Canoeing the Yaquina, Coast Reservation, November 1856

The story of the Coast Reservation of Oregon is complicated. The Coast Reservation is created in 1855 by Presidential Executive Order and then for some months remains undeveloped by the Oregon Indian office. Joel Palmer, the Indian Superintendent for Oregon, planned to move all of the tribes of western Oregon to this reservation, because the 100 mile stretch of coastline and coastal mountains (100 miles long by 20 miles wide in most estimates) , were relatively unsettled, and were an intractable wilderness to the White settlers. The Coast Reservation extended from Siltcoos Lake at the south to about Cape Lookout at the north, and to the peak of the Coast Range at the east. On various maps the boundaries can change dramatically.

Created by David Lewis in Google My Maps


Palmer knew that he had to remove the tribes from living in their villages as they were in the way of White settlers, who would not put up with tribes living on the pristine prairie lands of the interior valleys, nor the resource rich bays of the coast. These lands were envisioned as prime agricultural and ranch lands. If tribes tried to remain they would “waste the land” by not using it “appropriately,” in the perspective of the settlers. This had generally been  the perspective of the colonists of all generations that drove colonization of Indian lands from East to West.

Palmer evidently planned to move the tribes in four to five years from the signing of the treaties. But the various Indians wars in 1855-1856, Rogue River Indian War and Yakima Indian War, necessitated Palmer to move the tribes of western Oregon, the treaty tribes, earlier than planned. The Coast Reservation was still an intractable wilderness, with only a few settlements at the river estuaries. The relative lack of infrastructure to manage some 4,000 Indians caused Palmer to seek other open lands where the tribes may subsist themselves. In late 1855, Palmer hatched plans to create the new encampments at the Umpqua River, and at the Yamhill River in the Grand Ronde Valley. In 1856, removal to the reservations and encampments began, with the majority of the treaty tribes going to the Grand Ronde Encampment. Other treaty tribes were moved to the Salmon river encampment, and Palmer began opening additional sub-agencies and encampments in the river estuaries of Yachats, Yaquina, Alsea, Siuslaw on the Coast Reservation because there was not yet a permanent agency created. There were even a few Natives settled at the Siletz River estuary.

The river estuary encampments were opened to allow the tribes to feed and subsist themselves for a time. River estuaries are some of the most productive areas for food, and people living at an estuary can find freshwater, saltwater, and fishes, shellfish, animals and birds that can withstand various mixtures of salt and fresh water, year-round. This would eliminate the need to pay for all of the food supplies in the encampments because many of the tribes did not have a ratified treaty and so funding would be sparse for their subsistence.  The encampments were  then temporary holding areas were the agents could manage and control the tribes until the Coast Treaty was ratified. 

Created by David Lewis


Within this milieu the Umpqua Reserve was created. In late 1855, the lower Umpqua, Coos Bay, and Siuslaw tribes were needing to be moved north to the Coast Reservation. The other estuary encampments became full of other tribes, the Coquilles were removed to Yaquina, the Alseas remained at the Alsea. In Coos Bay there was an encampment at Empire, but the Agents wanted to remove all the tribes from the bay as it was highly desired by settlers. The Umpqua, and Coos Bay tribes were within the Umpqua District, and so were moved to encampments on the Umpqua estuary. The Umpqua area were not within the Coast Reservation, and were only lightly settled by Americans. Therefore, Sub-Indian Agent E. P. Drew created a small reserve that bordered on the southern boundary of the Coast Reservation, and was bounded by the North fork Umpqua river and Umpqua estuary. This tract of land hosted from 250 to 500 Indians in its short history. The district also hosted Fort Umpqua with a detachment of dragoons to guard the coastline from Indians escaping from the Coast Reservation.

In addition, Drew helped organize the removal of other tribes on the southern Oregon Coast, the remaining Chetcos, Pistol Rivers and other scattered tribes and families. He helped organize “catchers” white men who were hired to track down and remove tribes force-ably to the Coast Reservation.  In all correspondence and reports, there were suggestions that the Umpqua Reserve should join the Coast Reserve, but this never happened. The Umpqua Reserve was a distinct and temporary reservation from all other reserves in western Oregon. It had its own budgetary line item in the Indian affairs budgets of Oregon and was not part of the Coast Reserve maps. In about January 1861, when the Sub-Indian agent Sykes left his post (to join the South in the Civil War?), it appears that the Agent at the Alsea Reservation took over management of the Indians in the district, but the land was never included in the Coast Reservation.

From 1856 to 1857, the most prominent of the encampments was that at Salmon River. Salmon River had an original Indigenous population of Salish Tillamookan Indians called the Nechesna, which was also the original name of the river. This population was joined by the Rogue River and other coastal tribes that were force-ably removed to the Coast Reservation. The Salmon River Encampment remained acted until at least 1886. From 1857 to 1885 The Indians at Salmon River encampment were managed by the agents at the Grand Ronde Reservation. From Grand Ronde the route to Salmon River was relatively easy to ride and the tribes built a wagon road to the Salmon river for this purpose.  In the early 1860’s, Agents established a Salmon Fishery at Salmon River for the Natives at Grand Ronde.  As well the Tillamookan Salmon River peoples are enumerated in the annual census of the Grand Ronde Reservation until 1886. While the encampment is technically on the Coast Reservation, the agents at Siletz Agency had their hands full with the 2,500 native people at the agency, at Alsea Sub-agency and at the southern area encampments. There also was not a good route to visit Salmon River from Siletz. The final factor is that since none of the coastal tribes had a ratified treaty, it would be strategic to extend the funding for the Tribes at the Grand Ronde Reservation to Salmon River, and to the Tillamook Basin, to spread out the funding. 

