In the years following the Oregon Indian wars of the 1850s, there were continuous claims by settler for losses due to Indian depredations. The claims were many, at one point reach well above $30,000 in unpaid claims. The budget for paying these claims was not created until they began coming in. The Indian agents were told to pay the claims out of the Oregon Indian Affairs budgets. Normally the claims were for a few hundred dollars, sometimes over one thousand. There were some investigations of the claims but in years following the war, many details would be lost to time. In the following newspaper article, the report shows that the facts of the wars upon the Indians of Oregon by white settler are correctly and accurately told to Congress by a Senator from New York Thomas R. Whitney. Whitney’s point is that the massacres are the result of the actions of violent white people, not the Native people, and as such they do not deserve reimbursements for their wars upon the Indians. That they may in fact be taking advantage of the law to get some money from the feds, a thesis that has much legitimacy.
The fact that in many states of the West, Indian fighters were paid for their expenses and losses through federal and state programs is well known for California and Oregon. These “Redskins” laws, allowed militiamen to turn in scalps in some cases to prove they had killed an Indian and therefore had expenses. Indians were thought of as being naturally savage and violent and if they were killed by a white man, “it was probably deserved.” Massacring villages of the tribes was a common occurrence all through Northern California and in some parts of Oregon and Washington territories. Massacres solved a few problems for the settlers, eliminating economic and land ownership competitors and eliminating the expenses of feeding and caring for the tribes if they are removed to reservations/rancherias. Native people were thought of by many whites like vermin, in need of extermination.
Reading through Whitney’s speech and I wish he had carried forward his argument about the attempted genocide of the tribes to some sort of recompense to the tribes. But his only goal, it seems, was to stop the payments to settlers who participated in the attacks on the tribes. For these details to be read publicly in Congress and then published in local newspapers is a significant act in itself.
(Oregon Statesman, Salem, Oregon Territory, April 14, 1857, 1)
House of Representatives, Tuesday Feb. 26, 1857
Mr. Whitney: I now call the attention of the House to one of the causes of this increased expenditure. … extracts of a report of Mr. F.M. Smith to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, dated Port Orford, Oregon Territory, February 5, 1854, in relation to a “fight”- perhaps it should be called a “battle”- which took place between the whites and Indian on the Coquille River, in that year.
At the down of the day in the morning of the 28th of January, the party at the ferry, joined by about twenty men from the upper mines, organized under command of George H. Abbot, with H.H. Soap as first lieutenant, and in three detachments marched upon the Indian ranches, and consummated a most inhuman slaughter. The Indians were aroused from their sleep to meet their death, with but feeble show of resistance; they were shot down as they were attempting to escape their homes, fifteen men and one squaw killed; two squaws were badly wounded. On the part of the white men, not even the slightest wound was received. The houses of the Indians, with but one exception, were fired and entirely destroyed. Thus was committed a massacre too inhuman to be readily believed.”
“On reading of the proceedings of the upper mines, you will observe that it had been reported there that a large quantity of fire-arms and powder was destroyed in the burning of the Indian ranches. This report, of course, was sent up by the party engaged in the measure. I do not hesitate to pronounce the statement false- false in every particular. Bold brave courageous men to attack a friendly and defenseless tribe of Indians: to burn, roast, and shoot sixteen of their number; and all on suspicion that they were about to rise and drive from their country three hundred white men!”
Now sir I have the report of the gallant officer in command of that expedition- Abbott. His report is very graphic. I will not detain the House by reading the whole of it. He closed by saying;
“A company of forty volunteers was raised, of which I was chosen captain, and intrusted with the command of the party- A. F. Soap first lieutenant and William H. Packwood second lieutenant- for the purpose of chastising the Indians. The Indian village is in three different parts, situated on both sides of the river, about one and half miles from the mouth. I divided the company into three detachments, and attacked them at all three points simultaneously, this morning at daylight. We were perfectly successful in surprising them, (the Indians). From the accounts, and from my personal observation, fifteen Indians were killed, their houses destroyed etc. We took all the women and children and old men prisoners, as far as possible. I have sent out three squaws for the purpose of offering terms of friendship, if they wish it. The greatest regularity was observed during the whole of the proceedings; the authority of the officers was fully observed and men, that they behaved themselves like soldiers and avoided innocent bloodshed as much as possible.”
