J. Ross Browne Investigation as Reported to the SF Herald, 1857

Special Indian Agent J. Ross Browne famously came to the Northwest reservations in 1857 and wrote reports of the conditions of the tribes on the reservations. The following appears to be the results of Browne speaking with a reporter in San Francisco for the Herald in October 1857. Revealed are additional details of the reservations and his interactions with tribes and tribal chiefs, with whom he held councils with.

Sacramento Daily Union October 16, 1857


Our readers will be interested in a perusal of the following account of the present condition of the Indian tribes in Oregon and Washington Territories. The information was communicated to the San Francisco Herald by J. Ross Browne, who has just returned from an expedition undertaken in August for the purpose of examining into and reporting upon the causes of the war and the condition of the Indian service on our Northern Pacific coast — a duty for which he was detailed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. We select some of the more important portions of the narrative.

Investigations were first commenced among the Indians around Puget Sound. Mr. Browne represents the Yakemas and Clickitats as the most formidable of the Cascade range of Indians. They are now in a state of quasi-hostility; but there is no reason at present to apprehend an open outbreak. Of the condition of the country in that vicinity, he says :

On the road from Cowlitz leading to Olympia, the most depressing evidences are found at every step of the disastrous effects of war. Houses are abandoned and falling into ruin, the farms are lying waste, fences are breaking down, and those of the settlers who still remain have in most cases fortified themselves with pickets and blockhouses. This has taken place, too, in a part of the country somewhat remote from the actual scene of warfare.

[Puyallup Begins]

At the Puyallup Reservation, some 460 Indians are gathered. The visit to this place ma made during the last days of August. The narrative remarks :

These Indians are very poor and degraded looking race, and are now suffering much from sickness. The same epidemic which has just passed through California has attacked all the Puget Sound Indian, and has caused many deaths. In some cases it assumes the form of an influenza, in others that of pneumonia and lung fever. It has been so fatal among the Indians on the Reservations that they attribute it to “bad medicine” sent among them by the white men, and this gives rise to great difficulty on the part of the Agents in controlling them. Some twelve or fifteen good houses have been built for the Indians on the Puyallup, but as yet they are reluctant to occupy them. Only a few acres of potatoes have been raised by Indian labor, and to induce them to work, even for themselves, the Agent is compelled to hire them at the rate of $1 per day for each man. Unless partially fed this winter, they will either starve or quit the Reservation. Very little progress has been made in cultivating the soil at the Nisqually reservation. The Indians there are included under the treaty of Medicine Creek, (the only treaty made by Governor Stevens which has yet been ratified) they consider that Government is bound to take care of them, and will not work unless well paid for their labor. This system of paying the Indians for supporting themselves is very properly condemned, but it is believed that no remedy can be applied until all the treaties are ratified, and the tribes concentrated on one reservation, with a sufficient military force to control them. Among other places visited were the following:

At Port Townsend there were but one hundred Indians, of the Clalm tribe. There are one thousand one hundred in all, at that point and Dunganess, when gathered in. The agent introduced the party to the Great Chief, the “Duke of York,” who lives with his wives, ” Queen Victoria ” and ” Jenny Lind,”‘ in a wigwam on the beach. The Duke was very drunk, and so were Jenny Lind and Queen Victoria— so much go, indeed, as to be incapable of holding a wa-wa. Another visit was made several days after, and the whole family were drunk. The vices of intoxication are rapidly taking off the Sound Indians. In the cruise around the Mores, whiskey boats could be Men at every point; but there seems to be no legal process by which the venders can be punished, unless caught in the act, and then no jury will convict the offenders. Repeated efforts have been made to enforce the laws, but without effect. Next visited Bellingham Bay. Col Fitzhugh is Indian Agent at this point, and has control of the Lummas [Lummi], Nortsacks [Nooksack], and Spanish, numbering 1,262. They are peaceable and well disposed, and gain a good living by fishing, hunting, and gathering berries. Colonel F. has been forced to retreat to a blockhouse, for the preservation of himself and men from the Northern Indians. The hands work the coal mines during the day, but at night sleep in the blockhouse. A short time since, these Northerners came down in a large canoe, and made a reconnaissance of the premises. Next day they sent word to Colonel Fitzhugh that they had carefully examined his defenses, and as he appeared to be a Tyhee, they intended to take the blockhouse and his head, on the next visit.

The same Indians visited the picket fort, five miles from Bellingham Bay, and notified Col. Pickett, the officer in command, that they would soon take his head as a trophy, which they much desired. Col. P. found means to send them word that he would be happy to deliver to them any amount of grape and cannister, but that his head-piece was an indispensable appendage, with which it would be very inconvenient for him to part.

Mr. Browne continues: At the Squosion reservation, on Klatchemin Island, at the entrance of Budd’s Inlet, several Indian houses have been erected, but no Indians are living in them at present. A small patch of ground has been cultivated, and a blacksmith shop and school established, under the treaty of Medicine Creek. No progress has been made in educating the children, it being impossible to enforce attendance; and apart from this, where presents have been made to induce the children to attend, they unlearn by night what they learn by day.

