The Treaty Trail: Isaac Stevens' Treaty Councils 1854-1856
Context for Treatymaking: Context

In the 1820s, Congressmen and others urged Americans to consider the Oregon Country. Hall J. Kelly, a Boston schoolmaster wrote widely about Oregon and Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri urged settlement of Oregon, and so it began.

Beginning in the 1830s and increasing dramatically in the 1840s a flood tide of Americans came into the Oregon Country. The Willamette Valley was one of the first places settled. Dr. Elijah White was among these earlier settlers. He first served as a doctor at the Willamette Valley mission. Years later he was appointed the first Indian Agent in Oregon. Indian Agents were representatives of the U.S. government to Indian tribes.


As the United States continued to explore the western half of the country, the creation of new laws and the printing of new maps made it easier for settlers to cross the country. On February 7, 1838, Senator Lewis F. Linn of Missouri introduced a bill in Congress to establish Oregon Territory. Three years later, he introduced another bill - this time for the settlement of Oregon. Charles Frémont, a soldier in the U.S. Army and son-in-law to U.S. Senator Benton, was one of the people who helped direct a flood of American settlers to Oregon. His accurate maps, enthusiastic reports, and trail guide helped attract people to the western territory.

Unfavorable living conditions in the rest of the United States also encouraged many people to choose to immigrate to Oregon Territory. In the Mississippi Valley, for example, nearly ten years of hard times began in 1837. Bad weather and widespread sickness worsened living conditions already made difficult by economic depression.


Growing numbers of settlers in Oregon Territory created the need for a government. By the 1840s someone was needed to resolve conflicts, especially over land and other property. In 1843 settlers created the Oregon Provisional Government at the town of French Prairie (north of what is today called Salem). The Oregon Provisional Government created four districts (later counties).

Two districts were north of the Columbia River in present-day Washington, even though that area lacked any significant American settlements.

Walla Walla, 1844: MURDER UNRESOLVED

One major turning point in the history of the region was the murder of a Walla Walla man, Elijah Hedding (it was common practice to give Biblical and English names to Indians during these years). Elijah was the son of an important Walla-Walla chief named Peopeomoxmox. Because this murder was left unresolved and because the Indian Agent failed to successfully represent them, the tribes increasingly distrusted and disliked American settlers and their government in the years prior to treaty making.

In 1844, a group of about fifty men of the Walla Wallas, Nez Perces, Cayuses, and Spokan peoples headed hundreds of miles south to Sutter's Fort, where they hoped to trade for cattle. Tauitau of the Cayuse, Spokan Garry of the Spokans, and Kipkip Pahlekin of the Nez Perce led the party. They were bringing a band of horses and a load of furs to trade for the cattle.

Driving their horses up the John Day River, then south through the rugged lands of the Klamath and Shasta Indians, they finally arrived at Fort Sutter in the Sacramento Valley of California.

At Fort Sutter they set up an encampment and successfully traded for several herds of cattle. However, they did not have enough trade goods to purchase all they wished. They decided to travel into the mountains for a hunting expedition. If they could get additional elk and deer skins, they could trade more.

In the mountains, they met and fought with a band of California Indians. Defeating the other band, they captured twenty-two of their horses and mules, and brought them back to the fort. Some of the settlers claimed that the animals had been previously stolen from their own herds, and demanded the return of the livestock. The Oregon party of Indians refused to hand over the animals. A conflict developed with a man named Grove Cook who was known for his hatred of Indians. In this fight, Peopeomoxmox's son, Elijah Hedding, was killed. The other settlers forced the Indians to leave without their legally purchased cattle.

