Estuaries Saved the Coastal Tribes: Section 2- Removal and Exposure

Removal of the western Oregon tribes to the reservations was a tumultuous affair. Caravans from the Umpqua and Table Rock reservations to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation (also called Yamhill River Reservation) took place in the dead of winter with several people dying on the trip. These “Trails of Tears” removed tribal people from their homelands to strange areas, to them, north of their territories, where they did not know what foods were available, where to harvest them, and became completely dependent on the will of the government to care for them. The strength of Joel Palmer’s negotiations helped immensely to spur the removals, as the tribes tended to respect him and believe his verbal promises, promises made outside of the treaty process. Unfortunately, Palmer was fired before making good on all of his promises. His replacement, J. W. Nesmith had a similar spirit but was not completely aware of the promises and therefore could not follow through. Nesmith was also dealing with the aftermaths of the Rogue River Indian war and the Cascades-Columbia battles to a greater degree.

Palmer had left the Oregon Indian Agency in great debt to local suppliers and merchants. Palmer, like the agents for years to come, was not given sufficient funding, by the federal government,  to travel and purchase supplies for removal, maintenance and subsistence for some 4000 Indians in western Oregon, on two temporary reservations and over a dozen small reservations in the Willamette Valley and on the Columbia river.  Federal funds went largely to pay his sub agents for their salaries, a few supplies of food, and depredations claims (claims against the tribes for having destroyed property, stolen cattle, etc. of American settlers). The rest of the needed supplies were bought on credit, from Joel Palmer’s personal word. Years after Palmer is let go from his position, suppliers, store owners, merchants, ranchers, farmers, and shippers would continue to submit claims for unpaid balances.

This continuous draw on the federal funding and the overall lack of sufficient planning made the removal of the tribes and their subsistence on the Coast reservation disastrous. Reports begin within the first years at the reservation, of numerous deaths from illnesses, likely caused by exposure to harsh climates in an unfamiliar land, without the normal traditional foods. Then the sudden concentration of some 30 tribes in close proximity to one another , with several white Americans, quickly introduced numerous diseases that the tribes had no natural defenses to. Hundreds of people died in these first years from these factors.

One place we do not see massive illnesses and a large died off, is in the coastal estuary sub-agency encampments. Tribes from the southern and central Oregon coast were not concentrated at Siletz Agency proper, but instead at one of six river estuary communities. Salmon River (Nechesne), Siletz River (from Salmon river to Siletz was really all one community), Alsea River, Siuslaw River, Yachats River, and the Umpqua river all hosted communities large and small. These sub-agencies were established for these tribes so they could fish and hunt in  their usual and accustomed ways while waiting for the Coast Treaty to be ratified and the money paid for the sale of their lands.

As such they were not dependent on the federal government. As well they were also not as exposed to the illnesses on the reservations as if they had lived there. Theirs was a gradual exposure without the added negatives of being dependent on federal food commodities (beef, pork, pork fat, flour) which are not as healthy as native foods, and not being able to move from their immediate lands to hunt and fish. Those tribes at the Indian agencies of Siletz and Grand Ronde could not leave without passes, and for a long time could not have weapons of any type, because many had participated in one of the Indian wars. Tribes at the coast were given more latitude on their movements and had weapons for hunting and ready access to fishing.

An added benefit of living on the coast is that the tribes then maintained their culture much longer and better, they did not have regular schools, were not forced to commit to agriculture (the coastal zone is not good for much farming) and therefore were not forced to assimilate as fast as those peoples at Grand Ronde and Siletz agencies. There are some examples of much harsher conditions on the coast, those tribes at Yachats, the Coos especially, were subjected to whipping and extreme abuses, starvation, based on the character of at least one Indian agent.

But the Coastal tribes were also forced, or chose to, remove north on the faith that their treaty was sure to be ratified. This never occurred. Indian agents, after a few years were reticent to force the tribes to remain at their encampments because they knew there was no legal basis for force-ably removing the tribes and keeping these people on the reservation without ratification of the sale of their lands. Still, they remained at their various estuaries until the lands were opened to settlement in chunks, in 1865 and 1875. They were really forced to remain under threats of being chased down and drug back the reservation, and being beaten with a whip if they did so. As well, the White Americans of southern Oregon were very tough on tribal people, many holding grudges and still seeking revenge for the series of wars and battles, fresh in their minds, that raged until 1856 on the coast and in the interior of southern Oregon. The last to leave the Coast reservation after its reduction in 1875, was the Coos from Yachats, in about 1878. After some 17 years, the Coos are apparently freely released, and they are then forced to go live with the Siuslaw, until they could find positions, jobs and homes, in Coos Bay again, because all of their lands and homes had been taken over by American settlers. The Siuslaw, of all of the coastal tribes, appear to have fared the best, they were largely never forced to remove and remained on their lands.

There is every indication that this 17 years of “incarceration” on the Coast Reservation without cause, which included some 6-7 years at the Umpqua Coast reservation (it was understood that it was illegal for Indians to be off the reservation in the period, without federal approval, mainly because they were not US citizens and were instead federal dependents), where the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw spent so much time together, that they forged organically a confederated tribal community, that became the Confederated Tribes of the Coos Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. This confederated community of interrelated families was restored as a federally recognized tribe in 1984. Their association is likely much deeper than the historic period, because they were neighbors on the coast for perhaps 10,000 years with high likelihood of much intermarriage.

For a deeper look at the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw History see the tribal website.

Also, for information direct from Patty Whereat Phillips, a Coos researcher, see her blog site, Shichil’s Blog.

The textual resources list I compiled, can also be helpful.

The basic data of the western Oregon reservation is recorded in letters and federal Indian reports. This information included population counts, sometimes largely estimates, and names of tribes. Their early disposition, place of resettlement, names, and numbers for the first two years of permanent reservations, is recorded in the following table.

Table and research by David Lewis

The population counts and movements in this period are revealing. Metcalf’s report in 1857 of 2603 Indians at the Coast Reservation is likely the total of all Indians at Siletz and on the coastal sub agencies. While the 1857 annual report only lists 2049 for an Inland Prairie, likely Siletz valley, or Siletz Indian Agency. The lack of mention of some tribes in the inland prairie, for example Flores Creek people, suggests that these people were on the coast, one tribe of the 554 people on the coast. The counts for the Umpqua reservation at this time are completely separate.

The Umpqua Reservation was created as an Indian Management District which extended from the lower boundary of the Coast Reservation to Port Orford. The agency office on the Umpqua acted in complete separation from the Soldiers stationed at Fort Umpqua in the same town. Other histories of Fort Umpqua suggested that the Soldiers took more direction management of the Indians in the area. But in correspondence between the Fort commanders, commanders at Fort Vancouver, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, and the Indian agents at the Umpqua Reservation, the Army was reticent to help the agents in their work, unless there was a direct threat to Americans. The Fort was there to be a line of defense, and a fence, to keep Indians from leaving the Coast reservation and to keep Whites from going onto the Coast Reservation. From most accounts the soldiers were not too successful with either goal.  In 1857, this district was reduced to the Umpqua River and north to the Coast Reservation. It is technically outside of the Coast Reservation but was discussed numerous times as an extension of the Coast Reservation. The Agents at the Umpqua Reservation worked with the Agents at Siletz Indian Agency to decide where the tribes of the lower coast would be resettled on the Coast Reservation. The original plans for removal of all tribes from the Umpqua reservation and closure of this expensive third reservation (which had no treaty funding), was delayed for years, until 1863, while waiting for funding to be appropriated by Congress or allocated by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for removal.

The change from 1856 to 1857 in the populations of Grand Ronde and Siletz Agency are in where the Rogue River, Umpqua and Shasta tribes are to remain. Some two thirds of these tribes, first resettled at Grand Ronde are again resettled at Siletz Agency, once the facilities of the Siletz Agency are completed. The 1857 annual report suggests that the tribes willingly removed to Siletz, perhaps seeking to join with Chief John, who had never settled at Grand Ronde (not until his release from the Presidio in the 1860’s). Chief John was a figure of some power at Siletz, he had united several tribes at Table Rock to become a Rogue River Confederacy, and they fought a war to make the whites leave their lands in southern Oregon. The confederacy was defeated in the summer of 1856 and all of his people turned in their arms and surrendered at Fort Orford and were walked up the coast to be resettled in the zone between Salmon River and Newport Bay. Chief John, Tyee John at the reservation, continues to be a leader making speeches to get his people to return to their lands. For this, he is arrested and sent, with his son, to the Presidio until 1863.Tribal people in this era, not being American citizens, had no rights to freedom of speech on the reservations.

Joel Palmer’s final correspondence in his job as superintendent, suggests that the arrangement for Siletz and Grand Ronde was that the tribes resettled at Siletz Agency were to be “more warlike” and those at Grand Ronde “more peaceful.” This plan appears to have been followed by Nesmith. Unfortunately the peaceful tribes had ratified treaties, while the majority of tribes who had gone to war, did not. This difference means that the tribes at Grand Ronde had dedicated treaty funds for 20 years, while the majority of people at the Coast Reservation did not. It remains to be proven if the tribes had treaties and who went to war were treated by the federal government as having breached their treaties, that therefore excluded from treaty funding. Still, the federal government had a need to keep the Indians on the reservations, away from their former homelands, so to keep the peace in the region, and so this translated into reduced and basic subsistence level federal funding at the Coast Reservation for many years.

Considering these factors, the tribes on the Coast, even if they were never payed fairly for their lands, may have been better off being able to practice their culture and secure their own foods away from the administration at Siletz Agency.

(all suppositions are my own)

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