Elijah White Romanticizes Oregon Tribal Peoples

Dr. Elijah White was a missionary and the first Indian sub-Agent of the Oregon territory. He was then (1837) part of Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission but had a falling out with Lee and left Oregon for the east. White returned in 1842 leading the first wagon train on the Oregon Trail. He was then appointed by the War Department to be a sub-Indian agent of the Oregon Territory.

The Indian Office was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1848 which caused a change in policy regarding the tribes. No longer were they first to be treated as an opposing set of nations to be made war on, but they were to first be negotiated with for their lands. This new Indian policy was a cost-cutting measure before any other reasoning because it would be cheaper in the long run to avoid war and the resulting outlays of cash and American lives, then to just move to purchase lands, which would have to happen anyway after a successful conquest. 

White was appointed to serve as a provisional government representative in the second Wolf meeting of 1843. Then he left Oregon for the east again to return in 1850 to organize Pacific City in the Washington Territory. While in the east White was an influential eyewitness spokesperson of conditions in Oregon Territory. The following letter was first published in eastern papers and then republished in the Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper in Oregon.

White had a gift of writing common in his day of painting rosy images of romantic positivity regarding the settlement of Oregon. His prose recalls the promise of Manifest Destiny, never really an official policy, but a righteous feeling carried by white settlers that they were the chosen people who would possess the West. Their actions of illegal occupation, discrimination, and racism against Native peoples, their disregard for previous settlement of the tribes and even assumption that everything they did was gladly and happily wanted by the tribes is really the tenor of White’s essay. By referring to their sanctified religious mission White glosses the horrible losses of the tribes from malaria, called fever and ague at the time, where some 95% of some tribal people died by 1835. This caused an immediate culture loss and opened opportunities for white settlement.

The positive progress the tribes were making toward farming and by extension civilization, is applauded by White, but the tribes had little choice but to take up the culture of the settlers. They were in the midst of being squeezed from their traditional lands and farming seemed to formally lay claim to lands. Their culture loss is even documented by White who writes about how they are turning from hunting to farming. Hunting options for the Oregon tribes were diminishing as white settlers were also avid hunters with their firearms. In addition, areas of Oregon were extensively well fortified with game animals and these were in areas with great farming soils as well. As land was taken from tribes and game hunted out tribes had to travel further and work harder to find food as more and more settlers crowded them from their traditional lands. In short, the changes for the tribes caused by settlement increased their need to find new ways to survive and they turned to the structures of the settlers as havens for their people.

It is very important when reading the letters from this period that we determine the background conditions which caused the changes being described, even when those changes and “advancements” seem to be in a positive direction, according to White settlers.

As well Dr. White’s attitudes toward their tribal spirituality is completely dismissive of the validity of their belief systems. It was true that by 1846 many tribal peoples were turning toward Christianity, but I wonder what forces were at play that made then do this. Clearly being Christian gave one more validity in the new society, and by being more accepted I would think the tribal folks would think they would be allowed to remain on their lands. It is also probable that many natives were simply adopting an air of Christianity in their appearances among whites, hoping to be accepted and left alone. Some indigenous groups commonly took to Christianity as a secondary religion while they kept their traditional religion and spirituality as primary.

Tribal leaders seemed to recognize early in colonization that the teachings of Christianity were very similar in some ways to Tribal religions in some areas. Later when tribes were removed to reservations and living very poorly, religious leaders rose, like Smohalla, who blended native spirituality with aspects fo Christianity to start new religions that were supposed to help people survive their losses using the dreamer religions. Indian Shakerism, Warm House, and Ghost dance all fall into this category of dreamer religions and they spread widely in the region beginning in the 1870s.

Read the following essay with a critical eye and try to imagine the hubris of the author.

Dr. Elijah White

Dr. Elijah White
Feb 9, 1846
Published November 12, 1846, Oregon Spectator No. 21
The Advancement made in civilization by numerous tribes of Indians in that remote and hitherto neglected portion of our territory with so few advantages, is a matter of surprise. Indeed the red man of that region would almost seem to be of a different order from those with whom we have been in more familiar intercourse. A few years since, the face of a white man was almost unknown to them. Now, through the benevolent policy of the various Christian churches, and the indefatigable exertions of the missions rise in their employ, they have prescribed and well-adapted rules for their government, which are observed and respected to a degree worthy of the most intelligent whites.

They are turning their attention to agricultural pursuits, and, with but few of the necessary utensils in their possession, already produce sufficient in some places to meet their every want. Among some of the tribes, hunting has been almost entirely abandoned- many individuals looking wholly to the soil for support. The lands are represented as extremely fertile, and the climate healthy, agreeable, and uniform.

But to the Christian churches and pious missionaries are we not alone indebted for our improved and advanced state in Oregon; for while I ascribe much to the pious exertions of those devoted missionaries, in our early struggles both for the whites and Indians, and regard their cause the highest and noblest that ever engaged the heads or hearts of men. Yet it is but just to say that through the benevolent policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a vast deal has been affected to better the condition of both whites and Indians in that territory. It was one of their chief traders that first taught the Kayuse tribe to look up through nature to Nature’s God for “light, truth, and heaven” and it was he too, who gave the first lessons and impulses to those poor red children of the forest in agriculture, which has been so successfully followed up by our esteemed friend Dr. Marcus Whitman, who with his intellectual lady, has been laboring with that interesting people for the last ten years. The tribes raise all the commodities peculiar to our western states, and live in a comfortable manner. Their country is a verdant and beautiful one, and their prospects for ultimate civilization encouraging. The Nesperoes [?] are, upon the whole, the brightest example of the beneficial influence of missionary labor in that part of the world; and I have much pleasure in bearing testimony so distinctly favorable to a cause of such disinterested benevolence as that which has produced so happy a change in the condition of that remarkable people.

Dr. White melds into his essay aspects of romanticism, his “red children of the forest”  are an attitude common for the time. It was common enough for white people to look down on natives as children without much sophistication. This became the motif that made it alright for the federal government to take away sovereign responsibilities from the tribes. Children certainly cannot be expected to manage their own affairs, and these affairs must then be handled for them, including a stifling set of policies and laws that disallowed Native peoples from ownership of land, control of their own tribes, management of money, etc. The assumption of their lack of sophistication is also behind the lack of authority given to tribal knowledge, oral history, and wisdom. Their philosophies were instead relegated to a status of beautified tales of the children of the forest living in harmony with nature and unsullied by the corrupting evils of civilization, an assumption of the pristine nature of tribal society. These are thoughts and feelings about tribal people that still exist today in our society.

These are the thoughts and sometimes dreams of not native peoples but white people desperately casting for someplace to belong. It is perhaps why there are so many Native emulators and appropriators today. It is truly amazing to read in the words of the “pioneers’ of Oregon such clearly romanticized thoughts towards the tribal peoples.

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