Peopeomoxmox was not only the head Walla-Walla chief, he was also related to many members of other tribes. They shared in his rage over the murder of his son. The chiefs called for a war of vengeance. The Walla Walla, Cayuse, Spokane, Nez Perce, Pend d'Oreille, and some of the Shoshoni tribes held a council meeting. They discussed raising a large party of warriors to attack the Sacramento settlers, as well as others. The snowy mountain passes held everyone in place, however. As the weather cleared, so did the anger. The tribes decided to seek justice for the murder of Elijah Hedding by appealing to the law. This led them to Dr. Elijah White, the Indian Agent of Oregon Territory. Worried that his actions could spark a war and, painfully aware that the murderer was too far away to find and punish, Dr. White found himself in a predicament. He wrote a letter to the chiefs of the tribes, inviting them to visit him the following fall. He promised to pay them to make up for what they lost at Fort Sutter and he offered to start a school to educate Indian children. Lastly, he promised to write to the Mexican governor of California and others, such as Captain Sutter, to seek justice for the murder.

He did not keep these promises. Dr. White never met with or reimbursed the Indians for their losses. He suddenly left the region for Washington, D.C. to deliver documents to Congress.

This unresolved murder was the backdrop to the treaty trail in what was then Oregon Territory. Long before Isaac Stevens was appointed Governor of Washington Territory, the Walla Wallas and neighboring tribes were left bitter and resentful over the manner in which Elijah White, their representative from the U.S. Government, had treated them.


In 1845, George W. and Isabella Bush and their sons settle in Tumwater in a place that comes to bear their name - Bush Prairie. The Bush family and the rest of the members of their party were the first Americans to permanently settle north of the Columbia River at Puget Sound. There were other non-Native Americans there, however. The Hudson's Bay Company already had commercial control over this area through their post at Fort Nisqually. Bush was already familiar with the Hudson's Bay Company. As a young man he had worked as a voyageur and had trapped for this British trading company. The Bush family was one of the wealthiest and most generous pioneer families to follow the Oregon Trail. However, discrimination based in racism prevented them from living wherever they chose. George Bush's father was African American and his mother was Irish.

The Bush party decided to settle north of the Columbia River primarily because the discriminatory laws of the provisional government of Oregon Territory prohibited George Bush from settling south of the river. These were the severe "Black Exclusion Laws" in Oregon. The Oregon Provisional Government put into place these laws in 1844. These laws prescribed flogging for African American residents who refused to leave Oregon. Because there were no American settlers north of the Columbia River, this law had not been enforced there. The Bush family settled, along with the others in their party, at Puget Sound at "New Market" what was later to become Tumwater. Other Americans soon followed.

In his Pioneer Reminiscences, first published in 1905, Ezra Meeker lamented how Bush's generosity was met unjustly with race-based discrimination: "In consequence of the large immigration and increased demand, prices of provisions had run sky high, and out of reach of some of the recent immigrants with large families. George Bush had squatted on a claim seven miles south of Olympia, in 1845, and had an abundance of farm produce, but would not sell a pound of anything to a speculator; but to immigrants, for seed or for immediate, pressing wants, to all alike, without money and without profit—"return it when you can"—he would say, and so divided up his whole crop, then worth thousands of dollars. And yet this man's oath could not at that time be taken; neither could he sue in the courts or acquire title to the land upon which he lived, or any land. He had negro blood in his veins, and under the law of this great country, then, was a proscribed outcast. Conditions do change as time passes, The wrong was so flagrant in this particular case that a special act of Congress enabled this old, big-hearted pioneer of 1845 to hold his claim, and his descendents are living on it yet."
  • (1980, Everett, WA: Historical Society of Seattle-King County, Everett, Washington, p. 82.)
Washington, D.C., 1846: SETTING THE BOUNDARY

In 1846, after years of indecision, the boundary west of the Rocky Mountains was finally decided between the United States and Great Britain in the Oregon Treaty of 1846.

The Oregon Territory had been jointly controlled by the United Kingdom and the United States since 1818 with the Anglo-American treaty, but the treaty only promised joint occupation until 1827. The increasing American presence in the Oregon Territory escalated tension between Great Britain and the United States. Neither country wanted to lose ownership of the Oregon Territory. Between 1843 and 1844 the number of settlers who successfully arrived in Oregon by way of the Oregon Trail had jumped from 875 settlers to an astounding 1,475 emigrants.

