Chaos in the First Year: Oregon Reservations

In the first year of the Oregon Reservations, Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, and the Coast reservation, 1856-1857, there was a change in leadership in the office of the Indian Superintendent. Joel Palmer was replaced in August 1856 by Absalom F. Hedges, over complaints that Palmer was too supportive of and lenient with the tribes, and located the warlike Rogue Rivers near the Willamette settlements. There was great fears that the tribes would rise up on the reservations and attack the settlers. These fears were unfounded as long as the federal government kept its promise to the tribes to care and feed for them in peace. This was the original agreement made under nine treaties, and yet when the tribes had peacefully moved to Table Rock they continued to be attacked, despite the “protection” of the Indian Agent at Fort Lane. This was the final outrage to a number of tribes who banded together under Chief John to finally drive the whites from their lands.

The battles which ensued through 1855 and to the summer of 1856 left the tribes desperate for peace, as so many of their people had died. They all eventually surrendered at Port Orford and were transported north by schooner to the Grand Ronde and Coast Reservations. Most of the removals went through Grand Ronde, but some tribes were settled along the coast, at the Nechesne River (Salmon River) station, and at the Siletz coastal plains station. Enumeration of the tribes on these two reservations approached 4,000 individuals.

At the Warm Springs reservation, in 1856, hundreds of Wasco, Wishram, Deschutes, and a few Dog River Cascades (also called Hood River Wascos, Its unclear exactly when they moved to WSR) were moved inland after the signing of the treaty of Middle Oregon (1855).  The tribes were struggling in a new (to them), much more arid, environment to learn to be ranchers and farmers in an inhospitable land. Added to this and the tribal ranches were under continual attack from the Paiutes. The roving warrior band of Paiutes under Chief Paulina and likely other bands continued a regular pattern of attacking the reservation settlements and stealing cattle and horses.

Along with all of these difficulties, Hedges was struggling to pay the bills for the upkeep of the reservations. At least three treaties were lagging in Congress. In December 1856, still not ratified were the Molalla Treaty, Coast Treaty and the Middle Oregon treaty, and Hedges had to write letters appealing to the good will and humanity of Congress to send money to Oregon. As such he had no money to buy food for the recently removed tribes, some 5000-6000 Native people. Hedges had to use what money he had to build habitations, pay transportation costs, pay staff salaries and even pay depredations claims. Each treaty had designated funds for these and other services, like health care, and yet most of the expenses fell under earmarked “colonization of the tribes” costs.

Palmer has been in the same situation when he was the Indian Superintendent, and he operated on credit most fo the time. He had accounts open with many farmers ranchers and suppliers throughout Oregon. Many of these bills were not paid until years later or he would pay the bill himself and ask for reimbursement. Some papers in the possession of descendants of Palmer suggest he may never have been fully compensated for all of his expenses by the government.

On December 8th Hedges begins a campaign to appeal for funding to feed and care for the tribes. He states that he had already had expenses totaling $109,667.50 that was due the first quarter of 1857. By setting the monetary need, Hedges then begins his appeal, stating,

“Although this is an enormous amount, it is not an over estimate, I believe, in any one particular- The items for the Grand Ronde Reservation are legitimate expenditures under the treaty stipulations and every cent estimated for will be needed. The items estimated for the Coast Tribes are indispensable if the faith of those Indians  in the Government is desired and peace with them expected-… would impress upon you my firm conviction that war with these Indians is inevitable unless the terms of that [Coast] treaty are complied with by the Government” (12/8/1856)

In addition, Hedges stresses,

“I would respectfully present that the Indians upon the Grand Ronde Reservation, Coast reservation, at Mouth of Umpqua River and at the Dalles of the Columbia composing all those estimated for … must be fed until after next harvest… or must be fought- There is no alternative-… I do not want to see these Indians turned loose again to butcher and be butchered as in out late war.” (12/8/1856)


“A party of the Rogue River Tribe, of the Cow Creek band of Umpquas, and of the Shasta Scoton & Umpquas, were engaged in the “late war” but their annuities are so small, their necessities so urgent, and the part taken by them in the war so difficult to determine, that I cannot recommend that any part of their annuities for this year be withheld.” (12/8/1856)

Hedges then states a great need for services on the reservations. By September 1856 a hospital had been established at Grand Ronde and there were hundreds of people ill on the reservation. The tribes were at the complete mercy of the Indian agents and their agency staff, who did not have the full support of the government, according to this series of letters from Hedges. The tribes on the Coast settlements and at Grand Ronde were by-and-large living in canvas tents and as such were completely exposed to the weather, which in Oregon is extreme for December.  He states,

“The Physicians and stewards are found indispensable upon the Coast reservation, one at Salmon River and one at Siletz and Yaquinah.” (12/8/1856)

Hedges then states that the tribes still have faith in the government, in the treaties based on the promises made by Supt. Palmer and Agent Thompson. Palmer was a commanding figure in this period, a brilliant coordinator and negotiator,  and was well trusted by the tribes. The government apparently did not understand his value, and fired him out of political pressure from the American settlements who hated that fact that Palmer was moving the tribes close to the Willamette Valley, as mentioned previously.

Hedges was also apparently quite ill, and in mid-December 1956 sent his letter of resignation to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs through Joseph Lane. Whether ill or regretting the stress of the job, we do not know, but there was clearly a crisis brewing in Oregon that had not been accounted for by the Federal government. Even one of Joel Palmer’s last acts as Oregon superintendent, the estimate of funding needed for FY 1857, did not reach Congress in time to warrant an appropriation under the regular House rules.  Hedges began sending an increasing volume of letters on December 8-17, 1856 to all who would listen to appeal to the Humanity of the federal government to fund the needs of the tribes in Oregon. Hedges, in a later letter (12/17/1856), urges the government to immediately begin preparing for large appropriations for funds and to approve the planting of large amounts of crops on the Coast and Warm Springs reservations to help feed the populations there.

