Robert Shortess On the Columbia

Robert Shortess was an early pioneer settler and Indian agent on the Columbia River. He is drawn to Oregon after witnessing a speech given by Jason Lee who is on a tour of the east working to get more white men and women to come to the Willamette Valley.  He leaves Missouri in 1839, and arrives in Oregon in 1840 as part of the Peoria Party, and settles in Astoria by 1844 . In Missouri, Shortess worked for a time as a mill worker with the Applegate family, and after arriving in Oregon, corresponds with the Applegates, specifically Jesse, selling them on the virtues of the Willamette Valley, and prompting them to come to Oregon in 1844, along with Don Waldo, their neighbor.

In Astoria, Shortess takes contracts for survey work and makes a large 2 mile land claim along the waterfront near Tongue Point, and gains a reputation for being friends with the local Chinookan peoples. He learns the Chinuk Wawa and participates in the Tansey Point treaty negotiations with Chinookan, Clatskanie, and Tillamook tribes of the lower Columbia and Oregon Coast in 1851. Shortess was hired as a sub-Indian Agent to arrange the Tansey Point meetings between the tribes and Indian Superintendent Anson Dart in 1851. He married a Clatsop woman which likely gained him prestige among the tribes. After the treaty negotiations, Shortess is fired by Dart, after writing letters to Dart complaining about the illegal settlement of a white man on traditional Chinook tribal land. Shortess later participates in linguistic ethnographic collection of Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Jargon) texts which are first sent to George Gibbs, then later become part of the Bureau of Ethnological Archives, now the National Anthropological Archives.

The following narrative is 3 of 4 pages of a letter sent to Governor Joseph Lane, when Lane was also the Indian Superintendent for Oregon. Shortess possessed a keen sense of morality about how Indian people should, be treated with honor by the Americans. Shortess is highly religious, in fact converted to Methodism, and associated with the Jason Lee congregation, and many of these men worked constantly to rid the world of the scourge of alcohol. Alcohol trade was considered a serious problem for Native people, and here Shortess suggests that the Native people are selling all of their lands to get alcohol. There are many recorded private land sales previous to when the United States choose to grant Donation land claims to all Americans through the new law passed by Congress. The Oregon Donation Land Claim law (1850) proved up on the previous claims of the Americans, regardless of the fact that none of the Tansey Point treaties (1851) were ever ratified for the lower Columbia. The first ratified treaties for the region, those of the Cow Creek Umpqua and Rogue River, and were not completed until 1853.

R. Shortess signature (bottom) as Acting Sub-Agent on the Klatskania Band treaty signature page, 1851, NARA archives, Washington DC

Of the removal of the tribes, Shortess is highly critical. He views eastern Oregon as a vast wasteland of no food. The reality is this arid land has lots of food, much within the braided rivers and valleys, but the tribes had to know where to find it in the arid hills. The removal of the western tribes to Eastern Oregon would probably have resulted in much starvation before the tribes learned where and how to get the food. The significant part for this section of the letter is that this is the first reveal of the plan to move the tribes east. This plan is not really well known until Anson Dart got his orders from the President and Governor Joseph Lane sometime late in 1850. From this letter, it appears that the plan was being talked about, or rumored about, in settler communities well before Dart arrived to begin treaty negotiations. When Dart arrives in Oregon, he is told to get much of his direction from Joseph Lane and so this plan may be Lane’s original concept, to move all of the tribes to the far eastern area of the Oregon Territory, in order to free the lush western Oregon valleys for American settlement.


The situation of the Indians in this vicinity is if possible even worse than that of the whites. The sale of liquor to them by the whites has been carried on during the past winter (according to the Indian statements) to an unprecedented extent, a great part of the money and property they possessed has been squandered, their lands, and fishing stations have been taken, and they threatened with the vengeance of government if they opposed in any manner the encroachments of the settlers. They state, that they have been told they might as well give up their lands for what they could get, as the soldiers would soon come and kill them or drive them off; that it was in vain for them to oppose the whites for they would have their land in defiance of them.

