The federal Indian bureau was made responsible for the tribes as of 1848 (from the Department of War) and assigned Indian Agents and superintendents for states and territories. Their goal was to preserve the tribes, but to also clear the way for white settlement. The earliest plan for Oregon was to move all tribes to the Umatilla area, but this plan was nixed by all tribes. Many Agents appeared to care deeply for the tribes. Agents like Joel Palmer worked to preserve the tribes before they were completely extinguished. Others took to their jobs like accountants, working to live within their budgets and reducing services to comply with federal funding. Still others stole goods and appropriated money for their personal enrichment.
The Indian agents were susceptible to political pressure, and many would be fired or replaced if they did not do what the local citizenry wanted, or showed too much sympathy to the tribes. It likely this is what got Joel Palmer fired or replaced in 1856, as he worked hard to save the tribes, while local settlers either wanted to exterminate them or hated lived in close proximity to the newly established reservations.
Too much, scholars have paid close attention to the Indian agents when they really had little power. It was the settler communities that held most of the power. In Oregon, many communities openly advocated for extermination of the tribes, and others formed Volunteer Ranger militia to drive the tribes from the path of settlement.
The rangers were originally intended to guard against a perceived threat of an all-out Indian attack, and there were signs in many areas that the tribes were confederating with just this goal. On the Columbia, tribes on both sides of the river engaged in a series of skirmishes collectively called the Cayuse war. Later there was also a Yakima War in this same region. Both wars were cause by the extreme encroachment of American settlers on their lands and a lack of respect by the settlers for the tribe’s rights to manage and control their lands. American settlers simply invaded and took claim in droves and the tribes did not like this, did not like the attitude of the Americans, and upon envisioning the ultimate outcome, their complete destruction, rebelled against the colonization of their lands and resources.
Similarly in Southwestern Oregon, gold miners invaded the land and began to take resources from the tribes. They hunted out the deer, polluted the rivers, and farmers plowed camas fields. All the while the Americans refused to acknowledge the predominance of the tribes, and refused to admit that the tribes had any rights at all. Many of the gold miners were from California originally where the tribes there were assumed to have lost their titles and rights under Spanish rule, and the Americans indiscriminately took tribal lands and attacked tribal villages and if not massacring everyone, kidnapping children and women, then selling them into slavery and into service to Americans and remaining Spaniards. These same gold miners, once in Oregon, likely practiced the same treatment of the tribes in a culture area where the tribes were not going to take it. The Rogue River Confederacy was born in 1855, from several different tribes, all from different yet neighboring language communities, and all fighting to rid their lands of the infestation of Americans.
The white settlements backed the rangers in all of their activities. Many of the farmers and ranchers even volunteered to join the rangers to “protect” the American settlements. There was no rule of law, and the battles were engaged in by both sides. The tribes in many ways were the superior fighters to the Americans. They won numerous encounters even though they did not have as many rifles nor formal military training.
Attacks on tribal people which were witnessed and not being caused by the tribes were hardly ever prosecuted. First, Indians were not allowed to testify in court, they were not considered reliable witnesses, then the county courts were run by the same volunteers, or their close relatives, and as such would acquit most white defendants. Therefore hundreds of crimes against the tribes were never prosecuted, and murderers went free unafraid of accountability. In this environment, many tribes would follow their own laws, and took retribution against the settlers by stealing valuables, burning houses, and taking food animals indiscriminately. Federal authorities called these acts “depredations,” and any American could submit a claim for “Indian depredations” to the Indian agency, and they would get paid back for their losses in time. Hundreds of these claims were paid in Oregon from the treaty monies. There was never any avenue for the tribes to make claims for recompense for their losses from the actions of Americans.
The pressures on the Indian agents and the rangers was considerable. Pressures were brought by white settler communities. In Oregon, territorial legislators petitioned the President to send troops to protect them from the tribes even before there was an overt threat. The army would not arrive until after they had conquered Mexico in 1848 and taken full possession of the Southwestern states, California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Oregon and Colorado, Nevada and Utah. In the meantime the Volunteers carried out the will of Oregonians, reacting to threats and attacking native villages to drive the tribes from the land, or to their final resting.
Most of the settlers appeared to approve of the actions of the volunteers and there were few statements of disgust in the area newspapers. Editorials in the Oregon Statesman (Salem) were increasingly vitriolic, calling for the outright extermination of the tribes. In this era the Oregonian and the Oregon Spectator were a bit more liberal, suggesting that American should find ways to live with the tribes. The genocidal editorials may be responsible for the Abiqua Battle in Molalla, and the Battlecreek affair in the south Salem hills, where rangers attacked tribal peoples in unbalanced responses to some slight to the pioneers.
When the tribes in southern Oregon signed treaties sold their lands and agreed to live in peace with the Americans and then moved to a reservation, to Table Rock or Umpqua, they were still attacked on the reservation by bands of mercenary volunteers, one such attack coming from a California volunteer outfit. These attacks occurred even though Fort Lane, at the edges of the Table Rock reserve, was actively engaged with protecting the tribes from the Americans, and the settlements from the tribes.
The Rogue River tribal confederacy from Table Rock left the reservation in 1855 and began attacking American settlements, and those tribes that remained still tried to live in peace. Joel Palmer had to react to establish a new temporary reservation at Grand Ronde to take all of the western Oregon tribes until the Coast Reservation was ready to receive some 4,000 tribal peoples. In 1856, removals from the southern Oregon reservations met with resistance from the settlers on their paths. Several Natives were attacked and killed, some by their own people, and one story suggests that sub-agent Robert Metcalf who was in charge, had to avoid certain communities, like Rickreall. Palmer was received numerous complaints from the settlers for even this removal. Americans did not want to live near the tribes, and placing the warlike Rogue River tribes at Grand Ronde was too close for them. There were continued calls for extermination of all of the tribes in letters and the media. There appeared to be no place for the tribes to live without controversy.
Many of these complaints reached Washington, D.C. which placed Palmer politically at odds with the American settlers. In mid 1856 Palmer was fired by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and replaced with Edward Geary. When Palmer was fired, all of the promises made to the tribes and plans he made for their future , the majority, went away and were forgotten. Thereafter, the word of the federal government was never trusted by the tribes who had put their trust in Palmer and very much respected him. In order to get the Molallans to move, Palmer promised money and food, but this did not happen for them and five years later half of the tribe left the reservation to return home.
Yet the reservations occurred, and arrangements had to be made to feed the tribes and give them supplies to survive. In addition, tribes were not allowed to have access to alcohol and for the first few years they could not own weapons of any type. The tribes were treated as less than human, more like children, and forced to live at the reservation because they were not American citizens and therefore had no rights in society. (This point may be quibbled with as the US Constitution does grant Indians rights and does not specify that they have to be citizens first.)
Too often, blame is placed upon governments, on federal and state agencies, for the iniquities of society. But in the United States the government is supposed to be of the people and represent the will of the people. If this is to be taken literally, then it is really the pioneer, settler, rancher, farmer, and miner communities that hold the true responsibility for the iniquities of western society toward the Native communities. It is after all the American pioneers who moved to the West and claimed tribal lands, and not the Tribal nations who moved into the eastern United States taking lands from Americans.
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.