Previous essays have addressed the poor treatment of the tribes on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation into the late 1860s. In 1869 during his inauguration speech, newly elected President U.S. Grant stated that he would support a path to citizenship for tribes that became civilized. (In this essay I will not quibble with the idea of civilization even though we can rightly question which people were proving to be civilized and which were proving to be lawless and uncivilized.) Indian Agents took notice of Pres. Grant’s statement, which amounted to a change in federal Indian policy and began to ask for the right to allot the reservation lands to tribal people so that they may prove their assimilation by being productive farmers. For adult Tribal people, the two paths to civilization practiced and promoted by the U.S. Government were through taking up farming and through conversion to a Christian or Catholic religion, while children’s assimilation was primarily through education and religion.
In the 1860s at the Grand Ronde Reservation, even though land allotments had been promised in seven treaties from 1853 to 1855, they had not yet occurred. The Native people were living in miserable multi-generational small houses and huts, really shacks, with perhaps a few acres plowed and in grain seed. Some people had a few vegetables in a small half-acre gardens. The soils of the majority of the valley are heavy clay and so there is not much productivity in the land. This was the case with many reservations as Natives were normally placed on the worst, most undesirable, lands in a territory, leaving the best lands for the white American immigrant farmers. And while plenty of food was promised to the tribes to get them to remove to reservations, they were told by agents that they were expected to produce through American-style agriculture a good portion of their annual foodstuffs. Full federal support for developing agriculture on the reservations was inconsistent at best, many tribal people struggling with cultural changes to make the adjustment to this foreign farming culture.
The result at Grand Ronde was starvation and malnutrition, people being forced to forage in the Coast Range for foods, unable to hunt because their weapons were taken away, and not having a good salmon run at Agency Creek on the reservation to feed to people. By 1859, Indian agents across the United States were forced to allow the tribal people to begin fishing and foraging in their traditional ways for food because food supplies from the government were still inconsistent, and support for agriculture generally, for supplies, tools, seed, and equipment was very thin if non-existent. Hunting at many reservations was not always allowed because that activity involved weapons and many of the tribes had been involved in wars with the Americans and the new settlers were nervous about the tribes rising up from the reservations and attacking them. As well native could not leave the reservation, to find food or work, unless allowed to do so by the Indian agent because any Native traveling the valley without a pass was subject to arrest. Normally during the first few years, only the chiefs were allowed guns, until the tribal people could be deemed trusted. By 1860, Indian agents were also looking for more local resources for the tribes to produce their own foods. The fishery at the Salmon River became a regular fishery for the Grand Ronde people, causing the development and expansion of the Salmon River wagon road from the Reservation to the Lower Salmon River over a treacherous muddy coastal pass. Still, agriculture was the economic culture being pushed at the reservation and since the Federal government had yet to fully lean into allotting lands which would allow the culture to develop fully at the reservation, the tribes saw farming as the way towards independence, citizenship, and survival.
The following petition is a letter transcribed by the Indian agent, in full view of the Indian Superintendent of Oregon, Albert B. Meacham, for the order to survey and allot the reservation lands. The petition may have been the original Idea of one of the agents, Perhaps Meacham, who is known to have worked on favorable policies for the tribes in Oregon during his time. But the petition is clearly in the words of the tribal chiefs who describe their situation well and again present sound reasoning for wanting to live as free civilized men so they could someday join their long-buried fathers. There are no women on the petition and for much of the first 80 years of the reservation, men took primary charge of all Tribal government affairs, perhaps at the insistence of the Indian agents, who would have favored men in leadership. It is not until the 1930s that we begin to see women take prominent positions with the Tribal Business Council, following the adoption of the Tribal Consitution in 1936.
There are a few interesting sentiments expressed. The tribal chiefs apparently no longer wanted an Indian Agent in charge of their reservation. They believe they can run their own reservation, and state they are already good farmers. They are also dealing with rumors from neighboring whites that they will be removed from the reservation. There was in 1865 a reduction of the Coast Reservation, and by 1869, much of the available land in Oregon was already claimed by settlers. Rumors of further reductions to reservation lands would have been common as settlers kept political pressure on politicians to open new lands for settlement, leadign to further reductions in the Coats reservation in 1875 and 1907-08. Settlers kept coming to the west seeking free lands through the Donation land claim Act, and Indian reservations then held the only lands unclaimed by whitee. At Grand Ronde, the major reduction did not occur until 1907-08 when the surplus lands from allotment of the lands created by the Dawes Act of 1887, were sold. It is possible that Federal administrators from 1856-1869 chose to not allot the lands at Grand Ronde thinking under some scheme that they would reduce the reservations soon and open portions to white settlement and the scheme would be simpler if the reservation lands were not yet allotted to the tribes (there is no proof of this scheme yet).