The Hudson Bay Company, a lucrative British trading entity, had a long history in the Columbia River area and did not want to lose valuable assets if the United States gained complete control of the area. Conversely, Americans had intended to control the region since the time of President Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark expedition. The growing American presence required that the two countries settle this decades old dispute.

Compromising proved to be difficult. The Americans wanted the boundary to be the 54░ 40' North latitude line at the Alaska Panhandle. The British Wanted the international boundary placed at the 42nd parallel, or the border between Oregon and California. England wanted to continue using the Columbia River as an inland waterway, despite the decline in fur commerce.

The boundary dispute issue was brought to center stage in the 1844 U.S. presidential election, when candidate James Polk coined the slogan, "Fifty-four forty or fight!" Polk's victory seemed to be a sure sign that relations with Great Britain might grow bitter if the United States did not receive its demand for the 54░ 40' latitude boundary. However, Polk quietly entered diplomatic discussions with Great Britain and the boundary was settled at the 49th parallel, a boundary that still divides the United States and Canada in the northwest region of the United States. The settlement, called the Oregon Treaty, was signed in Washington D.C. on June 15, 1846.

Mouth of the Columbia River: EPIDEMICS

Following their first encounters with Europeans, Native American villages and populations were terribly sickened by diseases for which they had no immunity or natural resistance. Smallpox, cholera and measles ran through the villages of the Oregon Territory, leaving devastation in their wake. In 1775 alone, smallpox took the lives of 30% of the Native American communities living in the lower and middle Columbia River. In the 1800s, other communities experienced as much as a 75% death rate. This means that for every four villagers, three died from these epidemics.

Disease took more than the lives of Native Americans. It also had the potential to remove valuable cultural legacies. Generations of shared memories were lost when entire villages were destroyed by an epidemic. In 1830, a virulent illness, called "fever and ague" by settlers, devastated the Chinook peoples of the Columbia River. In Oak Point, over 90% of the population lost their lives due to the disease, now thought to be malaria. As a result, in Vancouver, Euro-American officials collected the bodies of over sixty families and burned them and the village, hoping to halt the spread of the disease. Generations of artwork and history also were lost in the flames.

The outbreak of disease also caused tragic misunderstandings, as in the case of the Whitman mission in 1847. Pioneering settlers passed through the Whitman's mission on their way to the West. It was one of these groups that brought measles to the local Cayuse population. Marcus Whitman practiced medicine and attempted to cure the sufferers, both European and Native, afflicted by the illness. However, due to the Native Americans' lack of resistance to this new sickness, the Cayuse died in greater numbers than the Euro-Americans. It was this feeling of inequity that led to the attack. The Cayuse felt that they were retaliating against the death and disease they believed the Whitmans and their mission had brought them.

Epidemics in Native American communities left a legacy that would outlast the initial deaths that followed. Although tribal peoples had extensive medicinal and curing practices, these were sicknesses for which they had no cure. The sickness and deaths left communities demoralized and discouraged, often causing rifts between tribes and local settlers. Native American communities today still speak of this void in their history, the loss of all of these voices.

WALLA WALLA, 1847: Death of the Whitmans

By 1847 half of the Cayuse people had died in the epidemics, and measles was rampant. The Cayuse were desperate and angry. They believed that disease had been intentionally spread by the missionary Marcus Whitman, living at Wailatpu near Walla Walla. What happened next had far reaching consequences.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was an organization that was sending missionaries around the world to convert the religious beliefs of indigenous people. The American Board established missions in the region, including one at Waiilatpu near Walla Walla. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were the missionaries sent to the Waiilatpu mission to convince the Cayuse that they should drop their religious beliefs and ways of living. Instead, the missionaries argued, they should adopt Christian beliefs, attend the Presbyterian church service, have their children attend the mission school taught by Mrs. Whitman, and become farmers. In addition to his missionary work, Marcus Whitman encouraged American settlement of the region by leading one of the largest and earliest wagon trains, and by providing a major stop along the trail.