Indeed, they has been so alarmed that most of them were afraid to come to their fishing stations this spring until assured by some of the old settlers, in whom the reposed confidence, that if they demeaned themselves peaceably they would be protected in their rights, The aged, and, infirm Indians and orphan children are in a state of destitution and suffering, or dependent upon the bounty of a few whitemen, while others, and they, (some of them at least) of the worst class are speculating upon their property.

Is there no way in which a check can be put upon the encroachments of individuals: upon Indian Territory? Has every whiteman a right to take their land where and how he pleases? Has the Home government no will or their agents in Oregon no power to protect them? Their property has been  and is constantly passing from them, disease and death are the consequences of contact with whites, their houses and the bones of their deceased ancestors and relatives have been burnt; The spontaneous productions of the earth and the crops that they planted have been destroyed by the stock of the settlers; and they are treated as aliens and intruders in their own country. In conversation with one of them a few days sincehe asked “why are the Americans in such haste to get our lands! Don’t they see that we are dying off very fast and there will soon be no one to say pay us or our land.” It is even so, but a few years more and disease and death will have done their work, and the red man of Oregon will have disappeared from the face of the earth. Whether our government is aware of their fact, and waiting for its consummation I will not take upon me to say, but I will say that something should be done for the native immediately. JUSTICE AND HONOR DEMAND IT.

I have heard it intimated that the coast Indians would be removed into the Snake country. If the whites cannot wait until Death has done his work through causes now in active operation, I would suggest for their consideration whether it would not manifest a more philanthropic disposition, as well as greater economy; to collect them together and shoot them like deer in a German battue [driving hunt] rather than send them to that miserably bleak, barren region to die of famine. For I do not believe they would not eat each other; as the natives of that country are said to do in times of scarcity. I have resided upwards of six years near the mouth of the Columbia river have been during all that time in constant intercourse with the natives, and have learned something of their character and habits. And I consider them a high minded race with more honesty generosity and gratitude than is usually found among whites when uncontrolled by law or the conventionalities of society. They are quite amenable to control when the person exercising it possessed their confidence, but owing to want of judgement very liable to be made the victims of misplaced confidence.

Their habits and modes of life entirely disqualify them for living in the interior, but there is a tract of country bounded by the Columbia, Cowlitz, Tsihalis and the Pacific Ocean with Shoalwater Bay deeply indenting it which is every way suited to their situation. But few whites have settled on it, and of those many, perhaps a majority, are connected with the natives by marriage, whose children being denied the rights of citizens will not also, it is hoped, be denied the rights of Indians. Robert Shortess

(Correspondence Robert Shortess to Joseph Lane, Governor of the Oregon Territory, April 21, 1850, Robert Shortess papers, Oregon Historical Society Library)


Shortess’ letter presents a fairly grim image of the decline and future of the Chinookans. Those tribes along the lower Columbia, along with the French Prairie Kalapuyan tribes, where the first explorations and fur trades occurred, were the first to become infected with the numerous diseases brought by the American and British explorers and fur traders. Between 1829 and 1840, some 90% of the tribal peoples died from diseases, most likely the majority from malaria and associated secondary respiratory infections. The lower Columbia peoples at the Astoria-area Clatsop and Chinook villages would have been the first to begin contracting these diseases and dying.  Medicines would not arrive for the tribes until 1856, after their removal to the reservations. By 1850 the Tribal nations had collapsed to the extent that they could no longer defend their sovereign rights within their own lands.



NARA Archives

Robert Shortess Papers, Oregon Historical Society Library

Searching for a Robert Shortess photo or image, if someone can point me to a resource?

8 thoughts on “Robert Shortess On the Columbia

  1. Thank you for providing some detail on R. Shortess as well as publishing his letter to the governor of that time in protest of the further impending incursions onto Native American “lands” during the time after the Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery under Messrs. Lewis and Clark.

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal