The Indian Dispossessed/The Umatillas

Semeo, Umatilla, 1871.png


Wolf, Umatilla, 1875.png



"I look at this land, this earth; it is like my mother, as if she was giving me milk, for from it I draw the food on which I live and grow." The plea of an Oregon Indian Chief.

"These poor people, relying on the promises of their 'Great Father' for protection, prefer to keep their little homes and die by the graves of their fathers, and nothing remains but to do them simple justice and protect them in their rights." The Response of One Good Man in Authority.

FIFTY years ago, the Indians living in the valleys and mountains where Oregon, Washington, and Idaho meet, first heard the white man's cry of Gold. Onward came the excited miners, reckless with gun and regardless of rights, and away sped the Indians' game. The Indians gazed in wrathful consternation. What should they do?

"Fight," said the chiefs. "Fight for the land of our fathers!" echoed the warriors. And fight they did, with the desperate ferocity of men who know that in the end they must lose. And they lost.

Then in 1859 the Government gathered up the remnants of three tribes,—the Walla Wallas, the Cayuse, and the Umatillas,—made a treaty with them, and placed them all together on a reservation in northeastern Oregon.

In consideration for the cession of their vast hunting-grounds, which included the exceedingly valuable Walla Walla valley, this Umatilla reservation was secured to them, with certain annuities and other benefits, including an agency for their protection and instruction in farming, and a school for the education of their children. They then settled down to learn to "travel the white man's road."

Seven years later their agent has this to say about them:

"I estimate the number of acres now under fence at something over two thousand, about half of which is unbroken land used for pasture, hay, corrals, etc., the remainder being in a good state of cultivation. The number of acres planted this year may be estimated as follows: Wheat, 480 acres; corn, 120 acres; oats, 100 acres, with about 200 acres in peas, beans, barley, potatoes, melons, pumpkins, onions, turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, cabbage, and other vegetables. The approximate yield of this land will be fifteen thousand bushels of all kinds of produce, more than sufficient for the wants of all if equally distributed.

"As usual, quite a number of Indian farmers will each have from five hundred to one thousand dollars' worth of produce to sell, which they can dispose of for good prices at the neighboring towns and stations on the road. . . .

"Most of the Indians residing here are Roman Catholics, and their attachment to the reverend father, who is pleased to act as their spiritual as well as temporal teacher, is very great. . . .

"The only violations of law and order are committed by thoughtless young men and renegades from distant reservations."

And the State Superintendent adds: "At the annual fair of the Oregon State Agricultural Society, held in 1865, two first premiums and one second premium were awarded to these Indians for agricultural products; and I may add that I know, from personal observation, that products of similar or even superior quality are by no means uncommon among them."

A truly pastoral community. Their number is given as seven hundred and fifty-nine, and thirty-one scholars are enrolled in the school. Eighty-five hundred of their horses and cattle graze upon the reservation.

But the Superintendent's report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs indicates that the white men are beginning to repent of their "treaty" with these Indians:

"The superior quality of the land, and its location on a great thoroughfare, convenient to the goldmines of Powder River, Boisé Basin, Oughee, and other points, of course make it attractive to whites. There are constant attempts to encroach upon it, constant attempts, under various pretexts, to locate upon it, and occasional attempts to exasperate the Indians into the commission of some overt act which will justify, or at least palliate, retaliation, and thus give an excuse for plunging the country into another Indian war, the end of which, they well know, would be the expulsion of the Indians from the coveted tract."

And their agent confirms the presence of the cloud that hangs over these children of the forest:

"The only cause of discontent existing in their minds is the constant fear that the reservation will be taken from them and thrown open to settlement by the whites."

Again, in the following year: "The Indians, who are superior to most tribes in intellect and energy, are very much attached to their home, and very reluctant to abandon it. Some thoughtless whites have talked quite freely about driving the Indians off and taking possession by force. During a visit last spring to that agency and vicinity I heard threats of that sort repeated many times. Public meetings of citizens have been held to devise means to have the tract opened for settlement, and petitions for the same object to Congress and to the State Legislature have been circulated and numerously signed. The Indians are hence very uneasy and very much alarmed. There are here, as on probably every frontier, a few reckless villains who desire to provoke a war."

