In the first few years of the Western Oregon reservations, the Coast and Grand Ronde reservations, the federal government was still working to develop a good system of Indian administration. Many of the Indians were just recently arrived from a war, and were envisioned as being potentially violent. On the reservations, there were murders, and many Indians became alcoholics, while the Indian agents tried to get access to funding, and feed and care for the tribes. Funding was tough to come by so much of the provisioning came from credit accounts. Then provisions and food was early on being sent from the East coast and sometimes would not arrive or would end up being wasted in a wreck on the coast. Agents applied to be able to buy food locally. The treaties promised that the tribal people would be fed and get services, like health care and education. Education was scattered with school only open for a few months, because the Indian children were needed to help find food or work on the early Indian homesteads. Schools would open and then close in a few months due to low enrollment and lack of funds.
Health care (as written about elsewhere in the blog) was horrendous. A hospital was set up in the first few months but only a small number of the sick came to the hospital. As such hundreds of people died in the first few years because either there were not adequate services available, or they did not trust the white doctors. This did not change significantly until the 1870s.
Food was the biggest issue. They were not allowed to have weapons and so could not hunt in the regular fashion. The tribes were removed from their traditional lands and had to instantly change their diets from wild foods that they caught, hunted, and gathered or dug to beef, flour, oil, and some vegetables. These were foods that the tribe had some experience with. Some tribal people had learned how to farm from being paid day-laborers for the settlers. Cattle and horses were regularly taken as payment, and were poached for food by the tribes. At the reservation, in the first few years, there were not herds of cattle or horses to feed the people or help labor in the fields. Instead the Agents had to purchase butchered beef or sacks of grains, flour to feed the people.
The Grand Ronde valley was already set up for agriculture by the earlier settlers. But the tribes, once they came to the reservation in 1856, did not bring their own farming supplies. The Agents provided these. The agents quickly realised that they could not buy enough food to feed the 4000 or so Indians, and so it became a policy that the tribes had to help feed themselves. Yet as I have written about elsewhere, the tribes were not given adequate tools, teams of oxen, plows, nor seed grains to plant. Then, the soils at Grand Ronde are heavy clay and not good for a regular annual planting. Siletz agency, in the Siletz valley, once it was well established by 1857, appeared to have a bit better soils.
Special Indian agent C. H. Mott came to assess the western Oregon and California reservations in 1858. He outlined several problems at the reservations that the federal government had yet to manage. His principal points are that the reservations were in a harsh environment and the tribes did not have the necessary resources to feed themselves. His observations yield a much different image than many have of the early reservation, much cruder, rougher, very like a southern plantation. Mott predicted that if the tribes continued to starve they would revolt.
There were in fact aggressive acts by some Indians leaders at Siletz because of the resource problems. Chief John (of the Shastas) began advocating for his people to return to their lands because of the harsh environment at the Siletz Agency and because the government was not living up to their promises. He was jailed at The Presidio in San Francisco for several years because of his agitation. And many tribal parties did leave the reservation in their first few years. Bands of Indians would leave the reservations and congregate at Corvallis, near Jacksonville, and near Roseburg. Americans in these areas would complain and The Indian agents were forced to send dragoons to round up the Indians and bring them back. Then the Molallas, half of them left the Grand Ronde Reservation under the leadership of Chief Henry Yelkus, in the dead of night, and returned to Molalla, but were accepted by the local settlers, so they remained.
Mott’s report of condition and struggle is a poignant statement which addresses how harsh the reservations were in Oregon.
C. H. Mott Report, Sept 22nd 1858, Salem, Oregon Territory.
Although I may have nothing of interest to write you, yet as I promised to do so occasionally from this coast. I will not wait longer for something to “turn up” – especially as there is a little matter in which I am personally interested to communicate.
From San Francisco I reported to commissioner Mix my actions in reference to the investigation of the charges against Supt. Henley, which report I trust was deemed satisfactory.
I reached this place on the 6th inst. And as it was represented to me that the creditors of the Indian Department in this Territory were anxiously expecting me and would be clamorous to have their claims examined at as early a day as possible, under the impression that the sooner they were audited & stated “the sooner they would be paid off, I opened an office and gave notice through the public journals of the mission upon which I was sent.
As it required some days for this notice to obtain publicity, I concluded to employ the interim in visiting the Grand Ronde Agency in order to see something of the policy pursued under the reservation system, and at the same time to ascertain liabilities contracted at that point, & to facilitate my action in the examination of the claims originating during the fiscal year ending 30th June 1858.
From Bailey’s account of the California Reservations I expected to see but few improvements and a small number of Indians at Grand Ronde, but in this I was agreeably disappointed. On account of its elevation & western exposure to the cold sea winds it is considered a bad location for agricultural purposes – yet nearly all of the cultivable soil (some 2500 acres) is under good fence, 923 under cultivation and the remainder in pasture, with a result this year of 3565 Bushl [bushels?] wheat and 901 of oats, some peas, potatoes & turnips – The soil does not grow corn & the nights are two [sic] cold for most vegitables [sic].
There are eight tribes or Bands of Indians at Grand Ronde numbering in all about 1080, being a decrease within the past year of one hundred – To prevent collisions [conflicts] as much as possible the Agent has located these bands separately, each occupying little villiages [sic] resembling negro-quarters on Southern plantations.
