Joel Palmer’s Defiant Cattle Drive Through Grand Ronde, 1874

In 1874, Joel Palmer was again an independent contractor for the Indian service, after having completed a two-year stint as the Indian Agent for the Siletz Agency. Palmer was constantly working on business deals, and one which he hatched was a plan to raise cattle on the Coast, where they would be in readily available to be sold to the Siletz Reservation. In this period Siletz was very remote and in the winter months, it was exceedingly difficult to get supplies or food into the reservation, as the trails were muddy and the rivers fast and treacherous. Palmer’s plan was to raise cattle and crops on the reservation and to also build a wagon road to the Siletz Agency from the Coast to more completely link the two communities, and therefore more efficiently provision them

Palmer knew well the tribal peoples living at the Salmon River encampment, at this time, the Nechesne and Nestucca tribal members. Palmer had established the early plan for the Coast Reservation, even planning to use the Coastal estuaries to help feed the tribes (there is a letter about this). Joel Palmer had experience working for the Indian Service from 1853 to 1856 as the Superintendent of Oregon, which taught him that the federal government was slow to pay its bills and tribal peoples would likely starve and suffer from exposure for months if the agents solely relied upon the government. As Superintendent, Palmer relied on credit with local farmers, ranchers, and supply merchants to provision the Indian communities before and after the reservations were formed and settled. Palmer’s signed invoices from his early career as Superintendent were being submitted years after he was fired. It’s very clear that the Federal government did not really understand the expenses of managing Indian tribes in the West, likely did not understand travel and provisioning expenses, nor understood the dramatic environmental factors which were not as prevalent in the East, but which made travel extremely difficult and expensive in the winter period.

Joel Palmer, Oregon Indian Superintendent 1853-1856, Siletz Agent 1871-72

The nine-mile stretch of coast, from Siletz River to the Nechesne River, was relatively flat and had plenty of grassy prairie lands and a good freshwater source at Devil’s Lake, to subsist a large herd of cattle until they were ready to be slaughtered. Palmer managed to easily secure the pre-approval of the tribal people living at the Salmon River Encampment, to run cattle on the unused portion of this coastal plain. Then he approached the new agent Fairchild for a contract. Subsequently, Fairchild had a meeting with the tribes on the coast and gained their approval for Palmer to run cattle, and so wrote a contract with Palmer for the enterprise.

One section of the survey map 1872 (Sinnott 1874)
Detail of 1872 survey showing some allotted settlements at the Salmon River

In fact, Fairchild’s meeting with the tribes revealed a great depth of trust they assigned to Palmer. They stated,

Skaley:… I am glad to hear of this- I think it’s a good thing- I think you are doing a good thing for the Indians in making this lease. I am glad to see Gen, Palmer here. Last winter I had nothing to eat but fish and muscles and if Gen. Palmer comes I know I can work for him and sometimes get flour and beef. Long ago when he was Superintendent, he brought us here. I heard what he said at Port Orford in my country. He brought us from there on a fire ship. When we passed this place he called us all on the deck of the Steamer and pointed out this country and told us that all below the mouth of Salmon River was to be our home. Our hearts were glad to see this country and we have always considered it ours.

Leggins:… If Gen. Palmer lives here he will help us. It is very good for him to come, though probably I shall never receive any benefit from the rent of this land. The first time I saw Gen, Palmer I was a boy. When I saw him again in my country I was a man.

George Chief of the Sixes:… It is good for Gen. Palmer to come here. All the old people knew him long ago and if any of his cattle are killed it will not be the old people that will do it. If Gen. Palmer lives here he will not permit bad white people who come to the coast in the summer to abuse us.

Old Man Charlie:… I think it good for him to come here. We all look on Gen. Palmer as one of our people. No matter who is the agent the old people of Siletz will always regard Gen. Palmer as one of their chiefs. My heart is glad to think he will come here. Long ago he was a good friend to us and we all like him. He has always been our friend (Letter of August 3, 1874, from Fairchild).