Two years later comes this plain, blunt communication from their agent:

"I believe it is as well known by you, as it is by everybody in the country, that this place is wrongly situated for an Indian reservation. It is closely surrounded by white settlements, and contains nearly all the good land in Umatilla County; in fact, there is a larger area of cultivatable land in one body on the reserve than anywhere else in eastern Oregon."

"Wrongly situated" because it is too good for these farmer Indians. But why too good? After stating that the whites have already opened several roads through the reservation, he concludes:

"With this situation of affairs it is not surprising that the whole white population of this region are clamorous for the removal of the Indians from this tract of land, which would soon be developed into a rich and populous country."

Assuming that the agricultural Indian is at least entitled to an advantageous foothold in the land of his fathers, it is interesting to note the effect of these various messages in Washington.

The tales of attempts to encroach upon and exasperate the Indians, of the threats and consequent terror of the Indians at the thought of being driven from their homes, seem to have spent themselves upon the desert air. But now, "the whole white population of this region are clamorous for the removal of the Indians," and things begin to move. Within two months of this "clamorous" report, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in his report to the Secretary of the Interior, re-states the case in more diplomatic form:

"The question has been raised whether they should not be removed to some other locality, as they are constantly annoyed by the encroachments of the whites, who covet the possession of their fertile and valuable lands, lying, as they do, on the highway to Boisé City and Salt Lake. The Superintendent recommends the appointment of a commission to arrange for a sale of their lands, and their settlement upon some other reservation."

This is plain enough. The Indians must not be annoyed. They may have to give up their homes to the covetous whites and move to the wilderness, but they must not be annoyed.

The plan to remove the Indians developed rapidly. Congress soon resolved:

"That the President of the United States is hereby requested to negotiate with Indians upon the Umatilla reservation, in Oregon, with the view of ascertaining on what terms said Indians will relinquish to the United States all their claims or rights to said reservation and remove to some other reservation in said State or Washington Territory."

A commission of three was duly appointed, consisting of the State Superintendent, who had recommended their removal, the resident agent of the Indians, and a farmer, a former Indian trader, whose land adjoined the reservation. The summer of 1871 finds the special commissioners on the reservation, ready for business.

And the Indians! All is excitement and consternation. The crisis is upon them; the men from the Great Father have come to make another bargain! Come forth, chiefs; make the plea of your lives in defence of the Indian country! Make your words strong, but with a good heart, for the Great Father must not be displeased with what the Indians say. Speak from your hearts for this piece of ground, for the words of the white man are many, and the words of the Indian few!

The commissioners came, and the Indians gathered at the agency from all parts of the reservation. Times without number before, commissioners have come, and as many times Indians have gathered to meet them,—shrewd and forceful men, with purpose determined, to bargain with those who know little else than love of native land. Little wonder that the Indian moves each time to a less coveted country, and wonders why the Great Spirit of his fathers has forsaken him.

But in this particular instance the expectant whites reckoned without one man; it is necessary to go back a little. A salient feature of President Grant's "peace policy" was the Board of Indian Commissioners, authorized by special act of Congress, "to consist of not more than ten persons, selected from among men eminent for their intelligence and philanthropy, to serve without pecuniary compensation." This Board was the result of an earnest attempt on the part of President Grant to rescue the Indian service from the political mountebanks who trafficked in the welfare of a helpless race to gain the political support of the frontier country. To check the wholesale robbing of Indian supplies, the Board was clothed with authority to approve and supervise all Indian contracts; more especially, the members of the Board were to acquaint themselves with the needs of the Indians by personal visits to the reservations, that they might in some measure stand between the wolfish rapacity of the frontiersmen and the defenceless reservation Indians.

Felix R. Brunot and Vincent Colyer were appointed chairman and secretary, respectively, of the first Board. It is enough to say that they were qualified literally for their distinguished offices—"men eminent for their intelligence and philanthropy." The story of the labors of these men, of their visits to the agencies and Indian camps throughout the great West, of hardships endured for humanity's sake, securing justice, and denying to no lowly Indian the right to be heard in his own behalf, covers the brightest page in Indian history.

