Promise of Citizenship and Informal Allotment at the Grand Ronde Reservation

In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant gave a short inaugural address as he entered his presidency. The address briefly mentioned that he would support a path to citizenship for Native American peoples.

“The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land–the Indians are deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.” (March 4, 1869)

This short statement caused a storm of policy changes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The policy change enabled the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to direct his Superintendents to begin preparing the Indians on reservations for citizenship through allotting the Indian people with land so that they may be inspired to help themselves gain progress towards civilization. Previous to this policy change, the tribes were living in poor conditions with few inducements to become like white people. The promises of the treaties, and of agents, of a better life in the reservations, had not materialized as starvation and illness was the tribal peoples’ primary experience at Grand Ronde. They lived in small clusters of tribal groups, likely those instituted in 1856, with families of many generations living in the same house, and had no land to call their own. While treaties promised allotments, for over 20 years (1856-1869) no allotments were given to the tribes, and they subsisted on what they could gather from the coastal forests, fish from the Salmon River, vegetables from small garden plots, and food subsidies from the agency. In the earliest days fo the reservation, in March 1856, Joel Palmer, the Indian Superintendent for Oregon reported that “small Tracts of land are being designated and marked off for residence and cultivation by the respective members of the bands” (Report of the COIA 1856, No. 80). Later, the tribal people were in a habit of leaving the reservation in the summer months to work on Willamette Valley farms to make money, from which they had to buy their own supplies for survival.

1856 Hazen map section, note letters denoting clusters of individual tribes

In 1870 the Superintendent of Oregon T.B. Odeneal made informal allotments on the Grand Ronde reservation to heads of the households, mainly men. These allotments apparently included an informal deed which is described as “non-binding” to the federal government.  The allotments’ sizes appear to have varied dramatically from 25 acres to 120 acres. The allotments appear to have been well spaced through the Grand Ronde valley and allowed some expansion of individual allotments over time. The expansions were limited by the amount of land that could be handled by the farmer and his, or her, family. From the initial allotments, the people gradually expanded their claims. Other limiting factors included the amount of wood that could be milled by the sawmill; the amount of grain that could be processed by the grist mill, the quality of the soil. the weather, and the level of farming expertise of the people.

From the 1840’s people of several tribes, Kalapuyans and Molallans had worked on farms in the Willamette Valley for settlers. They learned agriculture and animal husbandry. But in 1856 when the tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde reservation, they were not given land, did not have the equipment, did not have seed, did not have teams of oxen or horses, and essentially starved for 20 years. The few gardens they had were made from necessity because of their starvation and lack of subsistence from the government. They complained numerous times but their situation did not improve.

The Indians still saw promise in assimilating to be more white in their culture and many began the slow change of their culture. Their progress was more out if the necessities of survival than from their own free will. They were a people dispossessed of all rights, where not citizens of the United States and had few rights under U.S. law. They could not leave the reservation except with a pass, and when crimes were committed against them, the whites were rarely prosecuted. As described by Indian agents, they lived a miserable life with little hope.

With Grant’s suggestion of citizenship, the idea of becoming civilized enough to be citizens took hold. Once given informal allotments in 1870, they began to work toward improving their situations, becoming self-sufficient and assimilating to the wealthy white culture around them. The first indicators of their rapid progress towards civilization were when they stopped depending on the federal government for food subsidies. By 1879 the majority of the Indian farmers were subsisting on their own foods they grew on their farms. They had gardens of up to an acre and a half, cattle, horses, hogs, and chickens, as well as wheat, oats, and hay fields of up to 100 acres fenced. Most farmers had plows and harrows, wagons, and hacks, as well as at least one good house and barn.


Along with their farms, the Indian agents lauded their mechanical expertise. The Indians operated the saw and grist mills and maintained them with few expenses incurred by the agency. Parts could be made at the blacksmiths, tinners, and leathercrafters, and, wood was sawed at the agency sawmill, and so the reservation was self-contained for the first time. Every few years the sawmill and grist mill had to be repaired and this was all accomplished by the Indians. They even hand dug the 600-foot millrace to run the sawmill and helped relocate the grist mill machinery to operate off of the same machinery as the sawmill. Probably the biggest indicator of their mechanical level, was when it was noted that they could operate a ten-horsepower thrashing machine and were being hired by white farmers to operate reapers and mowers off the reservation.

