The subject of slavery in Oregon goes back to the first wave of settlers who came to the territory in 1844 and after. These first settlers combined with a few hardy souls who had arrived earlier and had been fur traders and explorers, formed the first territorial laws in a series of Wolf meetings. the Oregon organic Acts set the character of the territory for about 10 years. By and large, there was not going to be slavery in Oregon, even though proponents of slavery-like Peter Burnett, an early politician and judge in Oregon and the first American Governor of California. Slavery was eventually outlawed in the territorial constitution in 1857. There were numerous instances of black slavery in the state, usually cases of enslaved black people coming to Oregon with their owners. Because slavery was illegal, many of these cases were kept quiet, with the slaves being given legitimate sounding titles as if they were employed by the farmers. But normally the slaves in Oregon did not receive any pay. As well, it was illegal for black people to own land in Oregon, so Black slaves would not have felt like it was safe to escape because where would they go, and what would they do in the rugged frontier which was Oregon?
Slavery among tribes was another matter. Slavery was a well known and practiced culture among many tribes. Slaves were normally people who had been sold to a more wealthy person in exchange for a debt, or people who have been kidnapped and forced into servitude. Slaves would be traded to far-flung tribes normally hundreds of miles away from their homelands to make it difficult for them to escape and return home. Klamath traders were known for bringing northern California slaves to the Dalles for trade, for example. Slavery in tribes was not the same as chattel slavery for African peoples. A slave in a tribe could gain their freedom through repayment of a debt, or through bravery in battle or service. Debt payment was a serious undertaking in tribes, if people could not pay debts, they would be subject to death or caste out of the tribe altogether. But the notion of debt repayment does suggest that slaves could earn their freedom eventually. Sometimes slaves would be assigned horrible duties, assassinations, etc, just so that the curses of the other parties could not infect the slave owners, as well as the fact that slaves were considered expendable. The children of slaves would normally become full members of the tribe where they lived. There is more to be said about this subject as each tribe had their own cultural mores around slavery and some tribes did not practice it at all but may have been victims of it.
Tribal people in many areas subject to colonization were subject to slavery by whites. The first cases were clearly the people kidnapped by Christopher Colon and brought back to Spain to show the monarchy the strange “Los Indios” of the New World. The Spanish practiced widescale slavery in Latin American pressing the indigenous populations into farming, mining and building so to send the health of the New World back to Europe. So to were there attempts to enslave native peoples on the east coast in the first colonies. native peoples turned out to be resistant to slavery, and the natives would die of European illnesses at alarming rates, which is why African slavery became important, to increase the production of wealth for extraction back to the colonial powers of Europe.
Even in California, there was extensive slavery of Native peoples. The Spanish In California began a new system of servitude, the encomiendo system. In this slavery system, women of the tribes would be brought into the Spanish forts to serve the Spanish and had to remain inside, while their men lived in rancherias, native towns on the outskirts of the Spanish towns. In this manner, thousands of the indigenous peoples of California were forced to work for the Spanish overlords, or they would not be allowed to not see their relatives.
The American army took California and much of the American Southwest from Mexico and Spain in the Mexican American war. When the Americans took over they were to honor the Spanish land-grant titles, but in many cases, they did not. The Americans also did not want to have California be a slave state. but this too is not true in practice.
Numerous accounts about California suggest that there were slave traders who would kidnap mainly native children and travel up and down the state selling them to farmers. There were law enforcement officers would were working to stop the slave trade, but many American farmers were complicit in enslaving native children, having them grow up as laborers on their ranchers, never allowed to leave and many never paid. One essay on the blog addresses one of these cases.
In Oregon, the slavery of natives is not really a well-known subject. The early settlers tended to hire natives to do odd jobs on their farms, usually, they would trade food or a horse for making fence staves, cutting wood, etc. The American trade items were highly attractive to natives they would trade much for a gun, metal knife, or attractive glass beads. Natives slaves may have also worked for the settlers, hired out by their owners to work to gain wealth. Certainly, we can look at Sacagawea a Shoshone woman in this light, she was kidnapped and traded far to the east to the Hidatsa tribe where she was sold to Charbonneau by her owner. Charbonneau was hired by Lewis and Clark and with him came Sacagawea who could speak the languages of the tribes the expedition eventually encountered. So, in reality, Lewis and Clark took advantage of her slavery to make the expedition a success. Early stories from the French Prairie of marriages between fur traders and native people suggest that high born native women would come with their slaves and that their fur trader husbands would erect outbuildings for the slaves to serve as farm laborers.