Felix R. Brunot appeared with his secretary at this Council on the Umatilla reservation. Now, the records are full of such councils with reservation Indians; some of them drag along for a month, three months, or all summer, before the desired "consent" is gained. In others, the Commissioners wear themselves out before the Indians give up, and depart, always to come again, prepared to win.

This Council lasted six days—just long enough to carefully present the question of removal to the Indians, and to hear the replies of their chiefs. Possibly it would have lasted no longer had Mr. Brunot not be there. Who knows? But it stands significant among all the land-winning efforts of the white man as the shortest unsuccessful council on record.

The surrounding whites were out in force, highly interested spectators; a United States senator for Oregon made one speech to the Indians, in which, amid protestations of friendship, he pictured the overwhelming advance of the white man in a way that must have terrified these simple-minded people.

". . . The whites will, perhaps, in the course of time, want to build railroads through your reservations, when the President thinks it necessary. The railroads will bring more white people into the country. They may settle about the reservation, and we may not be able to prevent their committing some wrong. If they should commit wrong on the Indians, we fear you would commit some wrong against them in retaliation. Then the white people and the Indians might have a great war. There are great numbers of white people, and we fear they would exterminate the Indian. This we wish to prevent. Our hearts are with the Indians, and, as law-makers, we wish to protect them. We want them to understand fully the danger that surrounds them. The President will do all he can to protect them, but there are some bad white men as well as bad Indians. We want you to think of it, and decide whether it would be better to get away from the roads and the railroads that may some time be built through the country. . . ."

The Indians took little part in the speech-making of the first two days. The superintendent presented the question of removal with great elaboration, and Mr. Brunot gave the Indians several talks of an advisory nature. Everything said was carefully interpreted and recorded. One Indian—Uma-pine, a Cayuse chief—interjected remarks at frequent intervals; he seemed suspicious of the superintendent:

"My heart is this way; you thought over it; you wished for this reservation; you wished for Grand Ronde, for Walla Walla Valley and Umatilla; you wished for it. What kind of a heart was it that wished for all these places? Speak plain and all will hear it."

But old Uma-pine followed one of Mr. Brunot's talks with this rather good-humored acknowledgment:

"You brought the mind of the Great Father from Washington. I am poor, and I speak; I know nothing; you are a long way ahead of us. You say we are far behind you; that is all right, and we do not mind if you tell us so."

On the third day, after the senator had presented the question of removal in his peculiarly forceful way, the Indian speeches began. Howlish-Wampo, the head chief of the Cayuse, led the defence:[1]

"I heard what you said about our lands, and I understood what you said. We like this country and don't want to dispose of our reservation. I look at this land, this earth; it is like my mother, as if she was giving me milk, for from it I draw the food on which I live and grow. I see this little piece of land; it is all i have left; I know it is good land. This reservation was marked out for me. The people that are on this reservation are working, are doing their own work for themselves. I understand that you are asking me for my land. I say I like my land, and I don't know whether you will fulfil your promise if I accept your promises for my land. I did not see, with my own eyes, the money that was promised me before. All the stock I have had to feed on this land here. That is why I say this little piece of land, all I have here, I want left for me. The large country I gave Governor Stevens, and you have not paid for it. The white man has settled on it. I feel that I have here a small piece of land left, this that I live on now. The whites have all the land outside, and the other reservations are all full of people who belong on them. The Nez Perce are living on their reservation, and the Indians at Simcoe are on their reservation. The Indians below live on Warm Spring reservation. I see that they are all living on their own reservations, and feel just as I do living on mine. The same I said before I say again, I cannot let my reservation go. That is what I have to say now to your commissioners."

