Sickness Issues from the Trumpet: Health Conditions at the Early Western Oregon Reservations

“The Doctress said she distinctly saw the sickness that afflicted the tribes issue from the Trumpet which I sounded to announce the hour of school, and settle like a mist upon the camp; and should I sound it, in a few days all the Indians would be in their graves- The camp desolate! I was not such a monster as to sound it again, so the Indians “still live”. “John Ostrander

When the western Oregon tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in 1856 they were already greatly reduced in population. Anthropologist’s have estimated that from 90 to 95% of the native people in the region died by diseases, most likely Malaria from 1829  and into the 1840’s. Thus, many tribes were only a few dozen people when forced removal occurred. The tribes assumed that they would be trading a worse situation for a better situation. The reservation promised safety and security, education for the people and services like health care. But in the next few years, a good percentage of the population died while on the reservation, and it was not until about 1862 that the population stabilized. The follow essay addresses health care of the reservation and reasons for the population decline.

Coast Reservation
Coast Reservation


The tribes began arriving at the Grand Ronde reservation in February 1856 from the Willamette Valley. By March the Rogue River tribes arrived, and in April the Umpqua tribes arrived. Most of the Native people walked the journey overland. The tribes removed through Port Orford, most came by steamer to Portland, then down the Willamette River portaged the falls to Canemah, then went by steamer down the Yamhill River to Dayton. From Dayton, Palmer hired wagons to take many of the people to the Reservation. the journey was treacherous from many of the tribes and several people died. The Trail of Tears from Table Rock Reserve to Grand Ronde had 7 people die. During the Coastal Trail of Tears from Port Orford, that involved the last group of Native people walking up the coast to Newport-Depot Bay, there were numerous attacks by settlers and several Native people were murdered. The Umpqua removal also included several deaths and a few lost Native people.

Original plan for the Grand ROnde Reservation
Original plan for the Grand Ronde Reservation

The reservations were to be a permanent home for all of these tribes. They had signed seven treaties that were ratified, signed away over 19 million acres in exchange for the safety of the reservation, and a place to call their own forever where the whites would no longer bother and kill them. But once on the reservation, there was a huge died-off of hundreds of Native peoples. Of the estimated 4000 (3939 according to Nesmith)  Native people removed to Grand Ronde and the Coast reservations, at least 200-300 died in the first year while on the “safe” reservation lands.  It is likely that at least another 300 died in the next few years and the death did not end until the reservation economy stabilized. Most of the deaths likely went unreported, yet the agents did make a few reports of health situation at Grand Ronde.



The final factor, not to be overlooked is the fact that the tribes were exposed to the elements for the first few years at the reservation. In 1856 they arrived in the middle of the winter at Grand Ronde and were given canvas tents to live in (Sibley tents). This exposure to the wet Oregon climate must have heavily contributed to the incidence of sicknesses. Indeed the reports from the fall, Winter and Spring of 1857 bear out the link of exposure of the tribes to the weather as being a factor in their sicknesses with 400-500 sick at Grand Ronde nearly every month of during the fall and winter of 1856 (see table above). In a population of 1885 people at Grand Ronde, one quarter or 2.5/10 people were sick in the camp these months

Sibley Tent

Agents’ reports of total populations are spotty. There were at least seven population centers for the western Oregon tribes, Grand Ronde, Siletz, Alsea, Yaquina, Umpqua, Salmon River and the remainder population at Tillamook (Astoria Agency). From 1856 to 1886 these populations moved around quite a bit. The tribal people at Yaquina and Alsea were removed to Siletz and Salmon River and some returned to Coos Bay. The Tillamooks were removed to Salmon River and later to Siletz proper, with a few of the tribe coming to Grand Ronde. Umpqua Reservation tribes remained for many years and then the reservation was terminated in the 1870’s and the tribes integrated with the Coos Tribes on Coos Bay, and came to Siletz or Grand Ronde. Siletz was reduced from 1.1 million acres down to the Lincoln county size reservation.  In the early 20th century the reservation was reduced to just the lands around the Siletz valley. With all of these changes and movements it was difficult to pin down definitive population counts. There was as well much intermarriage between the tribes.

