General Howard Visits Grand Ronde, 1876

In 1874, General Oliver Otis Howard, who had served in the Civil War was the Commander of the Department Columbia took command of any Indian conflicts in the region.  General Howard’s fame in the Northwest came from his command and actions during the Nez Perce War. In 1876 General  Howard visited the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. He wrote a letter describing his visit and published it in the Chicago Advance Newspaper. The letter was republished in the Annals of the Catholic Indian Missions in America and the records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia Volume 17, in part as proof of the good work being performed by the Catholic missionaries at Grand Ronde towards impressing civilization upon them, especially Father Adrien Croquet.

The purpose of General Howard’s visit was likely two-fold; first, he needed to introduce himself as a new commander of the Department based at Fort Vancouver to the Indian Agents. Second, he needed to assess the level of civilization of the Indians at each reservation to determine what threat level they may be in the future. It is in the 1870s when a series of Indian wars occur in the west, and the local white people would have notified him of their fears of an Indian outbreak in the Willamette Valley region. The Modoc war was 1872 to 1873, the Nez Perce war was 1877 (there were several years of conflict build-up to war), and the Bannock war was 1878 (also with several years of built-up tensions).

The wars of the 1850s were not that much removed from the 1870s and many of the pioneer Indian fighters would still be alive. The initial placing of Grand Ronde at the western edges of the Willamette Valley did produce fears in the white population of an Indian outbreak. These fears from 1856 caused the Indian agents to take all firearms from the tribes and to create policies that forced tribes to remain on the reservations making it illegal for Natives to leave without a pass. It was later proven that the situation was such that the tribes had many more legitimate fears that the whites would take advantage of the tribal people who brought liquor to the reservations, would kill natives indiscriminately and were not to be trusted in their contracts. Even Indian agents proved to be untrustworthy, many stealing food and supplies from the reservation to promote their own wealth.

The letter does present an interesting description of the reservation, quite rare for the time. In 1876 the tribal people had just five years previously been granted the Thompson allotments, an informal allotment of land of up to about 100 acres for heads of households. Additionally, the saw and grist mills had been renovated or rebuilt, and the Native men were the primary operators of the mills. Many Native families immediately began producing a good annual yield of grains, corn, oats, wheat, and records from 1880 and 1881 suggest that by that time they were already self-sufficient. It would not be until 1887 when the formal federal allotment process began. I have proposed elsewhere that the 1887 Dawes Act allotments likely followed much of the outlines of the Thompson allotments with over 140 more acres allotted per household. Howard’s letter as well presents a somewhat detailed blueprint of where the major agency buildings were located on the reservation in this period, and his note about the new schoolhouse is significant, adding to our knowledge of the structure of the reservation in the 1870s.

Howard’s notation of the top of the hill overlooking the valley is the old Salmon River wagon road which followed the old Klickitat trail. The spot where Howard stops to survey the panoramic view of the valley is the ridge within Fort Yamhill State Park, the section of the trail within the park is still extant and can be walked today.  Then it is startling to read that the reservation apparently still has a piece of artillery, likely a small howitzer cannon, otherwise, he would have likely written “rifle”. If there is a howitzer at the reservation it is leftover artillery from the Fort Yamhill Dragoon detachment who vacated the location in 1866. Most military men were reassigned to the Civil War in the east and then the Fort is liquidated, abandoned, and decommissioned. Howard does not mention the blockhouse in his letter, it was removed to the old agency and was being used as a jail by the tribal police. Howard’s use of “Tyee” (Chief in Chinook Wawa)  is interesting as well, as he apparently had learned the term somewhere in the region in the past few years. The Chinook Wawa language would have been the most widely spoken language at Grand Ronde in this time, even among the members of the Catholic mission and among the white employees.

General Oliver Otis Howard, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Brady-Handy Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-cwpbh-00893.