I find only rare cases where Oregon natives are fully impressed into slavery. Perhaps it is more a fact that we do not yet know how to read the relationships between the settlers and tribes. For example, when the Kalapuyans are placed on temporary encampments in the Willamette valley to await the time when they are to be removed to their permanent reservation, how do we interpret the relationship between a small Kalapuya band and the special agent who is in charge of the temporary reservation, really his Donation Land claim. In most of these relationships, there is not much information, perhaps little conflicts to report, but a few letters about these reservations suggest that the farmers expected the tribes to do their bidding. When the tribes did not act “appropriately” ie: do what the white farmer told him to, then there would be a letter to Joel Palmer complaining about the “uppity savages” the tribal people. It probable that the farmers impressed the tribes into service on their farms as payment for their services of taking care of them.
Many of the problems between the tribes and the settlers revolved around whether the tribes would assuage to the will of the white farmers or not. When the tribes sought to protect themselves, take back their lands, or not bow to the authority of the white men they would be labeled savages and “rogue” and there would be cries for “extermination” of the tribes. It is in their environment where many natives may have been impressed into slavery just to make the white farmers leave them alone.
One case is reported by William Martin, Sub-Indian agent from the Umpqua Valley Subagency. In this case, the farmer is doing a typical thing, impressing two native boys into his service and forcing the boys to work for him. The kidnapping of native children, the taking of orphaned natives, into white households was a common activity for many settlers because it came with the benefits of free labor for many years as the native child is taught to obey the authority of the white farmer.
December 20, 1853
The receipt of your letter with a copy of a letter to Mr. Knott enclosed is hereby acknowledged. In reply I have to state that the Chief Jackson and the old Chief’s son, came to me and informed me that for two years or more the boys had been retained by Mr. Knott against their will, and that having left [with] him on one of more occasions they were pursued by Mr. Knott and retaken. At the time their Chief came to me the boys were at Mr. Knott’s house. I informed the Chief that if the boys were restrained against their will that I would see that they were allowed to return to their people; I accordingly wrote to Mr. Knott requesting him to send the boys home.
On my return from Dayton I saw the boys at Cow Creek, I informed them they were at liberty to return to Mr. Knott or remain with their people as they might wish themselves. I made them further acquainted with their rights & duties & privileges as I thought it might conduce to their interests and prevent further misunderstanding. They continued to express desire to remain with their people. I so left them and I suppose they continued to remain with their tribe, as I have not heard from them since until the receipt of your letter. In conclusion, I will state that I will use my best endeavors to comply with your wishes and Instructions.
William Martin to Joel Palmer
The tribe referred to here is the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians who lived in the southern area of the Umpqua Valley around Canyonville and Riddle. Mr. Knott is Joseph Knott who built the first store in Canyonville in 1851 and was part owner of the ferry.
It is the case in numerous accounts that the settlers required native labor to make their settlements successful. The first settlers in any area would hire on indigenous peoples to more quickly and efficiently establish their farms. In the letter, Knott clearly is seeking to impress to force these boys into his service. In situations like this if unchecked those boys may have become enslaved by Knott. the tribes are removed to their reservation sometimes in 1853 as far as I can tell. The Cow Creek reservation is inside the canyon with its beginning opposite of Joseph Riddle’s land-claim. The band is furthermore removed to the Grand Ronde reservation in February of 1855. Chief Jackson is listed as one of the chiefs who traveled to Grand Ronde.
There are likely many more cases of native people, especially children and women, being taken as slaves, even bought and sold as such in Oregon. Slavery is one of the evils of colonization when people with privilege and advantage too much desire wealth above all else.
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.