The Trials of Tom Gilbert, Convicted of Murdering Wapato Dave and Ponomapa.

On November 28th, 1882, Tom Gilbert, a native man enrolled in the Grand Ronde tribe allegedly murdered fellow Grand Ronde Reservation inhabitants Wapato Dave Yatskawa and his wife Ponomapa on their allotment on the Grand Ronde Reservation. Gilbert was reportedly drunk and had traveled from Willamina, and reportedly attacked the two with a hatchet, nearly severing their heads. He also attacked their son Indian Dave cutting him in the hand, but he escaped, Testimony from Indian Dave indicated that after Wapato Dave was mortally wounded he told his son to leave the house and go get help.

Tom Gilbert was then arrested by the Grand Ronde police, who had him jailed in suspicion for the crime. He was indicted on December 8, 1882. He was then taken to the Polk County Jail in Dallas and remained there for three trials in the Circuit Court and one in the Oregon Supeme Court (Polk Co. Itemizer 12/3/1908).

Wapato Dave was Dave Yatchekawa (various spellings), a leader, a chief of the Wapato Lake, or Tualatin Kalapuya tribe. He had signed treaties for his people and was a well-respected leader at the reservation. Tom Gilbert was the half-brother to Stephen Savage, part of a clan of native people who had lived in the Upper McKenzie River area of the southern Willamette Valley. The family included relations with the Halo family of Yoncalla Kalapuyans, the Hudson family of Santiam Kalapuyans, and the Tufti family of Molallan peoples. The family was of mixed tribal heritage, Kalapuya, Umpqua, Molalla and likely Wasco who had been split up and removed to two different reservations, Grand Ronde and Warm Springs. The family genealogy has an essay on this site.

Witnesses were native people from the Grand Ronde Reservation who were summoned by the court to testify. They were H. C. Rowell, David Yatskawa, John Schallor, Jake Wheeler, E. F. Hussey, Jo Apperson, Susan Wheeler, Jim Foster, George Sutton, Gov. Woods, Cowles, Baltice Jaundra, and Dan Watchena,

On January 12th Gilbert was found guilty of murder in the first degree. There were five jury ballots were taken, the first four the vote was 11 guilty to 1 not guilty. The fifth ballot was unanimously guilty. Gilbert had been defended by Messrs. Daly & Butler. Indian Dave, the son, was the only eyewitness to the testify against Gilbert and he had been wounded by Gilbert (Polk Co Itemizer 1/13/1883). The article went on to describe Gilbert as a well-to-do Indian who could speak English well.

Gilbert, at his sentencing, is quoted stating, “I am going to hang. I did not kill Dave and his wife. If I had killed them, now I am going to hang, anyhow, I would not tell a lie about it. God knows whether I killed them. The boy killed them, and they swear against me to save the boy from hanging. The boy killed another boy once… It will be found out who killed Dave and his wife, but I hang for it. It will do me no good then.” He spoke very earnestly and gestured with his left hand, occasionally placing it on his breast. During the delivery, there was a deep hush, and the audience was standing. The prisoner’s earnest manner made an impression on the hearers and caused some persons to express a doubt as to his guilt. The judge pronounced that he would be hung on March 1st, 1883 (Polk County Itemizer 1/20/1883).

In fact, Indian Dave had been charged with killing a boy in 1879. Indian Dave and another from Grand Ronde went hunting and a couple days later the dead body of the companion was found in the forest. Indian Dave was arrested and spent some time in the Grand Ronde jail but claimed that the other boy had shot himself. The police stated that circumstances indicate a premeditated murder and that he be held for trial (Corvallis Gazette 2/21/1879). It is clear that he was not held long in jail, and was out in 1882. The next newspaper account is a case review in 1885, which does not reveal any details (Indian Dave V State, Curry Co. Circuit Court Calendar, Coast Mail 6/4/1885 (this may be a different Indian Dave)).

The Polk County itemizer (1/20/1883) also described Gilbert’s appearance. He was “exceedingly ill-favored, his forehead being very narrow across the top, caused from Compression which it received when an infant” (skull deformation). “His eyelids droop over his eyes, giving him a sinister expression, Yet when he was making his speech the emotion caused by the imminence and horror of his fate, humanized his face.” Clearly, the cultural skull deformation Gilbert had, caused some racist feelings on behalf of the white Americans, so much so that he was de-humanized to them by his appearance.

After sentencing, Gilbert’s attorney took the case to the Oregon Supreme Court due to confusion about which crime he was charged with. He won the challenge and on May 14th the Supreme Court declared a mistrial and ordered a new trial. The new trial in May ended with a hung jury. The next chapter of his case ended in December 1883 when he pleaded guilty to Manslaughter and was sentenced to one year in jail and a fine of $100 (Polk Co. Itemizer 12/3/1908).

