The Civil War and Nez Perce Treaties

Yesterday in line at the grocery store, a new young clerk was telling someone how interested he was in the Civil War, and how he really wanted to go east and visit Antietam.  I piped up to suggest that he think about the civil war in the west. Had he ever wondered how Union County got its name, and why there is a Sumter close by? And did he know about the impact of the Civil War on Indian tribes, and specifically on the Nez Perce treaties?
I’m teaching a short, non-credit class on the Nez Perce and the Wallowas, and plan to devote one of five sessions to the treaties. Thinking about the grocery store clerk and about the upcoming class, it occurred to me that Alvin Josephy’s treatment of the treaties—in his books and in a long article for American Heritage on the 1855 Treaty—might have been different had he done the Civil War in the West book first. 
Briefly, here’s the chronology: 1855 is the Stevens treaty talks in Walla Walla. As a lawyer friend points out, the Nez Perce negotiated a pretty good treaty. They were the only ones to get their own reservation—the initial Stevens goal was to put them together with others on a confederated reservation. And they ceded very small amounts of their traditional village and migratory grounds.
Then, in 1861, gold was discovered on the Nez Perce Reservation. In 1862, directly contravening the provisions of the treaty, 18,000 white miners flooded the reservation. Remember, the Civil War is underway. There is no way that the federal government can remove 18,000 miners from the reservation. And the Union wants the gold!
I remember as a child that Civil War currency—like Weimar marks—was available for cereal box tops (well, I don’t remember any specific box top offers, but it seemed that there were; kids had Confederate dollars). Lincoln and the Union wanted the trails West open for many reasons, but one of them was to retrieve the gold which made Union currency hard currency. Currency that could buy arms and goods from other countries. What would have happened had the Confederacy controlled roads west? Why was the first road West the trail in the Southwest? Prior to the Civil War, none of the central or northern routes for rails or trails was agreeable to Southern Senators (including the Northern rail route surveyed by Stevens).
So the series of Indian treaties and broken treaties, the Minnesota uprising and the Mankato hangings, the Sand Creek and Bear River massacres, all owed to keeping Western trails open and retrieving Western gold. Yes, there were other factors, including fights over votes leading up to the War, recruitment of volunteers, etc. But, as Alvin points out in Civil War in the American West, the decimation of Indian tribes that goes on during the War and that continues after the War is all intricately tied to the great War that most Americans associate with Antietam and Gettysburg.
At War’s end, with the Nez Perce situation still unsettled and President Grant trying to deal with the “Indian problem” with his 1868 Peace Policy—giving reservation administration to the churches, with military commanders having their own solutions to the Indian problem, with Custer and Black Hills gold strikes and a War-time legacy of making and breaking treaties, everything that happens to the Nez Perce is in the shadow of that War.
Which all makes me wonder whether Alvin would have written those treaty chapters differently had he pulled all of the Civil War in the West material together first. It is one of many questions I failed to ask him when he was with us.
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The History Urge

