In Oregon history, the settlers began coming to the Willamette Valley by the hundreds in the 1840s. By 1840s there had been a massive epidemic of malaria in the Willamette Valley with some 95% of the people dying. So when the settlers came in, they were relatively unopposed and they settled at the best village places along the Willamette river and tributaries, alongside native villages. French Prairie became a favorite settlement area in the early period. The whole valley filled up with land claims of about a mile square claimed by the settlers. The tribes, much reduced, became a population of laborers to the settlers. Tribal people, many Kalapuyans, would be hired to make fence posts and railing and boards for building fences, barns and houses. These were normally trade relationships with the farmers who give food or other valuable goods for the labor. Native peoples liked glass beads, guns and other metal tools, horses, fabrics and outfits, and food. Many worked for the farmers for years, and some became permanent farmhands, and lived on the farm in a small cottage while working every day for the farmer.
This early history is the first labor the tribal peoples likely did for the Americans, as well as being guides, watermen, and hunters. When the Native peoples got to the reservations, in 1856, they were made to set up their own farms, and feed themselves. They would labor to build the Indian agency and do farm work of tilling fields, harvesting crops, building and repairing fences, building roads. They labored hard despite the fact that the Indian Agents did not have adequate federal support to maintain the reservation nor feed the people, as the Indians agents had promised when the tribes were removed.
The fact of how hard the tribes worked with the settlers, to help them settle the land is not well told in history. Stereotypes of Native peoples suggest they they are “lazy” people. In the 20th century, however, the tribes in the Pacific Northwest became important laborers in many agriculturally based industries. Native families would travel from the reservation and help harvest the crops of the Willamette Valley. They are most well known for hops, beans, and berries. Tribes from California to Alaska participated in agriculture, as one of the few professions where they could get a fair wage and this included the logging industry. Native men would leave the reservations to become loggers and many would become the leaders if their crews. In logging, Native men found more equality of respect and pay than in nearly any other industry. And logging seemed to be a consistent paycheck nearly year round when some other industries would run seasonally. Logging became a mainstay of Oregon for many generations.
We do not know yet when logging became a major industry for Native peoples. Timber harvesting had been a part of Oregon since before American settlements, and sawmills dotted many rivers in the region, the timber helping to build the new homesteads in the region. In the early period of settlement, we do not hear that Native people were engaged in logging or in sawmills.
There were sawmills constructed at the reservation to help tribal people saw logs into boards to build their houses, barns and fences, however, there did not appear to be an industry in the early period. An early letter from the Grand Ronde Indian reservation, from its Indian Agent, P.B. Sinnott, asking whether that logging be allowed on the reservation, and whether Indians could participate in it.
Grand Rond Agency Oregon Jan 11th 1875
I have the honor to enquire of you if the Indians have the rite to sell saw logs or timber of the vacant timber land of this reservation or if White men residing outside the reservation can employ Indians to cut timber on the agency paying the Indians by the thousand feet for cutting and the white men to hall the logs or timber of the Agency. Several whitemen applied to me for the privilege.
Very Respectfully yours,
Most obedient Servant
P.B. Sinnott, U.S. Indian Agent
to: Hon. Commissioner Indian Affairs, Washington D.C.
The letter above suggests that they was not a common activity of the Indians at Grand Ronde, and that Sinnott, the agent did not know the answer. It may very well be that Native men were already working off reservation in logging, but this appears to not have been a profession on the reservation in 1875. In this time it was against federal and state policies for Indians to be off reservations without passes, so its unlikely Native men were yet involved in significant wage labor off reservation.
The Grand Ronde, Siletz and other reservation in the region held massive amounts of timberlands. These lands in the Coast range. Most of these lands were terminated in the Executive order and Congressional bills of 1865 and 1875, and because of he Dawes Act Allotment process where tens of thousands of acres were sold as surplus lands out of the reservation by 1907. These actions of the federal government opened up the Coast Range for wide scale logging and by 1918, rail spur lines had been cut into many rich forests in the Coast Range and logging operations had begun.
From this grew many industry logging towns, some of which have now closed, like Valsetz. Native men were a part of this industry from the earliest opening of the Coast range to logging. At the reservations in the region there are now significant legacies of Native loggers who have had multiple generations of men in logging, sawmills, and other timber management operations, which continues to this day.
I have written a few more articles on the logging traditions at Grand Ronde.
Native American Loggers in Oregon
Natural Foresters: Native American Traditions and Logging from the Grand Ronde Tribe
This theme has inspired the documentary film production Green Feathers