Stingy American Settlers of the Willamette Valley


The Kalapuyan tribes of the Willamette Valley have lived here for more than 10,000 years, some 500 generations of people. The whole of the valley was owned by these tribes who had distinct yet overlapping territories. A few sections of the valley were owned by relative newcomers, the Molallans, who lived in the foothills and parts of the northeast valley. The northern part of the valley, where the Willamette River flowed over 35 foot falls, was occupied by The Clackamas tribes, who settled thickly along the upper  Willamette, Clackamas, and parts if the Columbia rivers. These tribes lived in harmony with one another, marrying together under tribal laws that made intermarriage essential parts of the culture. Intermarriage helped all tribes become closer relatives, and lessened conflicts across the region. Tribes were less likely to attack, raid or even steal from a relative. Common tribal codes of behavior made it necessary for the tribes to treat outsiders and visitors with respect, to host them, feed them, offer them a place to stay when journeying through a tribe’s homelands. The visitors too, were expected to approach the villages with honorable intentions, to first meet with the local chiefs and headmen, share stories and gifts to let everyone know that they came in peace and honored the tribes that owned that place.

For tribal people wishing to fish at Willamette Falls, they would first have to request to land their canoes at the Clowewalla village, sit in conference with the chief, share what they had, and later, be granted the honor of fishing the falls. Most times the visitors would not rudely ask, they would wait patiently to be granted access to the falls, an honor granted freely by the chief at the right time. Much of these exchanges happened through Chinuk wawa or Indian sign language, as many tribes in the region did not have common languages.  Tribes had varying degrees of formal behavior depending on the class, title, family relations, and wealth of the visitors.  Permission for fishing was always granted for appropriate behavior. Chiefs would act swiftly to bar and drive from the area those who acted selfishly, and without honor.

The White Men, Bostons, and King George’s men, were different. A few of these people acted appropriately, but most did not. The first White Men many tribes on the Columbia saw were the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The expedition leaders approached the tribes with gifts and would sit and meet them appropriately as diplomats, during most encounters. The expedition gave out peace medallions and in return requested information about the route westward. They asked for a map, for the names and numbers of the tribes, and rivers, and for information like population counts, and wealthy resources to be had. The chiefs would draw maps on animal hides, in the sand, or on tree bark. Some of these maps were copied by Clark into their extensive journals.

The gifts were welcomed by the tribes, but the most important part of the exchange was the mutual sharing of information. Tribes like the Nez Perce (Niimipu) were so interested in the Bible, after two weeks of hearing about Christianity and the Bible from the expedition in 1806, that they sent a delegation to St. Louis to ask that missionaries come among them to teach them.  Black Robes were sent to live with the Nez Perce well before any other missionary was sent to the Oregon Territory.

After the explorers, came the traders, and then the settlers. Some of the first settlers were the fur traders from Hudson’s Bay Company. These men were, many of them, French-Indians meaning they were half-Indian in their heritage. The fur traders found wives among the tribes on the Columbia and in the Willamette Valley, and many settled in the rich lands of the northern valley, thereafter called French Prairie. Many of these men already had good relations with the local Kalapuyans, they had traded among them, and some of the daughters of the chiefs married these men. Then, the former traders had learned the Chinuk wawa, or their wives knew several languages and could interpret for them. So communication was good, and with the pay they had received from the fur trade, they settled as rich men among the tribes. Many utilized the local tribal men and women as laborers on their settlements, paying them with food, and valuable metals, beads, blankets and horses, for building fences, barns, houses, and plowing fields, sowing seed, and helping with the harvest. By the 1840s, many of the Kalapuyans were experienced farmers and ranchers, and the chiefs were working to assemble their own herds of horses and cattle.

In 1844, the Oregon Trail become a phenomenon of Americans selling all they have in the east, and traveling for nine months to the Willamette Valley. They moved to claim “free land” in the west. Oregon represented opportunity and new wealth for these Americans, and they could do their part to help the United States expand to the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of American land claims outmaneuvered the British and their claim to the territory, and by 1846 the Oregon Treaty was signed, formally “giving” the southern part of the Oregon Territory to the United States, with the border being the 49th parallel.

When the settlers first came, they were tolerated, hosted, and fed by the tribes. Many of the earliest settlers had to be taught were the food was, and Native people fed them with dried salmon, venison, camas cakes, and fruits and berries. The tribes had a neighborly sharing attitude towards the newcomers, like they had with other tribal peoples that visited. Those in need, were fed and housed, without question. Some settlers appreciated their reception, others were standoffish and effusive, and years later when the tribes were in need, many settlers would not share in kind. These same settlers had taken over a mile of land and plowed under the native prairies and planted their own food crops. They environmentally changed the land, eliminated Native food resources, and then fenced off their fields. They assumed that they could take “their” lands from the tribes, and then selfishly and stingily bar entry by natives. As years went by, more and more of the prairies went away under the plows, the game was hunted out, and fish wheels were established, quickly depleting fish and animal species, which was staple foods of the tribes. By the 1850s, many tribes struggled to find food for daily needs, much less enough food to store through the winter. Many tribes starved, and the settlers would not share their food-stores. This situation above all others forced the tribes to seek to sell their land to the Americans, so that they could gain a piece of land of their own, without threat of further actions against them by the Americans. Santiam chief Alquema said “he know they had thrown away their lands, and now they wanted to sell,” before it was too late.