Early schooner, meant for Ocean travel, likely similar to the Calumet

On about December 17, Hedges received draft checks totaling $17,437.50 for food and supplies for the tribes. Hedges quickly bought 30 tons of flour and other supplies and hired a steamer to take the supplies from Portland to the Coast Reservation. Hedges urged the captain of the Calumet to offload at the Siletz River estuary where there was a newly formed Indian station. Apparently, the captain wanted to go to the safer Yaquina River,  but attempted the Siletz River landing instead. The ship was wrecked and all cargo was reported lost. Hedges letter states that the cargo was offloaded but was lost.  Hedges then writes that he does not know how to make up for the loss of this cargo and has no money for additional food and that the Indians on the coast will likely starve. He also decides to abandon the Siletz Station altogether because of the difficulties supplying the Indian settlements there.

On December 19th Hedges sends a letter to the Indian agents at the reservations directing them to do whatever they have to to feed and care for the Indians on the reservation because no food or money is expected from Washington, DC for at least a month. There is also no funds to pay staff and therefore the services to the tribes would suffer.

Many of the food issues originate from several problems, first the promise by the treaties and agents made to induce the tribes to leave their lands, that if they remove they will be cared for and have plenty of meat. Palmer is especially noted to have made these promises to tribes like the Molalla. Then, the Native people were all relieved of their weapons. They could not hunt. Many of them were also unfamiliar with this more northern territory and did not know where the camas grew, what resources were in the coast range, or where the good fishing rivers were. The tribes were really at the mercy of the federal agents and the environment.

The chiefs, who had originally been promised to have houses for them on the reservation were working to build these houses. In November 1856 Hedges reported to the Commissioner and sent a letter to the Commander of the detachment of troops at the reservation, Capt. Smith of the 1st Dragoons stationed at Grand Ronde, of the fact that Chief Thomas (Willamette Valley Indians) had been assembling his house and the military had stopped him, stating they claimed that piece of land. Hedges was at a loss what to do in this situation and therefore asked for direction from the Commissioner of what rights the military had to claim land on the reservation.

In January, Hedges revisits his pleas to Congress for funds, and writes that he trusts that a special appropriation has been made. He also writes,

“I have so constantly urged upon your attention the fact that to desist from feeding these Indians is tantamount to a declaration of war made with them, that I deem it unnecessary to say anything more in extenuation of the course I have adopted in this matter.” (1/6/1857)


“The failure to furnish their annuity goods produces, of course, a general feeling of dissatisfaction among them, and the uncertainty which hangs over the fate of the treaties with the Coast Tribes and with the Wascoes & De Chutes, causes considerable discontent among the large number of Indians included in these treaties. Having left their own lands and placed themselves under the guidance and protection of the agent of the Government, they rightfully expect that the Government will comply with the agreements made with them, and when almost two years have passed and so little is done towards complying with those agreements, they cannot be blamed for expressing dissatisfaction, and unless this office receives authority to warrant action in compliance with those treaties, in opening of farms, erection of buildings, and otherwise providing for the comfort of these Indians, prior to the opening of Spring, say by the first of April, I fear that an outbreak will occur, and our hold upon the faith of those Indians be sacrificed irrevocably.” (Letter of 1/6/1857, Hedges to Manypenny)

Hedges letter of 12/8, quoted above, suggested that he was working to determine who among the tribes at the Coast and Grand Ronde reservations were involved in the war. He orders his sub-agents to collect this information. Presumably, the reasoning for doing this is to withhold annuities from those individuals who broke the ratified treaties of the Rogue River, Cow Creek Umpqua, and Chasta Scoton by leaving the Table Rock Reservation and making war upon the American settlements in southern Oregon.

On January 3rd Hedges reports the results of the investigation by his sub-agents,

267 of Coast tribes

103 of Rogue Rivers

5 of Shasta, Scoton, & Umpquas

12 of Cow Creeks

4 of Umpquas & Callapooias

391 men in all

the Families of these men sum up as follows, to wit: 566 women, 217 boys, 217 girls, besides infants; making in all 1391 souls, exclusive of infants. (1/3/1857)

Within the first year of the Oregon reservations there was much chaos. The expediency of creating the reservations, to alleviate several wars, was perhaps too quick for the federal government to respond with full support. Palmer had to act quickly to save as many people as possible among the tribes, and to alleviate the stresses between the Americans and the tribes. Genocide was being threatened upon the tribes by the Americans. The sudden change in superintendents also was unfortunate, causing promises and plans made by Palmer to fall by the wayside. The Federal government created the situation by forcing Palmer to resign and not quickly realizing they then had to fund support for up to 4,000 native people. At this time, the problems of a sudden change in the living environment for the tribes was not known, nor did anyone foresee the problems with nutrition or illnesses likely caused by exposing remote Indians groups to tribes from region hundreds of miles away. Tribes from the Columbia River were living amongst tribes from the Siskiyou Mountains for the first time ever. Trust was a big issue. These tribes had to learn to trust one another, while they had to have faith that the government would care for them. But as we see in Hedge’s letters, he was struggling to feed and care for them, and did not appear to have the full support of the government. It is likely there was continued political pressure brought by American settlers to locate the tribes elsewhere, but by this time it would have been near impossible to relocate 4,000 Indians without war. This is the situation that helped create the contemporary notions among tribes that the treaties, representing the Government’s promises, were broken by the government.

In May of 1857 as Hedges was preparing to vacate his office, Chief Sam commented on their situation, and summarized the chaos of the previous year, by noting the different status assigned to the Indian Agents, stating, “With us we are born chiefs, once a chief we are a chief for life.

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