Agency Population counts
Various Agency Population counts Western Oregon

The situation in the early years is described by various Indian Agents at Grand Ronde and Siletz. Doctors, hired and funded by the Indian agents using treaty funds offered care, but it was tough to get many tribal people to visit the white doctor, as much cultural superstition about doctors ruled their societies. But the reports of patients treated, do show that if the tribal people visited the doctor they were more likely to survive.

GR and Siletz Population counts
Total agency Population counts, The population growth is likely attributed to the fact that tribes were still being removed to reservation for a good ten years or longer.

The health state of the reservation can be attributed to a variety of factors, some of which are described below. The environment of northern Oregon was much more moist and humid than southern Oregon. The food they lived on was very different than they were used to in the past. The new foods of the reservation economy including flour, dairy, beef, were ranch raised and farm-grown foods. In this era was born many of the unhealthy “reservation” foods like fry bread, because flour, oil, and water was about the only thing the tribes had to eat consistently. Then support from the federal government was inconsistent at best, with no farm implements or seed available for the people to grow their own food, even as they were expected to (addressed here). Then as well, they were not allowed to have weapons of any kind due to fears they would attack the whites, so they could not hunt the coastal forests for food. The agent at Grand Ronde did establish a  fishery at Salmon river, and there was an allowance for the tribal people to travel to their original resource areas and fish and gather foods as they could.

The following is gathered from a series of Indian Agent reservation reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for years noted.

1857- Report of John F. Miller Indian Agent at Grand Ronde Indian Reservation

July 20 1857

The confederated bands of the Rogue River and Shasta Indians… numbering in all 909 persons… They are a warlike race, proud and haughty, but treacherous and very degraded in their moral nature, and the diseases which they have contracted from the whites, with whom they have more or less intercourse for some years past, have contaminated the greater portion of them, and even the children , and many of them suffering from the vices of their parents. The large number of sick, from this and other causes, formed one of the greatest difficulties I have had to encounter. Nearly every case of sickness among them being attributed to some ill-disposed person, who sought their death, and who they believe , has ample power to destroy their victim, either instantly of by a lingering disease; indeed so thoroughly are they imbued with this belief that upon the death of any of their number, the relatives of the deceased will immediately wreak vengeance upon some “doctor” either of their own or another tribes, against whom they have an ill will, which has been the cause of frequent serious quarrels, and has nearly resulted in open warfare between them and other tribes in the reservation, particularly with the Umpquas: and all my endeavors to put a stop to this horrible and superstitious practice has been in vain. (361)

The confederated bands of the Umpquas and Calapooias census 262… when first removed here, these Indians suffered a great deal from sickness, and a number of them died, they are now however enjoying good health…(363)

The Willamette Tribes number 666… the Calapooias… are remnants of what were once powerful tribes, who in time past almost filled the whole country; they have now dwindled down to mere bands almost without a name. this may be attributed to many causes-sickness, particularly the smallpox and measles; on being attacked by these fearful scourges , they would first go into a sweat-house, and while in a state of profuse perspiration plunge into the cold streams, which carried them off by the hundreds. This is frequently alluded to by them, and attributed to the whites coming among them, instead of to their mode of treatment.

At the time I entered upon the duties at this agency I found the hospital in operation under the charge of the resident physician, who had received his appointment from the late superintendent of Indian affairs. The expenses of this department were enormous, the Indians being most of them sick, and the hospital was crowded. Of the actual number of sick, either in the hospital or in camp at that time, I have no official information, as the physician was directed to make his monthly and quarterly reports to the office of the superintendent. I believe, however a great deal of deception was practiced upon the hospital, by the Indians coming there and reporting their friends sick in camp, and asking for medicine as an excuse, and then begging for rice, sugar, dried fruit, etc.

