In 1855-56 Oregon Indian Superintendent Joel Palmer established a number of temporary reservations to hold Indians in Oregon. Many tribes had negotiated treaties and were awaiting the ratification of the treaties in Congress. The majority of treaties were ratified by April of 1855. With unrest on the Columbia in the final battles of the Yakima Indian War and with new unrest in southern Oregon in the Rogue River region, Palmer acted to remove the peaceful tribes, many of whom did not have treaties. He moved them to preserve them from settler wrath, and to prepare for their movement to the permanent reserve at Grand Ronde.
Some of these peaceful tribes were on the Columbia and they had signed treaties in 1851 which were never ratified. They had been severely reduced in population by a wave of epidemics in the 1830’s and 1840’s which caused at least a 90% decline in population. As such, they were a remnant of their former grandeur. American settlers and other aggressive tribes like the Cowlitz noted the weakness of the Chinookans and moved to claim their villages and lands, the Cowlitz apparently moving into their villages and taking charge.
In December of 1855, Palmer moved the adjoining tribes of the Ne-Pe-Chuck and Clatskanie (Klatskania) into a temporary reservation at Milton, Oregon (as suggested by the letter of Smith 1/8/1856, stating that the tribes had been there a month). Milton at the time was a booming timber town with successful mills on Milton Creek. There were good roads serving the area, and the Willamette Slough offered a ready way to transport the limber to San Francisco by steamer. Milton lumber was fetching as much as $150 per 1000 board feet, an unheard of price at the time. Thomas H. Smith owned the major land claim at Milton and he was appointed the Special Indian Agent over the Clatskanie and Ne-Pe-Chuck Indians.
On January 8th 1856, Smith wrote to Palmer of the situation at the temporary reserve. He sends to Palmer a census list of the inhabitants of the encampment and describes some of their challenges. In January the some of the Klatskanie had returned to the encampment with their provisions. Some of them refused to return. The funding allowed to Smith, $1000, had almost run out and the food provided had run out and now the Indians were subsisting on dried salmon. Some of the tribe had gone to the Cascades and had not returned yet, likely due to the frozen river. Perhaps these Ne-pe-chuck were visiting relatives at the Cascades (I found this letter in the midst of my own research, it has been analyzed previously by others. Its mentioned in the Handbook of North American Indians Volume 7, 184, and is analyzed in The Hudson’s Bay Company 1839 Fort Vancouver Censuses of Indian Population by Daniel L. Boxberger, 2012 ).
The situation with food at the reserve was the same throughout the reservation system in Oregon. The federal government and the agents grossly underestimated the money and food needs of the tribes. The tribes were not allowed to fish, hunt or gather in their traditional manner and were forced to remain at the reserves. They could not have guns or other weapons that could be used in war. As such they could not gather the food necessary to support themselves and their families. The actions of the government cause the death of hundreds of Indians because of this environmental change imposed on the tribes. Hunger and malnutrition continued well into 1860s at the permanent reservations
Smith reports in his letter that the Indians are desiring a treaty and to be paid for their lands. This is suggesting that they had not been treated with since 1851, and they knew this may be their chance. Since we know that the government did not treat with these tribes after 1851, they likely never were paid for their lands. The lands in question are technically covered under the Willamette Valley treaty, but if the tribe was never paid, then there may be some question whether the federal government legitimately acquired the land. (this may or may not have been addressed in the Indian Claims cases)
Ethnographers in history have not looked very closely at the Clatskanie or Ne-Pe-Chuck. Smith’s census reveal about 47 people for both tribes. The Clatskanie in particular do not have extensive records (J.P. Harrington’s Tlatskanie Notes is the exception). They were an athapaskan speaking tribes, an isolate group in Northwestern Oregon. They apparently lived mostly away from the Columbia in the hilly and mountainous area between St. Helens and the Tillamook region. They are noted as not likely having villages on the Columbia. The Ne-Pe-Chuck are much better described generally, as they are one of the Lower Chinookan tribes who are covered in numerous ethnographic studies.
