Sometimes I find remarkable letters that sum up all I have been thinking about what was happening in the 1850s between the tribes and the settlers in Oregon. Joel Palmer’s letter below, from December 1, 1855, does exactly this. Palmer, as I have written about previously, was very concerned to protect native peoples and was outraged on several occasions when he found out that there was no chance for justice when white men committed genocide on natives. He took his job very seriously and worked to preserve Native lives when he could. He had found an ally in General John E. Wool, Commander of the Pacific, who similarly sought to preserve the tribes from settler violence. Palmer and Wool’s views of protection for the tribes were very unpopular to the white people of Oregon, who commonly wanted to see all native people exterminated. Palmer pays a political price for his actions later with him being suddenly fired in June of 1856. But the included letter clearly shows Palmer’s intent and his need to get the aid of Wool to carry out his plan.
Interesting here, and rarely addressed in any previous historic volume, is the clear culpability that Palmer assigns to the white settlers for their acts of violence. Palmer states on several occasions in the letter that these acts are in violation of the treaty and that the blame for this is “wholly” the fault of the white settlers. He calls them “reckless and lawlessness” so perhaps not the typical settler, as in farmer, but more of a violent brigand type of character. Then Palmer calls out their “Political” goals. This he does not elaborate about but he is probably referencing the general conversation about extermination of Indians which which is a political goal. But this also suggests the larger goal of colonization, to eliminate all native people, and native people, to make white settlement possible.
Palmer’s call out to “violation of the Treaty stipulations” again is very interesting because there was no fine to be levied at white violators, because white men could not be held accountable for their actions against Indians in a court of the time. This is not the case on the other hand, and violations of the treaty could be dealt with harshly by any number of ways, field executions, trials then hangings or firing squad, or even just a rumor of some violence and Indian culpability could end up with a massacre of a whole tribe of natives. The Volunteer militia seemed to be the most bloodthirsty and Natives would refuse to surrender to them knowing they would be killed. But the callousness of the United States is really on trial here, as there was no attempt by any security force, civilian or military, to hold white Americans in check, to hold them accountable for any murders or exterminations. Even the military were reluctant to take white men into custody and so all they could do was try to protect Native people from genocide.
Then the notes by Palmer about the general feelings of the citizens along the removal route suggest something much more insidious. It was not only the militia but regular citizens who had it in for the natives. In the journals of removal from both the Umpqua and Table Rock reserves the wagon trains had to contend with several murders and violent citizenry on several occasions.
The war is based on the notion that white men had the right to take anything they wanted from the tribes, land, and resources and even their lives and the white men would not be help responsible for any of these things. Their acts were against law abiding Native people who only wanted to be left alone in peace. But even federal treaties of peace and treaties of land sales were ignored by white men who continued to attack and commit genocide on natives without provocation. In support of the efforts of the white Americans there were funds of money made available by Congress for the white Americans to get paid back for “depredations” against the whites by natives. Through the 1850s hundreds of depredations claims came to the Indian superintendent and they were paid first from a special Indian affairs fund, then later directly out of the funds that were to be used to support the tribes. This action may have actually been illegal om the part of the government to pay claims out of the treaty funds, when there were no trials of the tribes or of the white men for their actions at all. There was no proof that the majority of the tribal people committed any acts against Americans and the Rogue River Confederacy only formed as a response to white men attacking them on the reservation. In the reserve, there was no funds made available to Natives for claims against whites for their aggression. In fact when the tribes removed to the northern reservations, they lost much of their property, cattle, horses, and houses and the contents they had acquired. In a later letter, Palmer appoints an Indian Agent to sell the property of the tribes to local white men.
December 1st 1855
The existence of a war of extermination by our citizens against all Indians in Southern Oregon, which by recent acts appears to evince a determination to carry it out, violation of all treaty stipulations and the common ways of civilized nations, has induced me to take steps to remove the friendly bands of Indians now assembled at Fort Lane and upon Umpqua Reservation, to an encampment on the head waters of the Yamhill River, distant about sixty miles southwest of Vancouver and adjoining the Coast Reservation.
This plan has been adopted with a view of saving the lives of such of those Indians as have given just and reasonable assurances of friendship. The tremendous excitement among the miners and settlers in that country, goaded on by reckless and lawless miscreants who slaughter alike ??? of both sexes, induced those friendly bands to abandon the reservation and claim protection of the United States troops stationed at Fort Lane. One three hundred of these people are not encamped at that point and as many more in the Umpqua Valley but little less [removed]?. These people are deprived of their usual means of obtaining [food]? And must necessarily be furnished by the Government. The enormous expense attending the transportation of supplies at this season of the year will I think, alone justify their removal. In my instructions to the Indian Agents directing this movement, they are required to call upon the commandant at Fort Lane for such an escort as was deemed requisite to secure a safe passage through the disturbed district. Since these instructions were given I have received intelligence that meetings of the citizens of the Willamette Valley, residing along the route to be traveled by these Indians in reaching the designated encampment, as well as those in the vicinity of the latter have resolved upon resisting such removal, and arousing a determination to kill all who may be brought among them as well as those who sought to effect that object. This feeling appears so general among our citizens I am apprehensive they may attempt carrying it into effect, to avoid which I have to request that if it be deemed by you practicable, that a command of twenty men be directed to accompany these Indians on their removal, with directions to remain at or near the encampment so long as their presence may be required to insure the safety of the Indians.
