Klamath River Reservation and White Privilege, 1856

Continuing with the ndnhistoryresearch series on the massacres of the Tribes on northern California and Southern Oregon coast, I have found a few more documents that address the removal of the tribes to the Klamath River Reservation and their rights and conditions. These reports are from the microfilm copies of the correspondence series for the California Indian Agents.

In the mid-1850s, there was an early plan to create three reservations for Indians of California. In 1851, the three Indian superintendents of California (Barbour, Wozencraft, and McKee) divided the state, north, center and south, and dutifully traveled from Sacramento through their regions, visiting tribes and signing 18 treaties in total. These expeditions did not visit every tribe but did span the length of the state. Redick McKee was the northern California Indian Superintendent and did not visit the coastline but stuck to the interior valleys. There were some meetings with the coastal tribes but it is clear that not all tribes signed the treaties. The early reservation plan soon expanded to 5 reservations (Klamath, Mendocino, Nome Lackee, Sebastian, Tejon) as the number of the tribes were quite large and the environments they lived in were varied. There were as well a number of “farms,” basically smaller reservations they held tribes before they were to be removed elsewhere. Ultimately the issues of economy and expediency overcame the need to create less reservations, as it became more economical to allow the tribes to remain close to their homelands so they could feed themselves. The federal government could not afford to feed all of the tribes in California and without ratified treaties, there was no guarantee of funding each year for their subsistence costs. So it became federal policy to allow the tribes to forage, gather, and fish in their usual and accustomed ways.

Northern section of CA Indian Map with tribes noted

In 1853 and 1855 there was a succession of massacres against the Tolowa Deeni tribes. As mentioned in other articles by me, these likely contributed in large ways to the Rogue River Indian War in SW Oregon, where relatives of the Tolowa, athapaskan tribes confederated with Takelmas, Shastas, and Umpquas under the leadership of Chief John (Tecumtum),  left Table Rock Reservation, near Jacksonville, to save themselves from constant attacks by the white settler militia (some from California). They fought a series of pitched battles moving westward and killed many settlers in their houses in retribution. The Tolowas at Crescent City were imprisoned in the lighthouse to keep them from joining the Rogue River Confederacy.

The 1851 treaties were never ratified and were secretly “archived” for 50 years, to be found in about 1905 to 1908 by tribal researchers. There appears to be some connection with George Wasson Sr. (Coquille) who was looking for the Coast Treaty (1855) in Washington, DC, and who found the treaty as part of a larger inter-tribal effort to prove that they had been promised payment for their lands by Federal agents, if they voluntarily moved. The unratified treaties of Oregon and California became the evidence for a series of lawsuits against the United States, some under Indian Claims, for the tribes to be paid for the land they had given up, either willingly or through forced removal. Many scholars have suggested that because California was not appropriately purchased from the tribes, the tribes owned it all until the California Indians VS US Claims Case was won and paid for in the 1960s. Some continue to suggest that even the money paid (~$30M) was not fair compensation for the value of California and its vast resources including oil, water, timber, agriculture, etc.

In 1855, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California, Thomas I. Henley, was assigned to create the Klamath River Reservation and remove the area tribes there.


In July last I visited the Southern portion of the state, and on my return I found it absolutely necessary to go immediately to the North having been advised of a feeling existing among the Indians there which It was feared would result in hostilities, and visit in person the Klamath, where the Indians had been long expecting me, and to examine in the proposed location for a reserve…

It is likely that there had been another massacre in the summer of 1855, an event which would have caused unrest. As well, the Rogue River War was revving up in SW Oregon.


…the proposed reservation of one mile in width on each side of the Klamath River, for twenty miles from its mouth up, has been approved by the President of the United States, with the provision however that upon a survey of the tract, a sufficient quantity be cut off from the upper end thereof to bring it within the limit of 25,000 acres authorized by law.

1857 map suggesting the Reservation

Henley was especially concerned that the reservation not interfere with the settlers,

Nor will it interfere in any way with the settlers, as there is not land within the boundaries named fit for settlement… the quantity of land within the proposed limits which can be used for agricultural purposes does not exceed … two thousand acres, and it is not likely any white man would be inclined to settle upon, even if it were not reserved or occupied by Indians. (Henley Letter of 12/19/1855)

Henley’s letters of December 19, 1855, suggest that the reserve was just getting started, just recently approved, yet the statement of employees at the Klamath Reservation for 1855 (Dec. 31) suggests that at least one employee was hired by April 25th, Thomas Ricks, to look for the location for the reserve. The next employee hired, Stephen Smith, on May 2nd, is tasked to “visit Indians between the Klamath River and Salmon and Cedar Creeks,” presumably to begin talking about removal or to set them on the path to removal to the new reservation. On May 9th Thomas Munroe is hired as an interpreter and guide for 7 days. On May 27th H.B. Dickinson is hired to look for fishing grounds, a task he completes by June 5th. The pay for these employees is either a daily rate of from $4-$7, or a monthly amount of from $75 to $180.