[Grand Ronde beginning]

One of the results of this tour among the Indians of Washington Territory, was the discovery of indubitable evidence of the existence of a combination between the tribes east and west of the Cascades, as far as Southern Oregon, to kill the whites by one united effort, long prior to the Council at Walla-Walla, and preceding the Rogue River war of 1853. In summing up all the testimony obtained by the expedition, the conclusion is irrestible that unless the pending treaties are ratified, and some speedy effort made to concentrate and conciliate the Indians, another war is liable at any time to break out. The expedition proceeded from Washington Territory, overland through Oregon, and in regard to the Indian population of the latter Territory, we have the following: At the Grande Ronde Reservation, situated 30 miles from Salem, and about 25 from the coast, a council of the principal Chiefs was called, and a long talk held over the affairs of the various tribes. Here are collected about 1,000 Indians, comprising a small part of the Rogue Rivers, the confederated tribes of Umpquas and Calapovias [Calapooias], the Molallies, Willamettes, etc. Only about forty out of the whole number are engaged at any kind of work. Notwithstanding all the difficulties encountered, however, the agent has built nearly one hundred houses, and laid under cultivation some 2,320 acres of land, which would have aided materially in supporting them this winter, but for the drought and partial failure of the crops. No difficulty, however, is apprehended, as there is an ample supply of provisions on hand for their support. At the council, or wa-wa, the Chief complained of bad faith on the part of the Government, in not paying them their annuities ; also of the bad climate of the Grand Ronde, where they say they are all dying. This is true to some extent, owing to change of climate and the prevailing influenza, which has assumed a very malignant form at this place.

[Siletz Beginning]

Proceeding thence sixty miles, by the way of Fort Haskins [Hoskins], the Siletz Reservation was next visited. This is quite a new place, and contains the largest body of Indians brought together in either Territory, consisting of the Rogue Rivers, Shastas, and Coast Indians, as far south as Rogue river, under treaties, besides various other tribes with whom treaties have been made, but never ratified. Unlike the soil of the Grand Ronde, which is of a cold and poor quality, the Siletz embraces some of the best land in Oregon Territory, and is but six miles from the head of the navigable waters of Taquinna [Yaquinna] Bay.

Various other localities were visited, and efforts were made to conciliate a friendly feeling among the Indians, and to initiate measures for the improvement of their condition. They express much dissatisfaction at the non-ratification of treaties, which they attribute to bad faith on the part of the government.

In regard to the chief causes of the late war, the investigation has elicited a variety of interesting testimony, some of it dating back to 1850, at which time Congress appointed a commission to treat with the tribes west of the Cascades. We quote the following:

The Commission made certain treaties; at Shamprag [Champoeg], but gave the Indians some of the best land in the Willamette Valley. The settlers protested, and the treaties were never ratified. At this time, the Clickatats had conquered all the inferior tribes of the Willamette Valley, and held a sort of possessory right as far south as the Calapovia [Calapooia] mountains. They were driven north of the Columbia, and no recompense made them for the deprivation of the rights which they had acquired by conquest. They united with the Yakemas, who were equally disaffected, and finally spread the war feeling among the Sound Indians, the Cayuses and Walla-Wallas— all of whom were more or less apprehensive of being overcome by the whites, Lechi, the famous Nisqually chief, made speeches throughout the country among the various tribes, and went as far south as Rogue river to gain adherents. He it was who invented the terrible story of Polaky Illeha or the Land of Darkness a fearful place, where he said the while men were going to send all the Indians; where the sun never shone, and where the mosquitos were so big that a single bite would kill the strongest man. The Clickatats crossed the Cascade, and concerted with the Rogue river, Shastas and other powerful tribes a general plan of warfare.

The war debt of Oregon, as passed upon by the Commissioners, has reached the round sum of $3,500,000— making, with that of Washington Territory, $5,000,000. Nor does this include any of the claims which will hereafter be presented to Congress for spoliations, being only for actual services rendered, and supplies actually furnished.

Interestingly, the above story has a urban legend, mythology, invented to justify keeping the tribes on the reservations. The notion that they were going to join together in a larger confederation and attack the white Americans. This theory passed to the media as editorials, would have been sufficiently fearsome enough to cause the whites to approve of any inhumane treatment of the tribes, including removal and imprisonment on reservations. Then the idea that the best lands were given to the tribes is just not true in the slightest. Finally, the story of the conquest of the Kalapuyans is something that the Klickitats believed but the Indian Agents knew better who really owned the land. The use of Chinuk Wawa in the story is very interesting, it would have been a common enough language even as far south as Sacramento and San Francisco to use it in a newspaper story with a conviction that most people would understand the words Tyhee (Chief) and Wa wa (talk).

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 14, Number 2046, 16 October 1857

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