Conditions of the Alsea Indians and the Salmon River Encampment 1876-1878

As addressed in previous essays, in about 1875, most Indian annuities for the Western Oregon tribes ended because the 20 year payments were exhausted. This is true for the Siletz Reservation, for the handful of tribal people who could claim a ratified treaty, and for the Grand Ronde Reservation, where nearly all of the people fell under a treaty. The Molala treaty had not been ratified until 1859 so they have payments until 1879, while all of the Coastal Tribes did not have a ratified treaty and so they had no annuities.

Because of this, the southern portion of the Coast reservation (1855-1875) named the Alsea Reservation, had contained a number of tribes from the southern and central coast that did not fall under any ratified treaty. Their Coast Treaty was never ratified despite many promises from Indian Agents. These tribes settled at the Yachats, Yaquina, and Alsea estuaries had continued to subsist and care for themselves. The Alsea reservation never did get much in the way of funding or help, and most funding went to employee salaries, and some miscellaneous resettlement funds in the general budget of the Oregon Indian Superintendent. Whatever Congress chose to give them in annual appropriations was rare and far between, and always not sufficient. The tribes at the Alsea Reservation, the Alseas, Coos Bay, Coquille, Yaquina, Siuslaw and Umpqua spent nearly 20 years subsisting for themselves, disallowed from returning to their homelands, and being moved from temporary reservation to temporary reservation (for example: Coos Bay first at Empire then to Umpqua Res. then to Yachats sub agency) while they waited for the ratification of their treaty and the payments for their lands.

In 1876 any treaty funding ended, and the Indian agents wore their inkwells out writing letter after letter, with numerous budgets, begging for more funding to feed starving Indians, for funding to cloth and buy blankets for the old and infirm, and build housing. The agents knew that under extreme hardships, if the Federal government stopped their supplies,  the probability was that they will leave the reserve to find food and shelter, whether or not they had permission. And many Indian Agents were also aware, that there was nothing legally keeping these tribes on the reservation, since the treaty was not ratified.

By reference to my monthly report for October you will submit this time we have a large number of destitute Indians belonging to this agency to be provided for, many of whom are in great need of houses to shelter them from the winter storms without which they must suffer with cold which will cause dissent and a desire to leave the reserve (Bagley 11/9/1877)

No supplies whatsoever have been furnished the agency within a period of more than two years (Bagley 2/4/1878)

The Alsea Reservation had no cash and the tribes lost hope in the will of the government to care for them. By 1877  Indian Agent Fairchild at Alsea gave up trying to keep them on the reservation and allowed many tribal people to leave the reservation to forage for food in the many river basins to the south of the Alsea Reservation. One tribe remained somewhat intact at the Alsea until 1878, the Alsea Indians. The Coquilles had already moved to the Siletz reservation, and it appears that the other tribes (Coos Bay, Umpqua, Siuslaw) had left the reservation, and gone back down south, many likely trying to occupy their former homelands. 

Indian Agent Bagley at Siletz was trying to convince the tribes at Alsea to move to the Salmon River Encampment, not to Siletz Proper which was already well settled by interior tribes. At Salmon River they would be able to feed themselves with the marine resources like they were used to doing. But the Alseas were holding out for more, they had built houses and put in gardens and wanted the same where they were being resettled. They refused to move for years, waiting for funding to come through from the federal government. They knew that if they moved again without such assurances, and without money in hand, that they would lose everything again and have to begin building once they moved. They continued to hold out despite repeated attempts to move and innumerable promises by the agents, which they no longer trusted.

In the winter of 1877, the Alseas relented and finally moved to the Salmon River Encampment. Agent reports suggest, that still no money had come through for their housing, their previous houses had already been occupied by white people, and they were now some 200 starving Indians, some nearly naked and living as best they could between Siletz River and Salmon River on the coast.

