Influenza on the Reservation

The tribes removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856 never realized the safety and security of a reservation they were promised in seven treaties. They were forced into poverty, living on whatever the federal government was able to send to them from the east coast. The first years were full of starvation deprivation, and death as hundreds of traumatized people from more than 2 dozen tribes were forced to live in federal confinement. The tribes from the Rogue River area had been preyed upon for over a decade by white settlers and gold miners, and after having enough had fought back. Their defeat in the summer of 1856 caused a mass movement to the reservation. Once on the reservation, these peoples, and others from the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, and the Umpqua valley had to adjust to numerous different tribes, all having gone through decades of violence and trauma because of white settlement. They were not healthy people, the stress of loss remained with them. Loss had not only come through violence but also through a series of epidemics as new diseases were introduced to them. The coastal tribes had maritime-born illnesses, brought by sailors, venereal disease was quite common. While the interior tribes had gone through a malaria epidemic, which devastated some 90% of many tribal people. In comparison the Rogue River people appeared to fare better previous to the removal to the reservation, likely because they were more secluded and had less visitations from outsiders as well as the mountainous and cold barriers of their remote environment.

Once on the reservation the tribes had to contend with their new situation, a strange environment, strange foods, complete reliance on the Indian Agents, no shelter for many, and settlement among thousands of strangers. Then the white people were the power, from them came food and blankets and permissions for all manner of resources. This had to be alien, strange, foreign, and stressful. For the first few years, more than half of the people were sick, always, and the white people did not have the resources to help, if they were even trusted to help. Most of the tribal people relied heavily on their Indian doctors for healing and distrusted white medicine. The US army had established a small fort on the reservation and they would blow a bugle or trumpet each morning to call people to eat, to get supplies and the people kept dying. The bugle and trumpet of the army became associated with death. Bad Indian doctors were very much distrusted and most were eventually killed in retribution for allowing their patients to die. Likewise, the white doctors were distrusted because many who visited them seemed to die. White medicine in this period was not very advanced and resources given the Indian reservations were substandard at best.

The distrust of white doctors continued into the 1870s until there was an urgent appeal from Oregon Indian Superintendent Albert Meacham to got the people to trust white doctors and turn away from Indian doctors. This appeal was made to all Oregon tribes during one big meeting at the First Methodist Church in Salem. After this, things did change, as more natives began going to the white doctors. In 1891 the agent reported that “I am happy to state that the old “medicine men” have lost their influence. Much credit is due to Dr. Andrew Kershaw, agency physician at this place, for the success with which he has treated them. They all seek his services” (Annual report of COIA 1891: Grand Ronde). It was inevitable anyway because with over 20 years of pressures to assimilate placed on the tribes on the reservations, and the gradual death of the traditional Indian doctors, fewer people were adhering to the traditional ways and so began trusting in the white people more. Still, resources given to reservations were less than they ought to have been. It was not until about 1873 that the tribal people began getting land on the reservation, even though it was one of the promises all had agreed to in the seven treaties. Once they got the land, usually between 60 and 120 acres of reservation land, they began immediately cultivating it and records show that within 10 years they were self-sufficient. The feds had fixed up and rebuilt the grist and saw mills and everything was being operated by the native men.

In 1889 the next big change came with the formal allotment of land under the Dawes Act. It is still unclear how people were allocated land under the Dawes act at Grand Ronde. There was a survey and each married man received about 260 acres under federal trust title. Women’s and children’s allotments were much less acreage than the men’s. Women would get 80 acres and children 40 or 60 acres. Census and allotment records show however that the allotment allocations were not consistent. Some women, wives of preeminent native men did not receive allotments, while widowed women did sometimes receive the full 260-acre allotment as head of a household. The lack of allotments to native women, who were normally full to half blood natives, did not appear to align with the 1/2 Indian blood quantum rules as stated in the Dawes Act (this needs to be checked for how extensive the problem was). Then as well, many children did not receive allotments at all for unknown reasons. It is entirely probable that the allotments were only given out to people who applied for them, rather than anyone who qualified. These allotments appear to have included the lands given in the original informal allotments of the 1870s; an efficiency and practicality that helped people remain on their already developed lands with their one or more houses, barns, corrals, and gardens. This understanding suggests that the people actually claimed their lands in the early 1870s, after the surveys of that time, in preparation for, the highly anticipated, yet very late, formal allotments promised in the treaties.

It is in 1889 that we see the additional effects through an inspection of the annual censuses of the tribe. Federal Indian Reservations had an annual census, rather than the national census once a decade. Through these censuses scholars can track the developments of families as they have children, get married, separate, marry again, move in with relatives, or become widows and widowers. The censuses are very much imperfect, as the Indian Agents were not trained census takers. Sometimes whole families are left out of a year for inexplicable reasons. Peoples surnames are sometimes alternatively spelled, and the handwriting and preservation of the handwritten censuses make reading them very difficult at times. Then there are some serious questions about the census policies, as the censuses were normally completed in early July each year, and it is unclear if all of the people are on the reservation at this time. It is clear that people normally had to be on the reservation to be counted, but in July many tribal families were traveling and working in the Willamette Valley and so may have been omitted. But we do not know if the omitted people are omitted because they are traveling or because the Agent simply made an error. Because of the obvious errors, I do not know if we can consider the censuses an accurate membership roll of the tribe at the time. Still, it is the best, or only, record we have for most years.