All the Indians who are disposed to work have little patches around their cabins, which is not encluded [sic] in the estimated quantity in cultivation under the Farmer of the Agency. On the 2nd day of my visit the Agent made a four days issue of Beef which brot [sic] together a large number of the different Bands & enabled me to estimate the number upon the Reservation much more certainly and satisfactorily than I was able to do by going into their villages. There were seven or eight hundred to be seen – most of the others being away by permission. The women collecting berries & the men assisting the neighboring farmers in harvesting their crops, for which they are paid high prices in consequence of the scarcity of labor brot [sic] about by Frazier River excitement [gold rush in BC].
All the Indians were clad in civilized suits & presented a much better appearance as to comfort & contentedness than I expected to see. As I design visiting Grand Ronde again and shall be able, if it is required, to make a full report to the commissioner, will only add that everything I saw impressed me with the idea of Agent Miller’s fitness for the position he holds.
I find many & serious difficulties to a literal compliance with the terms of of [sic] my instructions. For instance – I am expected to establish by proof the market price of each article procured for the Indian service at the time of its procurement -such as flour, beef etc. etc. Whilst such things are held & sold at widely different prices in different localities, and are every where here subject to most violent and sometimes unaccountable fluctuations.
The discovery of new gold diggings is ever accompanied by the wildest of excitements & keep a large portion of the population constantly on the wing. The traders who generally furnish these supplies to the service & who alone could give the desired information, have no fixed abode and are not easily to be found – here today – gone tomorrow, always on the alert & ready to reap the advantages derived by traders at every gold stampede – so with labor, you may obtain a hand for one or two dollars today when tomorrow the same hand could not be employed for five or six, or his place supplied at any price. Since I reached the Territory farmers have been paying as much as four dollars per day for harvesting hands, and flour has varied in price at this point from three & four dollars a bushel to 80 cts & one dollar.
Nine in ten of those who furnished supplies or performed labor for the Indian service have transferred their claims to merchants & others & are now scattered from Frazier River to California. In Many, if not most cases, the payee & Government employees are alone cognizant of the facts which serve to establish the liability.
Upon Indian Reservations white men are not permitted to go except in the employment of the government, & it is therefore impossible always to obtain disinterested proof in reference to supplies furnished at the place & labor performed there.
The course I have adopted is this, each Agent is required to furnish me with an abstract of liabilities contracted with his agency for the last fiscal year, and also a copy of each voucher furnished the creditors. I require him and his clerk to say under oath that “the necessities of the service required the incurring of each liability” that the services were performed in good faith – that the supplies were actually delivered & consumed in said service, that both services and supplies were furnished at as reasonable rates as the same could have been obtained, and that they have an interest directly or indirectly in the claims.
I shall take proof of disinterested parties engaged in trade as to the value of the supplies and labor and require affidavits from those presenting claims for their own services or supplies.
To assist in making out abstracts for the different agents, copies of vouchers, taking depositions etc. etc. to accompany my docket and report I have engaged a clerk & opened an office.
By visiting the various Reservations I may be able to determine from the extent of improvements made, the amount of labor done, and ascertain “whether or not the Supt. Agents & subagents have at all times exercised a judicious economy in the discharge of their duties”. And can make such observations as will enable me to Report upon the Reservation system generally should you require it, as I was led to suppose from your conversations with me, alltho’ it is not made a subject of inquiry by my instructions.
My chief object is writing you is to point out a few of the difficulties in the way of a satisfactory discharge of my duties here & to elicit a response, either by way of supplemental instructions or otherwise, and also to ask that another thousand dollars be placed to my [intentional blank space in document- was likely “bank” or “account”] at San Francisco, for I am assured that that already furnished together with the amount I had furnished together with the amount I had of my own, will be insufficient to defray expenses out here, I get us back home. – Should this request be refused or neglected, I may be constrained to remain here much longer than I desire, and thus enlarge the per diem account against U.S. until such time as the funds can be had to foot the return expenses.
Col. J. W. Nesmith, the Supt. Shows a disposition to afford me every facility in the prosecution of my duties, and urges the most thorough scrutiny into the management of Indian Affairs since his accession to the Superintendency.
He is a plain blunt man, of great force of character, and has impressed me most favorably both as to his efficiency and integrity.
His manners and his language may be somewhat bruske [sic] and at times insubordinate yet I think it will be found that he has conducted Indian Affairs of these territories without reference to his own pecuniary advantage.
I have yet to find or hear anything that reflects in the slightest degree upon his official integrity.
Sept. 29 1858
[Here is the original ending of Mott’s report, but circumstances caused him to add the next section.]
I was too late for the last mail, and have since made a second trip to Grand Ronde by which direction I expected to reach the Siletz Agency in charge of Agent Metcalf.
At Grand Ronde I obtained Indian guides & in company with Agent Miller started over the coast range of mountains, by a blind trail covered with fallen trees. At the end of the second day we had accomplished but twelve miles, and that in the midst of continuous rain & falling timber, when we were compelled to retrace our steps without reaching the Siletz.
Since my first visit to Grand Ronde, at which time the Supt. Made an order for the reduction of rations to the Indians, there has been some complaints & threats from them.
There is no fish or game within reach & the truth is that at this agency the department will have to feed the Indians, else starvation or the plunder of the whites will follow- then comes another Indian war.
The latest intelligence from the Spokane Country is that our troops have met with some “brilliant” successes, and the war is ended for the present.
Within the next ten days I hope to leave here for the prosecution of inquiries concerning the unratified treaties, and am persuaded that this duty will occupy a considerable length of time, as the country to be traversed is widely extended and of difficult access during the rainy season.
Wife joins me in kind regards for Mr. Thompson and yourself.
Very truly your friend & Obt. Servt.
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.