The Grand Ronde Reservation Fence

In the final 10 months of Joel Palmer’s residency as superintendent of Indian affairs of Oregon, he was under a microscope by citizens of the territory for his actions saving Native people. Palmer was arguing with Governor Curry in a serious of letters about whether the volunteers were responsible for Indians Wars, and he was beginning to move the tribes north into the Grand Ronde Valley to save their lives from further repression. Palmer and General John E. Wool were of the same opinion, that the militia were essentially lawless troublemakers, indiscriminately killing Natives, which was causing the tribes to band together and go to war against white settlers, for their survival. Governor Curry and the Oregon Legislature did not appreciate this public opinion. In addition, Palmer was faced with not just tough talk but actual bands of brigands in numerous areas of Oregon who were attacking Native villages, indiscriminately killing individual or small groups of native people. Palmer took his job seriously and began to address the need to remove tribes from these centers of conflict. His plans for removal were well known as they were published in the local newspapers, and so settlers who disagreed began taking repressive actions. The Umpqua basin was one area were settlers were repressing tribal people. The settlers, stationed at Roseburg hated the existence of the Umpqua Reservation and would attack native people whenever they were unprotected. The following report from January 1856 shows how the settlers began telling rumors to the Tribes who were set to remove north to the Grand Ronde Reservation, about their planned murder if the ventured on the roads.

..[Palmer] Proceeded to Elk Creek… when by the mischievous interference of whites, the Indians had become alarmed and portions of them had . refused to go farther… he doubted whether he would be able to succeed in keeping together the camp unless aided by a military force. This interference is undoubtedly the result of the action of the legislative assembly n determining a policy of colonizing and evincing a determination to resist by force any attempt (to move) the Indians upon the reservation designated. As the Indians were told by persons strolling about camp that the supt would be removed and shot if they proceeded to the reservation the whites would shoot them. The Indians being naturally superstitious and timid believed those reports and all appearing desirous to proceed were deterred by an apprehension of premeditated desire to annihilate them. A messenger was immediately sent to Vancouver to request that 25 to 30 dragoons or 50 . infantry might be dispatched to aid the agent. (Palmer 1 26 1856)

Palmer’s request for military escort was not satisfied. The U.S. military was thinly spread in Oregon, one company on the Columbia, another chasing the Rogue River Confederacy around SW Oregon, a detachment at Port Orford, and those at Fort Vancouver. Palmer had to convince the Umpqua valley peoples to removed without military escort which was successful. Along their month long journey there were situations where the party had to go around particularly threatening settlements. Still several people died due to age, sickness, and exposure.

Palmer continued moving tribes north to Grand Ronde. The tribes of the Willamette Valley arrived from their temporary reservations between February and May, and the Rogue Rivers arrived from Table Rock in March. In the meantime Oregon politicians got busy and produced a petition to get Palmer replaced, because of him supposed getting treaties signed by handpicked leaders, which “caused the wars,” and moving the tribes it a valley within the Willamette Valley. It did not matter to the politicians that this was the original land of the tribal people, they said they felt threatened for their “defenseless inhabitants.” The racism displayed in this petition was very extreme against the “savages” who had lived peacefully for thousands of years in the same location.

We the democratic members of the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory… [Palmer] bring upon the defenseless inhabitants of this frontier the combined power and hostility of a horde of savages… engaged in efforts to purchase the land claims of citizens residing on the west side of the Willamette Valley… with the avowed intention of bringing thousands of Indians from remote parts of the country and of colonizing them in the heart of the Willamette Valley… despite the remonstrates of the the legislative assembly and our constituents the men women and children of the territory…(Petition to replace Palmer to President Franklin Pierce 4 8 1856)

To Palmer these threats were real, he had seen and had reports of numerous murders of Native people people in this year. Therefore at Grand Ronde Palmer hires 30 guards and has them and the tribes build a fence to keep out the murderous white settlers. There are no maps showing the fence but it would have been across the egress to the reservation. The work crew is also tasked with building the Salmon River Wagon road. This trail had to be expanded to host shipments of supplies to the Coast reservation because numerous tribes were already being moved through Grand Ronde to the Coast Reservation to resettle around the Yaquina and the Salmon River encampment of the Nechesne community. The Grand Ronde reservation also require another food source and the Nechesne was a good salmon stream.

There appears a calm among our citizens at this time in relation to the Grand Ronde Reservation. One half of the sixty men raised as citizen guards have been discharged, the remaining force is now engaged in the construction of the line of fence at the entrance of the Reserve. The unusual amount of rainy weather this past month has retarded materially the progress of that, and of other work on the Reservation, as also opening of the road to the coast, but it is now going forward… We are now filling out a party of Indians, with their families, under the charge of a Local agent, to proceed to the Coast, on a hunting and fishing excursion, portions of whom will be engaged in opening the road from Grand Ronde purchase to the Coast, and thence to Siletz River. (5/10/1856)

In addition the U.S. Military began assigning detachments to the Grand Ronde and Coast reservations to help defend the Native people from any encroachments by white settlers. By July 1856 there were detachments of troops assigned to area. Natives continued arriving on the reservation and this was causing a burden to feed and care for these people.

 … we are continually getting accessions to the number of indians on the reservation. Their aggregate by a statement of the subagent in charge reached 1557 on the 1st instant. (5/10/1856)

They need for a fence and 30-60 guards speaks volumes to the racism that was publicly being practiced in Oregon in the 1850s. Settlers wanted to commit genocide on the tribes, eliminate them in retribution for fighting for their rights and lives. For these protectionist measures Joel Palmer is made to resign his post on August 16 1856. Protectionism is needs for several decades in Oregon. The Military does shutter their posts at Fort Yamhill and Fort Hoskins because of the Civil War, but tribal people were still made to stay on the reservations by policy and had to ask for a pass to travel beyond the borders. It continued to be federal policy well into the 20th century to only allow people on the reservations if they were previously approved under government contracts. Similarly, native people were disallowed for possessing or purchasing alcohol until 1952.

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