10 horse Threasher, Washington Historical Society archives

In the 1880s, P.B. Sinnott, Indian agent since 1871, noted that the farms were working year round with no break in their summer plantings. He called their lands foul because without a fallow period, the land was becoming depleted of nutrients and the yields were becoming inconsistent. He noted that they complained that they could not allow a fallow period, because they were still very poor and could not go a season without food production. The problem noted by Sinnott was that their farms were too small to allow large areas of fallow fields. This is one of the main problems with small subsistence farms.


In 1886 and 1888, the annual census of the reservation revealed the size of each family’s allotment. This information comes at the time that the Dawes act was just passed in 1887, and so the Dawes Act allotments were not yet given out; they were not to be allotted until 1891. Unfortunately, we do not yet have the records of the ultimate size of the 1870 informal allotments, nor where they were located. It seems reasonable to assume that the Indian agents in 1891 when allotting the Indians their formal allotments would choose to not interrupt all of the progress already made on the reservation by making people move from their 1870 allotment location. These Indians had built houses, barns and large amounts of fencing. So its highly likely that the Dawes allotments were mostly placed over the 1870 allotments so that very few people had to move their whole farms elsewhere. The Dawes act appears to have a number of new allottees, so new allotments were made, but they were likely pushed to the areas not previously occupied.

1904 image of Grand Ronde Reservation, with Spirit Mountain in the background, note fencing and farm equipment, Oregon Historical Society image

The character of the allotments can, however, be found in the annual census records of the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. In 1886 and 1888 the census recorded not just the people and their status but their property holdings. (The census records of 1886 miss a number of significant large households suggesting the census is not at all accurate.) These records include the number of acres they have fenced, the numbers of houses and barns and machinery, and how much yield their farms are producing. The following allotment records are likely some of the most wealthy of families on the reservation, many others had much less property. Mostly it was men who were heads of household and gained the informal allotments. Between 1886 and 1888 some of the men and women had passed, and by 1888 a number of women are listed as “widows” and have their own property. The women’s properties were normal dramatically less robust than those held by the men unless they still had children or relatives living with them.

David Holmes, Luckimuite, 1888- Informal allotment

1 house 2 barns 1 granary 95 acres fenced 7 acres wheat 75 bus. 15 acres oats 450 bus. 1 ½ acres potatoes 300 bus. Garden 8 horses 60 cattle 4 hogs 1 doz chickens 1 wagon harness 2 plows 1 harrow 1 scythe 1 cradle 19 tons hay (1888 BIA Census)

Robert Metcalf, Shasta, 1888- Informal allotment

2 houses 2 barns 60 acres fenced 7 acres wheat 175 bus. 4 acres oats 120 bush. 4 ton hay ½ acre garden 3 cattle 3 horses 1 wagon harness 1 plow 1 harrow 20 hogs 2 doz chickens (1888 BIA Census)

Jo Apperson, Oregon City,  1888 -Informal Allotment

3 houses 2 barns 139 acres fenced 6 acres wheat 150 bus. 15 acres oats 400 bus 22 ton hay 11 horses 8 cattle 15 hogs 2 plows 1 harrow 2 wagons 1 hack 3 set harness garden 100 bus. potatoes (1888 BIA Census)

Jo Hudson, Santiam, 1888- Informal Allotment

1 house 1 barn 100 acres fenced 10 acres oats 300 bus. 20 ton hay 6 turkeys 1 doz chickens 1 wagon 1 hack harness 2 plows 1 harrow (1888 BIA Census)

Chief Alquema/Joseph Hutchins/Hudson 1841

John Wacheno, Clackamas, 1888- Informal Allotment

1 house 1 barn 80 acres fenced 18 acres wheat 360 bus. 24 acres oats 720 bus. 3 horses 4 cattle 1 hog 1 doz chickens 1 plow 1 harrow 1 threshing machine 1 mower 1 reaper 12 ton hay 1 wagon harness 150 bus potatoes garden

