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Preparing for Purchase, First Indian Agent in Coos Bay, 1853

When Joel Palmer was appointed to Superintendent of Indian Affairs in May 1853 he had a good working knowledge of the tribes but had never visited the southern Oregon coast. He began to scope out and plan how southwestern Oregon was to be managed as there were numerous tribes in that region. His first effort was to halt the Rogue River War which was raging in the area of the gold mines of southern Oregon. Palmer teamed up with General Joe Lane to bring the war to a swift end with a treaty of peace (9/8/1853) and a treaty of purchase (9/10/1853) for the Rogue River tribes. This was quickly followed by a Treaty of Purchase (9/19/1853) for the Cow Creek band of Umpqua Indians.

The treaties paused the war and then Palmer had to manage the tribes on the newly created Table Rock Reservation. He already had Samuel Culver as the Indian Agent of the Rogue River District, with oversight of all of southwestern Oregon, from the California border to the Callapooya Mountains, and from the Oregon Coast to the summit of the Cascade Range. This oversite included the future sub-agencies of the Umpqua River and Coos Bay, the Port Orford Subagency which managed the coast from the Coquille River to the California border. These district and subagency boundaries would change over time.

Belden 1855, Umpqua and Kalapuya section of the map showing Umpqua reservation, NARA

By late September, 1853, Palmer appointed William Martin to be the sub-Indian Agent of the Umpqua River and Coos Bay District. Martin did not report to Culver, but reported directly to Palmer during his time, even though this may have been technically incorrect for the chain of command.  Palmer chose on many occasions to take a personal interest in all manner of issues in Oregon even though he had the agents appointed, and in many ways, this may have caused delays in services as he stepped on the toes of his appointed agents. Still, he was ultimately responsible for everything and clearly, the buck stopped with him. Events were happening rapidly in the districts and Palmer had a huge purview, all of Western Oregon, all of the Washington Territory, all of eastern Oregon, and all the way to Montana as he had agents reports of difficulties in Puget Sound, at Fort Simco, at Fort Boise, and all of the Columbia River. This is perhaps the largest district, by area and number of tribes, of any federal Indian Agent of his time.

General outline of the Umpqua Subagency (orange) within the Rogue River District (yellow), the Port Orford Subagency is on the Coast, DGLewis 4/4/2020

The following letters and excerpts of letters show how Palmer knew very little about the Coos Bay area. he asked for and received reports from martin and made out two sets of orders to martin about how to address the tribes and on working to get them to agree to sign away their lands. The emphatic statements of Coos people agreements to sell the land are a bit hollow. Martin describes the Coos culture twice in these letters and he basically concluded that they are purely fisherpeople and did not hunt. So it is an interesting question whether they appear to have not cared much for the land, and cared more about the bay, and that there does not seem to be a deep enough description of what this actually means, except that they appear to be willing to sell the land at any time.

1850s GLO map of Coos Bay and upper river

Martin and Palmer were supposed to meet up in February or March 1854, but this never happened. The emergency Martin concludes was not real. likely the emergency stemmed from the Coquille massacre which had happened a month earlier and causes much strife in the Coquille river native because of a massacre of their kinsmen by white gold miners. The imperfect news sources likely assumed that this would become a larger conflagration and sent out a call for assistance in the region to stop the tribes from exacting retribution in a larger war between gold miners and the confederated tribes of the region.

The urgency for Palmer would be to quickly settle the land purchase and get the Coos onto a reservation to administer them and keep them from a confederation of warlike allies. Unfortunately for this time period, Palmer had no orders to negotiate a treaty and so doing so would have been an illegal undertaking. Palmer made a mistake later in 1854 and negotiated the Tualatin treaty, which was never ratified because he had no authority to do so.


September 21st 1853

I desire that you will visit the Indians on Coose River and around Coose Bay immediately and endeavor to peaceably incline them and if necessary to preserve peace make them a few presents.


Oct 14th 1853

On my arrival at Co-ose Bay I proceeded to ascertain the disposition of the Co-ose Indians. I found them entirely friendly to the whites. I could not talk but little with them on account of none of them being able to speak the jargon. The Co-ose Bay Company deserve much credit for the good judgement that they have shown in their proceedings with these Indians, never promising them any thing which they have not performed.

The Co-ose Indians are all enjoying fine health they are stout and robust men. I was not able to ascertain their number on account of not being able to talk with them as I would like to have done. I made them no presents, as I thought it was not necessary until such a time as I would be able to talk with them.

I have found an Umpqua Indian who speaks the Co-ose and jargon well. All that I wanted is some goods, shirts, blankets and a few pieces of calico.

They are anxious to sell their lands, and make a  small reserve to live on. They live entirely by fishing and don’t wish to remove at present. They claim all of the country commencing at Ten Mile Creek ten miles south of the mouth of the Umpqua, down the coast to near the Coquille River, then back to the summit of the Coast Range of mountains which will include all of the Co-ose Bay country. The country is mostly level and covered with Spruce, Fir, and white cedar, and contain an immense quantity of fine stone coal. The Co-ose country, in my opinion, will make one of the largest and richest country in Oregon. The soil is as rich as any land in the territory. The Bay is a beautiful sheet of water running back into the country, some twenty-five miles, completely landlocked. I could not learn the depth of the water on the bar at the mouth of the river.

I would propose buying the land of the Co-ose Indians as soon as possible – for the sooner the better for both whites & Indians, as it will no doubt save both trouble and expense; there is no doubt but all of our Indian difficulties in this country have their origin in behalf of the Indians believing that the whites intend taking their land from them without paying them for it, but when they find that not to be the case, they at once have the most implicit confidence in the white people; after their lands are bought all that is needed is never to deceive them in the first instance, for if they ever lose confidence in the whites it is a very hard matter to get them to replace that confidence again.

W.T. Martin Special Agent

[RG 75 M234 r 608]


November 4th 1853

I do not now recollect whether I officially informed you that I had on my way from Rogue River deemed it essential to appoint a special agent to visit the Indians in Co-oose Valley immediately.

Notwithstanding this and Umpqua Valleys had been included in your Agency District, from the unsettled condition of the Indian in the Rogue River Valley I believed it prudent to call you from that valley this fall, and as I received information requiring an Agent to visit that part of the country at once I deputed Mr. Wm I Martin to proceed to Co-oose bay and endeavor to affect an arrangement by which peace might be maintained. He accordingly did so, and has reported that those Indians are friendly disposed towards whites and that he does not apprehend any serious difficulty in maintaining friendly relations with them. I have also directed him to visit the Indians in Umpqua and keep them quiet… In my annual report I have recommended the location of an additional Sub-agency to include the valleys of Umpqua and Co-oose….

Joel Palmer to Samuel Culver, Rogue River Indian Agent

RG75 M2, R 3]


January 23 1854

According to your request, I herewith transmit a statement of the number, location, and condition of the Indian tribes in the Oregon territory west of the Cascade Mountains.

Coose Indians

Thes Indians occupy a country watered by a river of the same name and around Coose bay at its mouth, which opens into the ocean twenty five miles south of the Umpqua. They are friendly to the whites and number some two hundred. It is said they are anxious to sell their country but desire to reside in it.

Joel Palmer to George MannyPenny, Commissioner of Indian Affairs

[RG75 M2 R4]


January 29 1854

I have just received a letter from home which compels me to start home immediately, without seeing you. I have learned that there is a great dissatisfaction among the Coose Bay Indians. I will start for Coose bay soon after I hear from you, after I arrive at home. It is necessary for me to have some presents to give the Indians, to make them reconciled for the whites to make settlements among them. I therefore think you would do well to send me a letter of instructions authorizing me to buy two or three hundred dollars worth of blankets, shirts, pants etc. for the use of the Indians at Coose bay and the vicinity. By this means I shall be able to quiet the present dissatisfaction of those Indians.

