By the 1830s, right about the time that “fever and ague” a great plague, likely malaria (Boyd, the Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence,1999) hit the tribes of the Columbia River and Willamette Valley, Klickitat Indians began occupying parts of the Willamette and Umpqua valleys unopposed. It’s likely that they had been coming into the valleys, crossing the Columbia River in small groups, for decades, even hundreds of years. But, tribes like the Chinookans and the Kalapuyans were quite numerous and they would have defended their territory and presence at key resource locations, like falls, and riffles and rapids good for salmon fishing. The Kalapuyans and Chinookans were interrelated by trade and kinship and were willing to take the field in defense of their previous claims when other tribal groups threatened their rights. Chief Kiesno proved this in 1812 when he stood off a Cowlitz raid, or perhaps attempt at occupation, in the Columbia until his allies, other Chinookans and possibly Kalapuyans, could join him and force the Cowlitz and their allies back up the Cowlitz River. But after the “fever and ague,” there was little will or numbers of people among the plagued and reduced Kalapuyans or Chinookans, to stand off an invasion of hundreds of extremely aggressive Klickitat warriors. The Klickitat’s in this era were renowned and feared for their military prowess, were extremely mobile mounted infantry who traveled in bands of 700 warriors and family. They are noted traveling is such groups into the 1850s through the Willamette Valley and down into the Umpqua drainage where settlers complained that they “hunted out all of the elk.” In fact, the American settler military would hire Klickitats to be guides, scouts, and mercenaries when venturing into hotly contested regions, such as the Rogue River Country.
Somehow after the 1830s, due to no opposition from the Kalapuyans who occupied the majority of the Willamette Valley, the Klickitats got the impression that they had defeated the Kalapuyans and as such “owned the valley by conquest”. They very well may have had some unrecorded skirmish in the Tualatin Valley. There were many signs that the Klickitats were regular travelers through the valley as there was a Klickitat trail that ran through the valley in a southwestern direction, crossing from the Portland basin through the Chehalem area, through the Yamhill area, and into the Grand Ronde Valley (east to west through Fort Yamhill is an exposed part of this trail today), and continuing to the Coast. Scattered reports along the route suggest annual camping areas at Parrett Mountain and other locations along the trail. The Klickitats were a common enough presence in the early white settlement area, after 1844, that many settlers assumed that they belonged in lower Oregon territory (south of the Columbia River) and wrote about them as being indigenous to the valley. But Indian agents and many early American settlers knew better, likely from having regular contact with the Klickitats and the Kalapuyans and hearing different sides of their stories. Certainly, Lewis and Clark knew in 1806 that the Kalapuyans were the people of the valley, as this was told them by a Clowewalla man who guided Clark into the Multnomah (Willamette) for about 10 miles and regaled him with stories of the tribes and description of the wealth of the area.
In 1855, the Klickitat were asserting their rights in the Willamette Valley, at the time when Indian Agents Palmer and Stevens wrote numerous treaties with tribes up and down the Columbia, and in the Willamette Valley. Some bands of the Klickitat were not present at the middle Oregon treaty proceedings where other Klickuitat leaders participated and were granted treaty annuities, and as such did not get an opportunity to participate in the treaties. Those Klickitats who did not participate were likely ranging in Oregon and were simply not present in the region of the eastern face of the Cascades of Washington Territory, and the Americans would not have cared if everyone was present as long as they have a tribal leader who signed off on the sale of their lands. The Klickitats who were not present appeared to have been somewhat jealous and put off by their exclusion, while other tribes, like the Yakima of Kamiakin, refused to sign the treaty, refusing to sell the land and rights and even worked to rebel and force the American from the Columbia in March of 1856 with is series of attacks on American settlements. While Kamiakin’s confederacy failed, he stands as a hero and great leader of the regional tribes for standing up to American imperialism and stranding for his rights to not sell his land, a right that the Americans and their military simply ignored. Yet many tribal leaders knew by 1855 that their only salvation lay in accepting the treaties and living in peace, otherwise, their people would be decimated in various ways by the stingy Americans.
Carey, an early historian of Oregon wrote about this claim by the some Klickitat bands over the Willamette Valley.
Judicial records bear testimony to the Klickitat’s repeated assertion of their rights in the Willamette Valley. At the term of court held in Washington County in 1851, Donald McLeod brought an action for trespass against a band of Klickitats who had destroyed timber he had prepared for his house. Indian Agent Parrish represented them. The Indians contended that the timber was as much theirs as McLeod’s that they had acquired the land by conquest and had warned McLeod against settling there, and that the land had never been purchased from them. The judge held that they had a possessory title that had never been extinguished by the Government and refused judgment for trespass. Another farmer built a fence across the trail which was their public highway. They tore down the fence and the court gave another decision. (J. Ross Browne, report, P.8.) Recognition of the claims of the Klickitat’s by the treaty commissioners would seem therefore to have been suggested by diplomatic consideration if no others. The omission in this instance my have led to widespread war, and without which it is improbable that the Indians would have deemed themselves sufficiently powerful to undertake a campaign of extermination against the settlers (Carey, History of Oregon, 566). (Readers should be careful with the Carey information about the tribes as some of his information as presented is inaccurate, particularly his information about treaties.)