The following letter from General Howard, United States Army, to a Congregational Church paper, is republished her in order to preserve the testimony of a prominent soldier and a leading Protestant in favor of our Catholic Indian work:

On the old maps, Grand Ronde Reservation was a little red square in Northwestern Oregon, not far from the coast. It is situated west of Salem thirty-five miles, just south of Fort Yamhill, where our distinguished Lieutenant-General Sheridan was stationed before the “General” was appended to the “Lieutenant.” Monday morning the Indian agent for Indians off reserves (he is called in this country “One-arm Brown,”) appeared by the side of Wameketa [Chemeketa] hotel at Salem with a strong, high, two-seated wagon, drawn by two good horses. Major Wm. H. Boyle, Inspector of Indian Supplies, and the writer mounted into our places.

Oregon Reservation map 1875

We went through the town of Dallas, turned upon a ridge near Sheridan. The extent of the wheat fields surprised me. Fort Yamhill was reached by our tired horses by a mile of ascent at the close of a long and hard road for them. When we reached the top of the hill, the former site of the fort, and looked west and south, what an evening prospect was before us! A Beautiful panoramic view of a cultivated valley apparently surrounded by a shore line of hills- it is like an extended lake with swelling waves – but the waves are only the rising and falling of the rolling prairie. It is the “Grande Ronde Reservation.”

What houses are those all along the sides of this valley as far as the eye can reach, many of them evidently new? Mr. Brown says they all belong to the Indians! Their farms have been allotted them, and they are improving rapidly. It filled my heart with joy to see these evidences of civilization, even here where I had learned the poor people had been so often plundered of means that the government has appropriated to their benefit: even here where their women had been corrupted, and where all their education had been withholden! It was two miles and a half to the agency buildings. The old road had been converted into land, and the new one not yet worked and fenced. The agency doctor conducted us through the lanes, fields, swamps and road to the agent’s house.

Mr. P.B. Sinnott, the agent, is an Irishman. He gave us a warm-hearted welcome to his house. The suddenness of our arrival, without premonition, might have disturbed anybody. The raising of the flag in the twilight, and a regular “Brigadier salute” by a piece of artillery, told the Indians that a “Tyee” had come. Looking north from the porch of Mr. Sinnott’s house, you notice, a fine new building a hundred yards distant. It is the new schoolhouse, with accommodations for a hundred scholars. Just beyond I saw a larger old building, with a small belfry and cross upon it; this was the Catholic Church. To my left, and not more than fifty yards off, was “the home,” where “the Sisters,” four in number, took care of the Indian girls who were scholars.

Two Sisters teach and two take care of the home. After a nice warm supper, an evening chat with Mrs. Sinnott, and a good sleep, we find ourselves ready Tuesday morning for further observations. We accompanied the agent to several Indian houses; these had generally two main rooms and a kitchen- the bed-rooms, with one well-made bed in each, were neat. I noticed in one where there was a baby, a curious little basket-cradle, as broad as it was long, but having in it a clean linen sheet. The clothing in the house was tidy; the walls of the sitting-room papered with pictures taken from pictorial papers. Nearly every head of a family had a wagon, plow and horses. Before ten a.m. we returned to visit the school. In the first room next to the hall we found the two Sisters and the girls arranged around the room from right to left according to size – the eldest. On the right, probably fifteen, and the youngest, on the left, four or five years of age. They were all as neat as any little girls, with clean faces and hands, and having on plain, comfortable woolen dresses. I heard them recite, at the request of one of the Sisters, in reading, spelling, geography, etc. They all answered me in good English and read and recited well. The boys, who live at home, have not the staid manners of the girls and were not so well clad; but I thought they read and recited well as well.  The singing of welcome, by both boys and girls struck me, as it always does among the Indian children as a little sad- a kind of plaintive wail. God grant that it by not prophetic of a sorrowful life before them! May not a remnant of these be saved, and so saved as to participate in the joys of salvation?

