orn into a prominent New York family, George Gibbs moved west in 1849, drawn by the lure of gold in California. Instead of settling there, however, he wound up in Astoria, Oregon, working as assistant collector of customs.
Gibbs had studied law at Harvard University, but was more inclined to literary pursuits, which led him to work as a librarian for the American Ethnological Society. In Oregon, he worked to draft treaties with the tribes in the Willamette Valley. Skilled in the study of languages, he compiled invaluable dictionaries of a number of native languages. His expertise in cartography produced the first accurate map of the region.
Stevens's Railroad Survey and Treaty Team
At age thirty-eight, Gibbs was hired by George McClellan, a family friend, to work on the Northern Railroad Survey. From 1853 to 1855, he studied rocks as a geologist and mapped the homelands and languages of native people as an ethnologist for the Pacific Railroad Survey under the command of Isaac Stevens.
Gibbs was also instrumental in gathering and preserving zoological specimens for the Smithsonian. He adhered to rigid procedures for the preservation of creatures of various sizes. The specimens he supplied to the Smithsonian became part of the zoological report of Stevens' survey report.
In 1854, Gibbs reported to McClellan on the Indians of Washington Territory providing what he thought was comprehensive information on Native American societies prior to the treaty period. Once the railroad survey was done, he was hired by Governor Stevens to help with the treaties
The Treaty Process
Gibbs was by this time earning a reputation as the "most apt student of the Indian languages and customs in the Northwest," skills that earned him inclusion at the main table, with Governor Stevens, during the treaty councils. One issue placed before the treaty team and producing the most vigorous debate was the question of how many reservations should be created. Gibbs argued passionately that, due to the variety of the Indians' customs and languages, and their need for fishing rights, many small reservations should be created.
Later, he was also sent out to take a census of the number of native people among the tribes of Washington Territory. The resulting report showed a marked decline in numbers, as compared to earlier Hudson's Bay Company information. This decrease in the recorded population was probably due to catastrophic epidemics that were killing large percentages of tribal communities.
The Northwest Boundary Survey
Gibbs joined the Northwest Boundary Survey in 1857 and served as geologist and interpreter until 1862. The Smithsonian Institution maintains a collection of his papers from this period of his life that includes his notes on the growth of forests in the Washington Territory, circa 1860.
The last decade of his life was spent in Washington, DC, where he undertook studies of Indian languages under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.
Buerge, David M. "Big Little Man: Isaac Stevens (1818-1861)." In David Brewster and David Buerge, eds., Washingtonians: A Biographical Portrait of the State. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1988.
Gibbs, George. 1854. "Report on the Indian Tribes of the Territory of Washington." Secretary of War Reports of Explorations 1:400-449.
Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collection in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7209. George Gibbs Paper, circa 12850-1853, 1857-1862
Online at (http://www.si.edu/archives/archives/findingaids/FARU7209.htm)
Richards, Kent D. Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1993.