Executive Order, December 21, 1865

Concentrating on one particular action of the government towards our people and trying to adequately describe it is daunting. Part of the problem is that these snippets of history do not stand alone in time and context. All these situations relate to each other, not only because they are all part of the same story, but because many times there are patterns of involvement by the same people over and over. Also because there are trends and eras of federal Indian policy, other national & regional political and legislative movement that indirectly (but ultimately directly) affects our people. We also must not forget the power and influence that local attitudes of the general populous can have and the determination of some people when they are out to make a dollar. Just remember that there were generally several things going on in any governmental action towards our people. Usually included among those are politicians fishing for the votes of their constituency, federal economics, individual’s money-making schemes & other personal interests.

Having said all that, the action of President Andrew Johnson signing the Executive Order of December 21, 1865 was the result of several different things happening over the several years previous, and all must be weighed against the interpretation of the times regarding our legal history, rights, etc.

A couple of articles ago I discussed the establishment of the Coast (or Siletz) Reservation (its relationship to the treaties already ratified, how the Senate had delegated the power of creating our permanent reservation to the President – by specific language within the treaties, etc). Creating reservations and indeed the “Reservation System” as a policy was relatively new in the mid 1850’s. Creating reservations by Executive Order was a brand new concept (the first having been done in the Spring and ours was the fall of 1855).

I have also mentioned that the non-Indian population of Oregon at that time was overwhelmingly in total and in some extreme elements  violently  opposed to the creation of a permanent reservation in Western Oregon. Permanently reserving nearly a third of the Oregon coast for the exclusive native use was absurd in many people’s minds (they quickly forgot that the 1855 Coast Treaty had not been ratified, so they were technically squatting on the other two thirds). I wonder how much that sentiment has died down after seeing what we went through to get our scattered parcels returned in 1980. By 1865, the history of how the Coast Reservation was created and why was already muddled in many people’s minds. Many seemed to already be thinking that the Executive Order was a temporary, emergency measure that by the President, rather than a directive by Congress through the ratification of several treaties.

Through the early and mid 1860’s, there were several things going on locally and nationally – that built up to the signing on the 1865 Executive Order. If you stop to think about it, it was a time of intense trial and turmoil in the United States, testing the strength of the less than 100 year old government. The Civil War distracted most of the attention away from the west and focussed it on the southeastern part of the country. There was a large population of southern sympathizers in western Oregon. The Forts: Hoskins, Yamhill, Umpqua and the Blockhouses were more worried about a southern “up-rising” most of the time than any serious worry about us, and at the end of the war, the Forts were abandoned.

The Homestead Act was passed by Congress right around the time that the Executive Order was signed, bringing on a gold rush atmosphere nationally among those looking for a good place to file a claim. Locally, there had been court case against our Siletz Agent (Ben Simpson) brought by a schooner ship captain that refused to quit coming onto the reservation to load native oysters. Although the State Court decided in favor of the Agent’s action as a representative of the United States in 1864, it only brought Yaquina Bay to many more people’s attention as a potentially valuable harbor.

Agent Simpson would say or do one thing seemingly in favor of protecting the reservation, then turn around and do something that totally jeopardized it. He would be somebody to watch out for over the next ten to fifteen years He definitely had very divided loyalties.

The State Legislature also got involved, representing to Congress and anyone in Washington D.C. who would listen, that the Coast Reservation was too large and valuable access to the coast and a good harbor was being wasted. Let’s just say that there was a good amount of conversation going on around the subject. In 1864, J.W.P. Huntington (Superintendent of Indian Affairs) wrote in the annual report that he had studied the matter and concluded that the public good required that access to Yaquina Bay from the Willamette Valley be granted.

Included in the same report is a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, signed H.D. Barnhart with no indication of what office he held if any, but it was printed immediately following Superintendent Huntington’s report. In it he said that the Yaquina Bay was not needed or used by the Indians on the reservation. He extolled the many benefits that would be had by opening that area to settlement, trade and commerce.

Nobody seemed to remember or recognize that there were still Yaquina and Alsea villages occupied by their original people and that the Siletz Agent had been encouraging Coquelle and Chetco families to live, farm and take advantage of the extensive fishery on the Yaquina. Agent Simpson himself probably fearing ostracism from good society and/or feeling some of his natural internal conflict, had reported a couple of times on the subject. He spoke of the evil influences that are had by the Indians associating with a bad class of whites and the need to keep the Indian separated from the whites to whatever extent was possible. He then did an about face and talked about the opening of at least a town site on Yaquina Bay as though it was a done deal, and said that a “right of way” across the reservation should be made.

Nowhere during this process did any government agent bring up the ratified treaties, but there was some discussion about the rights of the Indians. Agent Simpson talked about it as though it was a foreign land, except to say that the Indians living in the Siletz Valley have the right to hunt and fish there. It is not clear how it was decided that the President should take action instead of looking for legislative approval from Congress, but it may have simply been assumed that it was within the powers of the President to reduce a reservation that had been created by the Executive Office.

The end result was that on December 20, 1865, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan wrote a draft to the President. It is represented by the Oregon delegation in Congress that this reservation is unnecessarily large. They ask for a curtailment of this reservation so as to secure to the inhabitants of the Willamette Valley the much needed access to the coast, and for this purpose propose that a small and rugged portion of the reservation in the vicinity of Acquinna Bay, not occupied or desired by the Indians, shall be released and thrown open to occupation and use by the whites. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs is of the opinion that the interests of the citizens of Oregon will be promoted by the opening on a port of entry at Acquinna Bay, and that their interest is paramount in importance to that of the Indians located in that vicinity.” On the following day President Johnson wrote this: “The recommendation of the Secretary of the Interior is approved, and the tract of land within described will be released from reservation and thrown open to occupancy and use by the citizens as other public land.”

When word of the Executive Order was received, the response was immediate. All of the warnings to make sure orderly removal of the Indians within the area was conducted before opening the tract were ignored. Agent Simpson’s Annual Report of 1866 gave the details on how the homesteaders rushed in. He said that they immediately rushed into the opened tract and went for the Indian farms, ejecting the Indian occupants under threat. He then said it was common for this new claimant to wait for somebody interested in the parcel to show up, whereupon the original claimant sold his discovery rights to the place and the man was free to file a claim there.

We will talk about Agent Simpson and several others, in next month’s article about the 1875 reduction.