In 1847 a measles outbreak struck the Walla Walla area. Although mostly settlers recovered from the disease, half of the Cayuse people died. The Cayuse survivors interpreted this as an attack upon their people. In retaliation, on November 29, 1847, they attacked the mission, killing Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and eleven others. They then kidnapped fifty-three people, mostly women and children. This event, called The Whitman Massacre, sparked the Cayuse War. They Cayuse War involved , two years of skirmishes between non-Native militia and some of the Cayuse people and their neighbors. This attack on the mission attracted attention across the country. The American Board began to withdraw missionaries from the area. Also, Congress responded by passing a law to make the Oregon Country into Oregon Territory.

Oregon City: The Hanging of the Cayuse Five

On November 29, 1847, the Cayuse people attacked the Waiilatpu mission near Walla Walla, killing the Whitmans and several others. The Cayuse believed that the missionaries were responsible for half of their people dieing from measles. This attack on the mission sparked a series of retaliations by volunteer militia and others.

Eventually, five Cayuse men turned themselves in to the authorities in Oregon City to end the military harassment of their villages. They were tried and all five were hung on June 3, 1850. Witnesses had seen some of these men commit the murders at Wailatpu. Especially Tiloukaikt and Tomahas had strong evidence against them. One man, Kamiasumkin, went to the gallows without a shred of evidence against him. Trial documents have preserved for us some of his final words:

"I was up the river at the time of the massacre, and did not arrive until next day. I was riding on horse back; a white woman came running from the house, she held out her hands and told me not to kill her. I put my hand upon her hand and told her not to be afraid. There were plenty of Indians all about. She with the other women and children went to Wallawalla to Mr. Ogden's. I was not present at the murder nor was I any way concerned in it. - I am innocent - it hurts me to talk about dying for nothing. Our chief told me to come down and tell all about it. - Those who committed the murder are killed and dead. The priest say I must die tomorrow, if they kill me I am innocentůMy Young Chief told me I was to come here to tell what I know concerning the murderers. I did not come as one of the murderers, for I am innocent. - I never made any declaration to any one that I was guilty. This is the last time that I may speak."
  • (from Oregon Historical Society #1203 Cayuse Five Trial Documents)
Washington, D.C., 1848 AND 1850: HISTORY OF LAND CONFLICT

Organic Act and Oregon Land Donation Act
Before the treaty making process in Oregon Territory began, the U.S. Government passed several laws that had an enormous impact on tribal homelands. Two of these laws were: the Organic Act in 1848 and the Oregon Land Donation Act in 1850. The land conflict that followed these laws has never been satisfactorily settled, at least from a tribal perspective.

When Governor Stevens arrived in Olympia in November 1853, he wanted to secure land for the ever-increasing settlers and resources for the railroad. But United States law would not let Stevens or any other official grant land to settlers, or timber to railroads, until Indians transferred ownership of their land to the United States.

Settlers demanded land. Three years before Stevens took office, the Oregon Donation Act allowed settlers to homestead 320 acres of land (640 if married). If they cultivated it for four consecutive years, they received title to the land "as the free gift of a generous nation." Free land attracted them, but their property rights were insecure without treaties. As Governor and railroad surveyor, Stevens had to make treaties, whatever their effect on Indians.

The Organic Act states that the US Government will pay tribes in the Oregon Territory $10,000 for "peace and quietude" of the country and that the government will extend their "utmost good faith" to the tribes. The Organic Act also established the hierarchy of administration for the field relations between the government and the tribes. This administration would consist of a superintendent and any kind of staff the superintendent needs.

The good faith upon which the Organic Act was based was broken with the settlement of more than 10,000 settlers in "Indian Country" by 1849. The settlers were competing against each other for the Indian land in western Oregon, effectively driving Indians from their homes.

