Native American peoples of Oregon

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A Wishram woman in festive bridal raiment, 1911

The Native American peoples of Oregon are the set of indigenous peoples who have inhabited or who still inhabit the area delineated in today's state of Oregon in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. While the state of Oregon currently maintains relations with nine federally recognized tribal groups, the state was previously home to a much larger number of autonomous tribal groups, which today either no longer exist or have been absorbed into these larger confederated entities.


Pre-Columbian period[edit]

Explorers, fur traders, and indigenous peoples[edit]

Region occupied by indigenous peoples speaking various Chinookan dialects at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

No Native American group in the state of Oregon maintained a written language prior to the arrival of European-Americans, nor for a considerable period thereafter. It is therefore necessary to make use of visitor accounts and the records and press of frequently hostile and poorly comprehending whites to reconstruct the story of the region's indigenous peoples.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 traversed the Columbia River, which divides today's states of Oregon and Washington. Although other European and American sailors had traveled up and down the coast and made some contact with the indigenous peoples who dwelt there, the Lewis and Clark party marked the first time that white Americans had lived among the Oregon tribes.[1] The party made detailed records about those whom they encountered in their travels, thus providing the first written record of Oregon's indigenous population.[1]

The Lewis and Clark party spent its time among various tribal groups categorized as Chinook — peoples speaking dialects of the Chinookan language, which included the Kathlamet, Wasco and Wishram, Clatsop, and Clackamas nations. At the time of their expedition, Lewis and Clark estimated a population of approximately 16,000 for the various Chinook peoples, with other tribes in the Oregon Country pushing the total indigenous population to perhaps 50,000.[1]

After the departure of the Corps of Discovery, the earliest whites to enter the region were traders in furs, with the pelt of the river-dwelling beaver particularly desired. A written account by a fur trader was left to posterity by Ross Cox, who arrived on May 10, 1812, at the newly constructed Fort Astor, located about 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Tongue Point at the mouth of the Columbia.[2] Writing two decades after the fact, Cox recalled tension between the indigenous population of the region and fur traders related to the attempted and actual theft of supplies by brazen native males, sometimes met with violence on the part of the whites.[3]

Cox recalled the Chinook-speaking people he first encountered outside the fort as physically repugnant:

"They were the most uncouth-looking objects; and not strongly calculated to impress us with a favourable opinion of aboriginal beauty, or the purity of Indian manners. A few of the men were partially covered, but the greater number were unannoyed by vestments of any description. Their eyes were black, piercing, and treacherous; their ears slit up, and ornamented with strings of beads; the cartilage of their nostrils perforate and adorned with pieces of hyaquau placed horizontally; ... and their bodies besmeared with whale oil, gave them an appearance horribly disgusting. Then the women — Oh ye gods! With the same auricular, olfactory, and craniological peculiarities, they exhibited loose hanging breasts, short dirty teeth, skin saturated with blubber, bandy legs, and a waddling gait; while their only dress consisted of a kind of petticoat, or rather kilt, formed of small strands of cedar bark twisted into cords, and reaching from the waist to the knee."[4]

Approximate geographic locations of the First Nations of today's Oregon and southern Washington state

Despite his physical aversion, Cox and his associates traveled freely to the villages of several tribes that dotted the mouth of the Columbia, noting that "the natives generally received us with friendship and hospitality."[5] Over time, Cox's opinions became more specific, and he came to characterize the Kathlamets as "the most tranquil," the Tillamook as "the most roguish," and the Clatsops as "the most honest."[6] He considered the Chilwitz people's practice of enhancing their conception of beauty by binding the skulls of infants to flatten foreheads to be repellant.[7]

Venturing up the Columbia by canoe for the first time in June 1812, according to Cox's testimony, no problematic contact was made with Native American inhabitants until the party reached the first unnavigable rapids on the Columbia about 170 miles (270 km) upriver.[8] Cox found these "incontestably more filthy and ugly" than the coastal tribes and seemed to have been divided into family groups that "seemed quite independent of the other" and not subject to the control of a single chief.[9] Throughout the journey, trading was practiced in which tobacco and "trifling presents" were exchanged for salmon that supplemented the party's provisions.[10]