The censuses document well the Native residents who remained on the reservation, and yet the records leave out their non-native spouses. For the spouses, it is necessary to look to the family records and the federal census, which also has sections devoted to the “Indians” in each county. From the 1870s and into the 1880s there were increasing positive development of families on the reservation. Many families appear to have children consistently and they may end up with 12 or more children, the mother of the family apparently pregnant through all of her 20s and 30s. The religion of the reservation was mostly Catholic, but the reasons likely relate more to the fact that there was a very high mortality rate among children at this time and so normally about half or less of the offspring would survive to have their own family. other interesting family situations are also revealed in the census records. It was quite common for husbands to be older than their spouses, but a good number of families had women much older than their spouses, sometimes with a 20 year age difference. The opposite, men much older than their spouse, was quite common but is also quite common in society normally. This raises questions about whether there are statistically significant marriage anomalies associated with native people being forced to remain on the reservations that caused joinings which normally would not occur if people were allowed to travel freely. In this period, it was illegal under federal policies for natives to leave the reservations without permission, and they had to declare their travel destination, and how long they would be gone, as well as carry a pass from the Indian Agent, or be subject to immediate arrest and detention.

For the past year I have been engaged in a systematic survey of the census of the Grand Ronde and have been transcribing each year. I found that beginning in about 1893 a good number of people began dying and leaving widows or widowers. Numbers of formerly married women and men are suddenly labelled as widow and widower in the census. The numbers increased as I transcribed the 1894 and 1895 censuses. I then became quite curious, wondering what was causing the death of so many people in a short time. Was this a fault of the white doctors? A lack of good medicines at the reservation? Was this more of the same poor treatments from the 1850s? During this period at Grand Ronde the Indian Agent was John Brenteno, and the medical doctor was Andrew Kershaw. In about 1896 Kershaw suddenly becomes the Indian agent and has then double roles as doctor and Indian Agent. But beginning under the tenure of Brentano is a series of deaths from Influenza. These flu deaths seemed odd, so a bit of research on influenza in this period revealed information about the Spanish flu.

Apparently, the Spanish flu, normally associated with the latter part of WWI (1914-1918), was labeled the Spanish Flu because Spain allowed newspaper reports about the flu, and the British and Americans avoided such reports. The Spanish flu in 1917 and 1918 was raging around the world, killing thousands of people in the United States and infecting soldiers on both sides of the conflict in WWI. The Spanish flu was not a one-time event of the 1910s but instead originated from an especially virulent strain of influenza that began in the 1880s in Russia and spread through Russia and China. Each year influenza would mutate and it continued into the 20th century to become known as the Spanish Flu in the late 1810s. Reports of the spread of the flu into other parts of the world are inconsistent in newspaper reporting. It is unclear when the flu entered the US, but records of the flu were not well kept in this period. In the 1890s records of the flu on reservations were also not well kept, but it is clear through the reservations records we have that “a” flu is at Grand Ronde in 1894 and causing much sickness. Agency and School health reports from this period clearly show a number of cases, while in previous years none or few were reported. By January 1895 we begin to see deaths on the reservation caused by influenza. It is not clear how comprehensive the reporting was, or if there were native holdouts from white medicines, but it is again in this period we see the numbers of widows and widowers increase.

this school report for November 1894 shows 7 people have influenza
This agency report for Novembers 1894 shows 15 people at the agency with Influenza
This school report from January 1895 shows 5 students with influenza
This agency report from January 1895 shows at least 17 people ill with influenza and 3 deaths

The January 1895 report showing white people dying were likely spouses of native people. In addition, we all know that in Oregon influenza is not always the end of the illness. Many people develop bronchitis and pneumonia or other illnesses after influenza has run its course so those illnesses also show up on the reports.

In Census reports we do not have records of deaths, but the numbers of widows and widowers appear to drastically increase in 1888 and continue into the 1890s. The census lists widow or widower with these numbers 1887 (6), 1888 (55), 1889 (44), 1890 (40), 1891 (27), 1892 (29), 1893 (23), 1894 (33). Many of these people within a year or so would have remarried and there are numerous marriages with blended families. But the high incidence of influenza was likely a factor in the early 1890s and may have caused an increase going into 1894 and later.

Influenza, the flu, is not a big deal, not seen by many as a major illness today which causes death. It is normally easily handled with medicines available today. But in countries without many medicinal aids, the flu is a much bigger problem causing more death than we know. Tribes in the latter 19th century appear to still not be getting the better medical care that would have been available in American cities and towns. There was only one doctor for the whole reservation and many-times they did not have the medicinal supplies they needed. There are cases where tribal people would save their money and go into town and buy medicines because they could not count on the services at the reservation. During this time the population of the tribe is rapidly declining as well. In 1887 there were 761 people on the reservation, but in 1894 there were only 390 people. Some of this can be explained by people surreptitiously moving away and living in white society to find jobs. In fact, the agent in 1889 reported that “the population is 48 less than last year,” and that, “the cause is that about fifty have left the reservation” (Annual Report of the COIA 1889: Grand Ronde). “Many children were also sent to boarding schools and they would not be counted for the reservation. Then as previously mentioned there were numerous human errors in counting, perhaps not counting people if they are working in the agricultural fields in the Willamette Valley. Then we also do not know what were the criteria for being included on the reservation census. The census is not a membership roll and so those who moved to Siletz or just off the reservation land would not be counted or included. Numerous deaths in this period, likely due to introduced diseases and the lack of access to appropriate medical care are likely a large factor in this equation.

The mysteries of the tribal census and what happened to the people continue. As this work continues, more issues will be found, and more answers will be found. It is a fact that native peoples on reservations have historically gotten the worst services to their needs of any peoples in the United States. Reservations were run as a combination of prison and slum and Congress was always reticent to spend money on the tribes regardless of the fact that the services and funding were already a part of their treaties. These issues have not gone away as in 2021 we are dealing with a pandemic that has proven that is killing indigenous peoples at a higher rate than many others, mainly from issues of lack of access to services, while reservations struggle to get supplies and vaccines for their populations from federal authorities.

Sanitation reports (health) in the SWORP collection were used for this essay.

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