Grand Ronde Reservation, Hazen Map 1856

Father Croquet, a Belgian Priest, was there. He has a happy, Christian face, and all love him. I do not think he draws the broad line that we do between the converted and the unconverted. I tried to learn from him if many of the elder Indians had really found the Saviour. He answered that many of them were careful in their conduct and sincere. From the schoolroom we went to the agency office near the “children’s home.” Here the Indians wished me to talk to them. I did so, expressing my gratification at the school, the farms, the evident progress of the people of the several tribes here gathered. One after another the Indians made answer. The younger Indians could speak plain English, but for fear the old ones would not understand them, they all talked the Chinook, or “Jargon,” as they call the language, and had it interpreted to me.

Polygamy has almost ceased among them. Nothing seems to offend them so much as the wicked attempts of certain white men to get their wives away from them. They thanked me over and over again for my visit and my words to them. Some white men nearby had said they were no better than wild Indians. “You can see,” they said, “we dress like you, we have a school and a church, we have houses and lands, teams and plows; we are no longer ‘wild Indians.’” At noon we bade these people adieu, feeling a new impulse in our hearts to do and say what we can for the policy which educates and civilizes the remnant of the red men of this country. A visit to this reservation presents you with plain facts- facts with reference to the dark past when honesty, chastity and humanity, did not belong to the prevailing policy, – facts with reference to the present when the church, the school, the saw mill, land allotment and honest teaching and dealing are made the successful means of raising up a people to thrift, industry and independence. It is Catholic teaching, faithful and continuous; let our Protestant brethren and sisters not be behind these good and faithful servants of the Lord.

O.O. Howard, Portland, Oregon

Howard’s letter was used as proof that the Catholic Mission was doing the job of assimilation of the Grand Ronde people to civilization. His notation of past problems, relate to the many issues from 1856 to 1871 where the tribes were not treated well by Indian agents and their foods were many times stolen and sold to benefit the agents, and shipments of supplies and funding from the government were not very consistent. His discussion of this history is quite interesting as normally no federal officials write about these issues publicly so that the comments cannot be used as proof of the government’s wrongdoing. (I wonder if there is a secret report in the military department about this?) But then many of these issues are quite apparent if he were to go back and read the annual reports of the reservation.

In 1878, there were fears that somehow the Indian wars with the Bannock and Nez Perce Indians would cause the Natives at the Grand Ronde reservation to become violent. “The Indian war.(Nez Perce and Bannock)..has caused an uneasiness in the minds of some of the whites in the counties bordering upon this agency (Grand Ronde), which is augmented so some extent by an affray which occurred in the month of June 1878, at the mouth of Salmon River, some thirty miles from this agency, between a white man and an Indian, and which resulted in the death of both the Indian and white man. From this cause I have been compelled to keep the Indians more closely upon this reservation, and not permit them to seek employment elsewhere” (Reports of the Agents in Oregon 1878, 113).

Indeed General Howard was called upon to quell early tensions in the Wallowa valley between whites and the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce in 1876 had a reservation there, but since gold had been found there in 1861, whites constantly encroached on the valley. This caused numerous conflicts, with no repercussions for the whites, and several reductions of the Nez Perce Reservation, causing addendums to their treaty.

 “(Joseph said) that it was true one of his brothers had been killed by whites in Wallowa Valley; that the Indian who was killed was much respected by the tribe, and was always considered a quiet, peaceable, well-disposed man; that the white who killed him were bad and quarrelsome men, and the aggressive party; that the whites in the valley were instigated by those in authority,  and others in Grande Ronde Valley (Eastern Oregon), to assault and injure the Indians while fishing and hunting in that section of country; that he wished the white man who killed the Indian brought to the agency to be there confronted with his accusers.”

(Abridgment ... Containing the Annual Message of the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress ... with Reports of Departments and Selections from Accompanying Papers
...Reports of the Secretary of War  1877,  293) 

2 thoughts on “General Howard Visits Grand Ronde, 1876

  1. Thank you for this. Very Interesting. It seems to me Howard was trying to address anti-Catholic sentiment by praising the work he saw at this mission. In Portland, he was trying to address anti-Chinese racism at this same time.

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