Forced to carry provisions around rapids again several days later, the party again ran into trouble with the attempted theft of unattended goods, which was met with musket fire and the wounding of one of the perpetrators.[11] Similar problems conflicts occurred at portage areas on the return trip in October 1812, including a confrontation with "fifty or sixty Indians, with their war-shirts on, and fully armed," who attempted to stop the returning fur traders, apparently with a view of robbing them.[12] Two bales of goods were stolen, causing hostages to be taken to compel their return.[13]

Further inland, other distinct tribes, armed and riding horses, were met, with the horsemen noted to be "clean" and wearing "handsome leathern shirts and leggings" and possessing "a bold daring manner, which we did not observe with any of the tribes from the sea upwards."[11] Other local tribes, without horses, again showed little compunction about attempted theft.[11] A recent state of war between the horse-mounted and foot-traveling tribes was noted.[14]

Still further upriver, Cox met the Walla Walla people, whom he recalled as "decidedly the most friendly tribe we had seen on the river," bearing "an air of open unsuspecting confidence in their manner" which "at once banished suspicion, and ensured our friendship."[15] Cox wrote of the tribe:

"We visited several families in the village; and the moment we entered, the best place was selected for us, and a clean mad spread to sit on; while the inmates, particularly the women and the children, remained at a respectful distance, without manifesting any of the obtrusive curiosity about our arms or clothing, by which we were so much annoyed among the lower tribes. The females, also, were distinguished by a degree of attentive kindness, totally removed from the disgusting familiarity of the kilted ladies below the rapids, and equally free from an affection of prudery; prostitution is unknown among them; and I believe no inducement would tempt them to commit a breach of chastity."[15]

Arrival of the Anglo missionaries[edit]

Map illustrating British and American territorial designs in the Pacific Northwest

Despite the myriad of tribal entities spread throughout the Oregon Country, their historical occupation and implicit claim to the land was barely noted and not recognized by white Americans in the East. In 1828 New England teacher Hall Jackson Kelley, a leading exponent of white colonization of the Oregon Country, hailed the region as "the most valuable of all the unoccupied parts of the earth" in a memorial to Congress.[16]

Kelley's enthusiasm was shared by others, seeking access to what they perceived as uninhabited land and willing to engage in building new communities on the frontier. European-American colonization of the Oregon Country began in earnest in 1829 with the establishment of Oregon City on the confluence of the Clackamas and Willamette rivers by John McLoughlin, chief factor for the region of Hudson's Bay Company.

The newcomers of the 1820s brought with them diseases for which the native populations of the Oregon Country had no immunity. Waves of disease swept Native American communities between 1824 and 1829, with smallpox, measles, and an unknown ailment described at the time as "ague fever" annihilating tens of thousands.[17] It is reckoned by one observer that 80% of the native population died in a single summer, with villages depopulated and the bare remnants of some tribal groups absorbed into others.[18]

On December 11, 1838, U.S. Senator Lewis F. Linn of Missouri introduced a bill calling for the occupation of the Oregon Country region north of 42 degrees latitude and west of the Rocky Mountains.[19] A fort was to be established on the Columbia River and the new entity was to be subject to rule by the military force of the United States and subject to the tax laws thereof.[19] The stage was thereby set for conflict between the American government in Washington, D.C., and the bands of indigenous peoples who had historically inhabited the area so claimed.

Missionaries headed by the Methodist Jason Lee were the advance guard of European-American colonization, with a large "Indian church" established at The Dalles in 1839 in an effort to convert members of the Klickitat tribe to Christianity.[20] Lee also set out to build a new settlement at the mouth of the Umpqua River, familial grounds of the Umpqua tribe.[21] Lee and his party traversed the region among a tolerant native population, which, as one early historian noted, was found by the missionaries to be "easily impressed, and apt at imitating the forms of devotion."[22]

Ever since the first arrival of European trappers and traders, the native peoples of the Columbia basin were swept by epidemics of newly introduced diseases that annihilated a vast percentage of the population.[23] Lee's party found that the population in the region that he visited had been reduced to less than 375 people, and believed that the life expectancy of even these survivors was limited.[23] Plans for a new mission in the Umpqua River valley were consequently abandoned.[23]