The Alsea, Nestucca & Salmon River Indians have given up their former homes to the whites and are now on this reserve…Many of them before coming here had comparatively comfortable houses, some of them had cleared land for gardens, and this after having done the work with their own hands… they have voluntarily as desired by authorized agents of the government given up all claim to several hundred thousand acres embraced in the former Alsea Reserve and … north…. (Bagley 12/26/1877)

Agent Bagley sent several telegrams and letters to Washington, D.C. Indian Offices begging for emergency funding to feed and cloth these people. Bagley  also stopped waiting for federal checks to arrive, and began spending miscellaneous funds to buy food and clothes on the Open Market, at high prices, afterward notifying the office what he had done and why.

No purchases have been made excepting such as were required by a pressing emergency and I have been careful not to exceed the amount of funds allocated for incidental expenses (Bagley 2/4/1878)

Even Chief George Harney got involved, by writing a letter to the newspaper in Corvallis about the starvation at Salmon River.

I noticed yesterday in the Corvallis Gazette a letter written over the signature of George Harney- an Indian Chief at Siletz Agency- The letter states that those Indians namely the Alsea and Nestucka Indians that were brought on to the Siletz Reservation two years ago are many of them dealing with starvation- and bitterly complaining that promises made to them had not been complied with. (Ben Simpson- former Indian agent- 9/8/1878)

Throughout the winter of 1877-1878, numerous letters were sent with budgets and proposals and requests for permission to buy supplies for the reservation. The Siletz reservation was completely out of flour and Bagley had to hire some men to run the grist mill to grind flour enough for a month. Then houses and buildings were badly in need of repair, and houses needed to be built for the people newly settled at Salmon river. Bagley reported in January of 1878 that the permanent employees at Siletz operated the sawmill. They bought logs from the Indians, and each employee took a position, the Physician even was the screw tender (whatever that is). But only a few thousand feet of timber was produced which did not last long. He had to continue to hire these men on a daily basis to produce more timber and admitted that the Indians on the reservation did not know how to run the sawmill.

We must if possible manufacture such a quantity of lumber as may be necessary for the construction of houses for them and for repair of Agency buildings. (Bagely 11/9/1877)

The Tribes at Salmon River Encampment, were somewhat on their own and had been for much of the Coast Reservation era (1855-1875). There was no Indian agent or sub agent assigned there, and it was many hours travel to get to Salmon River from Siletz Valley, by canoe. The trail over the Coast Range to Grand Ronde was about 2 hours on horseback. For much of the 1860’s and 1870’s the agents at Grand Ronde took prominent  roles managing the tribes at Salmon River. The tribes at Grand Ronde would travel to Salmon river to fish for salmon and they built the road. The Salmon River Indians, Nechesnas, and later the Nestuccas and Tillamooks, would then travel to Grand Ronde for supplies and services. So even though Salmon River was within the borders of the Coast reservation, the Agent at Siletz Agency did not begin taking charge of the encampment until 1877. On of Bagley’s first acts was to include the Salmon river in a census of domesticated animals on the reservation. The census gives us a list of names of the Nestucca men too.

March 7, 1878

The removal of most of the former Alsea Reservation tribes to Salmon River appears to have prompted Agent Bagley at Siletz to take more direct interest in the encampment. In addition, the Agent at Grand Ronde, in fact a succession of agents, worked to have the Salmon River encampment assigned to Grand Ronde, mainly because  of the rich marine resources which would help feed everyone on the reservation. In 1877 there was a debate through the mail about whether it would be better to move all of the tribes to one reservation, than have two reservations. The Agent at Grand Ronde was in favor of it, if it included the Salmon River estuary, and the Agent at Siletz worked to defend the viability of the Siletz Agency. The tribes at Siletz got wind of rumors of the plan, and fearing they would have to remove, again, petitioned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to not move them, because they would lose their houses and all they had built in the last 20 years.

Sections of the plan for reduction of the agencies to save money, made good sense, and we see in future developments by the Indian office in Oregon that the number of employees is reduced, many Indians take the staff positions, likely because they can be paid less, and only one Indian Agent is the administrator for the Grand Ronde-Siletz Agency. For a time the Western Oregon Indian agent is stationed at Siletz, then at Chemawa Indian school, and then later stationed in Portland.

While the Alseas were starving and cold at Salmon River, the Nestuccas too, were not satisfied with the services from the Siletz Agent, they were confused as to who their agent and had not received any of the promised services or goods that they had signed an agreement toward removing to Salmon river.

Chief Sam- I want to know where my agent is…I know that from you (Indian Agent at Grand Ronde) I have receive a good many things and from that I believe you to be my agent… We wanted to come to Salmon river and made our marks to a paper stating this fact… I saw the Doctor here from Siletz and he told me that the Chief at Washington said that Mr. Bagley was our Agent. Then I made up my mind to that effect…A few days ago… you told me that the Chief at Washington wanted to know who I wanted  my Agent. I don’t want to talk two ways. I want my Agent at Siletz. [All other men at the conference said the same] (Council of 9/11/1878 in letter of Bagley 10/10/1878)

The tribes who left the reservation had been impoverished for years. There was no legal reason for them to remain on the reservation, and agents were so busy dealing with 3,000 or more Indians in the reservations, trying to feed cloth and house these people, that many other Native people left the reserves to find basic necessities like food and shelter.

…on every Saturday when supplies are issued for the week many return home with nothing… on which to subsist for the coming week. And it is just that that drives so many of our Indians off the reserve to go among whites to obtain a livelihood.  (Bagley 6/5/1878)

While it was still part of National Indian Policy to keep the Indians on the reservations and away from white settlements in 1876-1878, the federal government’s own actions (or inactions) forced many tribal people who were living in extreme poverty to leave the reserves to find better opportunities. Those who remained, many along the coast were under extreme pressures to feed themselves and find shelter without any aid. They had given up their lands to allow white settlement and yet the government was failing to support them.  Additionally, letters continued to be sent to the Indian agents from White settler towns, where White people complained about the Indians living around the towns, who’s action and cultural practices were an irritant to the townsfolk. The White Americans wanted these Indians gathered up and returned to the reservations where they got free food and all their wants and needs were cared for. Or so this is what they believed of the Indians and the reservations. This story reveals that the Federal government was keeping it a secret from the American settler population, or at very least not reporting in a public manner, how bad were the conditions on the reserves, of their own inaction. And this also reveals that the principal histories of Oregon and the reservations from this time period, present none of these conditions or trials of the tribes, but instead paint a rosy image of plenty on the reservations for the tribes. This becomes an American mythology built on secrecy, and aided by a complete separation or segregation of the Reservations from the White American settler communities. 

3 thoughts on “Conditions of the Alsea Indians and the Salmon River Encampment 1876-1878

  1. In the 19th century, I don’t think most settlers would have cared much if Indians starved to death. “The only Good Indian is Dead Indian” was the popular sentiment of the day (and in some days I think not much has changed *cough* Standing Rock *cough*)

    Siuslaw people were never moved (so I have been told) because Siltcoos was the boundary of the rez. After Yachats closed, many Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua people went there (like Billy Dick, Jim Buchanan, Frank Drew, and for a time Chief Jackson’s family but they moved back to Coos Bay after a while). Some Lower Umqpuas got allotments on the Umpqua River. And many moved back to Coos Bay – some to the Empire region, many to South Slough which was sometimes called ‘Rascal Creek’ for all the ‘halfbreeds’ there.

  2. For the Siuslaw, You’re right, i think they were just ignored or forgotten, and when the southern section of the Coast reservation was terminated, there was not reason to worry about them, and so ignored. I have not found specific reference to them at all in the federal records for the 1870s. through the other stories from Harrington and others like you say they acted kind of like an anchor for those tribes to move back, providing refuge for a few years. I expect there to be some follow up reports from 1878 and after wards about the Coos bay and others who moved back. Sometimes these federal ethnographies followed the events by a few years. all i have right now is a commitment on the part of bagley to go visit them and convince them to come to the reservation, and he does not mention any particular tribes, only those who have left and not returned and tried to settle in areas where they were disallowed form claiming land because they were Indians and not white Americans. Yeah there were numerous people who just wanted to see all Indians dead, well into the early 20th century, there was a subset of people who appeared sympathetic and yet knew nothing about the tribes, because the reservations were not accurately reporting the events and the conditions. All newspaper accounts even suggest everything is fine.

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