Gradual decline or Catastrophic loss

A fellow scholar asked a question about if the decline of the tribes of Oregon could be termed as “gradual,” here is my response.

The destruction of the Kalapuyans and many tribes was so sudden and severe that the population loss graph looks more like a cliff face rather than a hillside. The Malaria epidemic of 1830 destroyed some 90-97% of the native people within a couple years in many of the interior valleys. The Coastal people had a different disease profile. The character and profile of the Kalapuyans, for one, was significantly diminished, essentially clearing huge swaths of the valley of native people and making it appear to later settlers as if it was free land and open for the taking. I think this is where we get many of the erroneous histories of Oregon, from settler people who came later and described a clear and open landscape ripe for colonization and agriculture, because they never witnessed the numerous Kalapuyans and their towns and villages previous to the malaria epidemic.

Perhaps looking back at a 50 year history of the first decades of the 19th century it may appear as a gradual loss, but it was actually a very rapid loss of population preceded by exploration and fur trade, and followed by settlement and removal of the tribes. In fact many tribes were in the midst of changing their culture to fit into the new white American culture brought in the 1820s with the larger scale fur trade, and followed in the 1830s with the beginnings of settlement and agriculture. The Kalapuyans became farmers and farm laborers, the Chinookans were working in the various shipping industries of the Columbia, and the Umatillas and their neighbors had begun going into cattle and horse raising as well as agriculture. The successes of the tribal people in the new  American life-ways they adopted was threatening to white settlers who always would seek ways to dis-empower them and their claims to land and resources.

By the 1850s, as I have suggested in other writings, the majority of the good land in Oregon was claimed by whites and tribes began agitating because there was not enough space remaining for their traditional cultures, root digging, hunting, fishing, or even living in their traditional locations. Protectionist and nationalist fears of the settlers in the 1840s led to the creation of volunteer militias who became the primary agents of genocide, instigating tribes to fight back against the white settlers, as the militias attacked and tried to destroy the tribes. The gold miners of southwestern Oregon also greatly exasperated the tribes, and their quest for wealth regardless of who already lived in the rivers of southwestern Oregon caused numerous conflicts. The other gold rushes of Oregon, like that in the Wallows, on the Nez Perce reservation, caused more conflict resulting in the Nez Perce War and the loss of the reservation in Oregon. The Federal government was unwilling to hold up the promises made in the ratified treaties, of peace, because there was no will to hold white settlers and militia members accountable for their actions of murder, rape, and intrusions on federal Indian reservation lands.  Instead all costs of the actions of the settlers etc, were paid by the tribes in more losses of people, territory, resources, and treaty annuities.

By the 1850s Settlers had built their farms and homesteads and no longer needed to be friendly with the tribes and wanted to get rid of them as irritants because tribes now lived on settler claims and began begging for food or stealing food since their traditional resources were plowed under or fenced in or destroyed by livestock.

1856 is the year some 8,000 natives were removed to reservations, which was the majority of remaining natives in Oregon, discounting the Paiutes and the Klamath region. After removal of the tribes there were some few remaining tribal holdouts who were captured and forced onto reservations in an Indian capture program that lasted until the 1870s Reservations in western Oregon the Coast reservations was reduced from 1.1 million acres in 1865 and again in 1875, to become what is today Lincoln County. Siletz (formerly the Coast Reservation) and Grand Ronde (originally 60,000 acres) were then reduced by 1908 to a fraction of their original sizes after Indian allotments took place.

After 1856 few natives were seen in public in Oregon. There were a few town Indians who would do odd jobs, but mostly natives stayed on the reservations unless they were working picking crops in the Willamette Valley. All natives needed a pass to be able to legally leave the reservations, and so native people somewhat disappeared from the consciousness of settlers who continued arriving. After 1860 most native people were clothing themselves and living like whites and so could pass in society and assimilation policies of the federal government were well under way. Children went to religious schools and native people took up small farms of their own, and churches were placed in every native community. In this manner the Natives were efficiently assimilated to become proper Christianized American farmers and laborers. Regardless of the success of assimilation, citizenship eluded Native peoples until 1924.

The original essay has been enhanced for this blog.



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