Forced to Pay for the Rogue River 1853 War

One of the most egregious of acts against the Rogue River tribes in southern Oregon was making them pay for the destruction of the property of the American squatters out of their treaty payments, after years of illegal and poor treatment at the hands of the settlers.

The Americans began traveling through and prospecting in southern Oregon in the late 1840s following the California Gold rush. During the rush and the Oregon gold rush two years later, many thousands of miners invaded the territory and began having conflicts with the tribes. The Rogue River people gained a reputation for being violent and they would raid the miners and take horses and cattle from those squatting in the region and traversing the trails. Many murders occurred as well. The blame in most histories has been placed on the tribes in nearly all cases. But a more complete retelling of the surrounding context of why the tribes took the actions they did would bring clarity to the history of the Rogue River Wars. This is only a short summary of the issues.

First, there was not only one or two wars, but actually three wars in the Rogue River area. The first was in 1850-1851, when the first gold prospectors took the field in the region and there was constant fighting back and forth. This war was somewhat ended by the first Joseph Lane Treaty of 1850 and the treaty negotiations of 1851 with Anson Dart. The promises of peace and getting payments for the land that the Americans were squatting on and taking without payment was enough to pause the war for about a year. When it became clear that the treaty of 1851 was a failed project and no payment would result, the tribes began again to take “forced payments” for the illegal squatting of the Americans. Thefts and attacks continued as the tribes exacted their forced lease fees and tried to drive the Americans from their lands. The second war was in 1853, a short month long conflict, where the tribes again tried to force the Americans to leave, the subject of this essay. The third war was from 1855 to 1856, when the Rogue River Confederacy left the Table Rock Reservation and fought the U.S. Army to a near standstill at Big Bend. After this third war, the tribes surrendered and removed to the Coast and Grand Ronde reservations.

The lands of all of the Oregon during this period were still solely owned by the tribes and their laws, customs, and cultures were the most valid in the region. The tribes’ previous occupation was even part of U.S. land law which recognizes aboriginal land title as the first title to any lands the indigenous peoples occupied. It was the custom among all tribal people (and really all people in the world) to be respectful of other tribes in their places they claimed and these customs were ignored by the American squatters, hence causing many conflicts.

Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Oregon Indians, noted the cause of the conflicts in the region in a report in 1853, when he is appealing to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to approve the purchase of the land title from the tribes, as a way of maintaining peace.

The Rogue River Tribe of Indians are among the most powerful tribes on this coast, and have been held in great dread by travellers by passing through their country, and as they occupy a country traversing by the trail and road from the settlements in Oregon to California frequent murders and robberies have been committed by them and the surrounding tribes rendering it necessary till within the last two years for travellers to assemble in large companies when passing through the country claimed by them.

Upon the discovery of gold in California and more locally in Southern Oregon great numbers of our citizens have entered their country for the purposes of mining, and recently as permanent settlers. This has led to frequent controversies between the settlers and natives in which the lives of many of both parties have been sacrificed.

In 1851 a state of actual war between the whites and Indians existed and after several skirmishes and battles a treaty of peace was affected, and for a short time peace was maintained.

But our citizens were then crowding into that region, excited by the hope of immediate gain in the pursuit of gold. But little respect was paid to the rights of the Indians, hence misunderstandings Jealousies , criminations, and recriminations followed in rapid succession, until all hope of an amicable adjustment was dissipated and a resort to arms followed as the only means of redressing grievances. 

They justly complained that the whites had driven them from their homes and deprived them of their usual means of subsistence, and said, if any thing was to be paid them as a remuneration for their losses, it should be now when they were in need- that in a few years they would all be dead- then the price of their country could profit them nothing.” (Joel Palmer Oct. 8th 1853)

Concerning lawless squatting; many have expressed a feeling that maybe the settlers and minors did not know what the laws were. It is entirely possible that they did not know that the land was still owned by the tribes. It is more likely that they knew but simply did not care. There was no police or military police or any other security force who was going to keep them in line and the lure of gold wealth and their sheer numbers emboldened so many to invade the territory. The U.S. army was unwilling to hold Americans accountable for their actions, and Palmer himself noted that it was impossible to hold whites accountable through the court system which simply threw out all cases of murder of natives by whites. The U.S. Army knew what the law was as expressed by Major Benjamin Alvord.

“The Oregon Land law of the 27 September provides for the donation of land to actual settlers and for the survey and confirmation of these claims west of the Cascades Mountains. But it is contended that the 4th section of said act actually encourages and confirming the claims for such settlement except those on the west of said mountains. Squatters east of those mountains, assert the right to settle and to a donation, only acknowledging that they must wait further legislation to obtain a survey and confirmation of said claims.