Palmer was clearly well trusted by the tribes. He helped them when they were in greatest need during the Rogue River Indian wars. He negotiated all of their treaties and removed them to safety, and fed them. He kept his word to the tribes, even when it cost him his career as the Indian Superintendent of Oregon.

Palmer’s contract with Agent J. H. Fairchild was signed on March 13th, 1874. The contract stipulates, that Palmer and his associates may run cattle, horses, and sheep, for dairying and grazing from the Salmon River south to the boundary of the Siletz Reservation, and 3 miles inland, as well as the privilege of cultivating as much land as necessary to grow vegetables for family use and oats for livestock, as well as cut timber as necessary, as long as the areas they are using,  are unoccupied by the Indians and that they do not interfere with Indian hunting, gathering, or fishing. The term of the contract is for ten years, Palmer will only hire Siletz Indians for laborers, and he will pay the agency $200 a year as a lease fee (Fairchild March 13, 1874).

Opposition by the Grand Ronde tribes was immediately heard by those tribal people living on the coast. Chief George of the Sixes sums it up, “The Grand Ronde Indians are always trying to get the best of us in some way- they say we are like horses and eat oats- It is true we do not get all we want and are hungry many times. At Grand Ronde the agent has mills and can give the Indians flour while our agent has none.” And the statement of Leggins, “Why do Grand Ronde Indians want to prevent our leasing this country, it was never theirs, this country was given us by Gen. Palmer long ago…”(Letter of August 3, 1874, from Fairchild), The funding situation of Grand Ronde was much better than the Coast Reservation. Grand Ronde was receiving annual funds for six and a half treaties ratified from western Oregon. The Coast reservation was funded by “about” one-half of the annuities of a treaty (likely the Rogue River Treaty of 1853), for those people who had never went to war against the United State. Those Tribal people who had joined the Rogue River Confederacy were not funded, and so the majority of funds to the Coast Reservation were totally dependent on the will of Congress to continue funding. Because of this, Grand Ronde was able to get built saw and grist mills and better provisions through the early history of the reservation. (It remains to be determined how much of the Rogue River Treaty was actually paid over to Siletz, and how much federal Indian funding was reapportioned by the Indian Superintendents for Oregon based on local needs.)

Some months later, Indian Agent P.B. Sinnott heard of the leasing deal, from the Grand Ronde Indians, and began complaining loudly through a series of letters to the Indian office. Sinnott was a medical doctor and served also as the Indian Agent, and had a long tenure at Grand Ronde Indian Reservation at the agent. Sinnott was surprised and upset at the contract, mainly, apparently, because he had not been told about it. The Indians under Sinnott’s care he stated were critical of the contract which gave Palmer freedom for many years to run cattle over large areas of the Coast without much return in the form of lease fees, an agreement which suggested some preferential treatment towards Palmer. Agent Sinnott, as well, had already denied two other contracts for similar proposals.

Sinnott’s critique picked up steam in the correspondence, and he finally sent a detailed list of issues he had with the Palmer contract, and he even initiated a letter to Palmer which told him to cease all activities on the contract, suggesting it was invalid.

Sinnott’s critique was built on an understanding he had about his jurisdiction at Indian agent of the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. Sinnott stated that the Grande Ronde Reservation extended beyond the original boundaries of the reservation to include the two sections of coast territory from just about the Nestucca Tribal region, to the Siletz River.  “From the Siletz (river) to the Salmon River is a part of this (Grand Ronde) Reservation” (Sinnott July 1, 1874).  Sinnott pointed to a survey which had been accomplished in 1872 for the coast which listed this large coastal zone and showed allotments given to Grand Ronde Tribal Members on the coast. These 20-acre sections were also made in preparations for the removal of other tribal peoples to this section of the coast, the planned removal of the Tillamookans from the north, and the eventual and much-rumored termination of the southern Alsea reservation and removal of the Alseas to this area. “The land claimed to be leased by Mr. Palmer is embodied in this (Grand Ronde) reservation and surveyed sections of it subdivided into 20 acre lots, some of which are occupied by Indians and all of which was designed for that purpose” (Sinnott July 1, 1874)

