate him; the other, to civilize him, or at least to control his savage nature by the influences of civilization. The first has been partially tried, and has proven a failure. To say nothing of its inhumanity, it has been too expensive. Single wars waged against the Indians on this principle of extermination have cost the Government ten, twenty, thirty and even at high as forty millions of dollars each.
It is estimated, on good authority, that every Indian warrior killed in the Florida War, the Sioux of 1852 and in 1854, and the Cheyenne war of 1864 cost the Government a million dollars and the lives of twenty whites. and these wars settled nothing…. if we continue the policy of extermination the people must face the cost. It costs the Government in the past a million of dollars and twenty lives to kill one Indians warrior its easy to figure the cost of killing off the 293,000 that still remain. It would bankrupt the country and depopulate the land. The policy, if for no higher consideration than its expensiveness, must be abandoned.
This is a scattering of media and other perspectives that address the extermination of Indians. Generally, Indians were in the way of white Americans taking their rightful lands, in the way of manifest destiny. The US Military in Oregon did not pursue extermination, initially, it was the Rangers, the volunteer militia that pursued extermination. In both Oregon and California, there were laws that allow for American to recoup the losses for fighting and exterminating Indians. Literally, American could get paid for exterminating Indians.
The American citizenry seemed alright with this policy for many years. Killing Indians was seen as fair because Indians were resisting the invasion of their country and stole the property of the Americans. Many saw Indian peoples as a vermin to be extinguished. For the theft of a horse, Indians could be killed. It remains to be proven if this same feeling is active today in the racism we see against native peoples on reservations and on the periphery of native communities. The editorial about President Grant lays out the reasoning for ending extermination as a policy, it was too costly, not that it was morally wrong, or that the tribes had rights to live unmolested as human beings.
Indians were thought of as savages, they were not Christians and therefore somehow less than human. They then did not deserve to have rights. They could not be left to live in their own cultures, because those cultures were in the way of progress, of American expansionism. Federal policies were changed with new presidents and generals in charge of areas in the interior. When the Indian office was moved to The Department of the Interior from the De[partment of War in about 1848, the United States changed its policies from conquest or taking land from tribes by force, to negotiated removal through treaties. This was seen as a way to save American lives and save money because, at the end of each war, there would be a treaty and removal of the tribes anyway. However, Treaties gave tribes some rights under US laws, even if they did not yet become citizens of the nation. Whether the treaties were followed by the United States federal government or its citizenry are key questions.
The majority of federal officials did not follow the laws, know much about the treaties and sought to personally benefit from their time as Indian agents. The welfare of the tribes was secondary to the funding concerns. Numerous acts of genocide occurred within full view of Indian agents and no U.S. court would hold American citizens to blame for charges of murder, rape, or any other illegal acts. Native peoples were not allowed to testify in a court of law for decades, them not being US citizens, and many not speaking English and so numerous potential charges were thrown out of the courts. At the same time, if tribal peoples committed a crime, even crimes of revenge or retribution for acts by Americans (which they could not get tried in any court), under U.S. Law, they would feel the full force of the American military system, including punishment of whole villages by the U.S. Army, extermination of villages by Rangers, and attacks on encampments of tribes without any official or unofficial investigation of who was responsible for the offense. Justice for offenses against the tribes was not something Americans valued.
In Oregon, during the Rogue River war (1855-1856), the conflict was actually fairly brief. There was one big battle and a few minor skirmishes. The General of the US forces at the time was General John E. Wool. Wool had just left the Mexican-American war, and was assigned to the Pacific. His men in Oregon discovered that it was not the Indian who were being violent, but it was the Whites of southern Oregon who were causing the problems. Wool worked with Joel Palmer to save the Indians. The battles were necessary to quell the efforts of Chief John to get rid of all whites because they had attacked his people many times while he was living peacefully on the Table Rock Reservation.
Our present generation of people are the descendants of the survivors of these attempts to exterminate the tribes. Those people that fought back against extermination deserve to be honored for their actions. They are why many of us are here today. They constitute the national heroes of the tribes and deserve monuments and holidays and days of remembrance among the tribes. They stood against the final end of their peoples and may have lost the battles but won the war for the hearts of the people.
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Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.