1871 in Northeast Oregon

That’s the year of the first white settlers—and the year that tiwi ‘ teqis (Chief Old Joseph) passed away. A few years before that, tiwi’teqis had seen the surveyors’ monuments on the Oregon-Washington line, and had put up his own monuments to show white settlers a demarcation line. “Joseph’s Deadline,” it was called. His son, Young Joseph, had warned A.C. Smith not to build his toll bridge across the Minam River—a bridge that would allow settlers an easier approach to the Wallowa Country as it crossed his father’s deadline.

David Weaver of the new Wallowa History Center thinks that there might be a connection between the old chief’s death and the arrival of white settlers. He was an admired and strong leader, and he and they knew where the 1855 Treaty boundary lay, and the Indians knew that the old chief had refused to sign the 1863 Treaty concluded at Lapwai. That treaty divided the Tribe into “treaty” and “non-treaty” factions. While acknowledging the possibility of a connection between Old Joseph’s death and the influx of white settlers, Weaver warns that it is also more complicated than that.

He has been trying to map—spatially and historically—the advent of settlers and the displacement of the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Country. While most history books fly by the 1971 incursion, often blaming a poor grass year in the Grande Ronde Valley for the white surge, Weaver points to growing immigrant populations and pressures in the Grande Ronde. They were running out of land to homestead, he argues.

And a few days ago, in support of that claim, he brought me a pdf of a long 1871 “Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.” A 20-page segment in the middle of the report documents Commissioner Felix R. Brunot’s report from an August conference on the Umatilla Reservation. Oregon Indian Superintendent A.B. Meacham led the team, sent specifically on the orders of President Grant

“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; or take lands in severalty in quantities not exceeding one hundred and sixty acres each on this present reservation…”

The document is filled with good words by the government representatives about their good hearts and desires to treat the Indians fairly. They also tell the “good Indians” that “good” means becoming “like whites” with farms and gardens and settled houses with glass windows; that “wild” Indians will be left behind as steamships and trains bring more and more white settlers into the country. The negotiations go on for days, and it’s always noted that there are crowds of Indians and white settlers in attendance.

In the end, the commissioner from Washington D.C., Brunot, takes the Indian side. Yes, he agrees that the Indians must become like whites, but he faults the government for not delivering on promises made at the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855. No hospital had been built; there was one poor excuse for the promised two schools; and a saw mill had been built in the wrong place at too great a cost—indicating corruption.

Brunot would tell the congressionally appointed commission that Hom-lik, chief of the Walla Walla, Wenap-Snoot, chief of the Umatilla, and Howlish-Wam-po, the Cayuse chief, “a Catholic Indian, in dress, personal appearance, and bearing superior to the average American farmer,” were all staunchly opposed to the proposal, or any proposal to leave the land of ancestors and lifeblood.

In the years after 1871, irrigators wanted water brought through the reservation, and a ditch was built. The growing city of Pendleton kept pressing for more land, and in 1882, a congressional act allowed for the purchase of reservation lands “contiguous to or in the vicinity of Pendleton”; 640 acres were transferred to white ownership. White residents kept pushing. “allotment,” or Indians owning land “in severalty” and accompanying white settlement on Indian lands continued to diminish Native control of reservation lands. White pressure on the Umatilla Reservation, brought into clear focus in this 1871 report, was relentless.

And the Nez Perce were undoubtedly experiencing the same pressures. The Walla Walla Treaty of 1855 had already been replaced by the Lapwai Treaty of 1863, which the Indians came to call the “Liars Treaty.” Many large Nez Perce bands refused to sign it, refused to comply with the reduction by 90 percent of the 1855 Treaty lands. From 1863 until 1871, when white stockmen came into the Wallowa Valley, Old Joseph and then Young Joseph tried to stem the intrusion of white settlers.

We now know that treaties—in theory the “supreme law of the land”—were malleable placeholders for a tide of settlers, miners, and commercial interests coveting the Oregon Country. And we know that the pressure of white settlement and the perceived “truths” of the whites—that Indians were not cultivating the land, and thus not making the greatest economic use of it; that Indians must take up individual farms and build houses and fences, in essence become white—would, for the most part, prevail.

We know that the whites did come “like grasshoppers,” and that it was more than one bad grass year in the Grande Ronde Valley that brought them into the Wallowa.

But we also know that the reemergence of Native culture and claims to this land have a history that is as long as that of the intruders—that the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla leaders knew precisely what was going on in 1871, and resisted as they could.

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  1. Sometime in the late 1970’s a friend who owned a ranch on Cricket Flat took me out on their property above Minam Canyon and showed me the remnants of Old Joseph’s “deadline”. It was never a fence, as such, but a series of posts embedded in rock cairns a few hundred feet apart, right along the canyon rim. It crossed the old Indian trail into the canyon, which I believe is what the first white settler’s used to access the Wallowa country. I remember in at least one cairn there was still the rotting remains of a post. I’ve never been back, but would bet those rock piles still exist. Thanks for the interesting story, Rich.

  2. Private land; surface rock pile remnants only. Disturbed and scattered over the years by wildlife and logging incursion.
    Karen Heagen, Historical Research, Nez Perce Trail Foundation

  3. you are right, Don. I visited one of the cairns in late 80s. And recently visited Minam Park and the site of A.C. Smith’s bridge with some Indian friends. It was an incredible experience, which i will try to share at some point.

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