Sinnott also referred to a common understanding that existed between him and the previous Indian agent at Siletz (Palmer) about allowed use of the Coastal zone by Grand Ronde, suggesting that this understanding gave administrative oversight to Grand Ronde. “at the time the survey was being made (1872) Mr. Palmer was U.S. Ind. Agt. at Siletz and passed through this agency… During the time Mr. Palmer was Agent it was well understood between my predecessor and him that the jurisdiction of this Agency was over that country. Further, at the time Mr. Palmer was Supt of Indian Affairs for Oregon (1853-1856) this reservation was established and he showed the Indians that portion of it telling them that they could then use it for fishing and hunting grounds and in the future when they became advanced in civilization… they could use it for farms and pasture” (Sinnott July 1, 1874).

Even though this area of the Coast, between the Nechene and Siletz rivers, is within the boundaries of the Coast Reservation, that the Grand Ronde agents for some 36 years took control over the administration of the coastal zone, from the Tillamook Region to the north, to the Siletz River at the south. Siletz agency did not take direct control of the coast until perhaps 1886, when the Tillamook tribes are included on the Siletz Reservation census. Previous to 1886, the Tillamookans were all enumerated within the Grand Ronde Reservation censuses.

In the late 1850s, the Salmon River section on the coast was developed by Grand Ronde Indian Agents into a fishery for Grand Ronde tribal members. The fishery activities likely centered at the Nechesne village, and/or the Salmon River encampment involved Grand Ronde tribal members traveling the Salmon River trail regularly to access the fishery. The Salmon River trail was then developed and widened into a wagon road to handle larger wagons of supplies. Grand Ronde people manually expanded the road and developed a toll gate system to capture a bit of revenue from the many people who began traveling this road to the coast in their attempts to vacation on the coast. The Salmon River Wagon road became the main route to the coast from the Willamette Valley.

Because of the natural affinity to the coast between the Nestucca River and the Nechesne, the many agents at Grand Ronde treated the coastal zone as their own territory, as a part of the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. Sinnott also alludes to a decision made in 1872, to not allow half breed Grand Ronde Indians to get informal allotments in the Grand Ronde valley. Instead, they were offered twenty-acre allotments on the coast, in the area in question, which they would have to move to. Many agreed to this and moved to the Coast at the Salmon River encampment to get land. This decision makes this area of the coast part of the Grand Ronde Allotment area, a new understanding which makes the land claims of both reservations over this area of coast much more complicated.

The decision by the Indian Agent Sinnott to attract half breed Grand Ronde people to the coast has huge implications about Grand Ronde membership and citizenship rights at the Grand Ronde Reservation. If these families remained in the coastal zone after the area is formally taken control of by the Siletz Reservation and agency, they would then have fallen under the administrations of Siletz and began to be counted among the Siletz members thereafter.  It is unclear if Agent Sinnott really had the right to impose such a policy upon half-blood Indians at Grand Ronde, as there are no formal policy statements that suggested that half-blooded Indians have fewer rights than full-blooded native people. The descendants of these families may then not have been allowed enrolling at Grand Ronde in future enrollments or included in annual tribal censuses after 1886 when Siletz finally takes formal control of the Coastal area at Salmon River. (The censuses substituted for some tribes for tribal rolls.) This remains a key question of Grand Ronde history, of how much tribal membership was influenced by the actions of past Indian agents and their (informed or uninformed) interpretations of the policies and rights regarding tribal people under their supervision. As new agents came on at Grand Ronde, and later in the 20th century on the Grand Ronde-Siletz Agency (a combined agency), they would not have known of the informal allotments on the coast and would likely have discounted those Grand Ronde members in their enumerations. Normally, not much direction was given to the Agents newly assigned, nor did they have much in the way of complete records left by the previous agents and so much of the policies of the reservation were purely their interpretation of federal laws