Martin to Palmer

February 8th 1854

Your letter of the 29th Ult. has been received. With reference to the settlement of difficulties in the vicinity of Coose Bay, I would say that from information received prior to the reception of your letter, I had deemed the state of affairs in that region such as demanded immediate action in regard to definitive and permanent arrangements with these tribes. I have accordingly determined to visit the Indians on Coose Bay and River as also those on Coquille and. if practicable, those in the vicinity of Port Orford with a view to some conventional arrangement for the purchase of their lands and securing their consent to remove to some district or districts to be hereafter fixed upon for their permanent abode.

I therefore desire you to make arrangements to meet, me at Coose Bay with an Interpreter. Mr. McGruder will be a suitable person for that duty, and as you mentioned an Indian who spoke Jargon well and understood the language in use in that vicinity you will endeavor to obtain his service…. I will purchase goods at Portland and ship directly to Coose Bay or Randolph City, which is situated I understand a few miles away.

I am convinced that unless measures are taken immediately to establish proper relations with the tribes on our southwestern coast, much difficulty, and perhaps a protracted war will be the result….if we could arrive and collect the Indians and do all our business without our object’s being known to any persons, as a knowledge of it would, necessarily induce many persons to congregate, and might have an influence adverse to the one desired.

In the event you should reach Coose Bay before my arrival, you will proceed to collect such information as it may be important to possess, preparatory to entering into a treaty of purchase, among which will be their location and boundaries; the character and value of their country claimed by them; the number of men women and children; their mode of subsistence; their feelings in relation to leaving the country, and the kind of goods most desired by them. Although I do not desire you should collect them before my arrival, it may not be amiss to apprise them of my intended visit. without stating positively the object for which the visit is intended, but that it will depend very much on their willingness to conform to such regulations as may be deemed most conducive to their permanent good.

Should any portion of the tribe reside at a great distance from a central position or point of assembling them, you will advise them to be in readiness so as to assemble at short notice.

Palmer to Martin

[RG75 M2 R4]


April 9th 1854

In accordance with your letter of Febry 13th I left this place for Coose Bay taking with me Mr. McGruder and an Indian by the name of Jo as my interpreter, and arrived at Coose Bay Febry 27th and proceeded to see all the Indians on the Bay and informed them that I looked for you to be there in a short time. and when you came it would be necessary for them all to meet you at some convenient place, and then it would be necessary for them to listen to you in all things.

The Indians seemed reluctant in giving their numbers on account of their superstitious notions; thought after satisfying them that it was absolutely necessary that they should let their numbers be known, they very readily gave the number of men in their band, and the other band gave the number of their women and children, never the less I found means to ascertain very near the number of women and children.

The Coose Bay Indians subsist entirely by fishing-they have no idea of hunting and in fact hardly ever leave the Bay, and they are entire strangers to hunger. They are even anxious to sell their land. they claim all of the land commencing at the lake near the Coast some twenty miles south of the mouth of the Umpqua River. Thence running back to the summit of the Coast Range of Mountains which will make their country about thirty five miles square including: all Coose Bay, which is by and far the finest bay in all Southern Oregon. Numerous coal beds are found in the immediate vicinity. The Coose Indians are a decidedly unwarlike people. They are almost entirely unarmed. All they seem to want is merely to be left alone at their lodges. They are free of diseases. You will see from their number that they are not to be dreaded.

After  waiting at Coose one month for your arrival and hearing nothing from you and having fully satisfied myself that all of the complaints from Coose were false, on my first visit to the Ranch I told the chief that before I left they should have some things in part pay for their land, and consequently before leaving, I bought of Allan McKinlay and Co. One hundred and fifty four dollars worth of goods which I divided amongst the Indians and made out an abstract of the articles which I forward to you. I am well aware that I have no instructions to make the purchase. but believing that good faith required that they should have some articles. I am in hopes you will find it right and assume the payment of the amount.