In the summer of 1856, came most of the removals of Indians from the southern Oregon coast. There were two routes of removal. The first route was by schooner from Port Orford to Portland and Oregon City, and then by sidewheeler from Canemah down the Willamette and Tualatin rivers, to be let off at Dayton landing, then overland through the Grand Ronde Valley to Salmon River. Some of these tribes removed in this fashion remained in Grand Ronde, and others were settled at Salmon River. The other route was to be marched up the coast. The “catchers,” and sometimes the army, would walk the tribes from the Southern coast to the encampments on the Coast Reservation. There were many such removals, as catchers like William Tichenor would drive the Indians to the Umpqua Reserve and then it was decided which encampment on the Coast Reserve they were to be removed to. Sometimes other tribes would help, and other times Tichenor himself would complete the route.

Because of the chaotic nature of the first few years of the Coast Reserve there are not a lot of descriptions of these Coast Reserve encampments. Normally, Agents would just report that “everything is quiet” on the reserve. The following description is from a letter of Absalom F. Hedges the Indian Superintendent of Oregon, November 7, 1856,

I left Oregon city to meet at the latter place B. Jenning’s Schooner “Calumet” loaded with flour for Indians, upon the Coast Reservation. I arrived at Yaquonah Bay on 19th Oct, and remained there until 24th, meanwhile exploring Yaquonah  Bay in a canoe and finding it extending twenty five miles into the interior, deep, from one fourth mile to two miles in width, tide setting all the way up. The Schooner not arriving, on the 24th I left for this place, returning by the Siletz Valley and crossing the Coast Range of mountains by the new road leading from Kings Valley in Benton County to the Siletz Valley, a very good road, opened by the Military and Indian Department. The Siletz Valley exceeds my warmest expectations. The land is very rich, grass abundant, prairies beautiful. I contemplate the location of all the Indians west of the Cascade Mountains, except the Willamette Valley tribes, upon the Coast Reservation, principally in the Siletz Valley and around Yaquonah Bay. It is a fine country, admirably suited to the Indians, more secluded from the white settlements than the Grand Ronde Reservation and more easily reached with supplies if the entrances of the Yaquonah and Siletz are found to be safe for vessels.

By Express I learn that the Schooner arrived in Yaquonah Bay in 28th October and was discharging her cargo of flour.  She experienced rough weather outside and in a gale was forced to throw overboard ten kegs nails and two thousand feet of lumber with which I had intended to erect a temporary building to put the flour in. A long one had been erected for the purpose.

The Schooner has not yet returned to Portland and we have no definite information of the opinion of those on board of her as to the safety of the entrance of the Yaquonah, but I think it perfectly safe, or at least sufficiently so for our purposes, perfectly safe in good weather. I think the mouth of the Siletz can also be entered, if so, another great advantage will be gained, as the Indians can transport provisions up the Siletz River in canoes.

I found many Indians at the Yaquonah awaiting the arrival of the schooner with much anxiety. Many of them were sick but a skillful physician, J. S. McIterney, has been appointed to attend them.  Many of the Indians on the Coast Reservation are anxious to be removed to the Siletz, and as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made for their comfort a large proportion of them will remove, from Salmon River, where they are now located, to the Siletz Valley, without any expense to the Government. 

Gen. Palmer & brother have commenced operations in the Siletz Valley on their contract enclosed to you my letter of 22nd September. A number of Indians from the Coquille and other tribes who have been scattered through the Coast region, south of the  Umpqua, recently arrived at the Yaquonah in a very destitute condition. A consequent expenditure will be necessary, Hospital buildings, physicians quarters, Sub Agents quarters, Houses for Indians and warehouses at the mouth of Yaquonah and Siletz, will be to erect. A blacksmith must be employed, (crossed out- these last named expenditures resulting from the removal of the Indians from Salmon River to Siletz)

These expenditures are heavy, but I am obliged to make them although I am not informed whether the treaty made with these tribes by Gen. Palmer 11th August 1855 is confirmed [Coast Treaty]. I hope however, that the necessity of these expenditures will be apparent to you. It is unquestionably better to expend the money in this way than in fighting the Indians, and it is certain that unless they are treated kindly, their  wants supplied, and the promises that were made them by Gen. Palmer complied with, their faith in the Government will be entirely checked and a war with them the consequence. 

A. F. Hedges to Geo. W. Manypenny, Commissioner of Indian Affairs. 

Yaquina Estuary

From the letter we learned many things. Joel Palmer was fired in 1856 as the Superintendent, but was evidently hired under contract to begin the building of the Siletz Agency. The tribes were mainly concentrated at the Salmon River encampment and it is the main reference from Hedges. There is not yet a provisioning plan for the Coast Reservation, Hedges seems to be setting that in motion by this letter. The anxiety of the tribes, in November, can be easily explained. The tribes were likely without winter stores of food and may have been already starving in November. The tribal people were also sick and in two references in the letter Hedges mentions the need for physicians and a hospital. That suggests that the sickness of the tribes was widespread and perhaps out of control. In other reports, sickness for the first 5 to 10 years was endemic and many Tribes nearly went extinct due to the sickness on the reservations.

The Siletz Agency of the Coast reservation is opened sometime in 1857. Once Siletz Agency was open, agents annual reports suggest most of the Rogue River and Shasta peoples were moved from Grand Ronde to Siletz agency in 1857. Unlike the comment by Hedges in his letter, where he stated that the removals to Siletz would “cost nothing,” the next round of removals cost the labor in transporting the tribes, and the cost of building housing for the tribes.


RG 75 M234, Roll 609

Other sources of history

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal