Estuaries Saved the Coastal Tribes: Joel Palmer’s Plan in 1855

I have previously written about how the coastal tribes were relocated to several river estuaries within the Coast Reservation (Siuslaw, Yachats, Alsea, Nashesne, Siletz and Umpqua). There the tribes, mostly from the southern Oregon coast, were not given much in the way of help from the federal government, there was very little money, and their Coast treaty was never ratified.  Despite the formal promises within the Treaties and the additional informal promises of Indian agents, there were few benefits to the tribes from removal to reservations.  They were made to live in these locations on sub-agencies and feed and house themselves from 1856 until at least 1878. This story of the tribes forced to remain on the sub agencies but living in relative self-subsistence conditions was not thought of by Geary or Nesmith when they were Indian superintendents, but was planned by Joel Palmer before he was fired as Indian Superintendent in 1856.  Palmer wrote a letter about this plan to subsist the tribes on the wealth of the coastal zone in 1855. His plan becomes the plan for removal of the coastal tribes to the river estuaries between 1856 and 1863 because of lack of support from the federal government.

Many of these bands subsist mainly on fish, hence a desire to be located where this almost indispensable article of food may be obtained. Many of them are averse to the Klamath Lake Country, regarding is as too cold for successful farming and subject to deep snows. This may prove true and if so the next most desirable location is along the coast between the Ne a chesne River (Salmon River) on the north, and the Si u slaw or Sisticum on the South. Should this district be selected not only all the Indians embraced in this treaty of which there will be about seven hundred, but those upon our entire seaboard, from the Columbia River to our southern boundary. Together with those of the Umpqua Valley might be located there.  At first they would be compelled to live in detached districts along the coast and narrow valleys and for a few years carry on farming but to a limited extent . But the want of such facilities, would be amply compensated in the abundance of food to be derived from the sea shore, the stream, the chase, and the flocks of geese and other wild fowl abounding in that region.  (Palmer to Manypenny, Jan. 23, 1855, The Territorial Papers of the United States, The Territory of Oregon, 1848-1859, R 1, M 1049)

Palmer had a huge effect on the Tribes of Oregon, creating and envisioning most of the permanent reservations and planning ahead, setting into place reasonable plans for what would happen with the tribes. Palmer underestimated the number of tribal people, as there were some 4,000 people between the two reservations (Coast & Grand Ronde) and additional natives removed at intervals from the southern coast.

Palmer is quite correct with regards to the food needs of the tribes on the coast. During his years as Indian Superintendent he had to plan ahead for the ineptitude of the federal government in allocating and delivering  enough money and supplies to subsist Native people. In his time, Palmer ran up a number of expense credit accounts to pay for food and basic services from local vendors and contractors. Most were not fully paid for years later, as seen in numerous letters from Indian Agents, and there is some evidence that Palmer himself was never fully paid by the federal government for his out-of-pocket expenses for travel and supplies. So planning ahead for the native people to subsist themselves would have been a good strategy to pursue. This action by the Indian Agents who followed Palmer, likely saved hundreds of native people who would have otherwise starved to death on the reservation while waiting for the Coast Treaty to be ratified by Congress.

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PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher. I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

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