Rejection of the Nineteen 1851 Oregon Treaties

Rejection of the Nineteen 1851 Oregon Treaties

Anson Dart, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, from 1850 to 1852, remains an enigma. His nineteen treaties with the tribes of western Oregon, negotiated by the Willamette Valley Commission, all failed to be ratified. Because of the lack of ratification, these treaties have not been well studied as they were not considered important legally or politically for many years and so there yet remains missing pieces of the puzzle.

Dart was appointed in 1850 and sent to Oregon to negotiate treaties with the tribes of western Oregon. He is told to begin with the Willamette Valley first, as the most desirable area for settlement, and to remove the tribes to east of the Cascade Mountains. He begins the process with his Willamette Treaty Commission, Governor John T. Gaines, Alonzo A. Skinner, and Beverly S. Allen, in the Willamette Valley where he is not present. Then Dart gains control of the treaty making responsibilities by arguing that the commissioners are not official represnetations fo the US Government. Dart continues without the Commission, treaty making with sub agents ,on the Columbia, and 10 treaties are negotiated at Tansey Point. Dart continues on to Port Orford and three treaties there, and finishes the year at Oregon City with the final Clackamas treaty. None of the tribes agree to move east, and it is only the Willamette Valley tribes and the Clatsop that have rights to a proposed reservation within their lands. The other tribes gain the right to occupy their residences until their deaths.  Dart goes to Washington D.C. with the treaties and tries to shepherd them through Congress. But, they fail to be ratified and are rejected outright by October 1852. (Dan Boxberger describes the events well.)

One question that is raised by scholars is: why the treaties failed to be ratified. The reasons normally given are that Dart failed to remove the tribes from the Willamette Valley, which upset settlers, and that Americans settlers lobbied Congress to reject the treaties. These reasons seem reasonable, and probably were reasons to reject the treaties. However, within this answer are some unknowns, like, how did the lobbying of Congress occur? There are no sets of letters yet found. There are a few negative editorials in newspapers but its unclear yet how they were received in Washington, D.C. Recently, I uncovered a piece of that question in a letter from Dart to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

In the microfilm series, NARA M1049,  is a set of letters from Anson Dart, introducing the treaties and journaling the peoples and lands they concern. There are copies of the treaties, at least a few, and some unique letters and statements not available elsewhere.

Washington, 20th April 1852

Dear Sir,

I deem it highly important that you should be made acquainted with some facts connected with the six Indian Treaties made by Gaines, Allen & Skinner in the month of April last, in the Territory of Oregon, believing, As I do, that the difficulties which I am about to relate were unknown to the above Commissioners at the time of making their report on these treaties. You will observe by reference to these treaties, that in each one, the Indians have made for themselves a reservation of land of greater or less extent, set apart for their own exclusive use: another provision, however, grants to each settler then residing on these reservations, (in conformity to the land law passed during the thirty-first Congress) each one mile square. It was supposed at the making of these treaties, both by the Commissioners and the Indians that there were but few settlers claiming lands on these reservations. It has subsequently been ascertained, that in two cases, the whole, or very nearly the whole, reservation is claimed by actual settlers. In the other reservations the good land is all claimed also. You will readily see that the difficulties in the case are not easily overcome.

The settler claims by virtue of an act of Congress in which no provisions are made for the prior Indian title to these lands. The settlers therefore do not allow the Indians to occupy these reservations. I have persuaded the Indians to remain quiet, assuring them that the treaties were yet to go before the President and Senate, and that full explanations would then be given of all the facts in the case, that strict justice would there be done them.

I do not see any better method to adopt in these cases than to buy out the Indian title to these reservations and give the, as an equivalent other lands (unoccupied, if such can be found) to buy the settlers’ claims to these reservations, would involve a very large sum of money- say not less than fifty thousand dollars, the only other alternative seems to be to reject the treaties; this would cause great delay in perfecting titles to the many old settlers on these lands, to say nothing of the cost of new treaties.

You will doubtless recollect that I have while in Oregon set forth other difficulties connected with these treaties viz: the under value of goods to be furnished – the reservation made by the Northern band of Moleallys, covering three fourths of the whole quantity ceded to the United States.

Our Delegate, Genl Lane, has made himself fully acquainted with many of the facts set forth in this letter, to whom I would refer to, for any additional information.

I have the honor to remain, respectfully,

Y.Obt Servant- Anson Dart

Supt of Ind Affs for Oregon

The Hon: Luke Lea Commissioner of Ind. Affairs

Washington D.C.


Proposed Santiam Reservation 1851 section of the Gibbs-Starling map, 1851
Section of Gibbs Starling Map, 1851, showing Proposed Yamhill reservation

The impression this letter leaves is that Dart is blaming the rest of the Commission for the agreements for the reservations. He suggests that they did not know of the settlers claims, but this is something that Dart would have been responsible for overseeing before sending the treaties to Congress. Dart is now harpooning the treaties, and giving Congress an avenue to reject them outright. This fact, more than any other, likely caused the treaties to be rejected by Congress. The Treaties are submitted to Congress on July 1, 1852, and are heard by the Senate on August 3, 1852. They are referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs August 6th 1852. In October 1852 the treaties are rejected by Congress. In December 1852 Dart resigns his appointment. For years afterwards, Dart has to defend his actions and how he spent his money while Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon. He was not present at several of the negotiations, those of the Willamette Valley because that was not his original role, his role was initially to keep the peace, keep the tribes from liquors, and administer their needs during removals. He traveled to and negotiated with the Umatillas for removal of the western Oregon tribes to Eastern Oregon but is flatly refused. Dart does have constructed an Indian agency office in Umatilla. Later, in 1861, he seeks another appointment to the region but is flatly rejected by President Lincoln.

Its clear in this letter that Dart has no regard for tribal claims to their lands. He gives more importance to proving up on the claims of the “Old settlers” than the tribes who have lived here for over 10,000 years. This was the attitude of many settlers towards the tribes. These tribes technically owned all of the land and the Americans were those encroaching illegally on tribal territories.

The rejection of these treaties causes many tribes to lose respect for the United States and thereafter Indian agents’ promises were not well trusted by several tribes. The lack of faith in the treaty process, by the tribes,  and their feelings that the United States had negotiated in bad faith, leads to further outbreaks of violence, leading to the Rogue River Indian War of southern Oregon, and further conflicts along the Oregon Coast. Many Natives die from these conflicts, before their final removal to Grand Ronde and the Coast reservations in 1856.

Scholars have revealed many of the details of these treaties and the journals that accompanied them. The records are scattered through many federal repositories and in many microfilm series. This past year I encountered a microfilm series I had not heard of before, the “Territorial Papers of the United States: for the Territory of Oregon, 1848-1859, NARA M1049, Reels 1-3,” in the Oregon State Library, Salem, Oregon. These records are all Indian Affairs records, a sort of haphazard assortment of records that likely went to Congress, and were seen by the President at the time.

The nineteen treaties, from NARA M1049.



Territorial Papers of the United States: for the Territory of Oregon, 1848-1859, NARA M1049, Reels 1-3, Microfilm in the Oregon State Library, Salem, Oregon

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