The intrigue continued in the Polk Itemizer newspaper, likely because this was a fairly large case for such a small town. On January 27th the story of Tom Gilbert “The Doomed Indian” included a visit to the jail of an Indian from Grand Ronde. They “”told him that an Indian, Jimmy John, had said to the latter’s father that Gilbert was going to hang for nothing and that he (John) knew who committed the murder. John has left the reservation and cannot be found. Gilbert says his friends are hunting for him. He was asked: “Are you afraid to die!” He smiled, and said he could not tell yet; it was more than thirty days yet till the day of execution; he couldn’t say whether he would be afraid or not. “I am going to hang,” he continued, and I can’t help it.” “Do you get lonesome here?” he was asked. “Oh yes,” he replied, with a sigh that expressed more than his words. The prisoner said he was thirty-eight years old, and, from a boy, had never done any mischief. He earnestly protested his innocence of the crime for which he is to suffer the dearest penalty” (Polk Co. Itemizer 1/27/1883).

The following letter from the Indian Agent at Grand Ronde, P.B. Sinnott, states many of the details of the case.

United States Indian Service
Grand Ronde Agency
29th January, 1884
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter C – 4041-4839– 1883 – 18787 – 1882 dated March 15th 1883.

Replying thereto you are informed that in the Case of the State of Oregon vs. Tom Gilbert an Indian belonging to Grand Ronde Reservation who was indicted by the Grand Jury at the November term of the Circuit Court for the County of Polk State of Oregon, charging him, Gilbert, with the crime of murder and by the malicious killing of Wapato Dave and his, Dave’s, wife Indians belonging to this Agency – and further charged that the crime was committed on Grand Ronde Reserve. The Grand Jury found two separate indictments one for the killing of Dave and one for the killing of Dave’s wife. The Defendant was duly —, and the Attorney for Gilbert filed a Motion to Dismiss the indictment for want of jurisdiction. Upon submitting the question of jurisdiction the court overruled the Motion  To Dismiss, and held that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction.

The Defendant Gilbert was then placed upon his trial. The result of the trial was a verdict by the jury of guilty of murder in the first degree. Upon this verdict the Court sentenced Gilbert to be hanged on March 1st, 1883.

The attorneys for Gilbert now made the discovery that the Records fail to disclose which of the two indictments the defendant was tried and convicted under. They succeed in getting a stay of judgment and carried the case on appeal to the Supreme Court, upon both the question of jurisdiction and upon the error of the Records. Whether Gilbert’s attorneys pressed the question of jurisdiction before the Supreme Court so as to secure a ruling of that court upon the question I do not know, but the Supreme Court sustained them on the question of error in the Records and remanded the Case to the Circuit Court for a new trial.

Gilbert’s Attorneys now abandon all legal technicalities and made a powerful effort to save this man by a verdict of acquittal by the jury. The result of the second trial was a disagreed jury; 11 for conviction 1 for acquittal. The case went over till the last term of Court – (December last) when the Defendant was by the agreement of counsel allowed to plead guilty to Manslaughter and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and be confined at hard labor in the State Penitentiary one year.

This is the first case on this North West Coast where one Indian was tried in the State Courts for the killing of another Indian on an Indian Reservation.
Most Respectfully
Your Most Obedient Servant
P.B. Sinnott
U.S. Ind. Agent


In early December 1908, Tom Gilbert died by falling drunk from his horse into the Yamhill River. The newspaper description is very strange with deep details. ” His clothing caught on a snag, and he was unable to extricate himself. When found his head and feet were out of the water but this is accounted for as happening after rigor mortis set in” (Polk Co. Itemizer 12/3/1908). He did not drown but instead died of the exposure in the icy river. “There was no water in his lungs so his death could not be attributed to drowning, and there were no marks of violence on his body. The clay bank in front of him was scratched and torn where his fingernails had slipped through the moist earth in a vain effort to hold, as the limber branches dragged him back into the water after each fruitless effort to climb out… He had repeatedly attempted to clear himself from the entangled vines until his strength became exhausted and he was dragged back and held irresistibly in the icy water and slowly chilled to death.” Two of his nephews at the inquest attributed his death to foul play. (Polk Co. Itemizer 2/1/1908).

Tom Gilbert was 65 at the time of his death and he left a wife, Lucinda, and several children.


Southwest Oregon Research Project Letter #2572,  Written Jan. 29, 1884 at Grand Ronde Agency by P. B. Sinnott, Agent. Transcript by Heather Ulrich.

Trial and Case information from the Polk County Circuit Court (case # 479) and Oregon Supreme Court files (#1463) is archived at the Oregon State Archives in  Salem. Thanks to the OSA staff for their help finding the case files.

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