Palmer Strategizes Treaty-Making, 1853

In 1853 Joel Palmer, newly appointed Indian Superintendent of Oregon, was working to keep the peace between the tribes and settlers in Oregon. The plan was to remove the tribes and allow the settlers to take their lands so that the natural resources may be better used. Palmer was in full agreement of his role to help colonize the Indians and in his many letters philosophized extensively about the benefits of assimilating the tribes to civilization. But Palmer was also a humanist and wanted to tribes to be fairly dealt with by the white Americans. He saw them as people who deserved their rights under the law.

The following excepts from Palmer’s 1853 report lay out his personal philosophy of influencing the tribes to accept treaties. His remarks seem reasonable but naive. The naive assumption that the white American settlers and the US Government would treat the tribes fairly, and that wisdom would be the measure and manner in which the tribes are to be managed is a huge mistake on his part. White settlers did not at all care about the rights of tribes, and the federal government did not have the will to police their own citizens when they committed outrageous and public acts of violence against the tribes. The US Military labored under the issue of laws which disallowed military actions in civil matters. So there was no way to force the white settlers and gold miners to act appropriately, to obey the laws, except to fully remove the tribes from the vicinity of the settlers. It is only this solution that is pursued by Palmer under federal orders. Even the churches declined to stress fair treatment of the tribal, so their decline and perhaps extinction is inevitable. This reasoning seems to approximate that of social evolutionary theory in anthropology, which is understandable because many early anthropologists could not extricate their personal religious bias from their scientific work.

Palmer’s idealistic strategy of the fair treatment of tribes perhaps shows his “white privilege” a problem which has become quite apparent in recent decades and is an inherent problem with being the member of the preferred race, skin, religion, and political lean. It is difficult for people who labor under white privilege to imagine anything beyond their own status in society and when presented with the notion of racism they may be somewhat dismissive and confused. In the historic situation there is quite a bit of white settler privilege, because as white Americans, they get beneficial laws passed to allow them to gain free land, the laws are all written for their benefit, their religions set them up to be the most civilized race of people, and they only see opportunities for wealth in everything they do. The experiences of the tribes is quite the opposite, they labor under imposed laws they did not accept, they have no rights to land, they have no recourse when they are wronged as courts are rarely open to them, they are apt be murdered at any time, they must accept whatever conditions they are handed by Indian agents, and their are no prospects for their own futures. The only path the tribes are given is to convert to Christianity, become farmers, and accept alien status for decades with a slight hope they may become US citizens. I imagine only a handful of Native people who were alive when the treaties were ratified ever made it to citizenship and having full rights in 1924.

(Please note I use the term White because that is what they called themselves, their own label.)

Commentary is made in-text for the following quotes.

“In treating with the tribes, the season of the year has its influence. At some seasons their wants are so easily and abundantly supplied that no proposition for purchasing their lands, or for their removal however extravagant would receive their favorable regard. At other seasons their wants are so numerous and pressing, that they yield a ready ear to terms and comply with such as may be dictated. This remarks applies to the tribes of the Lower Columbia and of the Willamette and Umpqua valleys.”

This paragraph is a remarkable read. It is true that most of the treaties in 1855 were made in the winter when conditions were harsh. But also I wonder if we can see signs of this in the treatment of the tribes. Did the volunteer militia attack and stress the tribes so badly that they agreed to treaties to save themselves from genocide? Many of Palmer’s communiques were copied and sent to the territorial officials, like Governor Curry, and so the strategies in the annual reports could easily influence a program of oppression so severe that tribes would agree to anything to bring peace and safety. (This is a very common strategy in modern warfare.) The removal of the tribes to the Coast and Grand Ronde was the solution because they were promised, at very least verbally, they would be protected from further assaults from the white population. The protection of the reservations was a successful program, largely saving many tribes from complete extermination. But this does not at all excuse the behavior of settlers and the Federal government in perpetuating and allowing violence on tribes to occur. Later in the report, Palmer noted he did not know enough about the Southern Oregon tribes to make similar strategies for treaty-making. And he lauded General Joseph Lane for his treaty making skills, noting Lane would not over promise to the tribes, which garnered him some measure of respect.

“They must be removed and instructed in the arts of civilization and brought under the influence of wise and wholesome laws, in order to be perpetuated, otherwise they will speedily perish on the graves of their fathers in order to make them the recipients of these benefits, the period of their most pliant mood must be seized upon, and all engagements made with them, promptly carried into effect.”

Yes, again, soften them up under the threat of death and genocide, but again, Palmer’s naive notion of “wise and wholesome laws,” would not take place before the 1970s, some 120 years after this period, when laws were being passed in the United States that gave tribal people rights to education, their own religions, fishing, preservation of their cultural artifacts, administration of tribal children, and other acts meant to allow tribes and Native people equal rights under the laws. Citizenship in 1924 would not be enough, because severe racism and paternalism continued to hamstring their rights for decades.

“As to the better mode of treating, nothing I apprehend could be more ridiculous and absurd than pomp and display in treating with the miserable bands and remnants of tribes in the region last referred to. The most simple and economical approach on our part becomes their condition, and will alone secure the prompt completion of contracts with families, bands and tribes so feeble and so numerous. Let their usual places of residence be visited when practicable, and when they are isolated and scattered as to render this impracticable, let them be collected at places as contiguous to their homes as possible and their treated with, not with a view of indulging their savage whims and favors but with an eye to their permanent good and if possible, their elevation in the social scale of humanity.”

Continuation from the first quoted paragraph, But Palmer has a measure of honor and respect for the tribes in his comments. he knows they may be influenced with respectful treatment rather than force, to remove willingly (carrot vs stick). Then his wisdom is displayed in his phrasing of influencing them with notion of their “permanent good.” However again his naivety shows when he mentions “elevation in social scale,” which should properly be interpreted as an unfulfillable negotiation strategy, rather than a promise, because this has yet to occur for may Native communities in the United States.

“The practice now so general of making presents to Indians has I believe rather an injurious tendency than otherwise, as it has created the impression extensively among the Indians, that the Government is bound to continue the practice as long as they remain among us, and while thus supplied they are less inclined to treat for the sale of their lands and submit to removal. It also tends to foster indolent habits, as they are not inclined to industry and economy while their wants can be otherwise supplied. Presents in some instances appears necessary and proper to conciliate the good will of the Indian, reward his good conduct, or incline him to peace; but the practice has evidently been much abused, and is at best of little utility.”

Similar notions like this are common today in debates about aid for poor people as welfare recipients. Many times Native people are in this situation, and at times in history Tribes have been labelled as welfare recipients, an argument which helped create the Termination policy of the United States in 1952. And there is a layer of truth of welfare in some reservation cultures, where Native people grow up living off federal subsidies and nowadays, casino profits. I have seen communities and families stuck under the notion that somehow they are owed much from the federal government and the irregular gaining of some benefit dissuades people from seeking their own careers beyond the reservation economy. But this is a minority of people and we are looking at this purely from a lens of American culture. In Palmer’s comment we need to use a tribal cultural lens, because tribes were not Americans, were not Christians, were not farmers and so Palmer here is under a bias perspective in his assessment. Tribal people did not have to labor constantly for food like people in agricultural societies, and this is why Palmer is wrong. They are not lazy, they simply do not have to be constantly working. It is his earlier comments about assimilation that are hinted at because it will take some decades of assimilation to socialize the tribal people to become farmers and Christians.


All quoted content from Dec. 14, 1853 report copy; M234, R 608.

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