Martha Jane Sands, Rogue River (Takelma), 1888 -Informal Allotment

2 houses 1 barn 60 acres fenced 6 acres oats 180 bus. 2 head horses 2 hogs 1 wagon harness ½ acre garden 6 ton hay

Gertrude Mercier and Martha Jane Sands (left to right) 

Unfortunately for the tribes, the policy change began by U.S. Grant toward citizenship for natives,  did not become a reality for Native Americans until 1924 when the American Indian Citizenship Act was passed by Congress. The Dawes Act of 1887 began a formal process of land allotment, but even this was taken away by termination in 1954. Never was there any description of what actually constituted a “civilized person” eligible for citizenship. This ethereal notion appeared to be a political ploy to eventually get more land from the tribes and relieve the federal government from responsibility. Even Indian agents noted that the ultimate goal was complete assimilation by dispensing with Government aid altogether. This goal is laudable but too late for hundreds of natives that died in the 24 years after removal, from starvation, diseases, and environmental stresses brought by sudden changes to their lifeways. The overwhelming impact of federal neglect and mismanagement of the tribes has yet to be fully measured or recognized by any federal agency.

Excerpts of Federal Reports of the COIA

1869: They are rapidly assuming the habits and manners of the white race, they evince great progress in their anxiety to have their land allotted and set apart to each family, in building good substantial houses and barns and planting orchards; some of them cultivating flower gardens, raising domesticated animals and doing things in American style.

1870: The eagerness with which they embrace the idea of citizenship… Many of them have abandoned Indian laws in the settlement of their affairs, proposing to make their chiefs by-election; marriage by American law; to abandon the custom of selling their daughters for wives; by accepting medical treatment of resident physicians; burial of the dead; the adoption of American Names; breaking up of bands; the establishment of family relations; separate households; eagerness to have lands and homes allotted; and, in many other ways, making progress in the great work of civilization.

Charles Lafollett Grand Ronde agent- These people are successful farmers they are clamorous for the fulfillment of treaty stipulations, especially that they may have their lands surveyed and allotted in severalty….an order be issued to survey and set apart these lands immediately…

1871: The long prayed for allotment of land to Indians in severalty will be made as soon as the surveys are approved by the Department at Washington.

They are now anxious for a flouring mill… and are willing that the necessary fund may be diverted from their annuity. I have ordered such parts of the old flouring mill as are available together with such other new machinery as may be necessary to be transferred to a building attached to the new sawmill and put in running order without delay… The Indians faithfully performed their part of the agreement cutting a race of sufficient capacity a distance of 600 yards. The proposition was made and fully explained to build a sawmill on an eligible site near an abundant supply of timber with the understanding that  all machinery and mechanical labor was to be paid for out of annuity and repair funds, the Indians to perform all such labor on the mill and contingencies as they were capable of and the department to furnish subsistence.

November 20, 1871, Felix R. Brunot Report: All on the reservation now live in houses, wear civilized costume and have adopted many of the habits of the whites. They plant about 800 acres of wheat and oats, about 50 to 100 bushels of potatoes, besides peas, onions, cabbage, and grass. In addition to this work upon their own farms, they furnish a large amount of acceptable labor to the white farmers in the Willamette Valley, for which they receive the same wages as whites. They are anxious to learn mechanical employments and complain that some of them have not been taught in the agency shops. As to their capability, I saw them running an eighteen-horse threshing machine, all the work, attendance, and superintendence being done without any white or half-breed aid. As to their “willingness” and ability to “work” I saw them just completing a mill-race about 300 yards long, in some places 8 feet deep, in hard soil, as their voluntary contribution to the new saw-mill.

1873: in order to give them a proper start in the right direction, as they now enter upon this new era, (getting deed to their lands) and place them upon a self-sustaining basis it is very important that they at once be supplied with the means necessary to enable them to build, move, and repair houses, barns, and fences, and get such farming implements as they now need. For this purpose, I would respectfully recommend that appropriations of $8,000 be made. To aid them now in building and finishing houses suitable for the habitation of civilized people will prove a stimulus of inestimable value, and hasten the time when they can dispense with the Government aid and become self-supporting.