On June 6th T. G. Stanford is hired as “Escort with Special Agent Whipple,” and the permanent employees are not hired until October 1st when 13 employees are detailed as beginning on the same day. In this time period, it would take about 6 months to prepare the reservation for receiving the tribes and in the meantime, the temporary employees would be hired on a trial basis to see how they do in the jobs assigned. The permanent positions were fisherman, carpenter, farmer, and several general laborer positions, that would continue as they continued to build the necessary facilities of the federal Indian agency. It is likely that a good portion of the local tribes around the Klamath River was removed to the Klamath River Reservation (I am using “Klamath River Reservation” to distinguish it from the Klamath Reservation of Oregon) by October 1st. There were more removals in the following years.

Indian Agent S. G. Whipple is appointed to be the first agent at the reserve. Whipple is very detail-oriented and sends a daily report for November and December of 1855 of the major occurrences. The following is a sampling of the daily journal,

November Saturday the 3rd- Gillson making a house, Tucker & Snyder commenced building house for Indians

November Sunday 4th- no work today- the Indians are engaged gathering acorns, all quiet & peaceably disposed.

November Monday 19th- Indian returning home in canoes loaded with acorns.

(Report of labor on the Klamath reserve during Month of November 1855, Irvin, Clerk)

Generally, the employees were constantly building things, cooking, and buying supplies. Details about the tribes are very light in these reports.

By May 1856 it does not appear that all of the Tolowas were yet removed to Klamath River Reservation. A report from Henley on May 31st suggests that he was paying for protecting the “friendly Indians at Crescent City by Capt. Jones” who was paid $898.24 for services and expenses from April 14th to March 15th, 1856. These expenses were objected to by the main Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC which would (conceivably) recommend in the following months to remove these tribes to Klamath River Reservation to save money (this is admitted to in a report later in the year). The notion that the Indian agents had to “protect” the Crescent City Indians, most likely Tolowa Indians, is noteworthy.

In June 1856 violence erupted at the Klamath River Reservation.  Agent Whipple stated that the Indians on the reserve had reported to him that an Indian had been killed by a White man. This was an “Indian belonging to the mouth of the river” (Yurok) who had been traveling on a pass from the reservation to his old home some two miles away. The Indian murdered was the son of Moweena the head man of this village at the mouth of the river. The Indians were vehement in their desires that the person responsible be brought to justice.

Whipple notes that one T. Vanpelt had recently returned from the Rogue River War and had told someone he had killed an Indian near the old rancheria. Whipple had him arrested and taken before a justice of the peace. Vanpelt admitted to killing the Indian and so the case was proved but evidence of the Indian’s pass was not entered, so Vanpelt was released. Whipple states that this result “would not have been the result could the case have been brought into a US Court.” Whipple then asks for a US Marshall to be assigned to the district so that justice may be done in the future. He then worked to pay the Indians back for the death of their relative. This is a very Indian way, to compensate the family for the loss of their relative with some form of payment.

Indians on the reservations at this time were not allowed to leave their reservation and had to ask for a pass to certify they were traveling on business off the reservation legally. Once removed to the reservation, the tribes were somewhat imprisoned, they were not American citizens and subject to being treated like non-citizen immigrants. Indians had no rights in their own lands, lands occupied by them for thousands of years. Oddly, to prepare for the reservation, white men were hired to find the best fishing sites, when it is highly likely that the tribes already knew the best fishing sites. On the reservation, the tribes were also subjected to the pressures of changing their culture and accepted missionaries. Additional letters suggest many women were cohabitating with white men, and that there was a serious drinking problem among the tribal people. Federal laws and policies at this time forbid giving or selling alcohol to Indians.

Through it all was the obvious privilege of the white men to never be held accountable for their actions against the tribes. White men were not held accountable and Indians could not testify legally. Those who settled the land and illegally took their lands from the tribes without fair compensation, changed the environment, polluted the rivers, logged the forests, and yet it was the tribes who paid the price. On the reservations many Native people lived very poor and starved, removed from their primary traditional cultural lands.

This was a short period for the Tolowas to live among the Yuroks on the reservation. They were moved to the reservation so that they would not join the Rogue River war against the Americans. Later they again moved back to their homelands and were moved again several times by the government, seeking to remove all Indians from the path of American settlement. The northern tribes, in Oregon, were moved to the Coast Reservation and Siletz agency, but they too escaped and returned home to the Chetco and Smith River. The Tolowas may have the most extreme case of removal to reservations in the history of the US.

American citizenship was not given to all tribes until Congress passed the American Indian Citizenship act in 1924. Still, Native people were treated not unlike any other minority in the United States into the 1970s when various civil rights movements caused tribes to gain more rights. In many areas of Indian country, tribal people still live with daily discrimination from the surrounding colonial settler societies. As such, there is still a lot of work to be done.

I hope this history and others on my site help bring to light the historic struggles of Native peoples in our colonial system.

12 thoughts on “Klamath River Reservation and White Privilege, 1856

  1. Great information and much appreciated. I am interested in filling some gaps regarding the Tolowa/HUSS of the northern California region and how the government handled the rancheria land purchases and allotment process. As is common in historical shenanigans between the government and local citizens there is much more than meets the eye, in my opinion. The fact that there are ongoing issues regarding tribal citizens still seeking federal recognition is one of many negative results of the land purchases, allotment/assignments, and the “homeless Indian” era. While many of the source documents for the Klamath Reservation, Northern California/Southern Oregon history are the notes and journals of mostly federal agencies as they proceeded to work through Indian issues, there is very little said about the Indigenous people who who worked, had families and were not homeless.

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