Imagining the American Nation, and Ignoring the Tribes

In the early nineteenth century, the United States assumed ownership of all of the Oregon Territory through “right of discovery”, first adjudicated in the United States Supreme Court in 1823 in Johnson v. M’intosh (Supreme Court of the United States 1823).[i] This ownership remained tenuous as it relied on the European protocols of exploration and discovery. Europeans, and later, Americans, believed that only through the exploration and mapping of formerly unknown lands could land be legally claimed. Tribal nations did not explore and map their lands in this manner, relying in large part on oral and experiential knowledge of their lands. Tribal land ownership in the Pacific Northwest manifested as occupation rights. Those tribes who occupied certain lands and utilized the resources of the lands and waters had first claims to those lands. Occupation did not eliminate fishing, hunting, or even temporary settlement by other tribes, but they owed a fee to the primary claimant tribe, usually a headman or chief of an important nearby town or extended network of related villages. These fees took the form of a portion of their catch or kill, usually the choicest portions, or a gift beforehand.

Permanent and temporary settlements and camps were established by tribes for many thousands of years in the same locations, as demonstrated by shell mounds and oral histories, which established the tribe’s rights to resources in those areas (Ames and Maschner 1999; Matson and Coupland 1995). According to Indigenous land law, this constituted ownership of land for tribes who had encyclopedic knowledge of their land and that of the neighboring tribes who were normally their longtime trading partners. The tribes were knowledgeable enough about their regions that when Lewis and Clark explored the Columbia River, the explorers used information gleaned from local tribes to navigate their path. The Lewis and Clark journals, from 1805, include many examples of Tribal headmen and elders drawing maps of the river path ahead, with accurate landmarks (Lewis, et al. 1969e). Captain Clark stated:[ii]

One of the Indians drew me a sketch of the river, in this sketch he makes the 1st large Southerly fork of Lewis’s river much the longest and on which great numbers of the Snake Indians reside (Lewis, et al. 1969e:9, sic).

In another entry Captain Clark learned much about the Kalapuyans a tribe of people he never met yet his Clowewalla informant, the father of his guide, knew much about:

I provaled on an old Indian to mark the Multnomah R down on the sand which [he did] and perfectly corisponded with the sketch given me by sundry others, with the addition of a circular mountain which passes this river at the falls and which connects with the mountains of the Seacoast. He also laid down the Clackamos passing a high conical mountain near its mouth on the lower side and heads in Mount Jefferson which he laid down by raising the Sand as a very high mountain and covered with eternal snow. The high mountain which this Indian laid down near the enterance of Clarkamos river, we have not seen as the hills in it’s direction from this valley is high and obscures the sight of it from us. . . This Indian also informed me that Multnomah above the falls was crouded with rapids and thickly inhabited by Indians of the Cal-leh-po-e-wah Nation (Lewis, et al. 1969d:254-255, sic).

            The fact that the tribes knew their territory well, and knew the territories of the surrounding tribes, demonstrated their long-term aboriginal ownership and right to their lands.

Lewis and Clark’s journey, while epic in the annals of the United States, was not as positive to tribes they encountered. Their journey marked the first use of federal agents to conduct espionage among the tribes of the west. President Thomas Jefferson was expansionist-minded and began imagining the expansion of the nation to the Pacific coast. Stories of the River Oregon (or Ourigan in its original version passed on to Jefferson by Roger and Carver, See Ourigan Wealth of the Northwest Coast, OHQ 2001 by R. Scott Byram and David G. Lewis). To make this possible Jefferson had to know if there was a route across the continent and what resources and wealth existed on the west coast. Under land claim laws, the first Christian nation to visit an ‘unclaimed’ area would be granted first rights to claim the lands (see the Papal Bulls…). The expedition during their journey was to gather intelligence from the tribes along the route, under orders from Jefferson, and pass that information on to the President to make decisions about colonizing the region. This is not what the expeditionary members told the tribes on the path, as they surreptitiously gathered population counts, information about resources, and the names of peoples and places from the chiefs of the tribes they visited. For the most part, they were greeted with peace and well hosted by the tribes. Upon their return to the United States, they would pass their reports onto the president and then begin publishing from their experiences. The maps were published in 1810 and the journals in 1814. These additional products became a road map to the west for generations of Americans seeking great wealth. I also believe their methodologies presented a blueprint for explorers and natural history collectors, to discover and collect new things from the natural world, to rename places they encountered regardless of tribal names, and to generally ignore the previous occupation of all of these areas by tribes.