This is the Nasomah Massacre of January 1854. The Coquille band at the Village of Nasomah were in the dead of winter and would have had every reason to remain inside their plankhouses. The Massacre was an attempt to exterminate the tribe, and is remarkably similar to the acts perpetrated on the Chetco Villages at Chit a few years before, as well as the massacres on the Tolowa Indians of Northern California. Packwood above is the ancestor of Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Nasomah Village site was at what is now the Coquille Bay at Bandon, sometimes sited on the south bank and sometimes on the north bank in various accounts.
“I almost forgot to say that our loss was none, in either killed, wounded, or prisoners. The Indians are in sight, hovering around the ashes of their homes.”
Here sir, we are informed of an attack made by “civilized” white men upon three defenseless villages of friendly “savage” Indians. The assault was made at dawn of day, when the Inmates of the wigwams were asleep. They were shot down in their efforts to escape, and their buildings, their homes, were put to the torch, and reduced to ashes! Sir, in my opinion, this “Indian war” occurred one morning on the Coquille river, ought, at an average estimate, to be worth at least a quarter of a million dollars to that Territory.
The ”point” of my argument, I will inform the gentlemen from Georgia (Mr. Seward) is, that as the whites are the sole instigators of these Indian disturbances, they have no claim for redress upon the government; and therefore these appropriations ought not to be made.
I have no doubt these exposures will prove distasteful to many gentlemen. I mean to say that the appropriations called for are on this precise ground of Indian hostilities- hostilities provoked by white men. Here is a whole Indian village broken up, and sixteen of their people murdered in cold blood, and we are called upon to pay the expenses of the massacre! Yes, sir, this is one of the class of claims that this Government is called upon to pay.
Mr. Lane: I wish to state to the gentleman that I have steadily refused to introduce a bill for any such purpose, even in respect to the Indians in the Rogue River valley.
Whitney above is putting up a good case for the rights of the Native peoples. Historians of this period seem to have missed his speech and outrage at the attacks on defenseless Native people. Lane, the sole senator from Oregon can say little in defense of the actions of the Volunteer militia in committing genocide on the peaceful natives. There was a general state of conflict in the region from just before the time gold was discovered to the removal of the tribes in 1856. The white settlers (this is what they called themselves) clearly wanted to get rid of the natives, their economic rivals, and take sole claim to coastal and riverine lands so they may find gold or gain wealth through ranching, farming, or offering services to gold miners. Captain Tichenor, who had established Port Orford, had this as a clear goals, as was the reasoning for establishing the town of Brookings as well as setting fore to the Chetco villages there. Economic dominance was the goal, to do this they needed to take away the land and degrade the tribe with false excuses for genocide. The legacy of the Nasomah Massacre was removal of the “violent” Coquille Indians, and removal of the rest north to the Coast Reservation, so that the settlers could take the estuary to create the present town of Bandon, and other small towns. There was never a ratified treaty to pay the tribe for their lands; they had to wait nearly 100 years for any payment, and then only after suing the Federal government.
Mr. Whitney: Sir, occurrences like this are what produce retaliation on the part of the Indians, and lead to what you call “wars.” Driven to desperation by repeated outrages, the red man turns upon his oppressor, and strikes the blow of revenge- This it is that your “Indian wars” in Oregon and Washington, have been brought about. What drove the Yakimas of Washington Territory to the revolt in 1856? What but the enforcement of an unrighteous treaty under the threat of extermination in case of refusal? What drove the friendly Walla Wallas and Cayuse to join the standard of the Yakimas, and make common cause against the whites? I answer the unprovoked cruelties of the Oregon volunteers.
Whitney here is accurate. There are numerous cases of tribes leaving the reservation to commit war because of the constant racist actions of local citizens and militia. For the tribes, they signed treaties to make peace and when attacked, they would think the treaties are worthless and broken. The Rogue Rivers in fact did this exact thing when on the Table Rock reservation, leaving after a years of begin preyed upon by local militia, in order that they might fight to take back their lands. This problem was noted by Wool and Palmer in the following excerpts.