The Methodists continued to harbor grand designs upon the new territory. A mission-owned lumber mill was established, as was a "manual-labor school," intended to instruct the indigenous population in the ways of domestic industry.[24] Following a May 1841 meeting of the territorial Methodist society, a $10,000 building was erected in the vicinity of today's city of Salem on the Chemeketa Plain.[24] The group established there a school for the native population, which was operated for nine months before being abandoned in the spring of 1843 for lack of success.[24]

Additional European-American immigrants began to arrive in this period, with growth centered at Oregon City, which grew from nor more than 3 or 4 buildings to about 30 by the spring of 1843.[25] At the behest of Jason Lee, an Indian Agent was appointed by the federal government to administer its affairs in the Oregon Country.[26] Elijah White was appointed to this position early in 1842 by the administration of President John Tyler, who declined to name a governor for the region at that time.[27] White was also given verbal permission to make use of government funds for the necessary expenses associated with his office.[28]

Not long after his arrival at Fort Vancouver, the de facto head of the American presence in the Oregon Country found himself tested by worsening relations between white settlers and the various indigenous peoples. Members of the Cayuse tribe burned a mill located at the Waiilatpu religious mission near today's Walla Walla, while further east the Nez Perce were believed to be on the verge of violence against colonists at Lapwai, a place that is today part of the Idaho Panhandle.[29] Rumors swept the region's settlers that the Native American tribes were uniting to launch a coordinated attack aimed at the annihilation of the white community.[29] A heavily armed party of eight, traveling with two interpreters, set out on an expedition to end the perceived threat.[29]

The Americans were joined en route by a representative of British commercial operations in the region so as to present a united front.[30] Indian Agent White unilaterally presented a set of laws at a meeting with the Nez Perce addressing the concerns of white settlers and compelled them to choose a head chief and sub-chiefs.[31] These officials were to be held collectively responsible for the good conduct of their people, White declared.[32] Similar terms were later impressed upon the Cayuse.

Racism and violence[edit]

As settlers began to flood into the Oregon Country from points east, they brought with them racist attitudes about the indigenous peoples of the region. By the end of the 1840s, more than 9,000 American and foreign national settlers occupied the Oregon Territory, exclusive of "the aborigines of the country, half-breeds, and Hawaiians."[33] Some of the more violent members of this white population periodically engaged in acts of violence in attempts to displace and destroy local Native American communities. In 1849 one or more residents of Linn City launched a nighttime arson attack on a Native American village, destroying the winter provisions of the band.[34]

Nor was property crime the extent of damage inflicted upon the Native American populations. One contemporary settler, the naturalized English expatriate John Beeson, left Illinois for Oregon in March 1853, arriving in the Rogue River Valley at the end of September.[35] He remained in Oregon for three years before leaving, repelled by what he saw, returning to the East to write a book about the abuses suffered by the native population at the hands of white settlers. Beeson wrote

"Owing to a scarcity of water during several months of the year, the Miners have no work. Their food, meanwhile, consists principally of fine bread and beef; and they generally use abundance of tobacco and whisky. Thus the quality of the food, and the poisons, in connection with a stimulating atmosphere, excite their baser passions; and, in the absence of moral restraint and civil law, they seek indulgence by outrages on the persons of defenseless Indians. I forbear the recital of horrors. Any American father or mother can easily imagine what would be the fate of their daughters if, unprotected and isolated, in valleys and ravines, surrounded by hosts of men of the class and under the circumstances above described. It is no palliation to say, that the females are willing victims; for it is notorious that their fathers and brothers are often shot in order to gain forcible possession. We should realize the magnitude of this wrong, if we consider what execration and punishment we inflict upon another Race for such violations of our own."[36]

Some white settlers successfully induced the native population to trade women for provisions and armaments.[36] It was to no small extent this trade of flesh for firearms that provided the tribes of Southern Oregon with sufficient means to maintain a resistance during the so-called Rogue River War of 1855–1856.[37]

Genocidal attitudes were commonplace, including expressed sentiments that every "Indian" should be destroyed from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains and a vicious witticism that if a white man should encounter a "Buck" Indian and a buck deer at the same time, they should shoot the man and leave the deer to run.[37]

The Rogue River War (1855–1856)[edit]

Map showing the location of the Rogue River Valley within the post-1859 boundaries of the state of Oregon

The indigenous peoples of Southern Oregon were filled with alarm and terror over the brutality that they faced at the hands of white miners and settlers.[38] Appeals to white authorities for protection went unheeded.[38] Violence began at last to be met with violence.