Our class at the Josephy Center read the Introduction and the “Manifest Destiny” chapter from Alvin’s Civil War in the American West this week. I was struck again by the paucity of information in general circulation—i.e., textbooks, movies, TV shows, and popular books—about Indians, Civil War, and the West. But Alvin said many times that there was and is a mother lode of historical information on places, people, and events that have shaped the American West: stories from Idaho, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, California, stories of battles, of generals resigning to go home to the South, of emigrant trains, Pony Express (yes, that too during Civil War years), and Indian massacres. With a little digging, one could find the vote count in Oregon—the Republicans carried by 221 votes!, or the fact, turned up by one of our participants, that George Pendleton, namesake of our Pendleton, Oregon, was a staunch slavery advocate and the town once boasted streets named after Confederates.  
Most often, according to Alvin, amateur historians, good citizens with a history urge, have gathered these stories and kept them alive. His work was to gather and sift the material and relate it to what was happening in the East and to Eastern leadership of the Union and the Confederacy. I can bet that he came to the story himself through his work in Indian history. He would have turned up the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, and followed that to its sorry but important conclusion, then the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado and the Bear River Massacre in Idaho.
His genius was in gathering, standing back and taking a long historical look, and then weaving the pieces into a quilt that shows us more than the small pieces—or the dramatic events that dominate our idea of the Civil War—ever can. So we learn that the Civil War period saw a greater decimation of Indian tribes and takeover of Indian lands than any comparable time in our history. We follow the patterns—from Minnesota to Idaho—of encroachment, starvation, reprisal, loss of life and land, treaty, then more encroachment, starvation, etc.
I was struck, on rereading Chapter 8, on the number of times the word “starvation” was used. Settlers or miners came to an area, destroyed grasslands or used up other resources, starved, shot a settler’s cow, were hounded back and “treatied,” were promised secure (but much smaller) pieces of land, sometimes money and commodities, and then relived the cycle again or stewed and drowned in their diminished circumstances.
Alvin was a long-time editor at American Heritage. The Civil War book first appeared as a Time-Life western history volume in 1986. His passion was in making history readable, connected to the present, and true to historical facts. He wanted a general historical awareness, and praised the history buffs who carried local torches. I think he stayed at American Heritage after his own career as an historian had taken off in part because of his urge to keep the history urge alive in America.
And I remember him saying that he had gathered so much material on the Civil War in the West, and the general knowledge of the same was so scarce, that he had to do a full sized book on the subject. The big book was published in 1991. Something for the real history buff—and something the academic historians might have to take into account.
I was googling around to see what had happened to the big book—which is still in print, with four-star reviews. And I stumbled onto Gordon Chappell, who has published an on-line bibliography of the Civil War in the American West (with a nod to Alvin in the introductory paragraph). Pages and pages of books on events and people related to the War in the West. Books from university presses and books privately published. (I was struck by the number of titles from Nebraska and Oklahoma university presses, who make their living scratching the history itch.)
I wonder if Alvin ever met Chappell, but am sure that he met and encouraged hundreds of folks who had that same urge. If you are one of them, take a look at this bibliography of the Civil War—and scratch your own head about textbook and Civil War re-enactors fixations on Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

On the way to the academy

Back in April, I got notice that the theme for the Pacific Northwest History Association’s fall meeting in Tacoma, Washington was to be “The Civil War and Civil Rights.” As it happened, I was reading Alvin J’s The Civil War in the American West at the time, and remembered a passage in the Introduction claiming that the Civil War probably saw the decimation of more Indian tribes and the takeover of more Indian lands than any comparable period in American history. The conference’s prospectus didn’t mention Indians, so I wrote them a proposal saying I wanted to talk about Alvin, the War, and Invisible Indians.

And they accepted! All was well. It was on my calendar—six months and a summer-full of activities away. As things got closer, I assumed I would reread the Civil War book and miscellaneous other Josephy and Civil War material and prepare an outline, head to Tacoma next week, and talk for 25 minutes and leave five minutes for discussion. I would see Al Josephy and John Jackson in Olympia, see Eliza Canty-Jones from the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and maybe hear Greg Nokes talk about his research on African Americans in Oregon. Meet old friends of Alvin’s and many real historians.

And then a couple of weeks ago I got notice that they wanted a “paper” ahead of time! A real paper. I quickly calculated that a 25 minute paper would be about 3500 words, and I have not written a 3500 word paper in a very long time!  When I told my brother, who teaches at nearby Washington State, what I had to do, he howled. “Welcome to my world,” he chuckled.

Still and all, I had thought about this back in April and had an outline in mind. It couldn’t be too difficult.

Until I reread the Josephy book and tried to get around it all: Indians, Civil War, Civil Rights. Settlers, armies, generals (there were a lot of them in that war!), Butterfield Road, Oregon Trail, Pony Express, tribes, treaties, mountain men, Mexico, Texas—the Republic of, Sam Houston, the Gadsden Purchase, Northwest Territory, Indian Territory, Lincoln, massacres—Sand Creek and Bear River and Indians massacring Whites in Minnesota, Minnesota—my home state. And pretty soon I was back at Columbus and Squanto, Jacque Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin and trying to get some handle on the history of White and Indian relations—Alvin’s life work and here I am trying to distill it all into an argument about Indians and the Civil War!

Deep breaths. 2000 languages Alvin says in The Indian Heritage of America. 500 Nations in North America, he wrote. I checked the last census—546 recognized tribes, in 2010! Each one of these tribes has a history and culture of its own. And the White guys were not–are not–of one mind. Of course it’s complicated!


October 19, Washington State Historical Museum, 3:45 p.m. Come watch me tremble.