The case just cited is but one of numerous similar cases which I have before me, from the files of the Indian bureau. I will call to mind that which occurred in 1852, at the Big Bar, on Rogue River. A difficulty had occurred which threatened to break out into open hostilities. Mr. Skinner, the agent, hearing of the difficulty, hastened to the scene to prevent a collision. I quote from his report:
“At this time two of my friends came across the river, and informed me that the whites were about to attack the Indians, and advised me to recross the river as soon as possible, as I should be entirely in the power of Indians in case of an attack.- I informed Sam that the whites were getting very impatient at the delay of the Indians, and that it was advisable for me to go over to talk to them. To this he appeared entirely willing. On recrossing the river I found most of the men mounted, and the greatest excitement prevailing. I informed them of what Sam had told me, but they refused to delay any longer, and proposed to shoot down the few Indians- some twenty or twenty-five- who had crossed over to us. Mr. Martin Angel, formerly of Oregon City, but now of this valley, for the purpose of saving the lives of Indians, proposed to take them prisoners. Most of the Indians being acquainted with him, readily consented to go with him to a log house, some two hundred yards from where they were; but, before they arrived at the house, the Indians became alarmed at the conduct of the whites, when one of them attempted to make his escape. Some allege that the Indian attempted to draw his bow; others that he attempted to draw his knife; and others who were present say that he attempted neither, but only endeavored to make his escape; a man by the name of John Galvin. One of the party from Shasta, fired upon him. The firing now became pretty general on both sides; many who were opposed to commencing the attack thinking it now necessary to fight in self-defense. Four of the prisoners were immediately killed; the balance made their escape. No white men were injured, so far as I have been able to learn.”
Governor John P. Gaines, writing to Dr. Dart, superintendent of Indian Affairs, under date, Rogue River, July 8, says: “It is highly important that an experienced agent be sent to this place immediately to reside here, not only to restrain and conciliate the Indians, but to watch the movements and properly dispose of infamous white men.”
“All the difficulties here are justly attributed to the latter class of persons, if any information can be relied upon.”
Here is an extract from Superintendent Dart’s letter to the department. Dated Oregon City, July 22, 1851. Speaking of the difficulties of getting an agent in the Rogue River district he says;
“I have, therefore been without any one to send there, during Mr. Spalding’s many months of illness. After writing me that he was well enough to enter upon his duties, I addressed him a letter but from causes unknown to me he did not go to his post- the Rogue River- until the last month.”
“I do not suppose, however that it would have been in the power of one man to entirely prevent the difficulty amongst men who look upon Indian as intruders, and as having no more rights in this country than wild beasts.”
Gen. Wool, in his letter to the Ass’t Adjutant General, under date Benicia, May 15, 1856, writes as follows. Make an extract only:
“Thus ended the winter campaign of Governor Curry. If there had been any Oregonian, or other white inhabitants, to protect or defend east of the Cascade Range of mountains, there might have been, perhaps, some excuse for his usurpation of power and raising troops, and making war beyond his own Territory and Jurisdiction.”
The following letter from Lieutenant Sheridan to Colonel Wright aids in illustration of my position:
Camp, Lower Cascades, Washington Terr. April 18, 1856
Sir: The bodies of the parties of Indians supposed to have been murdered, on or about the 4th of this month, were yesterday discovered a short distance from the road lending from the camp to the block-house, by a party sent from this camp under charge of Lieutenant Harvie. To-day, in obedience to your instructions, I buried the bodies, and made an examination of the manner in which they came to their death, and of the ground in the vicinity. The Indian Chief Spencer, identifies the bodies of his father, wife, child, and niece and two young men, Vancouver Indians- six in all. The men had their hands tightly lashed behind their backs, and were then strangled to death by short cords tied around their necks with slip knots, and then drawn tight by pulling both ends. The hands of the women were not tied, but they were strangled to death in the same manner; a silk handkerchief was used to strangle the child, a boy of three years old. The person of the young woman, from the position of her body and dress, was undoubtedly violated. I did not see her until she had been moved, but when first seen by the interpreter, Mr. Haiue, her body was in such a position as to leave no doubt that the above was the case. I feel satisfied that the parties were murdered by white men. I am, sir, your obedient servant, P.H. Sheridan
I would like to read now from another letter of Gen. Wool on this subject, dated San Francisco, May 4, 1856.