In the 1840s, American and French-Canadian settlers formed the Oregon Provisional Government that met at Champoeg in 1843 and established territorial laws and policies regarding Indians. The first Organic Law (1843) directed the territorial government’s policy towards Tribal nations stated:

Of utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken away from them without their consent and in their property, rights and liberty they shall never be disturbed unless it be in just and lawful laws, authorized by the representatives of the people (Carey 1971:336).

The passage adopted the language of the United States Ordinance of 1787 concerning Indians. The territorial government intended this law to help manage the settlement and actions of the initial waves of settlement to Oregon. In the following year, over 800 Americans arrived in Oregon. The statement in the Organic Act by the Territorial Legislative Commission demonstrates that the provisional government intended to protect the rights of the Indians.

            The Oregon Provisional Government also wrote this passage in 1844: “any person refusing to pay tax . . . shall have no benefit of the laws of Oregon, and shall be disqualified from voting at any election in this country” (Carey 1971:337). Paying taxes was an action that the Indians did not do, them being the members of tribal nations, and therefore the laws of the provisional government did not protect them. The native people thereafter would not have any legal standing under the laws of Oregon, a situation which played out in numerous conflicts for several decades. As well, even if a court was inclined to hear a case involving actions against tribal people, the court could decide to not hear the case if the native people did not speak English, and therefore must speak through a translator, which was not considered direct testimony. However, the law protected settlers in Oregon in their property and persons from the Indians.

During this time, the Oregon Tribes had no legal standing in the United States, so the laws and policies of the United States did not apply to them. The few provisional laws that stated a level of protection also had provisions whereby lands and “representatives of the people” could take property away from the Indians. Settlers commonly assumed that “Indians did not own land” and that many Tribes simply “wandered around the landscape,” and many settlers believed that Indians had no concept of government, and really were not civilized.[iii] Because of such beliefs, settlers commonly ignored tribal aboriginal rights and tribal laws. In the words of one settler, the Indians “are a thieving, pilfering, slothful, disgusting, dirty set and these inborn propensities make them troublesome and destructive” (H.A.G. 1852:2).

The settlers disregarded tribal claims to pre-occupation of land, and the settlers commenced settling any lands they wanted without regards to the rights of the tribes or the presence of Indian villages. However, it was noted by one settler that “they [Indians] still, rightfully . . . consider themselves the bona fide owners of the soil” (H.A.G. 1852:2). While the provisional government’s organic laws did recognize Indian aboriginal rights, without the support of the settler population, there was little enforcement of these laws on behalf of the Indians.

The fact that the settlers did not consider Indians “people” much less thought they had “laws” caused problems when settlers encroached on Indian lands. Early anthropologists captured this lack of consideration of Tribal society when Lewis Henry Morgan theorized that Indians were on the lower end of a linear progression of civilization and therefore labeled as savages or barbarians in their level of development (Morgan 1877).[iv] Morgan’s notion of Tribal societies appeared to be a common understanding for American settlers and missionaries who benefited by originating from a European-American society and therefore represented the civilized level of development.[v] Missionaries from the earliest contact periods in the Oregon Territory worked to save tribal societies through conversion to Catholicism or Christianity. For many settlers there was no consideration of tribal rights, for others, like miners, their intentions were to acquire gold at any cost, regardless of whom they affected, or where they trespassed.

The White American quest for wealth at any cost, the taking of land, and the extermination of native tribes are all symptoms in the larger situation of the expansionism of the United States to the West coast. The colonization ignored the rights of people and nations to exist, and laws and rights were ignored or manipulated to aid in the satisfying the goals to imperialize the west. Native peoples were then pushed aside and left with few rights or resources for over a century as they were kept on reservations. The facts of this situation, the depths and evils the Americans perpetrated in their goals, have never seen the full light in American History.


