Differential Immigration and Citizenship in the 19th Century in Oregon

The immigration debate that is being discussed nationally, has caused me to think about what immigration was like in the 19th century in Oregon. Too often today immigrants are discussed as being synonymous with “criminals” as if the very action of immigration is a criminal act. But, as many know, immigration into the USA has been one of the mainstays of the American democracy, its how the US got so many people from so many countries seeking a new country to survive and thrive in. In the 19th century Americans took to immigrating into the Oregon Territory without requesting this right from the tribes. They were essentially illegal immigrants to the tribes, who squatted on tribal lands and then disavowed any responsibility to the tribes, in fact treating them badly in racially charged ways. Then when the tribes reacted, the Americans formed volunteer militias and began exterminating tribes, and called on the US Army to suppress the tribes. Americans seem to have forgotten this history.

All of these immigrants today want to same thing, a place the survive, and to do better for their families. Many stay beyond their visa dates because for most its nearly impossible to just move back to their country of origin, they have put down roots and want to stay. For many, there is nothing to go back to, and for children, they do not know any other place but where they live and grow up in. They have no other country. The problem really rests in the 40 years that the US Congress has avoided the issues of immigration.

As a native person this might seem like an odd sentiment. Many native people simply want their country back and even want white people to just go back to Europe. Today, that is simply not possible, there is too much integration and so any such sentiments can only be experienced as a bit of Native humor.

But in the 19th century, this sentiment was distinctly a possibility. Tribes like the Rogue Rivers and Yakimas tried to drive the White people from their lands in a series of attacks, now called wars. Then they were fighting for their very survival for their lands in the face of American colonization of their lands. Many tribes tried to play by the rules brought to them by the colonists, that if they signed a “treaty” that they would live in peace, if they gave up a majority of their lands. This did not happen for most tribes, as after treaties were signed, it would take about five to 10 years for federal administrations to change, bringing new ideas about how to get the lands from the Indians. By 1856, most tribes in Oregon were on reservations. By 1865, many of these reservations were under threat of losing acreage, with the Coast Reservation losing about 200,000 acres by Congressional act. In 1875, additional 100’s of thousands of acres, 2 sections, were removed from the Coast Reservation, and there were threats to take acreage from Grand Ronde. and under the Dawes Act (1887) reservations nationally lost millions of acres of land as individual Indians were allotted and the remainder of the acreage was sold as surplus.

The tribal people were not even allowed to all be Americans until 1924, by Congressional act. Tribal people were members of foreign nations living on reservations administered by the US government. These were prison camps for many tribes. Tribal people had little rights outside of reservations, for the longest time were not allowed to leave without passes, and did not have rights to marry outside their race nor buy alcohol.

Back in the 1850s, the United States had just taken over the southern section of the Oregon Territory from Great Britain by the Oregon treaty. This had been a hard politicked land dispute that went on for some 40 years, trying to decide where the national border was going to be. It was decided to be the 49th parallel, but the final “battle” for territory between the two nations was not over until the end of the 1860s Pig War over San Juan Island in Puget sound. In 1850, the national border fight, was still very fresh for many people in Oregon. In this decade a good number of British citizens remained in Oregon, had been in Oregon for a decade or three, and then legally immigrated as American citizens. John McLaughlin, the Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor, even became an American in this decade. The immigration waiting period for these British citizens, who had been politically in opposition to the United States taking Oregon, was very brief. Many of these men had friends among the Americans, many had worked with Americans, helped build the cities and services, established the fur trade, and worked in the mills, and they were clearly of the right racial heritage. A brief statement from Oregon District Court transcripts will highlight the ease of their immigration.

May 4th, 1852, John Flett- application to be admitted to citizenship under the laws of Congress. Be it remembered that John Flett a native of the British Provinces of North America who applies to be admitted a citizen of the United States comes and proves to the satisfaction of the Court by the evidence of Joseph L. Meek and Ralph Wilcox that he continuously resided in the United States at least five years immediately preceding their application and in the Territory of Oregon at least one year immediately preceding this application and that he has during that time conducted himself as a man of good moral character, and attached to the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order, and happiness of the same, and the Court moreover being satisfied that said application has taken the preparatory steps required by the laws of the United States concerning the naturalization of foreigners, and now declaring in open court upon oath that he will support the Constitution of the United States and that he does absolutely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatsoever, and particularly to Victoria Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of which he is at present a subject…. It is therefore ordered by the Court that the said John Flett be and is hereby admitted a citizen of the United States…. (Oregon District Court Records)

In roughly five years, John Flett qualified to be a citizen of the United States. He then became part of the Treaty commissions and worked with Joel Palmer to scribe the treaties, as well as serving at a sub-Indian agent for Palmer in the Willamette Valley. His admission as a citizen in Oregon occurred before the Oregon territory was even purchased from any of the 100 or so tribes in Oregon. The United States acted as if they owned all the land without even purchasing a single acre. The first treaties that became ratified were in 1853. But this is amazingly congenial treatment of a British citizen, who in many ways was a the enemy just five years previously.

