Persistence of Genocide Upon the Chetco People

The Chetco Indians, perhaps more than nearly any other tribe on the Oregon coast, were repeatedly attacked by racist white settlers before their removal. In a previous set of essays I presented the story of the Tolowa and Chetco massacres by a group of paid vigilante militia, perhaps members of the famous Red Caps who committed similar atrocities to the Yurok, and other tribes on the Klamath river. They were certainly the same men who committed genocide at the Tolowa village of Yontocket. On the Chetco river the two villages at Chit were burned, more than twenty people killed on February 15th 1853 and in the period immediately following conflicts. The vigilantes set fire to the Chetco village in the early morning hours then shot them as the Native people worked to escape the blazes. This genocide was perpetuated by A.F. Miller, who had purposefully settled in the Chetco village (arrived in 1853 with several other immigrants from Michigan including Christian Tuttle and James Haggert (Pioneer History of Coos and Curry Counties Orvil Dodge, 51)) and worked to develop a coastal port and town, offering supplies and services to gold miners and settlers. The Chetco people were his direct competitors and would not do his bidding and so he arranged to have them destroyed. Miller was largely successful because thereafter Chetco bands would regularly hide in the Coast mountains leaving the Coastal plain under the control of Miller and other white men.

Chetko Cove in this USGS map September 1873, showing Miller’s property and the Indian Camp perhaps being the village of Chit. Chit was originally two encampments on either side of the estuary. The Chetco had remained hidden in the Coast Range for years after the removal of tribes in 1856, and many forced removals of them occurred. The last documented forced removal was 1871-72 by Joel Palmer but he only found about a dozen people. Their persistance in their traditional territory into 1873 is significant. In 1877 tribes removed to the Coast Reservation who had been party to the Coast Treaty of 1855 were released, because the treaty was never ratified and there was no legal mechanism to keep the tribes imprisoned on the reservation.

The genocidal actions of Miller and his vigilantes were horrendous enough, but the matter was made infinitely worse when the local District court at Port Orford refused to hear testimony from the Chetco people about the massacre of their people. Miller lost support among his fellow settlers and was arrested by Indian Agent Parrish, and briefly jailed at Port Orford, but the court released him. Reasons for his release are difficult to find, but the Oregon courts could refuse to hear testimony from people who only spoke a native language they could not understand and the Chetco people did not speak English.

Miller was subsequently arrested and placed in the custody of the military at Port Orford, but on his examination before a justice of the Peace, was set at large, on the grounds of justification and lack of sufficient testimony to commit.

The release of Miller was a travesty of justice, and in a country which purports to be a nation of laws, for the court to ignore serious and genocidal offenses of its citizens against other people suggests that a nation of laws is not the reality for Indigenous peoples. That the laws are differently applied and may be ignored if people are white and American citizens and they commit crimes on non-citizens or non-whites. This is exactly the historic problem with the American justice system, which continues to the present day. This is also the primary issue which caused the Rogue River Indian war, and likely most “Indian Wars,” the unwillingness of the U.S. to hold their citizens accountable for their actions, and the tribes fighting back against that system when they see unequal justice happening to them. The Rogue River tribes had agreed to live in peace and follow the law, call the U.S. President their President, and when they were attacked and their people murdered, while living peacefully, the white men responsible were never arrested nor held at all accountable.

For the Chetcoes, they were living and dying in the lie of American justice. And the offenses did not stop, in 1854 Indian Agent Ben Wright reported at length offenses against more Chetco people by a Mr Tutle (Tuttle). Tutle is identified by Wright in his report as the man who had originally released Miller from custody a year earlier and had arrived the previous year with Miller from Michigan.

November 19th 1854, Ben Wright

“… Mr Tutle who is certainly the meanest man in existence, he being the person to have Miller arrested and then commuted, a worse deed than ever has been done in the country before or since. I give you the case as related by Mr. Miller and others. There was an Indian from Illinois Valley belonging to Mr. Culver’s district came on a visit being related to the Chetcoe Indians and was staying with them for a time. Stole a powder horn belonging to Mr. Tutle, they caught the Indian and whipped him. Shortly after a friend of the Indians, who was whipped form Illinois Valley went to the house of Mr. Tutle in company with 2 Chetcoe Indians, one which was a chief. When they arrived at the house Mr. Tutle said that the Illinois Indian had threatened to kill him and he intended to kill him and closed the door and commenced disarming them. Mr. James Haggart being present told Mr. Tutle not to kill the Chetkoe Indians. When Mr. Tutle replied that he intended to kill them all, the Chetkoe Chief started to follow Mr. Haggart out and Mr. Tutle pushed him back and remarked you D…d [damned?] old rascal you have got to die to and did kill them all after disarming them. The Indians did not offer to resent but fled to the hills and came to see me to know what to do at the time I had no authority to do anything and the mater rests in that way. The Indians say they are content if I say so, but I intend visiting them again shortly with authority to do something for them if possible. It is my opinion that the most of the Indians in this district will be short of possessions if it should be a hard winter as the rain fell early in the midst of their fishing season destroying all their dams or fisheries on the rivers. They also have not the same number of canoes and not the same perseverance which they formerly had. They devote to much of their time among the whites working for clothing and articles of not so much value as provision to them which you cannot get them to forward only for the present. Every day provide for itself which is their doctrine.” (RG75 M234 1854)

Christian Tuttle, clearly did not like the tribal people and had by 1854 been through a year of conflicts with the Chetco. His racism is very apparent as he killed all of the Natives who sought to confront him about the punishment of the Indian from Illinois Valley. It is likely the chief and his companions were not there to intimidate but to find a way to resolve the conflict and bring back the peace. But since Tuttle was unwilling to listen to them they were likely surprised and murdered. The appearance of Miller, suggests that he remained in power after the massacre of the Chetco in 1853, and Tuttle felt emboldened. Tuttle was unlikely to be held responsible for his actions perhaps lying that they had threatened him. Ben Wright was attempting to help the tribes and while they appeared to trust him and listen to his advice, he is killed in a conflict in 1855 on the coast. It is the racist attitudes of the white people who moved to Oregon that perpetuated the wars against the tribes.

Deniers have approached me at times and said that conflict was inevitable, or that it was the tribes who were at fault. But none of those thoughts make much sense. It was not the tribes who were moving into lands owned for millenia by white people, taking their lands and resources. If there had not been these movements and the subsequent actions to destroy the tribes the wars would not have happened. Tribes were very used to people coming to live amongst them and would in time accept them. In 1853, the Chetco did not raise a resistance to the settlement of the Michigan party on their lands. This is the case nearly everywhere with the tribes who are initially curious and wanting to understand the new things the white people brought with them. But it is in the actions of the resettlers toward disempowering and destroying the tribes, their economic competition, that conflicts and war arises.

See also

DG Lewis, TJ Connolly – Oregon Historical Quarterly, 2019

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