Sixteen Years in the Dark Night at Grand Ronde

The tribes at Grand Ronde trusted the words of the American agents and the agents did nothing to help them, all promises of the treaties, of services, land, farms, education, and safety went unrealized, for the first sixteen years, as Louis Nipesank comments below.  This is where is born the expression of our Indian peoples, that the federal government has broken all treaties, because the government cast them down into extreme poverty and hopelessness for generations. The following letter from Louis Nipesank is extremely poignant, as he appeals to the president to keep the agents they like so that they may prosper and live. His statements of thefts by the agents rings true, as numerous agents were fired for criminal activity, yet never convicted. While at the same time, the Indians on the reservation suffered continuous unrelenting poverty, starvation, diseases, and early deaths from the mismanagement and neglect of the government.

This letter is composed on the eve of major changes to National Indian Policy in the United States. Present Grant changed Indian policy in 1869,  by stating that he was in favor of an avenue to citizenship for Indian peoples who proved they were civilized. In1873, surveys were made of the reservation in support of allotting  land to Indians for farming. The Native people look on allotment as an opportunity to become self-sufficient and no longer depend on the federal government for their food and prosperity. By 1880’s, the agent at Grand Ronde states the Indians have become self-sufficient and were running the farming business of the reservation, including the grist and saw mills.

Original plan for the Grand Ronde Reservation, 1856, showing farming areas

Still, this period of sixteen years, 1856-1870, of suffering is inexcusable, costing untold lives of the people of Grand Ronde. Louis Nepisank is a very interesting figure here. His statement of prosperity in the Umpqua valley are illuminating. In many areas of Oregon before removal to reservations, chiefs of tribes were gathering great wealth and adopting the economies of the Americans. The eastern Oregon tribes had great herds of horses and cattle, the Kalapuyans were laborers in the early settler farms, Klickitats and other tribes were fur traders and mercenaries for hire, while apparently the Umpquas were gaining horse and cattle herds. But, because they were “Indians” they were not then true white Americans and the right of settlement of the best lands was to be reserved for the white Americans. So then any threats to the prosperity of the white Americans, including competitors in farming and ranching were removed to make space for their settlement.

Once removed, the tribes had no legal recourse to recover the wealth they had left behind. As not-Americans they could not go to court, could not testify in court and no court would hold white men responsible for crimes against the tribes. So in 1856, Nipesank loses his herds, house, and property without any way to regain his wealth. This sort of information helps fill in the images of the culture and life-ways of the tribes as they learned to adjust to the culture imposed upon them.

Grand Ronde Police


Grand Ronde Agency, Oregon Jan 7th 1872

Gen U.S. Grant, President of the U.S.A.

Mr. President

I have something to say to you concerning my people. I was the head chief of the Umpqua tribe and as such I made a treaty with Supt. Palmer sixteen years ago, and in agreement with that treaty, I brought my people here, and have kept my part of that treaty good up to this day. I lived on a good farm in the Umpqua Valley, had a good house and barn; I also had ten good horses and one fine stallion and sixty head of cattle. I gave up all my property with the agreement that the government would pay me for it all; up to this day I have never received so much as one “bit” for that property. I have now been on this reservation sixteen years and during that time I have seen poor white men come here as officers of and stay a few years and go away rich- while I and all my people have always been growing poorer. We at first had a great deal of money come here in agreement with the terms of our treaty. But my people have never got much benefit from that money. Our superintendents and agents have got all of it, while I have seen my people die for the want of food just as our horses die in the winter when they have nothing to eat.

The men you have sent here for our officers have not only stolen our money but they have violated our women, and scattered diseases among us which have reduced our numbers from thousands to hundreds. Our school have done us but little good. Our children have not learned to read and write; our young men and women have not learned to work because the persons you have appointed to attend to these things have not cared for anything but to get our money and then leave us in a worse condition than they found us. It seems like we have been a long time in the dark night; we can’t see anything – a heavy cloud has settled down upon us and we seem to be lost.

A.B. Meacham

A few years ago we received a superintendent Mr. Meacham- and he came among us- and we thought he was just like all the rest. But he called a meeting of the Indians and gave us a good talk. This was something new. When we all gathered around the council house he came out an gave us his hand and talked good to us and that made us feel like he was our friend. He stayed with us two days and when he went away, all my people talked about him and called him a good man.

He has made us several visits and has promised us many things- and everything he has promised he has fulfilled. He promised us a mill, and now we have as god a mill as anybody. Our lands have all been surveyed- our annuities are being issued; we have the promise of a good school for our boys & girls- and we think we will soon see a good school going on if our present superintendent and agent can be allowed to remain with us.

We have a new agent Mr. Dyar [Dyer? ]; he makes a good impression on our hearts and we want him left alone. With Mr. Meacham as Supt. And Mr. Dyar as agent we think we will have some one to show us a good road to travel. Our hearts have grown warm with the prospect which opens before us with these officers to guide us, and we want them to remain with us until our treaties expire. And then we think we shall be able to manage our own affairs. But now just as we see a bright day downing upon us, we are informed that we are to have a new Sup’t & agent, and this brings back all our former darkness. Our hearts die within us and we feel sick. We don’t want any change- we want our officers that we have now to remain with us. We want to see our children educated and living like men and women, and we know that our present officers have done more for us than all our former Superintendents and agents combined.

This then is our constant prayer, that Mr. Meacham be left with us to the end of our treaty. If you will not grant us this request, the only one we ever made then take the balance of our money and give it to whom you please, but don’t send us any more officers as agents to suck out what little life we have , but just let us alone to die in the woods like the wolf with no friend to put a blanket around our cold bodies. We don’t want any new men to come among us- Keep them away, and if you will not let us have those we know and love, don’t give us any.

We feel as if all hope is gone when our present Sup’t is gone; and if you take him away, grant us this one request. Keep what little money is due us from the government and pay it to your “cultus”[bad] men to stay away from us, and in a few years more your cruel treatment will have laid under the sod the last blood of our race. But in the great spirit world we will see you with your unjust deed against us.

I will say no more. If I could write I would say a good many things, but this is enough if it gives Mr. Meacham back to us as our Sup’t, and if not it is no use to write. But I am the head chief of this reservation and I speak the feeling of all my people and that is give us Sup’t Meacham or don’t give us anybody.

Louis Nipesank- Head Chief of Grand Ronde

Jo Winchester- Chief of Umpquas

Jo Hutchins- Chief of Santiams

Dave Yatakeous- Chief of Wapatoos

Jim Bruce- Chief of Rogue Rivers

Jim Pierce- Leading Man

Jo Apperson- Chief of Oregon Citys

Peter McKay- Leading Man

Peter Sulkey – Chief of Yamhills

Henry Kelkie- Chief of Molalls

Jim Ross- Umpua

James Kinney- Wapatoo

Sam Patch – Umpqua

I, C.H. Hall Resident Physician at Grand Ronde do solemnly swear that the contents of this paper are the free and voluntary expressions of the persons whose names are thereto annexed.

RG75, M234, roll 617, letter of January 7, 1872 by Louis Nepisank

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