Not having received any specific instruction in reference to their matter, I continued the practice of my predecessor, which was to issue such supplies as called for by the physician, on his certifying to me that they were actually necessary for the use of the sick. … February 18 (the superintendent) directed the physician to make his reports in the future to me… shortly after this the then physician left the service. on the appointment of his successor the expenses were greatly curtailed, and the Indians are now enjoying comparatively good health (364-365)

July 21 1857

About this time there was some sickness among the tribes which the doctress was not able to cure. She must therefore assign good reasons for her failure, or forfeit her life. The Indians believe that life and death are at the volition of the doctress. On my way to school one morning I met a chief, who told me he did not wish school any longer. The Doctress said she distinctly saw the sickness that afflicted the tribes issue from the Trumpet which I sounded to announce the hour of school, and settle like a mist upon the camp; and should I sound it, in a few days all the Indians would be in their graves- The camp desolate! I was not such a monster as to sound it again, so the Indians “still live”. John Ostrander (teacher)(Indian Affairs report of 1857: 369)

1858 Annual report for Siletz- J.W. Nesmith

(at Siletz) The health of this agency has been good, except that of the upper Rogue River Indians, who are diminishing very rapidly. according to the census taken of these people twelve months ago, they numbered 590. Out of this number 205 have died; thirty-five have returned to Grand Ronde, and three hundred and fifty remain, many whom are sick. Almost daily we hear of the death of some of these people; they die with disease of the lungs contracted by exposure during the war. a few more years will put an end to the most fierce and warlike race of people west of the Rocky mountains. The Coast tribes are healthy, and many of them are increasing in numbers. R.B. Metcalfe Indian Agent

(at Grand Ronde) there is comparatively but little sickness among the Indians at the present time, with the exception of the Rogue Rivers, who are still suffering from sickness mostly brought upon themselves by their own vicious habits. John F. Miller Indian Agent

1859 annual report

(Grand Ronde) The Rogue Rivers and Cow Creeks… many of them have died, and the few who are left are diseased, and will not long be an expense to the government

1861 Annual report of the Physician

(Grand Ronde) I have been astonished to find these Indians so generally affected with that curse, the syphilis. The effects have become visible in the emaciated form and premature decrepitude that mark the victim. It is not confined to the present generation, but its impress is seen upon those who have been born with the baleful entailment that follows this disease… in addition… I find rheumatism, diseases affecting the mucus membrane of the air passages, of the skin, and of the eyes of frequent occurrence…. the extreme humidity of the atmosphere in this locality in the winter season makes properly enclosed buildings necessary for health , of which I find many destitute.

1862 Annual report of the Physician

(Siletz) 384 cases were registered: of which 38 died, 239 were discharged cured of much relieved- total 277; leaving 107 patients now under treatment. During the last winter and early spring the two principal causes of disease among the Indian were the violent cold we have experienced  and the poor quality and inadequate quantity of the food the Indians had to subsist on. The few hard frozen potatoes issued at irregular intervals offered no nourishment to [people] already broken by scrofula and syphilis in their worst forms, and I have wondered why so few patients died, considering the circumstances under which they are placed. the food the Indian live on naturally brought on severe diseases of the bowels…


I have surmised elsewhere that the Rogue River Tribes were newly exposed to many diseases once removed from their protective upper elevation homelands. They were exposed to measles and smallpox, and perhaps even Malaria for the first time. Malaria is already thought by Bob Boyd (The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, 1999), to have been the main factor in the north in the decline of the Chinookan and Kalapuyan peoples. Should this bear out, malaria likely did not affect the Rogue River tribes until they got the reservation and this accounts for the focus the agents and doctors had on their decline at the reservations. The mosquito which carries malaria (Anopheles) likely could not survive the upper elevation environments of the Siskiyous.

The safety and security at the reservation that the tribes sought did not happen for many. The tribes were heavily disillusioned and many sought to leave. In fact about half of the Molallas left to return to Dickie Prairie with Chief Yelkas. Under Chief John, many people at Siletz began planning to leave. His lead role in this conspiracy to escape caused the government to arrest him and send him to The Presidio (San Francisco) to live in jail for nearly ten years. In the early 1860s a band of Rogue Rivers did escape and went down to the Rogue Valley. After citizenry complained, the Indian agents sent men to collect them and bring them back. Bands of Kalapuyans left the reservation and gathered near Corvallis, causing the agents to send the army to bring them back. Escapement was common and people sought to escape the extreme conditions and sure death at the reservations. It is likely that the benefits of the reservation were not fully realized until the next generation was born.

9 thoughts on “Sickness Issues from the Trumpet: Health Conditions at the Early Western Oregon Reservations

  1. This was truly gut-wrenching to read. I wonder how any of our ancestors survived, let alone gave birth, and kept a child alive, the conditions were so horrific. Like the death camps of the Jews under Nazi Germans…just horrible.

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