I also forward the Bill of articles. It costs a round sum to travel from here to Coose and back which I hope you will allow me for myself and Mcgruder and Indian. You will perceive nothing for horse hire. I shall forward to you the Bill of my expenses to Coose bay and back which if the government does not allow to me it will be a serious loss to me… I should have been quite relieved to have met you at Coose Bay, but feeling confident that it was no fault of yours that you did not reach Coose. You will please write me and let me know what the pay of a Sub-Agent is in Oregon.

One thing I have nearly forgot that is, a few days before leaving Coose Bay there was a difficulty happening in Coose River with a Band of Indians thirty five in number, which resulted in three of them being killed by whites. It seems from all information that the Indians first aimed a gun at a Mr. Johnson. I notified Mr. Johnson that he would have to appear before the District Court in July next then and there to have the matter legally investigated.

Martin to Palmer

[RG75 M2 R4]


Reading these letters in order helps get a sense of the thought patterns of Palmer and Martin in this period. Palmer was incredibly busy and was single-minded about his duties of signing treaties and buying lands. He had little time for a region that had no uprisings, like Umpqua, unlike those tribes on the Columbia, in eastern Oregon and with the Rogue Rivers. As well, he was working to understand whether Samuel Culver had taken advantage of his position and stolen federal funds or used the Indians at Table Rock in deceptive ways. There was at least one case, about using the Indians to grow and sell hay, against Culver which caused Palmer to relieve him of his duties. Palmer was constantly low on funds and needed more and more help to run affairs in his vast Oregon Indian District. This caused him to stand up Martin in Coos Bay without explanation immediately forthcoming.

The Coos Bay Indians we get very little understanding of. there are some interesting ethnographic descriptions from Martin. The fact that they seemed to only be fisherpeople alters perhaps a perception of the culture from that of the culture in later times after they are placed on temporary reservations for some 17 years. The Coos Bay tribe did sign onto the 1855 Coast Treaty and for a short time were placed on a small reservation at Empire in Coos Bay. Then they were moved north to the Umpqua estuary and were placed on the Umpqua reservation for at least 6-7 years. From there they were moved to Yachats within the Coast reservation until 1877. They were finally released from the Alsea Reservation: Yachats subagency and told to either go to Siletz ie: Salmon River encampment, or leave.

Most chose to leave and tried to return home, eventually reintegrating with the new American towns now established on top of the tribal villages within Coos Bay. The Coos people were never fairly paid for their lands, the treaty was never ratified,  and they still remain today in Coos bay, now a restored tribe who continues to fight for their rights, to restore their culture, and protect the health of their home, the bay.

Categories: coos bay General History Oregon Coast Oregon indians treaties Umpqua Valley

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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.

4 replies

  1. This was really interesting, thank you. I wonder if the town of Tenmile on Hwy 42 got its name the same way as Tenmile Creek did. I’m not sure if its geographical location is correct. I used to live near there, and often wondered where its name came from.
    George Wasson was in a class with me at the University, and he used to talk a lot about the Coos people and their loss of tribal status and then its restoration.

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    1. Most of these ‘mile’ places were named so because they were X miles from some land mark or town someone thought was important. Tenmile Lake by Lakeside I guess got its name cuz it is 10 miles from either Coos Bay, I think. another early English name for it was Johnson Lake. It’s Coos name is Ske-ich, Lower Umpqua name Skanich.

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  2. I had seen one of Martin’s letters before. I doubt the Indians were eager to sell or understood what Martin was really saying. The impression I got from bits and pieces gleaned from interviews w/ Indians in ethnographic notes is that they wanted homes they could call their own. Fishing was tied to specific sites – villages on bay and sloughs, as well as upriver camps. Each village on the bay had an upriver fish camp connected to them. But hunting was important – if for no other reason than antlers, bone and sinew from elk and deer was necessary to make some of the fishing equipment (spears, hooks, etc).

    It was important enough that hunting was a reason annual burns were done – so things were ‘open’ to make for easier hunting. Also, enhancing plants for food and basketry.

    Of course Martin would not pick all that up in his brief visits and he only wanted to fit things in to his agenda i am sure – ‘sell’ that land.

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