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Major Benjamin Alvord discusses Eastern Oregon Settlement, 1853

In 1853, the former Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Oregon Anson Dart had been forced to resign as none of his nineteen treaties with the tribes were ratified. Joel Palmer took this position in late May. Palmer was already a well-healed politician, and probably knew most people in Oregon at the time, and had previously had many dealings with the tribes. In the summer of 1853 Palmer was engaged with trying to get a  handle on the many issues with the tribes, mainly those in Southern Oregon captivated his attention. The months before his appointment the US Army was the only federal authority in Oregon. Without an official from the Department fo the Interior, the army was responsible for any problems with the tribes. We may think that this would mean brutal treatment fo the tribes, but the following letter by Major Benjamin Alvord, stationed in the Dalles exhibits quite a bit of sympathy and intelligence and wisdom about the settler and Indians of Oregon and how the Federal laws were in some disagreement with the rights of the tribes. Alvord here is seeking actions by Congress and perhaps the Department of the Interior to justify his question about American settlement and wished to follow the law which was in serious conflict in eastern Oregon. As he states, there were some twelve thousand white settlers who arrived in the last year and he was having to dissuade them from settling in the eastern region of Oregon, because of a lack of federal law regulating this.

I would argue with Alvord’s statements because he is assumed that the western region was open for settlement. That even though there were federal laws in the Oregon Territory that approved of settlement, that these were illegitimate rights given to Americans previous to the ratification of the treaties with tribes. During the time of Alvord’s query, there were not ratified treaties in Oregon, for the Western or Eastern regions, and so without a legal framework to transfer the land in place, even settlement in the western region was against the rights of the sixty (60) or so tribes occupying this region.

But, Alvord does exhibit some fairly complex understanding of U.S. federal laws, which suggests that he was well educated and that there was a good communications structure of new federal laws being passed. His question is forwarded to Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War (yes that Davis!), and then to the Department of the Interior and Secretary Mclelland. This communications network suggests that every administrator in the U.S. Government from those in the field to the highest offices were well aware of the inconsistency of federal laws and legislation and when they failed to act to control U.S. citizens and protect Indian land rights, they knew they were committing injustices and were operating outside of the law. But as Indian land rights were not a real concern of the Federal government they simply ignored the issues. This communication may have prompted the DOI Secretary Mclelland to appoint Joel Palmer to Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Oregon. Palmer was the right man, with the right experience, already have been living in the territory for ten years, a very moral person who would negotiate the treaties appropriately. The legal purchase of the land of the tribes would then clean up the history of illegal acts by white American emigrants. Palmer was successful, negotiating the majority of Oregon tribal treaties, which was the legal framework for transferring the lands. But, thinking back, there never was any attempt to appropriately pay back the tribes of Oregon for some two decades or more of illegal settlement in the Territory by Americans, where tribal peoples lost land, resources, and many, their lives in numerous conflicts.

(Other comments made intext.)

Fort Dalles


Headquarters Dalles of the Columbia, Oregon

31st  March 1853

Sir,

I conceive it to be my duty to submit through the general commanding the Pacific Division to the government my opinion of the importance of entering as soon as practicable into treaties with the Indians in Oregon w. of the Cascade Mountains, to extinguish the Indian title, setting apart such reservations for the Indians as may be deemed necessary there being no Indian Agent in this region ( and there had been none for months previous to my arrival in September last) the army regulations make it my duty to act in that capacity and thus it is proper for me to make this communication, if the peace of the frontier was not at stake.

Oregon is divided into two distinct parts by the chain of Cascade Mountains, high and almost impassable, running north and south and distant on an average about 130  miles from the Pacific Coast. By an act of Congress of the 5th June 1850 the President was authorized to cause negotiations to be made with the Indian tribes for the extinguishment of their claims to lands west of the Cascade Mountains. It would seem therefore to be conformable to custom (if not necessary) to obtain further legislation of Congress prior to the commencement of negotiations with the tribes east of those mountains. I hope such authority will be speedily obtained.

The Oregon land law of the 27 September 1850 provides for the donation of land to actual settlers and for the survey and confirmation of their claims west of the Cascade Mountains.