Smith describes these tribes a bit in his letter.
The section of country claimed by these two bands extends from Cathlamett on the Columbia River to the head of Sauvie’s Island and back as far as the sumit of the mountains dividing the river bottoms from the Falatuie [Tualatin] plains. In addition to the above the Ne-pe-chuck Indians claim a strip of country on the north side of the Columbia River. They live principally by hunting and fishing but some few of the number cultivate small patches of vegetables. They have quite a number of large Chinook Canoes, and are very expert in navigating them. They have all been more or less instructed in the doctrines of the Christian religion and many of their number believe in the existence of a Supreme being and afutione state of reward and punishment. They have a practice of bathing in the river two or three times a week and keep it up during the most severe cold weather, are harmless and inoffensive and extremely fond of whiskey. Thomas H. Smith, Local Agent
Smith letter includes an extensive census of the tribes listing 25 headmen and their families. This census is an anomaly as normally Indian censuses in the time period do not list people’s names.
The Ne-pe-chuck tribe in 1856 may have been a confederation of several tribes in the region. The original tribal territories of the lower Chinookans included the Skilloot who lived from above Oak Point to south of the Cowlitz river. The next tribe west was the Wakanasisi, essentially the Multnomah on Sauvie Island and up the Willamette a ways, and on the north side of the Columbia. Smith’s description in his letter suggests an overlap of the two territories. In addition, Chona-Chona who is the first chief of the Ne-pe-chuck in the 1856 census, above, appears in the 1839 Fort Vancouver Census of the Cathlacanasese, generally accepted as being the Wakanasisi according to later documents (see Boxberger 2012).
Kiesno was the Chief of all of the lower Chinooks until his death in 1848, and it may be that Chona-Chona took over the mantle. Smith’s discussion of the movements of Chona-chona suggest they maintained a close relationship with the Cascades. “Chona-Chona of the Ne-pe-chuck tribe left here on the 17th ult (December) to go to the Cascades, and he has not yet returned.” It is unclear by this account if Chona-Chona was visiting the Cascades at the rapids, the Cascades at Dog River, or the tribe at their winter village opposite Fort Vancouver on Hayden Island. In 1812, Kiesno visits the Cascades with an Astorian party and visits with his relatives in the Cascades tribe in a private meeting. Therefore, it may be that Chona-Chona maintained their relationships with the Cascades.
Thomas Smith’s land claim appears to have been right on top of the Wakanasisi village at Milton Creek called Scappoose. Chona-chona was likely the principal chief here. Previously Kiesno was the chief at Scappoose as it was noted as being his home always in Gibbs 1855-56 (Boxberger 2012). Dave Ellis notes that St. Helens was Kiesno’s home (Chinookan Tribes of the Lower Columbia, Table S 2.1. Lower Columbia Chinookan Villages). Kiesno was the chief over a broad area of the Columbia and his main “home” was the villages of the Willamette Slough and Sauvie Island where he occupied several different villages. Later in his life he even occupied Fort Vancouver as a guest of Chief Factor John McLoughlin.
These tribes were to be moved with some 24 other tribes to the Grand Ronde reservation in the late winter and Spring of 1856. By January 21, Palmer begins ordering the movement of the tribes from the temporary reservations to Grand Ronde. Most tribes would be transported by steamer to Oregon City, they would traverse the falls and then load onto another steamer to Dayton. From Dayton they would walk overland to the Grand Ronde valley. The tribes would have to leave most of their belongings behind, and these they would lose. Many of the American settlers would take whatever was left behind.
The town of Milton, an early timber boom town, has passed from existence. Once the county seat, the title has since passed to St. Helens to the north. The Thomas Smith land claim remained in existence well into the 20th century and much of it appears intact and undeveloped on the contemporary map.
Thanks to David Heath for helpful comments to push this narrative along.
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.