In the summer of 1855, an anonymous letter signed simply "A Miner" appeared in the Oregon Statesman.[39] This letter predicted the eminence of bloody massacres carried out by the "Red Skins" against the white population of Oregon.[39] This claim was picked up by the Sub-Indian Agent for Southern Oregon, who convened a mass meeting in a Willamette Valley town and formally made the call to raise 3,000 troops from the citizenry to do battle with the menace.[39] A war frenzy swept the Oregon Territory, with newspaper opinion up and down the coast, from the Washington Territory to Northern California, virtually unanimous for war.[39]

Governor George Law Curry obliged the popular demand and issued a proclamation declaring war, urging that a volunteer militia take the field immediately.[39] A frenzy of extreme violence followed—native populations were uprooted from their villages, driven through the countryside, and killed.[40] Periodically, a successful retaliatory burning of a white homestead would be delivered in return; this was pointed to by adherents of the coordinated mass violence that a "war" was in existence, thereby further rationalizing the campaign.[40]

John Beeson later wrote of the so-called Rogue River War which he witnessed:

"During the years of 1855-6, as many as twenty murders were committed by the Indians; and several of them were prosecuted and hung according to law. But no account was kept of murdered Indians; and yet it was a matter of common talk, that they were shot whenever it could be done with safety to the shooter."[37]

The fledgling Oregon press provided propaganda that rationalized the one-sided campaign of extermination. One paper opined on November 10, 1855, that

"The Indians are ignorant, abject, and debased by nature, whose minds are as incapable of instruction as their bodies are of labor.... They have nothing in common with Humanity but the form; and God has sent us to destroy them, as he did to the Israelites of old to similar tribes."[41]

Dispossession and the reservation system[edit]

Native Americans in contemporary Oregon[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Carey, p. 47.
  2. ^ Cox, p. 67.
  3. ^ Cox, pp. 67–68.
  4. ^ Cox, p. 69.
  5. ^ Cox, p. 71.
  6. ^ Cox also characterized the Chinook people as "the most incontinent," which clearly loses something in the translation after nearly two centuries. See: Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River, p. 146.
  7. ^ Cox, p. 146.
  8. ^ Cox, p. 74.
  9. ^ Cox, p. 76.
  10. ^ Cox, p. 77.
  11. ^ a b c Cox, p. 78.
  12. ^ Cox, p. 111.
  13. ^ Cox, pp. 111–112.
  14. ^ Cox, pp. 78–79.
  15. ^ a b Cox, p. 83.
  16. ^ Schwantes, pp. 78–79.
  17. ^ Carey, pp. 47–48.
  18. ^ Carey, p. 48.
  19. ^ a b Bancroft, p. 176.
  20. ^ Bancroft, pp. 180–181.
  21. ^ Bancroft, p. 193.
  22. ^ Bancroft, p. 195.
  23. ^ a b c Bancroft, p. 196.
  24. ^ a b c Bancroft, p. 201.
  25. ^ Bancroft, p. 265.
  26. ^ Bancroft, p. 253.
  27. ^ Bancroft, pp. 254–255.
  28. ^ Bancroft, p. 255.
  29. ^ a b c Bancroft, p. 268.
  30. ^ Bancroft, p. 269.
  31. ^ Bancroft, pp. 270–271.
  32. ^ Bancroft, pp. 271–272.
  33. ^ Downing, p. 19.
  34. ^ Downing, p. 29.
  35. ^ Beeson, pp. 10, 21.
  36. ^ a b Beeson, p. 24.
  37. ^ a b c Beeson, p. 25.
  38. ^ a b Beeson, p. 27.
  39. ^ a b c d e Beeson, p. 28.
  40. ^ a b Beeson, p. 29.
  41. ^ Quoted in Beeson, A Plea for the Indians, p. 32.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]