New old news on treaties

It’s holiday time, Thanksgiving and I am in Oregon City at my son’s place, reading the morning news on my computer. The house is quiet with people sleeping off yesterday’s meal and working from home on their computers. I got up early and read for an hour in a book that hurts while I read it, The Oppermanns, a novel by a refugee German Jew published in 1934. The New York Times suggested in its review at the time that the world should be reading this fictional account of what happened in Germany in the years 1930-33. “Wake up! The barbarians are upon us.”

And then I turned to today’s news on my computer. A friend had forwarded a piece in the Spokane paper from October, talking about the impacts of diseases, especially Smallpox, on Northwest tribes. It goes over old material about epidemics moving inland from the coast—from Russian, British and Spanish ships—and across the continent from the east with the Northern fur trade. Disease moved ahead of explorers, fur traders, and settlers, tribe to tribe. This all happens about 1780, before most tribes had even seen white men. It’s academically interesting that, based on oral reports and accounts of survivors at the time scholars can pinpoint exact years of outbreaks.

I’ve been impressed with these reports for years, and they’ve meshed with what elders say. Nez Perce Allen Pinkham Sr. speculates that there might have been as many as 20,000 Nez Perce across the region prior to the epidemics. He compares with Lewis and Clark’s estimate of about 7,000. And the old Billy Williams’ map, which appears via the “measuring woman,” Alice Fletcher, in the 1890s, names Salmon and Snake River villages and designates some as “pre-Lewis and Clark” and abandoned.

All of this swirled through my mind on this day after Thanksgiving as I read the Spokane newspaper. Still feeling some Thanksgiving guilt for not reporting again—we must say it over and over—on the mistaken stories of this holiday that have followed us from our fourth-grade classrooms over decades. It appears now that the modern holiday dates to immediate post-Civil War days.

And then there is this stunner, a quote from University of Washington professor Steve Goodreau:

“You have this epidemic in 1853 that yet again tears the communities and societies apart and kills off a large portion of the population. Then within two years, they’re signing treaties. To me, that has to be connected.”

Well, maybe I had heard this, maybe it’s even in the accounts of Josephy and Dougherty about early Northwest history. If so, I have brushed it aside, concentrating on the many other factors that led up to the treaty-making at Walla Walla in 1855. Mostly, I have concentrated on Isaac Stevens, thinking about his young age and grandiose ideas of opening the West and linking the country east to west with a railroad. I’ve written about the impact of Gold in the making of treaties, and the role of the Civil War—how Lincoln needed gold from the west to prosecute that War—in the story of gold.

But—again and again we come back to the impacts of diseases on the Natives of North—and presumably South—America in the settler-trapper-trader-explorer conquest of the continent.

And we might keep an eye out on the impacts of disease—and the ancient plagues of fire and flood, earthquake and volcano, on the events of today. The “barbarians” have always been adept at the exploitation of nature and ideas of racial superiority to their own ends.

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Image from an 1857 book illustration and the Spokane Review

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