[i] In Stephen F. Ross, COMPARATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL LAW (U.S./CANADA), 9th ed, Chapter 7. http://www.dsl.psu.edu/faculty/ross/9.chapter7.pdf

[ii] I surmise that the accuracy of the Tribal information aided Lewis and Clark in the accuracy of their maps and the ultimate success of their voyage. This is especially true when understanding the neither man was trained in cartography.

[iii] Summarized from a variety of settlers accounts.

[iv] For further discussion, see chapter 1 of the Dissertation.

[v] See Chapter 1 of the Dissertation for more ethnographic theory.

American settlers in Oregon saw the region as a promised land where they would have the opportunities they did not have in the east. The earliest Methodist missionaries to Oregon, including Reverend Jason Lee who arrived in 1834, supported the overarching vision of settling the Northwest Coast. Reverend Lee became concerned about the lack of white women in Oregon when he saw white men marrying Indian women, so he engaged in a recruitment effort to attract white people to Oregon. He traveled back to the east in 1838, to the United States, and engaged in a speaking tour selling the virtues of Oregon as an Eden-like promised land to attract farmers (Carey 1971:292). Lee’s efforts bore fruit, and many white settlers came to Oregon following his tour. Lee’s journey included a request to Congress to take possession of Oregon as well as fundraising efforts for his Methodist Church (Carey 1971:292-293).

The Oregon Territory became part of an imagined Eden for people in the east. Beginning with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the idea of Oregon as a place of great wealth entered poetry, maps, and journals and inspired Americans to move westward (Carey 1971:11-13). Poet William Cullen Bryant used the word Oregon in his 1811 poem Thanatopsis: “Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound Save his own dashings-yet the dead are there” (Carey 1971:15). The River Oregon, later called the Columbia River, was associated with the search for the northern passage to the Pacific Ocean, the earliest search being conducted by Major Robert Rogers (Byram and Lewis 2001; Carey 1971:8-9). This search also became associated with the indigenous concept of Oregon and the Northwest coast as being a place of wealth. Some theorists have also found cultural and linguistic linkages to the “Ooligan” smelt grease, as a wealth trade item (Byram and Lewis 2001). American settlers capitalized on Oregon as an Eden concept and through the media advertised this to other Americans to attract more white settlement. In 1852, a writer to the Oregonian newspaper described the northern part of the Oregon Territory, the Chehalis area thus:

The valley of the Chickeeles [Chehalis] contains probably four hundred thousand acres of most excellent land, prairie and heavy timber alternating; the soil is a loam. . . its vast agricultural capacities, its magnificent, valuable woodlands, its inexhaustible fisheries, its unrivaled inland navigation, its geographical position, its immense quantities of choice steam producing coal, its perfect accessibility to the markets of the whole Pacific. . . this Puget’s Sound country will be one of the most important and interesting agricultural and commercial districts shadowed by the broad aegis of the stars and stripes of the United States (H.A.G. 1852).

Descriptions like this helped promote the flood of settlers to the Oregon Territory, where they would be seeking the freedom to realize their dreams in the United States (Byram and Lewis 2001). This article occurs well after the first surge of settlers in the 1830s and after the main settler surge of the California gold rush in the early 1850s. It is contemporary with the discovery of rich gold fields in the Cascade Mountains and Southwestern Oregon. Newspapers often replicated such articles across the United States.

Draft comments: I wrote most of this back in 2007 as part of my early dissertation writing. Some of this still is in the dissertation. I think its important to understand what motivated colonization of Oregon. These motivations have been normally written to appear like they were some sort of glorified heroic adventures of great Americans seeking to only help Indians. I think the actions of the past need to be reexamined from other perspectives to show how the actions of people Like Lewis and Clark were not as benign to native peoples as is portrayed. For generations the Lewis and Clark stories were then taught to school children as “Native education.” It seems odd at this late date in our history to have to continually point out that the story of native peoples should not be told through the eyes of the colonizers, similarly, the story of Jewish peoples of Europe should not be told through the eyes of Catholics or Christians or the Third Reich. For educators to have done this for more than 100 years seems now highly irregular, because generations of students learned a series of lies and re-instituted these lies into society so deeply that few people questioned them any longer. This is how native people have been dehumanized for some time.

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