oel Palmer was born in 1810 in Ontario, Canada to Quaker parents, ninth-generation Americans, whose ancestors had docked at Plymouth in the 1630s. When the War of 1812 began, the family hastily removed to northern New York, to an unsettled area where Palmer experienced the conditions of frontier life.
Life in Servitude
At the age of twelve, Palmer, the eldest of nine children, was "bound out"a form of indentured servitudeto a family by the name of Haworth who lived in the Catskills for the standard period of four years. During his service, he received three months of schoolingthe only education he ever had. He told historian Hubert Howe Bankcroft that he was taunted by his classmates at school for being a "bound boy."
"I could not bear [it]," said Palmer, "I had aspirations above my prospects."
Marriage and Career
When he turned 16, he left the Catskills for Philadelphia, where he took work on a canal project. He was married at age 20 to Catherine Caffee, who died after childbirth. He married a second time in 1836, this time to 15-year old Sarah Ann Derbyshire, who came from a Quaker family of comfortable means. This alliance may have fulfilled part of the aspirations he possessed.
Soon after his second marriage, Palmer moved to the Whitewater Valley in Indiana, where he again worked on canals. The desire for a Whitewater canal was strong. In June 1836, Joel Palmer was given the contract to oversee a long stretch of the canal construction. Three years later the project was stopped by the state, leaving Palmer with "a large force of men and materials" and no means by which to pay the men, nor any use for the materials.
The record does not show how Palmer handled the crisis, except that he "took to farming."
In 1843, he served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana legislature, serving on the Canals and Internal Improvements Committee. Returning for a second term in 1844-45, he served on the State Bank Committeea clear indication of his stature in the community, since this was the legistlative committee of greatest importance.
By 1845, Palmer was a man of considerable substance, living the good life in good placejust the sort of life he had envisioned for himself.
So he decided to leave.
Overland to Oregon
During the spring of 1845, Palmer started overland to Oregon to investigate the possibilities of this new Territory. Like many men making the journey, he left his family behind. During his journey he kept a diary of his experiences, which was published in 1847 as Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains. This publication served as a guidebook to many immigrants for information on equipment and route details, and was instrumental in opening the Barlow Road, an integral section of the Oregon Trail located in Oregon Territory.
Completing his investigation the following year, he decided it was time for him to return to Indiana. On March 6th, 1846, he set out on an essentially uneventful crossing to retrieve his family. After a year of preparation following his return he and his family departed Indiana for good, arriving in Oregon in autumn of 1847 to build new lives.
The native Cayuse population by this time had been decimated to half its original size by measles. The Cayuse were enraged and desperate, and believed the disease had been intentionally spread by the missionary Marcus Whitman, who had settled in Walla Walla. In retaliation, on November 29, 1847, they attacked the mission, killing Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and eleven associates. They then abducted fifty-three other people, largely women and children. Sadly, the disease in fact was probably brought west by other emigrants, possibly even by the group that traveled with the Palmer family.
The Whitman Massacre sparked the Cayuse War, and Palmer served as commissary-general of the volunteer forces. He also served as a peace emissary to persuade neighboring tribes not to join the Cayuse Indians.
The California Gold Rush
In 1848, along with two-thirds of the able-bodied men of Oregon, Palmer left for the gold fields of California. While there he acquired, by his own record, $2,000 worth of gold, after which he returned to Oregon by ship in early spring of 1849.
Superintendent of Indian Affairs
Upon his return he laid out the town of Dayton in Yamhill County, where he filed his donation land claim and built a sawmill. In 1853, he was appointed Superintendent of Indian affairs for the Oregon Territory. Serving with distinction, Palmer had the difficult task of securing Oregon lands from warring Indian tribes while preventing the outbreak of hostilities. During his tenure, he negotiated the following cessation treaties:
Agreement with the Rogue River, September 8, 1853 (Unratified)
Treaty with the Rogue River, September 10, 1853
Treaty with the Umpqua-Cow Creek Band, September 19,1853
Treaty with the Rogue River, November 15, 1854
Treaty with the Chasta, etc., (Grave Creek band, Quilsieton band, Sacheriton band of Scoton, Nahelton) November 18, 1854
Treaty with the Umpqua and Kalapuya, November 29,1854
Treaty with the Kalapuya, etc.(Wah-la-la band of Tum-waters, Clow-w e-wal-la, or Willamette band, Chep-en-a-pho), January 22, 1855
Treaty with the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla, June 9, 1855
Treaty with the Tribes of Middle Oregon, June 25,1855
Treaty with Oregon Coast Tribes, August 11, 1855 (Unratified)
Treaty with the Molala, December 21, 1855
The Rogue War, and Dismissal
Meanwhile, tensions were building in the Rogue River, where a series of incidents resulted in the deaths of whites at the hands of the Indians. The violence escalated, and the result was a massacre of Indians at Table Rock Reserve - 106 men, women and children were slaughtered. There followed a series of skirmishes which became known as the Rogue River War. Casualties were high on both sides. Said Palmer:
If it becomes a fixed policy to permit wholesale butchery of defenseless women and children of these friendly bands of Indians who in accordance with treaty stipulations locate upon reservations and comply with all the requirements of such treaties and the regulations and directions of the agent of the government placed amongst them, the officers of the Indian department may as well be disbanded.
Palmer's genuine concern became unpopular with the settlers and townspeople, and he came under fire for being overly lenient with the Indians. A segment of the white population wished to wage a war of extermination, and these voices were raised in criticism of his policies. On August 15, 1857, Joel Palmer was removed from the office of Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His last letter in that capacity included words characteristic of that for which he had worked:
I leave the office with a desire to see such measures adopted as may tend to maintain peace and advance these Indians in civilization.
Palmer spent the remaining two decades of his life in business and politics. He served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives in 1862 and as a state senator, 1864-1868. In 1870, Palmer was defeated as the Republican candidate for governor. He died June 9, 1881 in Dayton, Oregon.
O'Donnell, Terence, An Arrow in the Earth: General Joel Palmer and the Indians of Oregon. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1991.
Kappler, Charles J., Compiled and edited by, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Vol. II (Treaties) in part. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904.