At least one half, and perhaps two-thirds of the lots of land which will be assigned in accordance with the survey have no buildings upon them. Most of the houses, which have been built in clusters, will have to be moved, and in order to do so many of them will have to be torn down and rebuilt. Quite a large number will have to build new houses and all of them will have to do more or less fencing. This will, of course, cost them much labor and some money; the labor they can perform and are willing to do it, but the money they have not; and without it their labor is nearly useless.

1874: The year past has been quite a prosperous one to the Indians. The large crops harvested last year enabled them to live comfortably during the winter and since they have secured deeds to their respective parcels of land, and feel secure in the possession of their homes, they have made great improvements to their houses, so that they live better, are less exposed, and the result is an improved sanitary condition…. The habits and disposition of the majority of the Indians are gradually but surely approaching that standard of civilized life which will entitle them to be recognized as citizens…. The question as to whether the Indian is capable of civilization is fully answered affirmatively for the Indians of this agency.

1875: They have cultivated their land to its fullest extent. The average yield of crops has been very good, and the prices twice as much as last year. They are now entirely an agricultural people, and understand that they have to depend mostly upon their own exertions: the aid extended by the Government being very little. … the improvements made during the year comprise many good houses, barns, and fencing, and public road through the reserve. A smut-machine and separator has been purchased and attached to the grist mill, which now turns out as fine a quality of flour as any mill in the country. A Mower and reaper has been purchases and run, cutting most of the hay and grain their season’ also a ten horse power thrashing machine, which is now in successful operation.

1877: The Indians…. Have been more successful in the production of the ordinary crops, such as wheat, oats, hay, etc. They began by plowing their fields early and well and carefully harrowing and sowing =. The tillable land of the agency is susceptible of a high state of cultivation, being rolling. It can be plowed at almost any season of the year, and the Indians have in a measure availed themselves of this advantage, and got all their grain-crops in the ground early, and before many of their white neighbors, who were delayed by the flat and consequent wetness of their farms; and resulting from this method of farming, their crops at present are looking fine, and from every present indication a good yield may be expected.

Most if not all of the young and middle-aged Indians are now living upon their small farms allotted to them by deeds given them by the superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, some four years ago, and are yearly becoming more contented with their new method of life and reconciled to the pursuit of a quiet farmer, every year indicating a marked improvement in their manner of life. They seem to be gradually but surely conquering their roving restless disposition, formerly so universally prevalent among them. They now seldom seek to go off from the agency…. This season the Indians will raise more grain and of better quality than during any previous year for the past six years and I doubt if they have ever before done so well.

I have observed during the past year a marked improvement in the Indian’s work-animals. They are continually improving the grade of their horses, usually by making purchases from the whites, or trading their small ponies and giving the difference in value in cash or work; and some few are also raising superior horses, and quite a number of them now have teams worth two or three hundred dollars.

The Indians here at present are running four reapers of their own and one department reaper cutting grain on the agency. There are also five of our Indians in charge of five reapers, owned by white men outside the agency, cutting grain. They are also running thrashing machines, both inside and outside the agency.

The Indian have built 48 frame houses, with four rooms in each, one and half stories high, to replace old houses, dressed lumber inside and outside. They are all neatly furnished with comfortable furniture, chairs beds, bedsteads, tables, and tableware, clocks cooking with heating stoves. The Indians have built 5,397 rods of fence, all of which was performed without any assistance from the department.

1878: The Indians of the agency are now living upon their farms and cultivating their lands and following the avocation of farmers, much the same as white farmers, on a small scale, the average number of acres cultivated by a single Indian family being from 25 to 50 acres, while quite a number of them cultivate as high as 50 to 100 acres. Those having the necessary teams and implements to farm, after putting into grain their individual lands, rent from other Indians who are not prepared to conduct their farming operations, and put in grain upon shares, paying for the use of the lands about one-third of the grain cropped from the land, and by this method many who are disqualified from farming upon their own account from sickness or inability to procure teams, farming implements, etc, derive considerable revenue from their land, while the renters are enabled to profit by their industries, and from year to year increase their farming operations. The cereals raised upon the agency consist almost wholly of wheat and oats… all of the Indians cure and put away timothy hay for their work animals in winter.