Then Wenap-Snoot followed; and Hom-li. Tenale-Temane made a characteristic Indian speech:

"I have heard what you said to me. There is my friend Mr. Brunot; he has just come here; I heard him with my ears and with my heart, and what I heard him say he talked straight. When he talked of God, of Him who made the ground on which we stand, my heart was glad, and I thought he talked straight; this is why I thought we were going to have a straight talk. The whites talked to me some time ago, and I came over here. The land was marked out for me and I came upon it. We have been here eleven years; and since I saw this reservation, I have been on it ever since. I looked and saw with my eyes, there is so much land they have marked out for me. Now, my friend, when I came here, I saw the white man's fences and how they were made, and I went to work. Ever since that I have worked hard. I am an old man; I have worked till the sweat rolled off me to get food for my children; that is the reason for what I have to say now. . . . I do not wish you, my friend, to have bad feelings at what I have said. The President, when he sees what is written, will see what his children have said, and then he will think in his heart that his children (the Indians) love their country. My friend, I tell you again, I love my country; I want to raise my children, and also raise provisions for them on it. That is why I don't want any white man to come and live inside the reservation. That is what Governor Palmer and Governor Stevens told us, that no white man shall go and live inside our reservation. Now, my friend, you have heard what I have said about my land, and that is why I want to stay here; I cannot find any other country outside; my friend, the white man, has occupied the whole country. I see the whites travelling through the country on all sides, but I stay here on these lands that they promised me I should keep."

The Superintendent responded with another long talk about the places to which the Indians might go. He talked so long that Hom-li ended his speech the next day with the remark: "You make speeches too long. All day yesterday you talked. We cannot remember what you say."

Wenap-Snoot replied to the numerous suggestions with one of the shortest and pithiest Indian speeches on record:

"I want to say a few words to answer what you have said. I saw Lapwai (Nez Perce) with my own eyes, and I have seen the mouths of the Yakama with my own eyes; I have seen the Yakama reservation (Simcoe) with my own eyes, and I have seen Walloa Valley with my own eyes, and all the Snake country away South I have seen with my own eyes, and all these countries. I have seen all them with my own eyes, and none of these countries would suit me."

The numerous speeches bring out many interesting phases of Indian thought. The dignified earnestness of all their utterances indicates the seriousness with which the Indians regarded this coming again of the white man. "God hears me now," said Pierre, "and he hears you; we have spoken plainly to one another, and not with bad hearts. I have no wish to go and see that country you talked to us about. I have no wish for any other country."

And Uma-pine: "I believe you think your bodies are dear to you in the same way we value our land. It is dear to us—dear to every one of us. We know every day there is some bargain made."

On the morning of the sixth day some one brought De-co-tisse bad news from home, and, despite his expressed desire to avoid publicity, his sorrowfully humorous tale became a part of the record:

"I don't want what I say written down; I only want to tell you I have been here at the council so many days. You told us you were going to make this matter about the land all plain to us. I left fifty-seven bundles of oats, sixty rows of corn and pumpkins, and all I had, I left them on the ground to attend this council. They are all destroyed. Two cows with bells on, followed by a band of mixed cattle, with mixed brands on them, came in and destroyed them. I do not tell you this from a bad heart; I only wanted to tell you what has happened."

Poor De-co-tisse! Many a patriot has left the plough at his country's call, but few have had their sacrifices heralded with such particularity.

Finally the Indians were told to counsel among themselves and prepare their final answer. There could not have been much doubt about this final answer; as the commissioners withdrew, a Cayuse chief called after them, "You need not wait long; come when you get your dinner!"

And this was the answer:

"Howlish-Wampo. You are asking us now as if you were speaking to our hearts. What you have spoken this people have heard. . . . This reservation that we are on, we all hold it with our bodies and with our souls; and right out here are my father and mother, brothers and sisters and children all buried; and I am guarding their graves. That is my heart, my friend. This reservation, this small piece of land, we look upon it as our mother, as if she were raising us. You come here to ask me for my land. It is like as if we who are Indians were to be sent away and get lost. I look upon all sides. On the outside of the reservation I see your houses. They are good. They have windows in them. You are bringing up your children well; that is why I say this. You must listen to me. I do not want to part with my land. I want to show you white chiefs that that is what my heart is. I do not want you to make my land smaller. If you do, what would my stock feed upon? What is the reason you white men, who live near the reservation, like my land and want to get it? You must not think so. You are not going to get it. I am telling you this as a friend. I am not telling it with a bad heart. I want to know, if I was to go away from here, where I could find as good a piece of land as large as this is? My friends, I tell you now, I wish you would not talk too strong about getting my land. I like my land; will not let it go. That is what makes me talk so. I am showing you my heart about this reservation. You have been asking me for my heart. This is my heart."