Immigration also had another meaning in the 1850s, it meant the righteous colonization of Oregon, a demographic movement, of White American immigrants moving to Oregon on the Oregon Trail.

Dalles, O.T. Oct. 5, 1851.

Dear Sir- I have nothing of great importance to communicate; but this being the point at which the immigration [ie: wagon trains on the Oregon Trail- The Pioneers] first touches civilized soil after leaving the frontier , makes it a place of interest to every one whether he may have friends on the way or not. The immigrants, with the exception of not more than fifty wagons, are all in, and those will soon here. The immigration has been unusually healthy, and generally in fine spirits. They have brought into the Territory a great number of cattle and horses, and, as a general thing, have plenty of money. The Speculator who, like so many hungry wolves, have thronged the road this year for the bare purpose of taking advantage of the poor immigrant’s necessities, has found the object of his benevolence of so haughty and stubborn a nature as to wilfully reject all of his profered mercies. This immigration is composed of the very “bone and sinew” of the country- the nation’s strength and wealth- principally farmers and mechanics, practical men [not women or children?], who have immigrated here, not for the purpose of making a raise, no matter how, but with their families and effects for the purpose of making this their future home, and as all such deserve to, will meet with a friendly welcome from those of their friends who have, in former years, met with and overcome all the hardships and dangers incident to a trip across the eternal plains, and are now enjoying the fruits of their labors in this highly favored land. 

Our place would improve, and the country around would soon be settled, were it not for the encumbrances imposed by the military, which hang as dead weights to every enterprise attempted. Ten miles square is the very modest size of the reservation made here, which includes every boat landing that could be approached by a wagon. No improvements, of any kind, may be made’ no trade carried on, nor stock kept here, except by or through the clemency of the commander of the post. This, you see, makes a great monopoly for the favored ones, which is in fine keeping with the spirit of our democratic institutions; Yet it is not reasonable to suppose that every encumbrance ought to be speedily removed, and this portion of the territory allowed to settle…. ( Anonymous, Oregon Statesman, October 14, 1851)

That last section of this letter in the Oregon Statesman, suggests the same sentiment as that of many ranchers today (like the Malheur occupiers of 2016) that hate federal ownership of land and simply want the freedom to do what they want on the land. This is during a time when the tribes in The Dalles as still a major force, they have massive villages at Celilo, and they still own all of the land. Any settlement and development could be seen as illegal, legitimately. In fact the Army officers at The Dalles knew that the tribes still owned the land, and were letting all of the settlers know they could not claim the lands there. This likely forced many of the settlers to travel further west, to the Willamette Valley to claim the lands of the depopulated Kalapuyan tribes. The major threat to Americans on the Middle Columbia was the Yakima, Cayuse, and other affiliated tribes who were banding together to push back against white settlement on their lands in the Yakima and Cayuse wars.

But, as we can see for immigration, in the 1850’s, was a desired activity for Americans to immigrate into Tribal lands, and it was also acceptable for British subjects to immigrate into the United States. The same rights were not allowed tribal peoples. They sold their lands and were forced into reservations and did not have rights in the United States, except on the reservations. It would have been better in treaties if citizenship were given to the tribal people as a part of what they received for their millions of acres of land, because after  treaties tribal people lived as second class citizens well into the 20th century, causing the growth of a whole areas of laws in the United States, Tribal Law, due to the long term (and for some continuing) differential rights of Tribal peoples. In Oregon, laws into the 1950s continued to discriminate against Tribal peoples, even though they were made citizens in 1924. It was not until 1952 that the prohibition laws against Native people buying alcohol and marrying white people were changed, and there are many indications that discriminatory treatment against Native people continues to today.

It is debatable whether average Americans know how deep the discrimination in the United States is for anyone who is not a White person of Christian values. Immigration for non-whites is a laborious and long task and has not been easy at any time in history, while the same experience for Whites has been easier through our history. Much of the difficulty for non-white is built upon unfair stereotypes of various races, carried into political spheres, by uneducated and politically motivated White Americans, mainly.  These stereotypes address Mexicans, South Americans, Africans, and Haitians, all clearly “peoples of color” and not White, which is apparently more desirable as immigrants to some, but not the majority by any means. At one time, the Irish and the Italians, were classed as non-white and were heavily discriminated against when they sought immigration and citizenship rights in the 19th and 20th centuries, while today, these same peoples appear to have joined the White privileged classes in the United States.

Citizenship for American Indians today is just a part of who we are. Enrolled Native peoples also have tribal citizenship, making them dual citizens from birth or enrollment. Native people have a lot of unaddressed issues to discuss and negotiate with the federal government, that may become important in the future. For now, its enough to document the various ways in which Native peoples have been discriminated against for some 200 or more years by the American government.

Postscript-  not sure it matters, but, I am of Native heritage, but also Irish, Scottish, French, Belgian, and German ancestry as well.

Additional reading

The Quest for Citizenship: African American and Native American Education in Kansas, 1880-1935

American Indian Identity: Citizenship, Membership, and Blood (Native America: Yesterday and Today) [Oregon Native Writer]

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

The Irish Americans: A History

New Italian Migrations to the United States: Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York

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