The American claims were also supported by the near-destruction of the tribes by malaria. Beginning in 1829, malaria came among the tribes after the anopheles mosquito was introduced to Oregon, likely carried  in the hold of a fur trade vessel. The malaria disease, carried by the anopheles vector, every summer increasingly infected the tribal peoples of the Willamette Valley, causing whole villages to die of “fever and ague.” Some 90-95% of all of these peoples passed in less than a decade, with no natural resistance to the malaria.  In comparison, European peoples had some resistance built up by living for thousands of years in the vicinity of Africa, where the disease likely originated, causing them to have some genetic immunity. And, even though there was a treatment, quinine, it was not readily available to the tribes of Oregon, it not being a common medicine in the frontier. The result of the disease was cultural destruction, as people died off, they took many of their histories and traditions with them. The remaining peoples combined into smaller and fewer villages, leaving much of the territory in all appearances “unoccupied.” This left large open prairies for the settlers to claim, and with less people, the tribes could not mount a defense of their land-claims. By 1850, nearly the whole of the prairies of the Willamette Valley were fully claimed by American settlers. Even the villages sites of the tribes were claimed, many contained with the land-claims of the settlers. The tribes became a population of laborers for the settlers, and their habitations tolerated by the White Men.

The tribal claims to the lands were somewhat protected under various American laws and policy statements. The Northwest Ordinance promised the tribes would not be disturbed, United States land laws recognized the previous land-claims and titles of the tribes, and international agreements and policies from the Catholic Church, the Papal Bulls,  set up ways to legitimately claim land from the tribes. Normally the first European-Christian nation had the first rights to treat with the tribes for their lands. This internationally recognized agreement, suggested that the United States did not own the Oregon Territory, as they had not treated with the tribes, and therefore had not cleared the aboriginal titles. So, the Oregon Treaty was simply an agreement that Britain will vacate their claims to rights to treat with the tribes for their land titles, and gave sole rights to the United States. American politicians and military men knew this was the law, even so, the US Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act (1850), granting 640 acres (One mile square) to every male American, and additional land to wives and children, in the Oregon Territory. The law also certified and proved up on the pre-1850 claims of the “pioneers.” The law was on its face unlawful at the time, due to the fact that the aboriginal titles had not been cleared through purchase or conquest.

In 1850, Anson Dart was appointed to be the Oregon Indian Superintendent, and the Willamette Treaty Commission was formed to treat with the tribes of Oregon. The Treaty Commission first treated with the Willamette Valley tribes, in early May 1851, and afterward Anson Dart takes over the duties of treaty making, the U.S. Government deciding that it was necessary to have an officer of the government legally sign the treaties rather than a commission. The Willamette Treaty Commission found a lot of opposition from the Kalapuyans towards suggestions to move their people east of the Cascades, thereby freeing up all the land for the settlers.  It was decided after several days of negotiation to allow reservations on a part of the original tribal lands. They encountered the stingyness of these settlers in these negotiations and reported it to Dart.  “The Indian says he must have the small spot reserved to himself without interference of the white man. The White man says he will not allow the Indian to reserve his claim.” (Dart 7/19/1851 To Lea, M2 series)

In 1852, Dart was in Washington, D.C. to help shepherd the treaties through Congress and found out that the plan of giving the tribes reservations within their lands had a fatal flaw, all the land was already claimed. Between 1851 and 1852, the lands supposedly set aside for reservations all were fully claimed by settlers, the last claims likely rushed in late 1851 and 1852 before the treaties could be ratified (the extent of this action remains to be determined). This strategy of the settlers to claim all of the land, before the tribes could gain a permanent reservation caused Dart to suggest that the government had to vacate the treaties or incur a huge cost to purchase the land from the settlers. It apparently was not an option to decide in favor of the tribal aboriginal claims. In November 1852, the nineteen 1851 treaties are tabled, never to be ratified.

The Kalapuyans, Chinookans, Molallans and other tribes had hosted and helped the Americans in numerous ways. Their labor helped build their farms, and their tolerance and patience of others, even when the Americans simply took land without asking, or recognizing the previous occupation of the tribes, aided the settlement of Oregon. There were no battles over land in the Willamette Valley. The Kalapuyans never chose to go to war, realizing that they could not stem the tide of colonization, and still, the Americans did not want to allow the tribes to remain on their lands.

A few settlers were of a different opinion. The Applegate family honored, supported, and even defended the occupation of the Yoncalla Kalapuyans in Yoncalla. Jesse Applegate was outraged when Dick Johnson, a Klickitat Indian, was murdered for defending his claim to land in the Umpqua Valley. Some farmers in the Willamette Valley asked for Indian laborers to come and help them on their farms, and even offered them room and board to stay on the farms. A few of the Kalapuyans were tolerated living in the towns of the valley, and would venture off the reservations for weeks to return to visit their homelands, or remained on a settlers property ex: Indian Eliza of Brownsville, Chief John (Klickitat) of Oregon City, Chief Quinaby and his wife in Salem, and Chief Halo and his family around Cottage Grove and Yoncalla.

The actions of 1850 to 1852, by American settlers to claim all land, and force the tribes to remove to a single reservation in 1856, was an act of pure stinginess. This was extreme American nationalism against tribal peoples that had given them everything. Americans did not want to live next to dusky savage Indians, and wanted everything for themselves, and would not allow the tribes even a small section of their original homelands.


One thought on “Stingy American Settlers of the Willamette Valley

  1. The inexorable rapidity of the repugnant western invasion has only multiplied on many environmental and cultural levels, and looks to continue, and probably will, as they say, until the chickens come home to roost. Soon, I will document similar depredations regarding a famed native son in Newport, Oregon. Nevertheless, when I had chickens, they (she) would take off and lay eggs in my neighbor’s sunnier yard, and only return to mine at night to sleep in her coop. So you never know.

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