It is very clear in the letters from Fairchild and Sinnott that both agents assumed they were the administrators of the same area of the coast. There were parallel planning efforts by both agents for removal of the Tillamookans and Alsea Reservation tribes to this area of the coast. Sinnott assumed that he was in charge, because of this history of handshake deals between the Grand Ronde and Siletz agents for the use of the Salmon River fishery by Grand Ronde Indians. Its also clear that Palmer knew the truth of the situation, knew that Siletz Agency Indian Agents were the formal administrators of the whole of the Coast Reservation. Palmer had established the reservations and knew exactly which administrator to approach for his lease deal. Sinnott also seems to have been a bit aggressive in his actions to claim the coastal sections. One factor not yet considered is the fact that the tribes on the northern section of the Coast Reservation were administered by the Indian Agents at Grand Ronde, who spent money and time on the tribal communities. This money they spent, came directly from the Grand Ronde Reservation budget. As well, if the tribes at Grand Ronde had not been allowed to use the Salmon River fishery, then the Salmon River wagon road would not have been developed so soon, and many more tribal people may have starved at Grand Ronde in the earliest years of the reservation. There are numerous situations and factors to consider in the history of the area, much of the administrative confusion created by the utter miss-administration of the Indian reservations by the Federal government whose promises, embodied in the treaties, went unfulfilled for several generations

Joel Palmer, when receiving a strongly-worded cease and desist letter from Agent Sinnott, just ignored the threats in the letter. His response suggested that he absolutely had the right to have a contract on the Coast with Agent Fairchild. Palmer even ignored Sinnott’s orders to not run cattle through the Grand Ronde Reservation. Palmer was building up the herd at the coast by running 25 head of cattle at a time on the narrow and treacherous Salmon River Trail,  driving the cattle from his allotment at Dayton, through the Grand Ronde Reservation to the Coast. Immediately after corresponding with Sinnott, he ran another group of 25 head of cattle through Grand Ronde Reservation, literally trampling Agent Sinnott’s vociferous protestations through this action.

The decision about this contract was left up to Special Agent Vandever to decide. Vandever took some time gathering information and was engaged in audited the funding for the Oregon superintendency. As yet there is not a decision found from Vandever. But in 1875 Palmer was engaged with charges from the Indian Office that his record keeping was not correct and he had to get his records in order. In a letter, Palmer complains about the losses, some $500 in losses he incurred. It’s clear that the lease of the coastal plain did not occur and Palmer likely lost much of his investment, selling the cattle at a loss.

It is unclear which reservation had formal control over the northern section of the Coast Reservation, north of Siletz River. History suggests that Grand Ronde agents had more direct control, while federal records suggest that the Coast Reservation was one entity from 1855 until at least 1865, and then was divided into Alsea Reservation at the South and Siletz Reservation at the north. There was as well a third district, the Umpqua Reservation which is not well known or studied but managed a good portion of the Umpqua River and parts of the Alsea region of the Coast Reservation well into the 1860s. These were local and manageable districts for Indian agents who were hard-pressed to satisfy their roles of managing hundreds if not thousands of tribal people, many who did not want to be removed to a foreign land. The history also suggests that the original Coast Reservation was not well planned to manage as many as 4,000 Indians, the federal government was not prepared, and their agents manipulated the administrative districts and budgets to pay the bills to keep the tribal people alive despite the lack of good administrative oversight by the Indian office. The initial plans set forth by Joel Palmer appear to be prophetic, as he initially planned in an early letter to establish concentrations of Indian communities near the river estuaries, because he foresaw the failure of the federal administration and the overwhelming need of the tribes for food and shelter, when he was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. This discussion by Palmer became the plan for some 30 years along the coast for the tribes. Today Grand Ronde and Siletz, and the Coos Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw engage in various degrees of claims over sections of the Coast Reservation. These claims dod not access the incredibly divisive political history of the region that the Federal government thrust the tribes into. The reality is that the region is a shared administrative tribe region, with shared overlapping territories. This is a tough understanding for the original tribes of the Coast Reservation.



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