Congress was forced to do something. In 1850, Congress appointed a commission to negotiate treaties with the tribes in the western part of the Territory that would result in their removal from the west side of the Cascade Mountains to the east side. This meant that the tribes must cede, or give up, their lands to the U.S. Government.

The negotiations never took place. Congress passed the Oregon Land Donation Act to regularize settlers squatting rights and to control speculators. With this decision, hundreds of thousands of acres of Indian land were given away to settlers, with no recourse for the tribes.

  • (Abstracted from Beckham, Stephen Dow. Chinook Indian tribe: petition for federal acknowledgment. Lake Oswego, Or. : USA Research, 1987.)

Talk of treaties alarmed the Yakamas and other native people of eastern Oregon. Anson Dart, in June, 1850, met with tribes around The Dalles to negotiate a treaty and learned that the tribes had heard rumors that the whites would drive them from their lands. Some men from the area had traveled to the huge treaty council held at Fort Laramie in 1851 where they learned more about government plans to control movements of Indians.


The problems created by the Oregon Land Donation Act were soon overshadowed by the treaty negotiations that followed. This early round of treaties took place prior to those conducted by Isaac Stevens, on treaty grounds at Tansy Point. Tansy Point is located on the south shore of the Columbia River and at the mouth of Lewis & Clark River, near Astoria. Anson Dart, Esquire and Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory conducted 19 of these negotiations with the Clatsop, Wau-ki-kum, Konnaacc, Kathlamet, Klatskania, Wheelappa, and Lower Chinook bands of the Chinook peoples, as well as the Tillamook and other bands. Although participating tribes believed that the agreements they signed were valid, nation-to-nation agreements, the U.S. Senate never ratified or approved them.

"The first of the treaties were called the Anson Dart Treaties in 1851, and there was a whole series of them written with the different tribes. Each of the five groups that now make up the lower Chinook Indian nation, signed a treaty, and the United States Senate never acted on, or signed or ratified those treaties." (Gary Johnson, Chinook, interview: 2002)

The Clatsop and Nehalem people describe that this is where they began to "slip through the cracks" of the treaty process. Some Clatsops and Nehalems joined relatives at the Siletz, Grand Ronde, or Quinault Reservations, but with no treaty and no reservation, many Clatsop and Nehalem families remained in their traditional homeland and never became part of a federally recognized tribe.

Why were the treaties left unratified? When the Oregon Treaty Commission, led by Anson Dart, began negotiating with the northwest tribes to cede their land, Congress had already revoked the commission's negotiation power. Unaware that their powers had been taken away, the Committee spent all of the $20,000 given to them for the treaty making process in an attempt to persuade Native Americans to cede their land.

Tribes had no way of knowing that the treaties they signed were erroneous or that the commissioners made false promises. Tribes waited patiently for the United States government to stop the onslaught of white settlers moving onto Native American land.

  • (Abstracted from Beckham, Stephen Dow. Chinook Indian tribe: petition for federal acknowledgment. Lake Oswego, Or. : USA Research, 1987.)
Oregon Route

Settlers Abound and Indians Respond - 1850-54
Six thousand settlers moved into Oregon Territory in 1850. It had taken ten years, during the decade of the 1840s, for the number of whites in the area to exceed 10,000. With the passage of the Oregon Land Donation Act, 32,000 settlers arrived between 1850 and 1854 to take advantage of the free land. Travel from north of the Columbia to the territorial capital in Salem was dangerous and time consuming. The journey required at least three days. Starting on horseback over a trail to Cowlitz Landing, the journey continued by canoe down a turbulent stream to the mouth of the Cowlitz River, then up the Columbia River and into the Willamette River as far as Willamette Falls. Finally, travelers, by horse or canoe, covered the last miles to Salem. The Native American population would suffer serious and immediate consequences from the arrival of the newcomers.


Belief that the entire region north of the Columbia should have its own representation resulted in the call for the Monticello Convention. Washington's "declaration of independence" from Oregon was made November 25, 1852 at Monticello, near Kelso. Forty-four delegates from the territory north of the Columbia met and petitioned congress to establish a new territory to be named Columbia.


