Early History of the White Salmon Reservation

One of the shortest lived reservations was the White Salmon Reservation, on the north bank of the Columbia River across from Hood River. The Reservation was established to hold the Columbia River Indians, with villages on the north bank of the Columbia River, for a temporary time until they were remove permanently to Yakima. The majority of Indians at White Salmon were Klickitat, but the reserve included Cascades Watlala and a few other Columbia River Indians who had remained int he area and not removed with their tribes.

Between 1855 and 1859 the management of the Columbia Indian district changed hands a couple times, which likely caused a fragmentation of the records for the reserve. In 1855, when the Washington Territory was separated from the Oregon Territory and the United States President assigned, Isaac Stevens to the position of Governor of the territory, the Governor took over the duties of the Washington Territorial Indian districts. This is similar to the appointment of the Oregon Territorial governors in the 1840’s as  the Indian Superintendents of the territory. In 1857, the Washington Districts, including Puget Sound, Western Washington, Columbia River District, and Eastern Washington were reassigned “back” to the Oregon Territorial Superintendent of Indian Affairs, James W. Nesmith. Nesmith had the administration of a huge district spanning from the Canadian Border to California and east to the Flathead tribes of Montana.

The changes to the district may have made the administration of the tribes difficult to maintain under inconsistent management changes. Nesmith however appeared to be up to the task and deftly managed his numerous districts, advocated for federal funding, and got all of his reports and budgets out on time. Still the federal government was inefficient with allocating funds to reservations and the agents had to make the tribes produce their own foods, or they would starve.

White Salmon appeared to have been a bit different from other reservations. The tribes were allowed to have weapons, and hunt and fish, even though many of these tribes and bands may have been involved in the Yakima Indian War in 1856. One of the key battles of the war was the March 1856 attack on the Columbia settlements, the most famous at Cascades rapids. The culmination of this conflict featured the hanging and shooting of most of the the Cascades leaders, in a battlefield trial, carried out by the regular army commanded by Lieutenant Phil Sheridan.

After the battles, the Cascades tribes were not removed from their lands on the Columbia but instead remained for several years. I have written previously that the nature of the Native district borders intersecting right between the major Cascade villages, at Cascade rapids and Hood River,  caused the Cascades to remain unnoticed for a time while the, major tribes, like the Wascos and Wishrams were more swiftly dealt with, removed to Warm Springs,  in order to acquire the valuable Dalles area lands and its fishery.

In 1857, the White Salmon Reservation  had been in operation one year and In the following two letters, the Agent Cain is describing the history of the reservation and the character of the tribes to his new superintendent, who had just taken over the administration of the Washington Indian management districts in early June 1857. Nesmith immediately sent our letters to the Indian Agents notifying them that they would all remain in their positions for the moment and asking for a series of reports from all districts. The two letters accomplish just this purpose.

The letters firmly establish that the majority of tribal people were the Clickitats, or at least one band of them, the Cascades, likely those from the villages on the north bank of the Columbia, from Stevens to Camas, and the Vancouver Indians. The Vancouver Indians were likely northbank members of the Multnomah confederacy, and the village of Cathlapotle, that were ten years earlier aligned with Chief Kiesno (sometimes called Wapato Island Indians).

These lands on the north bank, from Cascade rapids to Oak Point, were mentioned in the Willamette Valley treaty but never fully included in the treaty, and so the Chinookan tribes who were party to the treaty were never paid for their lands. Since these tribes had no treaty they ended up at White Salmon until 1859 when the reservation is closed. Then they either joined the Yakima reservation, or went to Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, or married into a number of other tribes in the area. Some few individuals were allowed to remain off-reservation for the rest of their lives.

The South Bank Cascades at Hood River (Dog River) were removed to Warm Springs (and renamed Hood River Wascos), while some of the Cascade Rapids people joined their kin within the Clackamas and Multnomah tribes at Grand Ronde. Family accounts suggest that many of the south bank Cascades remained on the Columbia and were never removed, likely as a result of the overlapping districts and them living within and integrating quickly within the American settlements, providing useful labor like fishing, riverboat navigation, and mail delivery.


June 30, 1857

Capt.  J. Cain

Indian agent Columbia River District

Sir- I am appointed local agent in charge of Indians at White Salmon Reservation 1st September 1856, Indians consisting of the Vancouver & Lewis River tribe of Clickitats, and the Cascade Indians who had remained friendly during the war numbering 340 persons, also branch of the Clickitat tribe who were among the hostiles & which whom Col. Wright effected a peace treaty and induced to leave the hostile ranks, these with a few additions from Simcoe, and the Yakimaw, raised the number to about 800/persons.