Almost every tribe upon the agency (except the Rogue Rivers) are as a rule becoming industrious and striving to emulate the white in their farming operations, and are accumulating a fair grade of horses, cattle and swine while some few have sheep; and such useful animals are rapidly taking the place of the worthless Indian ponies which formerly constituted the wealth of the Indians.

1879: The Indians of this agency are, as a rule, living upon the small farms allotted to them by the former superintendent of Indian affairs in Oregon T.B. Odeneal. I am confident that no single act of the department has done so much to encourage the Indians in agricultural pursuits and to induce them to emulate the better class of whites and strive to become more self-sustaining than this allotment of lands to the Indians in severalty, and while it cannot be said that this allotment if lands is legally binding upon our government, yet it must be admitted that the government is morally obligated to protect the Indians in possession of their homes, or, if their removal becomes absolutely necessary, to give them adequate remuneration for their lands and labor.

The mill-dam upon the agency have been built mainly of brush, and by age having become rotted and weakened, was completely carried away by a sudden rise of the Yamhill river last spring…. It will be impossible to saw any considerable amount of lumber. Yet by utilizing a small stream of water near the mill we are able to continue to grind wheat in sufficient quantities to supply the Indians demands for flour, but the dam will have to be rebuilt …

1880: One great difficulty in the way of their producing good crops of grain is the foul condition of their land, caused by constant seeding with the same kinds of grain and the indifferent mode of carrying on farm work in former years. I experience great difficulty in my endeavors to induce them to summer fallow their land, their excuse (which is a good one) being that they are too poor to lose use of their land, for a year, and their farms being so small they have not sufficiently large in area to produce the necessary year’s subsistence. And for several years past no rations have been issued to any Indians on this agency except in cases of sickness for a few days only. The great majority of the Indians of this agency are now earning their own support by farming and stock raising the department furnishing in some instances seed and agricultural implements and keeping their farming tools in good repair, and manufacturing such of them as can be made in the agency workshops by the regular Indian mechanics.

1881: Upon the first coming into charge of this agency (1871) I found the Indians living huddled together in families of from ten to fifty in filth, idleness, and ignorance, in poor houses or shanties, old and young, married and single, occupying the same apartments, with no restraints upon their actions and no incentives to purer lives, without ambition, and apparently without hope of bettering their then deplorable condition; the policy at that time pursued towards them being to employ a sufficient force of white men to raise grain and vegetables for their food, depending upon the government appropriations to furnish the main bulk of  the necessaries of life, besides purchasing innumerable trinkets, which were of no value in fact to them in idleness and increased their facilities for gambling, a habit so strong among heathen tribes.

Today these same Indians are all, or nearly all, living upon their individual lands held by allotment in single families, and are industriously working their small farms and a great majority of them are earning a living without any material aid from the government other than an occasional issue of clean seed grain. This improvement has been accomplished by the informal allotment of land in severalty to the Indians, by moving them upon their respective tracts, and assisting them to improve them…

They desire to go off the agency and work for whites as soon as their crops are sown.

1882: The Indians of this agency for the past year have been peaceable, quiet, and as a rule, industrious, cultivating their small farms, and fencing and clearing their lands. They are now living in small houses upon their separate tracts of land, each family having a tract of land fenced in, a barn and other buildings, and each cultivating more or less land and the able-bodied Indians of this agency are almost wholly making their own and their families support without other assistance…

1884: many of them are experts in the management of farm machinery and frequently get jobs through harvest from whites outside the reserve. A few of them own threshers, reapers, and mowers, which they run at their own expense and for their own benefit. These Indians are purely agricultural and stock raising people. There are a few heads of young horses on the reserve, owned by Indians that are as good as any int eh country. Their small bands of cattle are of such quality that they are sought by the Portland and Salem Markets.

1885: They have increased the area of their farms by fencing some new land, which they have plowed and sown to grain, either wheat or oats. Many of them have built new houses, barns, and sheds, which will render themselves and their families more comfortable through the winter… I would urge the speedy surveying of the land embraced in this reservation and the allotting the same to the Indians of this agency in lots of 160 acres to heads of families and 8- acres to single men….