Three days after signing the Willamette Valley Treaty (January 22, 1855) with the tribes of the Willamette Valley and Columbia River, Joel Palmer Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, sent the treaty to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Manypenny. Palmer sent with the treaty an accompanying letter explaining the treaty and documenting the other promises he made to the tribes to get them to sign their lands away and remove. In large part, it was unethical for Palmer to make additional promises to the tribe to get them to sign an agreement that they could not even read. In addition, in 1856, Palmer is fired before he could make sure to keep promises he personally made to the tribes.
In Palmer’s letter of explanation, he made a number of remarkable statements. The treaty is normally considered a completed document by the time it is sent to Washington, DC, and many people in the tribe today would assume that the parties that signed the treaty are the only tribes to fall under it. But as has been explained in at least two treaty reports, some tribes would refuse to sign, and yet the treaty would remain open to their agreement for some time. It is not yet known how long the treaty remained open, perhaps the names of the tribes were added regardless of their agreement, should they choose to accede to the provisions in the agreement.
For the Wasco treaty, the Dog River Cascades refused to sign, yet Palmer left the treaty open for them to join later. For the Willamette Valley treaty, Palmer states,
“it is however probable that all the bands will accede to the terms and become parties to the treaty: indeed a few scattering families excepted, this is already the case; and those families have expressed themselves willing, and have only been prevented from being present and signing the treaty by the inclement weather and high waters.”
Similarly, the other Cascades Tribe just downriver from the Dog Rivers (Hood River), at Cascade Rapids was to be party to the Willamette Valley Treaty, Palmer was also concerned that the Wal-lal-la (Cascade tribe at Cascade Rapids) got what they were owed for their territory.
“The second proviso of the same article is designed to secure an equitable proportion of the treaty to the bands to which it refers. The permanent places of residence of the Wal-lal-la band are on the Southern bands of the Columbia River between the Willamette and Sandy, though they claim a considerable tract north of the Columbia, commencing a few miles above Fort Vancouver and extending to the Cascade Falls, the latter being their residence in the fishing season. This band is the largest embraced in the treaty, whilest their country south of the Columbia with a few exceptions is one half less that that of each of the other confederated bands. It was their desire to be embraced in this treaty, yet to permit this without securing to the general funds the purchase of their lands north of the Columbia, would be inequitable in regard to bands associated with them.”
A truly remarkable statement by Palmer, that they had more people but less land covered in the treaty than all other tribes. To date, the tribe (either Cascades or Grand Ronde) has never been paid for their land claims north of the Columbia.
Palmer then addresses the Wapato Island peoples.
“I have learned that the Indians on Souvies Island claim a tract north of the River. The country purchased of these bands embraces a territory of not less than eleven thousand eight hundred and eighty square miles in extent, or over seven and a half million acres. The purchase price is two hundred thousand dollars and the employment of a Smith, Teacher, Physician and Superintendent of farming opperation [sic] for five years, involving an expenditure of not more than twenty five thousand dollars more, making a cost per acre of less than three cents.”
The number of acres mentioned here is remarkable. When I ran the numbers on all of Oregon, collectively the tribes were paid about 1 cent per acre, so 3 cents is a great deal at that time for the tribes. There is no indication, in any federal acts or legislation, that there was ever an attempt to pay either of the above tribes for their lands north of the Columbia.
Palmer noted that tribes did not want to remove. This fits well with other statements by the previous Superintendent of Indian Affairs Dart, suggesting that the tribes should stay in the settlement communities to continue to be the workforce for the farmers.
Then, it is at this point in the letter that Palmer begins stretching the truth in his promises to the tribes.
“They have been assured that in the event of selecting a home remote from the settlements they should be protected from the encroachments of other Indians [not whites?], and be put into possession of a country where by such labor as the white man bestows, they can obtain a comfortable and ample subsistence.”
This clearly did not happen as for the first ten years the tribes underwent starvation and neglect leading to the death of many on the reservation. As well, Palmer suggests a relationship of labor and servitude of the tribes to American farmers.
Then Palmer states his plan for removal,
“…Most desirable location between the Ne a chasne River [Salmon River] on the north, and the Si u slaw or Sisticum on the South. Should this district be selected not only all the Indians embraced in this treaty of which there will be about seven hundred, but those upon our entire seaboard, from the Columbia river to our southern boundary. Together with those of the Umpqua Valley might be located there.”
Then how they might live and feed themselves,
At first they would be compelled to live in detached districts along the coast and narrow valleys, and for a few years carry on farming but to a limited extent. But the want of such facilities, would be amply compensated in the abundance of food to be derived from the sea shore. The streams, the chase, and the flocks of geese and other wild fowl abounding in that region.
This of course did not occur. Upon the outbreak of the second Rogue River war, Palmer had to alter plans and move the tribes quickly away from white settlements. The Coastal Reservation was created but a new reservation, Grand Ronde, was opened first, and that became the home of the tribes of the Willamette Valley treaty. Then, because of the treaty, the tribal people were not allowed to have weapons and thus could not hunt. Fishing was allowed and a fishery at the Nechesne was opened for Grand Ronde. The tribes built a road to the fishery. Then growing crops was expected of the tribes but they were not given the equipment to plant and harvest so they starved for several years instead.
A few tribes, at Yachats sub-agency, were made to grow food, and this was expected for Grand Ronde and Siletz as well. The Federal government began with promises in the treaties to feed the tribes, and then by 1858 it was apparent that the government could not manage this, and they insisted that the tribes instead feed themselves by growing food, by 1859, many tribes were also told they had to gather traditional foods as the resources provided by the government for agriculture were not consistent.
Palmer then addresses the Molala tribe.
“I have learned that a few scattering families of the Molales who formerly inhabited the country bordering a stream of that name, are now residing on the head waters of Mackinsies [sic] Fork and the Middle fork of the Willamette; these are the remnant of a few lodges who in the winters of 47 & 8 [1847 & 1848] were engaged in plundering houses in their vicinity and were attacked by the settlers and nearly extinguished. Those escaping fled to the mountains where they have since continued to reside. I apprehend no difficulty in inducing them to accede to the terms of the treaty.”
The conflict that Palmer refers to is the Abiqua Massacre. The Molales took limited part in the fight, and mainly remained neutral as the settler militia drove a Klamath band from the valley. But it is highly probable that afterwards the Molales who remained in Dickie Prairie were harassed and even attacked by local settlers, making them remove south. Palmer encountered this small band on the Mackenzie River during his travels.
Later in the letter Palmer addresses a problem,
“Promises of the Government they say are not good, as they have before been deceived and that if they sell their country again, they must have something that they can see, and thus know that we are in earnest.”
This history is of the 1851 treaties, when Anson Dart promised the tribes reservations in their lands only to have the treaties go unratified. That the government negotiated, made promises, and reneged on their promises was a serious breach of trust.
A truly remarkable letter all around, adding significant details about the cultural environment of the Willamette Valley, the expectations of the tribes, and the plans being made for their removal. The suggestion that the Willamette Valley treaty remained open for others in the tribes to join later, is remarkable.
Territorial Papers of the United States: for the Territory of Oregon, 1848-1859, NARA M1049, Reel 1, Microfilm in the Oregon State Library, Salem, Oregon
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.