The reservation lies in the Clickitat country between the Clickitat & White Salmon rivers a distance of 15 miles along the Columbia river and extending to the La-Camass prairie, about 20 miles lying in, and on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains.

estimate area of the White Salmon reservation, between the White Salmon and Klickitat rivers and 20 miles inland.

The country is well adapted for Indian use, containing within itself an abundance of wild roots, berries, & game, salmon while it is poorly adapted for agricultural purposes- is very mountainous, while a short distance back from the Columbia river, owing to elevation, frosty nights prevail most of the summer. There is a small amount of tillable land on the Columbia where the agency building is erected, and at mouth of the Clickitat river, where a band of Indians are living. Here fair crops can be raised, tho the dry climate renders irrigation necessary.

Head quarters of the reservation is situate 4 miles above the mouth of the White Salmon river, on the Columbia, being the only places always accessible to Steamboats and on land claimed by E. S. Joslyn (Erastus S. Joslyn) Who was driven from his farm by the Hostile Indians and whose buildings & property they destroyed. [reportedly destroyed by the Yakimas, the family was saved by Clickitats, and they rebuilt in 1859]

Township 3N, Range 11E Washington Terr., 1874, showing Joslyn DLC, the location of the White Salmon Reservation Headquarters, BLM GLO maps

Here I proceeded to erect a house suitable for storing purposes and as a dwelling for employees of the Dept. (There being none others within many miles in the territory) Employing R. L. White as carpenter at $4.00 pr day and 4 Indians to assist him at $50 pr month. The house is comprised of hewn logs, its dimensions 20 by 30 ft in the 1st story & 24 by 34 on the second, 15 ft high & furnished inside with lumber. Here, the Indian trails from the interior all concentrate. There being one from Simcoe & the Yakimaw Valley that can be travelled in 1 ½ days – situation for Indians of this territory very central, being but 20 miles from the great La Camass prairie at which place all the W.T. Indians from Vancouver over to the Spokan river annually congregate in the summer season for purposes of collecting camass, their great staple root and for racing & trading horses. I found the Indians particularly those from Vancouver, & Cascades, owing to their previous close confinement in consequence of the war, in a state of almost complete destitution. Many families who were comparatively in affluent circumstances before the war, having spent their lives in close proximity to the whites- owing many horses which were allowed to range unmolested, by working out, by cultivating small patches of land for themselves & by hunting & fishing occasionally, they were able to procure a very comfortable livelihood. At commencement of the war it becoming necessary on account of the fears of the Whites, and to prevent intercourse between those who professed friendship and the hostile forces, to keep them closely confined on the reserve at Vancouver during which time a large number of their horses & other property that was left at their old habitations were stolen or destroyed. With the Remnants they were then removed to this reservation. Winter was approaching and I saw & reported the fact that they could not but be almost entirely dependent on the dept for their subsistence until Spring and to a degree still longer for Indians who have been raised among Whites & who have acquired many of the habits and wants of civilized life- cannot be expected to readily resume those of the savage and be contented with the hard scanty fare of their progenitors- nor I apprehend is this a species of progression that would meet the views of government- about 800 persons were subsisted during the winter on the reservation- as Spring advanced their supplies were curtailed as much as possible, furnishing enough to keep them from want but not sufficient to encourage them in idleness. In consequence those to whom it came most natural, soon as the season allowed went to the mountains & valleys back, in search of roots & game, while man y others applied for permission & assistance to farm, which request was complied with, after being submitted for your approval. About 100 persons mostly heads of families were supplied with tools, seed & as far as practicable with assistance of team of O [Oxen] in plowing. Some 30 to 40 acres of land were got in, mostly in potatoes & peas. The latter of which being sowed to late. I regret to say have suffered much from drought, of potatoes there will be a fair crop, but in some localities, they have suffered. They have also been offered every inducement & facility for laying up large stores of salmon, both dried and salted, and roots for their winter sustenance. They are all busily engaged in events of a continuance of peace. I am encouraged to believe that the coming winter they will be comfortable without assistance from the Department. The Clickitat tribe numbering about 400 fighting men are known as the best hunters & boldest warriors among all the surrounding tribes. Though few in number their superiority in point of courage & skills in use of the rifle is universally acknowledged by all the Indians. Hence several attempts have been made by the leaders of the war party during the past winter & spring to induce them to leave the reservation and rejoin them in, but without the slightest success. Unless intimidated by superior numbers I believe they cannot be influenced in the slightest degree prejudiced to the interest of Government.

White Salmon Reservation, Respectfully A. Townsend Local Agent


Office Indian Agency, Vancouver W.T.

