Indigenous Peoples Day, General Howard and the Mountain

Columbus Day has not been an important holiday in my life. Maybe we got out of school. Maybe friends of Italian ancestry celebrated—and I laughed or applauded. Even now, as I think about all the negative things we have learned about Columbus, and think about the nation-wide effort that has made this day “Indigenous Peoples Day,” I have a soft spot for the descendants of Italian immigrants. They have often been mistreated by immigrants who came on earlier boats. And Italians were Catholics—the Republic, formed on lands stolen from Native tribes, was built by Enlightenment free thinkers, deists, and some from various Protestant denominations. Christianity was not written into our founding documents, and Catholics were a further minority from the outset.

And  WASPs—”White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—gradually and firmly seized power in the growing country. In the 1830s and 40s, during what historians call the “Second Great Revival,” the country turned to Protestant Christianity, and Protestant missionaries spread across the land, preaching their gospel to indigenous people and Indian Tribes from Cherokees to the Sandwich Islanders. The Whitmans and Spaldings brought Protestant Christianity to the Plateau tribes in 1836.

Oliver Otis Howard was born in 1830 in New England, the center of the Great Revival. He served and lost an arm in the Civil War, where he was called the “Christian General.” After that war he was made the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the agency charged with bringing former slaves into white civilization. Howard believed that with religion, land, and education, former slaves could become good members of American society.

Former slaves were by and large Christians, so the religion part of his triad was all good. He was forced to take land from former slaves and give it back to their former slave-masters, so that leg of his formula for Black success was foiled. He turned to education, and founded Howard University in Washington D.C. He’d lost the battle over land, and Howard University soon resulted in financial controversies, with Howard at the center of them. In 1874, his patron, General Sherman, sent him away from the D.C. controversy to Vancouver, Washington Territory, to command the Department of the Columbia.

The Nez Perce situation had brewed and was coming to a head when Howard got to the West.

The treaty boundaries of 1855 had fallen with the Idaho gold strike of 1860. The “Liars Treaty” of 1863 had divided the Nez Perce into “treaty” and “non-treaty” factions. Tiwi-teqis—Old Joseph—of the Wallowa was non-treaty, and came home to constant settler pressure. He put up poles to mark boundaries, told A.C. Smith not to build a bridge. Tiwi-teqis died, the settlers began rambling in, and Howard was the general who, in 1877, demanded that the Nez Perce leave the Wallowa and then pursued the non-treaties in what we now call the Nez Perce War. There are dozens of books about that War, some written by an aging General Howard.

I just finished reading David Wilson’s book on the Paiutes and the Bannock War, Northern Paiutes of the Malheur, in which he accuses the same General Howard of making a tactical blunder in that war, thinking to make up for tactical mistakes in the Nez Perce War. Howard decided to make a huge circle journey to the north, to Lewiston by boat, and then riding through the Wallowas to meet the Paiute warriors, leaving the Umatilla Reservation undefended. A decisive battle in fact occurred there, Bannocks, Paiutes, and Umatillas died.

According to author Wilson, Howard contradicts his own earlier statements made during the Bannock War in his memoirs, published in 1907 and 1908. The later writings blame the Paiutes and one of their Chiefs, Egan, for leadership in a war that most Paiutes only joined by coercion, Howard’s late assertions became the source of subsequent, unflattering histories of the Paiutes and Chief Egan.

And then, in 1925, at the behest of Portlander J. Neilson Barry, a mountain overlooking Wallowa Lake and the Wallowa Valley was named after General Howard. Over the years, locals and visitors have called it Mt Howard, and sometimes chuckled that Chief Joseph Mountain stares at it from the West. Recently, with the issue of inappropriate historical names burbling up across the country, people have begun questioning “Mt. Howard.”

And I am being brought into the questioning.

The 1982 version of Oregon Geographic Names credits Barry with the naming suggestion, and goes on to laud Howard for his Civil War heroics, mentioning his taking the field “in person” after Chief Joseph’s “uprising” in the Wallowas, “driving him into Montana.”

There are better, more accurate accounts of the Nez Perce removal now—I will be checking later versions of Oregon Geographic Names to make sure they have noted this—but Mount Howard still stands, visible from my front porch in the town of Joseph (named, of course, after the Nez Perce leader who was forcibly removed from the land). I wonder now whether the 1925 naming had more to do with Howard’s Civil War service than it did with the Nez Perce War. According to University of North Carolina historian Mark Elliot, “The vast majority of them [Civil War monuments] were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.”

In any case, we have a mountain in Wallowa County named for a Civil War general in a time in our country when Jim Crow was thriving. Our own, Oregon, past re slavery and the Civil War in earlier times is not good. And Howard’s self-serving memoirs regarding his service in Oregon Indian wars seem not to be good histories.

If Civil War monuments can be toppled in the South and East, it seems a ripe time for searching for an appropriate name for this mountain that I look at every day from my porch in Joseph.


Photo source: Wikipedia


  1. thought I had replied, but here goes again. The settlers called it “Signal Mountain,” and a Nez Perce language speaking friend says that she’s been told people could see that peak from far away in Nez Perce Country, so that might be a good one. But we are waiting for more people to respond. If you hear anything, let me know. thanks

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