However, regardless of this decision, Joel Palmer the Indian Superintendent of Oregon knew better and he forced the Klickitats back over the Columbia to their lands on the Eastern face of the Cascades. The Court decision in this instance was then ignored by Palmer, as Palmer was an early settler and trailblazer, knew the tribes well and knew that the court here was in the wrong. As well, it would not have been good to write another treaty to pay tribes for land that was already claimed by the Tualatin. Interestingly, if we compare the way the Klickitats and the Americans claimed Kalapuyan lands, it is a very similar situation, but the Americans benefitted by their citizenship status and by the Oregon Donation Landclaims Act (1850), which certified their “illegal” land-claims “illegally” in 1850, at a time when the land had yet to be purchased from the Kalapuyans and was not officially purchased and ratified until March of 1855.
A speech of J.N. Dolph paints the Klickitats of a broader conquest of Oregon, as far south as the Rogue River Basin. This perspective is in the minority of all historians. It is true that the Klickitat ranged down into southern Oregon. There are later rumors, even a few short statements by military leaders that suggest that the Klickitats were very active in trading between the Columbia River and the Rogue River Basin and may have been helping organize a larger confederation between the tribes in the region to rise up and force the Americans to vacate the region (now a truly remarkable what-if issue for me!). Certainly, they helped the Rogue Rivers in some way by trading armaments to them and then perhaps helping sustain their fight in 1855 and 1856 to regain southwestern Oregon from the genocidal American volunteer militias. But there is no evidence that they had such a war of conquest as suggested by Dolph below. However, Dolph’s note of disease reducing the tribes does seem accurate. But again, Joel Palmer knew better and knew the Kalapuyans held the primary claim and ignored the Klickitat claims, which may have been largely a political ploy on their part to get paid by the rich Americans.
At the time of the treaties of Shampoeg (sic) were negotiated (April 1851) the valley of the Willamette was the main resort of the Klickitats, a powerful and warlike tribe from the country west of the Simcoe, in the Cascade Mountains… Bold, adventurous and cunning, they had gradually acquired an influence over nearly all the Indians of Oregon as far south as Rogue River. At an early date (probably between 1835 and 1840) they descended from the Simcoe to the banks of the Columbia River, on the northern side, where they commenced war against the Cowlitz, Chinook, and other inferior tribes, whom they soon conquered and reduced to such terms of tribute as they chose to dictate. In 1841 they began to turn their attention to the south side of the Columbia. Rich valleys and fine hunting grounds exist there, of which they had heard traditionary reports. At this time the Clackamas, Moleallies (sic), Yamhills, Santiams, and other tribes of the Willamette Valley had become greatly reduced by diseases introduced among them by the whites. They were wholly unprepared to resist the encroachments of their warlike and formidable neighbors. From time to time, as opportunity occurred, Klickitats crossed over, made inroads upon them, and finally entirely subdued all the tribes of the Willamette, whom they caused, to pay tribute. Assuming a possessory right over the whole valley, they established camps on the various rivers, and in the course of a few years, by gradual advances, pushed their way over the Calapooia Mountains into the valley of the Umpquas (Speeches of J.N. Dolph of Oregon).
Then, there is another legal case, that of Tualatin Chief Kiakuts against the settlement of Donald McLeod. Kiakuts as the head chief had a large land-claim at the shore of Wapato Lake. The lake was an amazingly rich resource in the Tualatin valley where there was a cluster of villages within a few miles of the lake. The lake was rich with Wapato, know by settlers as Indian potato which would sustain the tribes through most of the year. It is my contention that the tribes absolutely laid claim to area of rich resources, falls, salmon fishing sites, camas fields, certain oak groves, and Wapato Lake, rich with Wapato. The rest of their lands were common use lands where any tribe may travel in peace after following certain obligatory protocols of presenting oneself to the chief, gifting them, and declaring peaceful intentions for the visit.
In 1850, resettler Donald McLeod claimed 640 acres along the lower west side of Wapato Lake, and in 1852 he began to build a log cabin. Chief Kiakuts of the Tualatin had his own claim there, where people camped and gathered wapato bulbs. He confronted McLeod, and two days later, Kiakuts and Kuyape-i (Black Jack) tore down the cabin. In the case brought against the Tualatin in U.S. District Court, the judge dismissed the charge of “unlawful assembly to do unlawful acts” and told McLeod to leave the Indians alone because it was their land. In 1855, the Tualatin signed the Willamette Valley Treaty and agreed to remove to the Grand Ronde Reservation with at least twenty-eight other tribes (published in another essay about Wapato Lake in this blog site).
This is one of the few cases where justice was somewhat fair to the tribes. Many Oregon circuit courts in this time refused to hear Native testimony, as it was normally to be in a native language and unintelligible to the American judge. So in most courts Indians could not give testimony and many crimes against them went unpunished. Without justice and a rule of law many tribes, experiencing the discrimination and racism in the system of justice would have rebelled, as we see happening in southern Oregon. But in this instance, and its yet unclear, Kiakuts and his friends were able to be heard, likely through some sort of interpretation, also likely in Chinuk Wawa, to the judge and then plead their case. Since the Tualatin Basin was one of the first to be settled by the Americans, Kiakuts would have been a known and respected Kalapuyans leader and this would have helped him as well.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.