"Wat-che-te-mane. . . . I want you to listen to what I have to say. Here is the way my heart is. Here in this land my father and mother and children have died. The father (priest) is the only one who straightens out my heart. That is why my heart is this way. I am getting old now, and I want to die where my father and mother and children have died. That is why I do not wish to leave this land and go off to some other land. I see the church there. I am glad to see it, and think I will stay beside it and die by the teaching of the Father. I see how I have sweat and worked in trying to get food. I see the flour-mill the Government has promised. I have gotten it. I see my friends. I like all that I have (the mills and lands). That is why I cannot go away from here. The President will see the record, and see what we poor old men have said in this council. What the whites have tried to show me I have tried to learn. It is not much, but I have fenced in a small piece of land and tried to raise grain on it. I am showing you my heart. I like my church, my mills, my farm, the graves of my parents and children, and I do not wish to leave my land. That is all my heart, and I show it to you."

"Pierre. I am going to make a short speech. I have only one heart, only one tongue. Although you say, 'Go to another country,' my heart is not that way. I do not wish for any money for my land. I am here, and here is where I am going to be. I think all these young men's hearts are like mine. I think a great deal and have but little to say. What I have said will go on paper to Washington. Then they will think over what we Indians have said. That is all I have to say. I will not part with my lands. And if you should come again I will say the same again. I will not part with my lands."

There was no mistaking the Indian decision; and the Indian decision, according to the view of Mr. Brunot, was what the commissioners came for. That ended the business.

Mr. Brunot concluded the council with words of encouragement and assurance which must have touched the hearts of these harassed Indians. Then he turned to the whites, who had gathered to learn the result of the council, and sent this parting shot:

"I know that there are many persons within reach of this reservation, and other reservations, who suppose that the Indians will be removed, and they are waiting for places on them. These men will be told by their candidates for Congress that they will get the Indians removed. If they should ever succeed, and I do not believe they ever will, it will be with the certainty that the Indians will get the full value of their lands, and I believe the man who waits here to get a pre-emption claim on this land will die a poor man, still waiting. Now, my friends, I never expect to see you again (unless we may hope, as I hope, to meet you in a better world hereafter), and in parting I will venture one word of advice. If I lived near this reservation with the idea of ever living on it I would abandon it at once. I would hitch up my team Monday and I would go to where the Pacific railroad will probably come, or I would settle on some other good place."

Mr. Brunot's report to Washington does not seem to allow the Government much choice of action:

"In view of the maladministration of agents and the misapplication of funds, the failure of the Government to perform the promises of the treaty, and the fact that the Indians have been constantly agitated by assertions that the Government intended their removal, and that their removal was urged for several years in succession in the reports of a former agent (thus taking away from them all incentives to improve their lands), it must be admitted that the progress these Indians have made in ten years has been wonderful. Had they, as the result of the late negotiations, given their consent to removal, I should have felt bound to remonstrate earnestly against any action of the Government to take advantage of so injudicious a decision of their incompetent wards. Happily, the unanimous refusal of the Indians to sell or remove from the remnant of land which the United States has solemnly guaranteed to them, leaves no room for any question of that kind. The arguments used in favor of their removal will apply with equal force to any other place to which they might be sent; and even if they did not, these poor people, relying on the promises of their 'Great Father' for protection, prefer to keep their little homes and die by the graves of their fathers, and nothing remains but to do them simple justice and protect them in their rights. It is earnestly hoped that the determination to do so will be authoritatively announced."

But the noble Elect—the gentle frontiersmen who gazed with longing eyes upon the Indian lands—denounced in language picturesque the whole business as an outrageous miscarriage.

And so it was; a miscarriage of injustice.

  1. The frequent allusions in the Indians' speeches to Stevens and Palmer, the Council at Walla Walla, and unfulfilled promises, all refer to their treaty.