On the other hand in a proviso to the 1st section of the Act of 14th of August 1848, to establish the territorial government of Oregon it is provided that “nothing in this act contained shall be so construed as to impair the right of persons or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty law or otherwise, which would have been competent to the Government to make if this act had never passed.”

I would respectfully submit whether under these laws this portion of the territory is to be considered open to settlement by the whites before any treaties have been affected with the Indians.” (March 31 1853 Benjamin Alvord, Maj., see this essay for additional context)

During the second Rogue River war, the fighting began in early August 1853 and continued into September, to end on September 8th. The tribes signed at that time a Peace treaty with Palmer, and two days later signed a land cession treaty for all claims to their lands.  John F. Miller, Captain of Company “A,” a Oregon volunteer militia, describes this war.

“… fall of 1853 took part in the Rogue River Indian War of that year. I acted as captain of company “A” of Oregon Volunteers in that service. … hostilities commenced on or about the 2nd day of August 1853 by certain Indians belonging to “Tipseys Band” so called killing one Edwards a settler on the publick lands in said valley, and shooting cattle etc. Tipseys Band was understood to be acting at that time on concert with the other Indians of the Rogue River Valley in commencing and carrying on an offensive war of extermination against all the whites of said valley. The hostilities mentioned were characterized by the murder of white settlers, burning their houses and other property, killing and driving off stock, etc. … I learned the facts here stated relative to the combination of various bands of Indians in said war from conversation with the principal chief of said Rogue River tribe.” (John F. Miller, 1/3/1855)

Following the treaty of September 10, 1853, the Rogue River tribes were moved onto the Table Rock Reservation. In 1855, Palmer seated a commission to make decisions regarding paying U.S. citizens for depredations committed against them by the Rogue River and their allies. Their report is submitted February 10, 1855, only 10 days after they convened.During the commission hearings, some 83 affidavits were heard, which amounted to about $45,000 in depredation claims.  An additional 21 claims were received by 1856.


The Commissioners were, A.C. Gibbs, L.F. Grover, and George H. Ambrose.

George H. Ambrose, was an Indian agent at the Table Rock Reservation. His tenure is marred by allegations that he stole money and misused the labor of the tribes on the reservation. He is fired by Palmer, and there was a long trial and many affidavits collected. Ambrose made the Rogue River People grow crops on the reservation, hay and wheat, and then would sell these products to the settlers in the area. He possibly pocketed the money made in this enterprise and did not fairly pay the tribes at all.

Addison C. Gibbs was  Oregon Territorial Legislative member and customs collector living in Gardiner, on the Umpqua River. He later becomes The the second Governor of Oregon (1862-66) and United States district attorney.

La Fayette Grover, was an attorney from Salem and invested in woolens. He was a Governor of Oregon (1870-1877, 2 terms), and served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1859) and in the U.S. Senate (1877-83).


The basis for the commission is found in the 1853 Treaty of Peace. The treaty is referenced in the 1853 Rogue River treaty of cession, which makes the Peace Treaty connected to the cession treaty of 1853.

Cession treaty Sept. 10, 1853, Article 3: The United States agree to pay to the aforesaid tribe the sum of sixty thousand dollars, fifteen thousand of which sum to be retained (according to the stipulations of Article 4# of a treaty of Peace made and entered into on the 8th day of September 1853 between Gen. Jo Lane, Commanding forces of Oregon Territory, and Jo Principal chief, Sam & Jim Subordinate chiefs on the part of the Rogue River tribe of Indians by  the Superintendent of Indian affairs to pay for the property of the whites destroyed by them during the late war, the amount of property so destroyed to be estimated by three disinterested commissioners to be appointed by the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, or otherwise as the  President my direct.

Peace Treaty, Sept. 8th 1853, Article 4: It is further stipulated that when their right to the above described country is purchased from the Indians by the United States, a portion of the purchase money shall be reserved to pay for the property of the whites destroyed by them during the war, not exceeding fifteen thousand dollars.

The Depredation Commission goals and considerations are here summarized,

Commission appointed to examine and audit the claims of citizens for property destroyed by the Rogue River Indians during the war of 1853.

The amount and character of those claims are such as to demand a careful and thorough investigation; that none based on justice and equity, and established by proper proofs may be sifted out and rejected.

The military board of commissioners at the close of the war was appointed appraisers to fix a value on the property destroyed by Indians during the war, which was done.

It may be proper for the board to determine whether the first acts of aggression against the citizens were committed by this tribe or by transient persons from other tribes…

Unless it can be made appear that the Rogue Rivers had some hand in these first acts of aggression, it would be unjust to hold them accountable for wrongs committed by others over whom they had not control.

Should this appropriate exceed the amount of legitimate claims under the provisions of treaty, the residue belongs to the tribe, and will be upended for their use and benefit.