Throughout the year 1853 the demand for a separate government had been growing. Resolutions were adopted at Olympia at a July Fourth celebration, calling for a convention at Cowlitz Landing, August 29th.

Cowlitz Landing

Throughout the year 1853 the demand for a separate government had been growing. Resolutions were adopted at Olympia at a July Fourth celebration, calling for a convention at Cowlitz Landing, August 29th. The Cowlitz Landing convention was attended by twenty-six delegates from Lewis and Thurston Counties which then included all lands north of Pacific and Clark counties.

G.N. McConaha was chosen chairman and R.V. White secretary and a committee of thirteen selected to draft a memorial, which was adopted without amendment. Oregon appeared willing to let the region go for their legislature passed a resolution of approval. This decision enhanced Oregon's prospect for early admission to the Union.


Congress took early action and the territory was established March 3, 1853, the bill having been amended by representative Stanton of Kentucky, changing the name to Washington.

Washington, D.C.: Planning a Railroad

Northwest Indian tribes who lived on land best suited for commerce, settlement, or the railroad route were forced to give up more land and resources than the tribes living in less desirable areas.

By the 1850s, the United States government passionately wanted to build a railroad across the continent. It sent Army expeditions to survey four routes, one in the north, three further south. Isaac Stevens commanded the Northern Survey, organizing two teams. Stevens himself headed west from St. Paul, Minnesota, while Captain George McClellan's party moved east from Fort Vancouver, Washington. The teams would meet near the eastern border of Washington Territory at Fort Colville.

The expedition included talented observers of the lands and people encountered, and these observers participated in the subsequent treaty councils. James Doty made 41 trips along the eastern Rocky Mountains in preparation for the treaty councils. George Gibbs, an interpreter and ethnologist, recorded his observations of native trade, language, and cultural practices. His journals are now housed in the Smithsonian Institute. Gustav Sohon also left a lasting legacy in the form of sketches and watercolors depicting the people and landscapes of the northwest treaty trail proceedings.


In 1854, Oregon Governor Joel Palmer was negotiating treaties with the tribes of Oregon. He was making clear the intentions of the U.S. government to move tribes onto reservations and to take their remaining lands for settlement by ever increasing numbers of Americans. Kamiakin, Head Chief of the Yakama people, began building a confederation of Indian tribes to oppose the white threat. He quickly enlisted Peopeomoxmox, Head Chief of the Walla Walla and Looking Glass, War Chief of the Nez Perce to his cause. In secrecy, these three chiefs planned a council to be held in the Grande Ronde valley of Eastern Oregon, a rendezvous selected both because of its remoteness, and because it was hoped the Snake tribes might be induced to join. Couriers quietly and quickly spread word of the clandestine council throughout the region.

The Grande Ronde Council of 1854 was the most noteworthy gathering of Indians ever held in the territory. Lasting five days, speeches were given by representatives of nearly every tribe. Only three chiefs - Lawyer of the Nez Perce people, Sticcas of the Cayuse people, and Garry of the Spokane people -were in favor of signing a treaty. The Sho-sho-nees, as well as other tribes not directly influenced by the upcoming treaty process, said:

We have been for many years in almost constant warfare with the whites and are in a position to begin hostilities at any time. If you decide on war and begin to fight, let the signals flash from the mountain tops and we will do our part: but will fight only in our own country.

The war-inclined chiefs of the council then decided to mark the boundaries of the tribal lands so that in the treaty council each chief could claim the area within his boundaries, and ask for that land as a reservation for his people. In this way, there would be no lands for sale, the treaty council would fail, and the concerns of the peace-minded chiefs would be allayed.

During the spring, the tribes laid in extra stores in preparation for the possibility of war. However, a subtle force was working to undermine the resolve of the Grande Ronde Council chiefs. Lawyer, the Nez Perce chief, had notified A. J. Bolon, the Indian agent, of the Council. The secret was out, and the Governor knew what to expect going into the treaty council.

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