Early Settlement Period

As was related in the previous article, most white contact with our people before 1845 or so was fleeting, consisting of traders, trappers, explorers of different sorts, with some areas being impacted by the occasional cattle drive from California to the Willamette Valley. The exceptions to this limited type of contact were the groups along the Columbia, Willamette & Umpqua Rivers, where fur trading forts, missionary stations and early farms, grist and lumber mill operations – associated with those settlements – were congregated. Our people in the areas where the contact was more frequent apparently didn’t outright object to strangers using some of the land and resources. Wanting mainly to only be protected in their rights.

There should not have been much need for concern. In 1787, the United States Congress passed the “Northwest Ordinance” or “Utmost Good Faith” law, which was to guide frontier policy with Indian tribes. It promised that Indian people in areas of interest to the United States, would be protected in their rights and property, that the Indians would not be invaded or disturbed unless by just and lawful wars authorized by Congress. Congressional timing in its subsequent legislation however did not always follow the spirit of the more well meaning NW Ordinance.

The United States and Great Britain hammered out an agreement in 1846, which determined the territorial boundaries recognized by the two governments (the present border between Canada and the United States). Neither country seemed to take into account that they were talking about our lands. The U.S. was able to push the boundary that far north, in part, because so many U.S. citizens had already come across the Oregon Trail to settle, primarily in the Willamette Valley (about 900 in 1843 and another 3,000+ in 1845). The boundary dispute being settled with Great Britain encouraged even more settlers to make the trek, so that by August 1848, Congress passed the Organic Act – which created Oregon Territory.

Joseph Lane was installed as the first Governor of the Territory and had additional responsibilities as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His first duty in Indian Affairs was to attempt a census (find out who the tribes were, where they lived, how many members there were to each Tribe, etc.) so that he could develop an Indian Policy. The census project alone was a monumental task if you consider that Oregon Territory, as it was created, encompassed what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Before Governor Lane could get too far with developing policy, Congress acted again. In September of 1850, Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act, which promised title to large parcels of land in Oregon to U.S. emigrants. Congress directly threw all hopes of orderly settlement away with the passage of this act. Although some land had already been claimed by individuals under the temporary land laws, their claims weren’t guaranteed to be recognized until the passage of the ODLA.

Under the Oregon Donation Land Act, about 2,500,000 acres of our lands would be claimed by settlers. Many settlers were not opposed to violent eviction or outright murder of our people if we occupied the best locations. Resistance to the brutality gained a reputation of savagery for many of our tribes, and it was became common practice, if not “sport” in some districts (particularly southern Oregon) to shoot at all native people who came into view.

Congress, though probably not particularly concerned about the situation, made a feeble attempt to repair the error of giving away Indian lands without any treaties ceding those lands to the United States, by passing an act creating the Oregon Superintendency of Indian Affairs. The Office of Superintendent was established and Anson Dart appointed to that position. His direction from Congress was to get the Tribes most directly in the path of settlement (western Oregon) to sign treaties, agreeing to cede all of their (our) lands, and remove to the Central Oregon Desert, where a permanent reservation would be established for them (us).

These are some of the events and situations leading into the treaty-making period of 1851-1855. Which the next article will describe in detail.