Article fourth: it is stipulated that when the right of the above described country is purchased from the Indians by the United States, a portion of the purchase money shall be reserved to pay for the property of the whites, destroyed by them during the war, not exceeding fifteen thousand dollars. (Treaty of 10th September 1853; Copies of Treaty Proceedings and Depredation Claims, 1851-1856 https://catalog.archives.gov/id/178206162)

Carefully reading through the commission’s tasks and the many affidavits and evidentiary statements from American citizens who lost property, there surfaces a few problems.

First the commission was not convened to fairly and justly decide the fault of the destruction of property during the war. But, there was no testimony from all of the tribes stating their version of events in the war, or the reasons for their actions. The only statements and perspectives are from white men who were involved in the war and have a stake in the outcome of the commission proceedings. There was no attempt to call on any tribal people, and there were not any consideration of the factors outlined by Palmer and Alvord above, that the Americans had been illegally squatting on tribal lands, and they had lost their houses and use of many of their original food resources to the invasion of their country by the Americans. The commission is operating in appearance as a trial of the actions of the tribes against Americans and their property but there is no representation for the legal rights of the tribes during the proceedings. The tribes involved in the war never have an opportunity to address the many reasons they felt forced to take the actions they took to destroy the property of the squatters. It is especially important to note this since the funds of the tribe contained in their ratified treaty are at stake.

There seems to be an underlying assumption from the beginning that the tribes are at fault, and no testimony is given representing the losses of the tribes to white American encroachment in these lands. This is indeed confusing since it is largely Joel Palmer who convened the commission, and it is clear in his report above that he knew the cause of the violence was in the encroachment of whites into this country. But it is also a fact that the tribes were not citizens, even the treaty signed after the war did not make them citizens, so they had few rights within the United States. And, stating this, we must realize that even though the Oregon Territory was claimed by the United States, it still was not owned by the United States at all. There were no treaties to purchase lands ratified and valid at the time of this war. The Rogue River Treaty of 1853 is the first to be negotiated for the whole of the west coast. The treaty is not ratified until February 5th 1855, therefore the tribes of Oregon owned all of their lands until the date of ratification.

The tribes acted in great violence during this month-long war and destroyed many properties working to drive the Americans from their lands. Many people died during this war. But besides the Treaty of Peace negotiated by General Joseph Lane in 1850, there were no agreements in place at the time of this war of 1853. One of the many reasons the tribes may have had to attack the Americans was the fact that the volunteer militias were attacking tribes, destroying villages, and in many instances committing genocidal acts as they sought to exterminate the tribes altogether. This desire to exterminate the tribes was a general feeling among many settlers in Oregon.

The people now demand an extermination of the hostile Indians, and are resolved not to stop short of it. Indians are shot down wherever they are found. Martin Angell, late of Oregon City, shot one from his door the day Mr. E. Left. He says he saw no less than ten or twelve bodies of Indians lying by the side of the road leading from Jacksonville north. (Oregonian 8/27/1853)

The eventual amount charged against the tribes for depredations is more than $45,000 but the fund is only $15,000 in the treaty. It remains to be seen where the additional funds came from, but many claims went unpaid for years. It is likely that the Superintendents for Indian Affairs in Oregon, after Palmer resigned, were made to pay these claims from later disbursements from the Congress and out of other treaty and reservation funds. The depredations claims payments would have added to the expenses of the reservations in Oregon and reduced the funds available to the Indian agents to purchase foods and supplies for the tribes, further casting the tribes into poverty. This has to be a contributing factor in the extreme poverty conditions experienced at the two western Oregon reservations until the 1870s (see other essays in the blog for documentation of the conditions at the reservations).

There was no attempt by any federal officials to investigate the losses of the tribes to illegal settlement by American citizens and pay them back for losses of land, homes, and murders of their people by American squatters on their lands. The tribes were not “citizens” and so they had no one to act in their favor to legally and financially regain their losses, from the invasion of their lands. As tribal people they did not know the U.S. laws, did not know they had rights to legal representation, and so there was not a legal challenge to the United States for the illegal actions of American citizens until a Indian Claims Commission lawsuits of the 20th century. The Indian Claims lawsuits were generally only for taking of lands, non-payment for lands, or misuse of money, not for the extreme hardships experienced by the tribal people on the reservations caused in large part by the actions and in-actions of the United States, its citizenry, and its agents. Without appropriate legal representation, the tribes were assumed to be at fault for the war, and made to pay for losses out of the funds they were to receive for the sale of their lands. The funds they received, $60,000 in total, were not extravagant, and so this left the tribe, once removed to the Grand Ronde and Coast Reservations, very poor for years while they adjusted to reservation life.

 

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