July 25th 1857

I herewith transmit you my annual report for my district, for the fiscal year ending June 30th 1857. It is with feelings of gratification that I have it in my power to report peace & quiet throughout this district. The country comprising this district that I have charge of embraces all the country in Washington Territory bordering on the Columbia River, from its mouth to the vicinity of the Dalles, having chge of all the Indians whose habitations are on or near the Columbia River.

The greater portion of the Indians of this District are under chge of local agent A. Townsend, at White Salmon reservation. The Indian number about 800, made up of the Vancouver Indians, and Cascade Indians, and the remainder mostly Clickitats, that were scattered along the river, and roaming over the country at large, since locating them on the reservation, they manifest a willingness & desire to cultivate small tracts of ground and to otherwise employ themselves to make their own living for the future, having been made sensible that it is not the intention of the Government to subsist them longer than they can provide for themselves. I have every reason to believe the feelings of the Indians at the White Salmon reservation are kindly disposed towards the Whites. In fact they have withstood all the arguments and inducements of the war party to join them to renew the war. They expressed themselves determined to abide & obey, the directions of the Government & her agents.

A large proportion of the Indians in this District are inclined to engage in the cultivation of various vegetables, and to some extent in grain, even modest inducements held out by the Ind. Dept. sanctioned by the government, will reclaim a large portion from their wild mode of life, and render them better friends to the whites, than it is possible for them to be in their wild native state.

There are bands of Indians in the vicinity of the mouth of the Columbia River, their numbers uncertain, being made up of various small tribes, and scattered over a large extent of country, somewhat remote from any communication with the hostile bands, & have remained in a comparatively quiet state during the recent Indian war. No provision have been given to these Indians, beyond some small amounts & some goods, as no indemnification for murders committed amongst them by some desperate white men, who infest their country, & the laws of the country have failed to reach, mostly abandoned seamen, natives of all countrys, and disregarding the laws of all of civilized life.

In reply to your request to be informed as to the numbers of Indians, that have been subsisted in their district. I would in reply state, in the immediate District some 800 at White Salmon Reservation. Opposite the Dalles in this Territory under charge if local agent John F. Poble [Pablo?] 1000 Indians, and in the Simcoe Valley 1515 Indians, and supplies was furnished by agent Noble of the Dalles to agent Gregg at Walla Walla to a considerable amount, the previous quantity I do not know. But I believe it is safe to state that at least 4000 Indians have been sub…. Chge of Agent Gregg at the cost of about $12.00 pr head, including clothing & cost of buildings for agency at White Salmon Reservation. Under instructions from Gov. Stevens, Supt of Indian Affairs of W.T. I bought & shipped the supplies to meet the requirements of the local agents, in all the upper country, Namely White Salmon, Dalls, etc etc, no issues of provisions are not being made, other than to the sick and infirm, the Indians being able to obtain their livings and prepare for the coming winter, if not prevented by a renewal of war.

No further expense of moment need be incurred by the Indian Department. This statement however is based on the fact that there is no further Indian hostilities. Should it be otherwise & the Indian be not prevented from fishing, hunting, & obtaining roots & berries, and their usual means of subsistence, by being driven from their fishing grounds, root & berry fields. Then the question presents itself. Shall the Indian dept. feed & protect the friendly Indians, who have, and will continue to maintain good faith towards the whites, or not. I give it as my opinion that public policy would dictate that it should under such circumstances be done, It would inspire faiths in the government, and agents, on the part of the Indians to an extent to lead them to submit wholly to government demands & directions. There is an implied obligation at least resting on government, to say that least to keep the Indians from suffering. Their country has been taken from them without treaty being made with them, or remuneration given them for it in this district. They patiently submit to the directions and requirements of Government agents. Their claims to consideration & kind treatment are strong. It strikes me it places them in the attitude of … objects of government protection, if a necessity should arise that would demand it.

Cain, Indian Agent C.R.D. [Columbia River District]



RG75 M234 R610, both letters


7 thoughts on “Early History of the White Salmon Reservation

  1. Being a Cascades Indian descendant who grew up in the Columbia Gorge, I so appreciate this post. The letters from the Indian agents and sub-agents about the White Salmon reservation and the people who lived there provide a glimpse into their lives. Especially the final paragraph of Capt. Cain’s letter displays a compassion I did not expect. Since many male lives were lost in the battles, I assume that there were a majority of women & children on the reservation. If there were any figures unearthed about that, I would enjoy seeing them. I come from those strong Native women.

  2. I think White Swan, who later became chief of the Yakama Nation spent time at the White Salmon Reservation. White Swan was living in the Fort Vancouver area, and I once read about Isaac Stevens, trying to convince White Swan to try out the White Salmon Reservation, and consider moving on to the Yakama Reservation. He told White Swan, if he didn’t like it, he could come back. Of course that didn’t happen.

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