Lost Cattle and Ox Hides: Starvation on the Coast Reservation 1856-60

Among the most amazing realizations I have had as a Native of the tribes of Oregon and scholar of tribal history is how pervasive starvation was once the tribes got the reservations. The Federal government and their agents were wholly unable to feed the tribal peoples once they were removed to the reservations. Then the people were not allowed to hunt as their weapons were taken away in case they revolted against the federal agents. The people were not allowed to leave the reservation to find food, as they were imprisoned on the reservations. The tribes were not given the tools to farm the land. They were not given seed, nor access to oxen, or plows, to effectively farm the reservation, even while, in all irony, federal policy was to have the Tribes feed themselves as much as possible.

The following series of quotes are from letters in the M2 Oregon Superintendency records. Most letters are in roll 8, the letter books of Edward Geary, Superintendent of Oregon.

Oct. 10th 1859 to Commissioner A.B. Greenwood from Edward R. Geary, Supt Indian Affairs for Oregon.

…in regards to cattle and ox hides lost by said Henry Fuller, and alleged by him to have been taken and stolen by the Indians then on the Coast Reservation at divers [sic] times in the winter of 1856-7…. on the verbal statement of Agent Metcalfe (who was retiring), that the tribes, then at the Salmon River Station, on the Coast Reservation, were the Too-too-ton-naise, Makanotons,  Chasta-Costas, Port Orfords, Sixes, Upper and Lower Coquilles, and a few others, all coast Indians, the treaty with whom had not been ratified. Mr. Metcalfe further states that at the time the cattle and hides were taken, the Indians were in a starving condition, many of them barely sustaining life by eating fern roots, and that a number of children actually purished [sic] from hunger, that the cattle and hides were not stolen, but taken with his knowledge and permission, prompted by a sense of justice and humanity, to a famishing people, whom he felt the government, under the circumstances, was bound to succour [sic] and relieve.

The Coast Indians are much impoverished and possess no means of making payment for the cattle in question. Should the treaty (Coast Treaty) with them be ratified, nothing could be spared from the annuity provided, even to repay Mr. Fuller.

The Coast treaty was never ratified and it is clear from numerous letters and reports that perhaps as many as 300 Indians at the Coast Reservation could claim any treaty annuities, some Rogue River and Chastas, a few others, but in actually some 2200 Indians at the Coast reservation had no ratified treaties. This left it up to Geary and the sub-agents to scramble each year to find money to pay for basic expenses at the Coast Reservation. The Coast reservation had 1.3 million acres and at least three main territories with several sub-agencies.  These included the Alsea agency, Yaquina sub-agency, Siletz Agency and Salmon River Station. In addition, there were vast parts of the reservation that were too far away from the main office at Siletz Agency to effectively manage. The largest and most difficult to reach was the Tillamook region.

Edward Geary tried to help some tribes when he moved J.B. Sykes from Grand Ronde to the Umpqua Reservation, to be the sub-agent there,  at the end of 1859 and directed him to begin moving the tribes at Umpqua to the Coast Reservation. They would become the natives at the Alsea Reservation or Alsea Sub-agency. But Sykes makes some errors in judgement in his first month at the Umpqua and is redirected by Geary. Geary states,

You state that you have on hand near two months rations providing you make issues as Agent Drew has been doing. The Policy of the government is not to subsist the Indians in idleness at the public expense but “to aid them in procuring their own subsistence.” I have therefore to inform you that no issues of provisions to Indians will receive the approval of this office except to the old, sick and helpless. (Corresp. 12/13/1859, Geary to Sykes)

Geary is directing this extreme rationing because as he informs Sykes, You were informed that the appropriations for the Indian service for this superintendency for the present year are less than they were last year by 147,200, or in other words that the appropriations have been reduced about one-half…  keep within the appropriations to reduce the expenses of the service in all quarters. (Corresp. 12/13/1859, Geary to Sykes)

The tribes signed 8 treaties in western Oregon and sold some 19 million acres to the United States. In exchange they were promised to be cared for. In order to get many of the tribes to actually remove to the reservation, personal guarantees and promises were given to the Chiefs that they would be fed. Yet a few years after the removal, native people were dying of starvation.  They gathered from the local forest and were allowed to fish.

In selecting the site contemplated for the the Indians to be removed, regard should be had to its proximity to the fisheries, their habits being such as to make the production of the sea staple articles of subsistence. (Corresp 11/3/1859 Geary to Sykes).

Regarding farming, the tribes generally had little experiences with agriculture. a few of the Kalapuyan tribes had been involved in farming since the late 1820s in and around French Prairie and the Tualatin Valley, but most tribal people had never farmed by 1860. In early 1860, Geary began ordering the assignment of land to the tribes at Siletz.

…I have to call you attention to the 6th article of the treaty of the 18th November 1856 with the Shasta Scoton (Chasta Scoton) and Umpqua Indians, which provides for assigning small tracts of land to such Indians as are willing to avail themselves of the privilege.

I have to direct that you will spare no efforts to foster individual enterprise and encourage habits of industry among the Indians…you will mark out small farms of from twenty to eighty acres… assisting such Indians in the cultivation and improvement of the small farms. (Corresp. 12/13/1859 Geary to Sykes)

Geary is clearly trying to work the problem. There is massive starvation and very little development of the Coast Reservation by the time he takes his position in 1859. Farming has yet to begin in late 1859 and he directs Sykes to being making plans for farming and even directs him to ask for equipment from Siletz agency.

At this point what are the options to Geary? He has seven ratified treaties and can only claim the expenses of small parts of two treaties at the Coast Reservation. There is not enough funding for food for the tribes and to pay employees.

The tribes are not allowed the leave the reservations. Escape was a real problem and nearly monthly, during the first ten years, reports came from many parts of Oregon of vagabond Indians who would get drunk and raise a ruckus or were a problem. This forced the agents to gather up the escapees and return them to the reservation.  In fact it became policy throughout the United States by 1865. At Grand Ronde there was drawn up a Pass book which logged the goings and coming of many tribal people for over 10 years.

No Indians will be permitted to leave the reservation with out a written pass and no such passes will be issued unless there is sufficient reason for doing so. The policy of the Government is to confine the Indians to the reservation… (Corresp. 11/24/1865 J.W. Perit Huntington to James Whitney)

One final point is that Geary and subsequent Indian superintendents began redirecting funding that was supposed to go to benefit the Grand Ronde Reservation to aid the Coast Reservation. For example, the agents at Grand Ronde were assigned to look over and serve the Tillamook people in the northern section of the Coast Reservation, because this region was relatively close to Grand Ronde, and the tribes at Grand Ronde built roads to the coast to access fisheries at Salmon River and the Nestucca, under direction by the agents. Therefore, money was spent from the Grand Ronde Reservation annuities for the Tillamook areas until at least 1886.

But also in 1859 it appears that a grist mill at Siletz Agency was under construction even though there were no funds allocated for this construction in any treaty or agreement for the people at Siletz. It appears in the following statement that Geary has discovered the deception and while not stating this its wrong to build the mill at Siletz from money allocated for the Molels, from their 1859 treaty, but all of whom are at Grand Ronde at this time, he definitely is not willing to the break the law and reallocate funding on his own volition. (A solution might have been to remove one of the tribes from Grand Ronde to Siletz so their funding would could be used there, but there is no indication at this time that he was willing to move people around for this purpose as it appears they are still hoping the Coast treaty will be ratified.) Geary explains this situation,

Relating to the subject of completing the mill now partially erected on the Siletz Reservation, has been received, … There are no funds in my hands properly applicable to that object, ….I have recommended in my annual report that this mill provided for in the treaty with the Molels, ratified at the executive session of the Senate…to be erected at the Siletz Agency… I have no funds in my hands, nor any appropriated that are properly applicable to improvements on the kind and if there were, the whole amount yet to be received of appropriations for the current year, equitably belonging to the Siletz Agency, would not be adequate to the completion of the mill. (Corresp. 3/5/1860 Geary to Newcomb)

The unwillingness of the federal government to appropriately pay for the expenses of the tribes and feed them is a travesty. Some 4000 Indians in western Oregon were removed to two reservations. Because Congress failed to ratify the Coast Treaty (1855) at least 2500 Indians at the Coast reservation were starving even while they were expected to provide the bulk other own food. It is no wonder that Natives chose to risk capture and escape because they likely felt their had no options. In fact, in this time period, Chief John of the Rogue Rivers was loudly advocating that the people leave and return to southern Oregon. For this, he was jailed at the Presidio in San Francisco for many years.

There was starvation at most of the reservations in Oregon because of these many factors. Dozens of tribes were forced to change their environment when they removed from their lands. This caused massive cultural changes. At the western Oregon reservations the tribes continued to lose population, well above the norm, through disease, malnutrition, and starvation and forced by the environmental and cultural changes they were going through. Promises made by Indian agents and the federal government through treaties were being broken within a month from when they removed to the reservations.

More to come…


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3 thoughts on “Lost Cattle and Ox Hides: Starvation on the Coast Reservation 1856-60

  1. I’ve read some of the annual reports of the Alsea subagency, and what people who grew up there or lived there for a time (Jim Buchanan, Frank Drew, Annie Miner Peterson, Lottie Evanoff) said about it or heard from their parents – starvation was common there too. For a lot of reasons. In addition to being penned in to a small space and cut off from larger areas to go hunting or gather camas and so on (they did fish the local creeks and gathered mussels which Frank mentioned was dangerous at Yachts), the crops often failed. Crops mentioned as being grown there included peas, carrots, rutabagas, onions, potatoes, and even artichokes (which seems oddly exotic for some reason for that time and place. Maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know, i didn’t know ‘chokes were at all popular in the 1860s). The potatoes were notorious – some years were ok but some years the whole crop was lost to a blight, and people went hungry.

    The weirdest aspect to me of farming at Yachats was that for several years the agents forced people to grow wheat. They even had a special farm agent at one point (who per a news article I found got chased away from the rez by angry Indians. I don’t know what he did, but it must’ve been bad!) to grow wheat. Picture that – a windy, cool, coastal plain as a wheat farm. One may as well grow bananas in Seattle.

    The Lower Umpqua Indians had developed a familiarity with potatoes by 1856, however. In 1856, the then-agent for that part of the coast, Dr. EP Drew, wrote a letter asking the DC office to consider expanding the Coast Res to come south and include Smith River (in the Umpqua watershed). He said they were growing potatoes in gardens in the lands between the Smith and Umpqua. He doesn’t mention where they got the taters from – did he give potato plants to them? Or, did they get them from Jean B. Gagnier, the French-Canadian HBC employee who after FT Umpqua closed lived with Indian people. He was married to a Lower Umpqua woman. It is likely, I think, at some point he would have passed on potatoes to his in-laws. IIRC the HBC Ft Umpqua had some pretty good gardens.

    Dr. Madonna Moss has a paper in “Keeping it Living” talking about potato gardening by Tlingit people. She suspected that people in Haida and Tlingit country were able to grow potatoes easily because they already had tobacco gardens and applying the principles of that were easily transferred to potatoes. So far as I know every tribe in western OR (and very widely in North America generally) grew tobacco, and thus also applied their knowledge of techniques for tobacco gardening to potatoes.

    The fundamental problem of the western OR reservations is a starvation of funding – the gov’t was stingy in sending materials and food. Agents were always begging for $, it seems like. When crops failed – like bad potato years and that harebrained wheat scheme – there weren’t enough foods imported to fill in for the crop failures. And they were cut off from so many local food resources, like camas fields, acorns, hunting, and so forth. The housing was substandard. And they had epidemics to fight off. It was a series of disasters, all coming on at once.

    1. Yeah, when i was compiling research notes for the ethnobotany book I wanted to mention something about the introduction of new crops and farming during the reservation period. Mostly it comes from the annual reports from the agents. I’ve never gone thru the letter books – dad had typed up some of those, to make them easier to read. Sometimes they mention things about crops. And some mentions people made in Harrington. I think there is a lot of scattered information there that could be pulled together and get a bigger picture as to what was going on in that time period – say, 1856 up to the 20th century or something.

      It’s only today the idea that Gagnier may have intro’d potatoes popped into my head. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. During the 12 years the HBC fort was at Elton, he was there the longest as the head of that fort. I’ve been to the replica they built – they do mention gardens and orchard trees. And Gagnier had a series of Lower Umpqua or Siuslaw wives. When missionary Gustavus Hines went there in 1840, he noted Mrs. Gagnier was Lower Umpqua and she and her brother helped conduct Hines down to the Winchester Bay area so he could preach at people. (sigh). In the early 1850s he put in for a few acres at what is today Golden Creek, near the site of Ts’alila village. At some point he moved to the lower Siuslaw. In 1864 it’s noted he and his family is living there. Some agency letters also note that the Siuslaws living there also had gardens, and they had squash (which likely they had at Yachats too at some point). But, anyway, if Gagnier had gardens put in a newly construct Ft Umpqua in the 1830s, and some of the crops from there were probably given to her relatives down river.

      Just looked up the letter – it was 1858. Thought it was 1856! In 1858, people were at the other Ft Umpqua, the military fort on the North Spit.

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