In the Petition, the Chiefs are very shrewd pointing out that they are having a tough time devoting themselves to building up the reservation when they do not have land titles to assure them they are going to remain and are not wasting their efforts. It was the case that at the Coast Reservation and beforehand, at the Table Rock and Umpqua reservations that tribes began to settle, build houses, planty crops and develop herds of domesticated livestock, but within a few years were forced to move, and so largely lost all of their newly developed wealth. Then at the Coast reservation, tribes began to settle on the coast and build their townships and farms, but in 1865 the Yaquina tract was opened forcing hundreds of natives to move, losing their investments in their houses and lands. These removals, from 1853 to 1865 would amount to some 3,000-4,000 tribal people really unsure of their status and afraid that they would once again be forced to remove and then lose their investments of time and money into their farms. Tribal peoples from the Coast and Grand Ronde knew one another and news of the region traveled quickly and so what occurred on the Coast would affect the feelings of insecurity of the tribal people at Grand Ronde.
[Arrived] Department of the Interior – January 13, 1870
Grand Ronde Indian Agency Oregon
September 20, 1869
His Excellency, U.S. Grant
We the Chiefs of all the tribes on the Grand Ronde Reservation desire to communicate to you, the President, by letter, making known some of our desires, hopes and fears. It is nearly fifteen years since we came on this Reservation. Then we were wild, ignorant and savage, but since then we have made great improvements. We now know how to farm, how to build our houses and barns, how to cook and sew, in fact we know how to live like white people. Many of us talk English, which enables us much better to understand the ways of the whites. We have learned to live in peace, and respect the laws of the whites as well as our own, and fewer crimes have been committed by our people than by the same number of whites. We get along much better now than we did when the soldiers were here, to drive and beat us around. We obey our Agent and have no trouble with him, therefore we do not desire that you should send an Officer here to take charge of us. White men have told us that the were going to have us removed from this Reservation. This we do not desire. The land produces well, we are out of the way of the white settlements, we have become acquainted with each other and live happily together. If we are moved from here and placed on an other [sic] Reservation with strange Indians the probabilities are that we might not get along well together. We have built houses and barns and many of us have made rails and fenced our lands believing that this was to be our home. A long time ago we owned all the lands in the Willamette Valley, we gave it up to the whites for this little Grand Ronde Valley, with the understanding that it was to be ours forever, that here we were to live and die. We feel very bad when we are told that we will be moved from here and sent to a strange place to live with strangers. Many of our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters are buried here; our little boys and girls have grown to be men and women here- we love this land and do not like to leave it. If you intend to move us around and we can have no land of our own, no place we can call home we might as well be wild and roving through the mountains. We have been here along [sic] time and do not know where our lands are therefore we cannot improve them. If our lands had been surveyed- that when we were making improvements- we would have known that they were our own land and that we could not be ordered by our Agent to leave them and plow and sow at his pleasure, we would by this time been able to support ourselves without asking any thing from the Government. We are like white people we have no heart to work when we have no right to the land. Whites would not build houses and barns, plant orchards etc. if they had no right or title for the land they improve. We only ask the same privilege and we will soon support ourselves. We therefore ask you that our lands may be surveyed it was in the treaties as we understood them at the time they were made. We desire that you furnish us a few years longer with Blacksmith, Farmer and Miller. As we are situated at present we do not know how we can get along without them. In this letter we have told you our fears and made known our desires, Twice before since we have been here have we sent letters to the President but he never paid any attention to them, or we never heard anything from them. In conclusion allow us once more to ask you that our lands may be surveyed and we allowed to live in peace and die that we may be buried with our Fathers. This letter was written by J.W. Crawford, clerk at this Agency by our request and signed here in presence of A.B. Meacham, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon and United States Senator Geo. H. Williams.
Lewis and Peter- Umpqaws.
Billy and Tom- Calipooias.
Frank- Rogue River.
Joseph Sangareta- Mary’s River
Joh [John] – Oregon City
Joe Hudson- Santiams
Jake- Cow Creeks
September 20th 1869
Charles Lafollette U.S. Indian Agent
The petition represents as close as we have the thoughts of the tribal people at Grand Ronde in 1869. It is not likely a direct transcription of what they said, it is maybe more grammatically correct and some of the ways the sentences are formed in English are likely altered some by the Indian agents to emphasize the issues that would like action on from the Bureau main office. There are a series of letters and reports for some 30 years from Indian agents since the start of the reservation emphasizing the lack of resources, funding, support, supplies, and direction by the main Bureau office. Indian agents rarely got everything they needed. This appeal by the Tribes, however, is a new approach that may have proven fruitful, because the Thompson allotments (named after the Surveyor, Thompson), what I call “informal allotments” did occur in 1871-1872, which involved the allotment of limited acreage, up to 120 acres at the most. I label them informal because we have yet to find an order from the Bureau’s main office to allot the lands under some law for these allotments, and its not until the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 when there is an official order for allotment.
In the meantime, the Thompson allotments appear to have been at the discretion of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, ie: Albert B. Meacham, who initiated the project as a way to improve the status of the tribal people and begin to advance them towards citizenship. Citizenship, however, for all Native Americans would not occur until 1924. As well, according to early research, the Dawes Allotments appear to have formalized and expanded the allotments of the original Thompson allottees, as well as allocated new allotments to those newly deemed eligible for allotment.
Letter of September 20, 1869 found in Microfilm set 234, reel 616
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.