[Without a legal purchase of the land, even western settlement was illegal]

But it is contended that the 4th section of said act actually encourages such settlement in the whole Territory, although Congress makes in this act no provision for surveying and confirming the claims for such settlement except those on the west of said mountains.

Squatters east of those mountains assert the right to settle and to a donation, only acknowledging that they must wait further legislation of Congress to obtain a survey and confirmation of said claims.

On the other hand in a proviso to the 1st section of the Act of 14th of August 1848, to establish the Territorial government of Oregon it is “provided that nothing in this act contained shall be so construed as to impair the right of persons or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty, law or otherwise, which it would have been consistent to the government to make if this act had never passed.” The sixth section of said act in reference to the legislative power of said Territory provides that “no law shall be passed interfering with the primary disposal of the soil.”

[This is the Oregon provisional government’s version of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.)

I would respectfully submit whether under these laws this portion of the Territory is to be considered open to settlement by the whites, before any treaties have been effected with the Indians.

It is my duty to prevent so far as possible, settlements by the whites in this portion of Oregon and to compel them to settle west of the Cascade Mountains.

The act of June 5th 1850 provides that “the law regulating trade and intercourse with the Indian Tribes, or such provisions of the same as may be applicable, be extended over the Indian Tribes in the Territory of Oregon.” Does this law deny the right of settlement in this region, or require me to prevent the introduction of ardent spirits upon the emigrant road where the whites make a transit in both directions?

[See the US Trade and Intercourse Acts, all of which have Indian trade provisions, that regulated trade between states and across federal borders, like between federal Indian reservations and states]

It is proper that I should state that the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Oregon informed me that he sought a year or more since explicit instructions upon these contested points, but has not received any. In the meantime, he and his agents have only told the squatters that they must be careful to be on good terms with the Indians.

The legislature of this Territory recently asserted a right to organize a county in this part of Oregon. The Act did not pass, but only lays over to the next session.

[This may be Wasco Co. (1854) which covered originally all of eastern Oregon, Idaho, and part of Montana]

The number of emigrants arriving in the whole Territory last year was probably about twelve thousand. The donation law has, by a recent act of Congress, been extended two years in its operation. The effect will be to stimulate and increase the immigration. Many emigrants stopped in this region last year, more will remain this season. It is said indeed that this summer many are coming up from lower Oregon with a view to a settlement. It cannot be disguised that it would be quite impracticable wholly to prevent such settlements, if it were desirable to do so.

[there may have been a white flight from the “Indian” Rogue River conflicts in S. Oregon, and when gold miners failed to strike it rich after the Oregon gold rush. By this time too there was a southern route into Oregon on the Applegate Trail.]

My chief object in making this statement and presentation of contested questions is to exhibit the importance of negotiations being speedily made with the Indian east of the Cascade Mountains.

Many of the tribes from the day of the entrance of Lewis and Clark into the country to the present hour have been extremely friendly to the Americans and deserve kind and considerate treatment at their hands. Others could be easily provoked into war. Collisions are likely to occur unless a wise foresight shall diminish their number and prevent them by an explicit understanding by treaty.

I have the honor to be

Very respectfully

Your Obt. Servt.

Brvt. Major Benj. Alvord

Capt. Infantry

To: Brvt. Major E.D. Townsend

Ass. Adjt. General, Pacific Division

San Francisco, Cala.

*Forwarded April 27, 1853 to :

Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War

*Forwarded May 31, 1853 to:

Hon. R. McClelland, Secretary of the Interior

Brigadier General Benjamin Alvord (1813-1884)


The depth of understanding exhibited by Alvord is very good for his day. It is quite amazing that this question of land rights of the tribes and the settlers did not become a major subject in Oregon history books. As well there remain outstanding issues between the tribes and the federal government over unresolved problems from the taking of tribal lands and resources and the death of their people. This suite of issues has never been effectively dealt with by the United States, or by Americans who benefitted greatly by getting free land at the expense of tribal peoples and their rights to lands and resources.


Alvord’s letter is in RG75, M234, roll 608

Categories: colonization eastern oregon General History Oregon indians Rogue Valley treaties

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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.

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