Believing as I do, that the cause of the present difficulty in Southern Oregon is wholly to be attributed to the acts of our own people, I cannot but feel that it is our duty to adopt such measures as will tend to secure the lives of these Indians and maintain guarantees secured them by treaty stipulations. The future will prove that this war has been found upon these Indians against their will; and that too, by a set of reckless vagabonds, for pecuniary? and political objects, and sanctioned by a rancorous? population who regard the treasury of the United States a legitimate subject of plunder.
The Indians in that district have been driven to desperation by acts of cruelty against their people. Treaties have been violated and acts of barbarity committed by those claiming to be citizens that would disgrace the most barbarous sections of the earth, and if none but those who perpetrated such acts are to be affected by this war we might look upon it with indifference, but unhappily this is not the case.
In connection with the request for an escort, I may say, that the winter encampment for the Indians herein referred to is situated upon lands designed as a permanent location for residence of Indians and to be attached to a district declared an Indian reservation; that it is the gap through which the communication from the white settlements to an Indian Reservation destined to contain a population of four thousand souls, and the only practicable route through which supplies can reach them for the northern half of that population. The Settlements of a military post for a few years at this point is deemed requisite, to insure the preservation of peace between our own citizens and these Indians, as well as good order among the numerous bands congregated. Entertaining this now I would respectfully request that a competent officer be directed to accompany me to the contemplated encampment, prior to the arrival of the Indians from the south, that I may have the benefit of his experience and suggestions in the particular location and arrangement of the encampments, and the improvements designed for the use of Indians upon the Reservation. This examination may be made in a few days and may be of the utmost importance to the Government in its intercourse with Indian tribes and the preservation of peace.
Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Oregon Indian Affairs to General John E. Wool, Commander of the Pacific
The final paragraph is Palmer’s true request of Wool. Palmer is requesting the help of a army to plan out the settlement of the tribes on the Grand Ronde Reservation in order to preserve the peace on the reservation. This request immediately reminded me of the Hazen Map of 1856.
The Hazen map is the earliest map of the Grand Ronde Reservation and to date we never knew what precipitated its creation. It depicts only the central valley and not the whole reservation, and shows the original settler homesteads and fields, burial sites, and red tent (/\) images which are locations of encampments (these are somewhat buried in the drawing and are assumed to represent Sibley tents, military issue canvas tents). There are also letters that are referenced in the legend with tribal names. I have suggested in other essays that these names were based on the reservation that the tribes came from, so that the Umpqua encampments south of the Yamhill River are four locations (K,L,M,N), but they actually are four different tribes, the Upper Umpqua, Yoncalla Kalapuya, Molalla, and Cow Creek peoples in different encampments. The marks on the reservations in red are likely added after the original map is drawn by Lt. Hazen whose home base is Fort Vancouver. Then there is a census of sorts. The census on the right was created after these tribes arrived at the reservation. Therefore, this letter of December 1st 1855 is what prompts Gen. Wool to assign Lt. Hazen to draw the Grand Ronde valley and where the encampments were to be located and original settlements were already located. Lt. Hazen likely draws the map after January 1856, and the map is then used by the Indian agents afterwards to make population notes and settlement notes about the tribes. We know that the Kalapuya chiefs came to Grand Ronde in early January and after they agreed to remove there, Palmer then sends out orders to remove the tribes to the reservation. The Table Rock orders of removal actually came in early December 1855 and the agent there said it was impossible to travel with the snow levels so they had to wait. They did not leave until late February. Therefore the map was likely created before the Umpqua Reservation peoples arrived in late February 1856. The earliest census of the reservation dates to March 1856. The census on the Hazen Map likely was taken in May 1856, after all of the Kalapuyans arrive. Therefore the map was created to help plan the reservation and to tabulate the early tribal population for the preservation of peace.
Beyond the details of the letter, is the very real situation the tribes were facing; they needed to remove to the reservations in order to be preserved. The White population of Oregon was out for the complete extermination of the tribes and it is in the act of saving the tribes that Palmer pays a political price when he is fired. Palmer undeterred through his sense of morality and ethics asks for the help of General Wool to affect the removals. Palmer actually gets little help from Wool for the removals, as the army is thin in Oregon and so they can only send a few men out to help plan fort locations and reservation settlements. Later even Wool would pay a political price as in letters received at his office in Benecia, California, Wool had charges leveled at him that he was too friendly with the tribes. These charges he had to defend but stating he was taking his orders seriously to keep the peace. But the threat was enough that he too refused to take actions against the white men who sought the extermination of Indians In California.
[Transcribed by David G. Lewis from a letter in M234 R609 letter of December 1 1855, some words could not be ascertained due to the handwriting]