Mr. Lane. I object to General Wool being introduced here as testimony at all.
The Speaker. The Chair is of the opinion that this course of debate is not in order.
Mr. Lane. Very well. I will sit down.
Mr. Whitney, I am not surprised that the gentleman from Oregon should object to this testimony, but he has introduced matter in reference to Oregon and Washington, and I do not see why I should not be allowed to treat of the same subject. These extraordinary Indian appropriations are, as a general thing, all of the same character; and that which is applicable to the Territories of Oregon and Washington today maybe applicable to Nebraska next year. We cannot foresee events in that Territory; but we may employ our present experience in guarding against future error. The extract which I desired to read from General Wool’s letter is in the following words:
“The only obstacle in the way of entire success is the determination of the citizens and Governor Curry’s troops to exterminate the Indians, as may be discovered in reports of Joel Palmer, superintendent of Indian affairs in Oregon, and Lieutenant Sheridan, and to prolong the war, and for no other object than to promote the ends, and designs of political and pecuniary speculators. The latter are already in the market buying Oregon scrip at twenty, thirty, and thirty-five cents on the dollar. If the exterminating principle is not abandoned, I repeat that not a farmer will be left to till the ground in Oregon. All will be either killed or driven from their farms into cities or places of defense.”
Whitney is correct to point out Governor Curry in his account. Superintendent Palmer, allied with General Wool, were vocal against Curry’s actions in Oregon. Palmer and Wool blamed Curry for the wars upon the Indians, for causing the Rogue River and Walla Walla conflicts by not controlling their undisciplined Volunteer militia and allowing them to indiscriminately attack, and loot Indian villages, take their women and raping them. There was not ever justice for these tribes and none of the militia nor Curry ever paid a price for the massacres they perpetrated. Palmer was forced to resign in August 1856, in the midst of resettling the tribes on the reservations. The State of Oregon has never repudiated Governor Curry for fomenting massacres on the tribes of Oregon.
“Political and Pecuniary!” Sir, in the name of the country I thank General Wool- I thank the public officers, civil and military, in those territories, for the manly and frank manner in which they present the active motive upon which these Indian forays are fomented and kept up. Sir, I believe them. I believe these Indian wars are fomented for no other purpose than to create imaginary demands upon the Government treasury. I think, from information in my possession, that I am safe in saying that the war scrip issued by Governor Curry in Oregon and by Governor Stevens in Washington Territory, and for the adjustment of which a board of United States commissioners has been appointed, will amount in the former to $7,000,000, and in the latter $1,000,000 – not one farthing of which has any legal value, and very little of which ought, in my opinion, to be indorsed by this Government.
I have endeavored, sir, so far as my feeble condition would allow, to present to the House a correct view of this subject. I know it is imperfect. I have been beset with a storm of interruptions, and have not the physical strength to battle single-handed against the whole Democratic party in this house, in exposing these wholesale frauds upon the Treasury. For these reasons, and under the ruling of the Chair, I leave subject to the House, and to the judgement of the people.
In many instances the history of the tribes was never told in its entirety. Defendants of American history have said in many cases the historians and citizens of Oregon did not know the extent of the history, many details only known by federal officials and hidden from public viewing for 100 years or more. But in this case the history of violence was out in the open, publicly printed in the newspapers for all to read. Whether they believed the story, is hard to know. Readers from Oregon may have thought that their hero General Lane was not responsible, and this upstart senator from New York had no business airing these grievances. Thomas Whitney does not last long in his position, in fact 1857 was the last year of his posting, and he died in 1858. He was a writer and scholar and published several books, and I wonder if he had lived longer he might have done more for the tribes. Through his actions, airing the reports of the department of War and Indian affairs, he accurately told the Congress what was happening and gave them a chance to rectify it. For the next 100 years the tribes were forced onto reservations and given little for their ownership of vast territories of Oregon. Even today we suffer the loss of wealth and resources taken by settlers and never fully paid for fairly or appropriately on reservations, in fact stolen from many tribes who made decisions to remove to reservations rather than face extermination.