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A History of Treaty-Making and Reservations

A History of Treaty-Making and
    Reservations on the Olympic Peninsula

  •  Oregon Donation Land Act

Some of the conflicts over land came from the workings of the Oregon Donation Land Act, approved by Congress and signed by President Millard Fillmore in 1850. This law contravened the most basic tenet of U.S. Indian policy-the requirement that Indian title to land must be extinguished before opening the land to settlement by whites. Stripped to its essence, the act gave away large tracts of land to any adult white male American citizen (and "American half-breed Indians") who settled in Oregon Territory prior to 1853-320 acres to those in residence in 1850, 160 acres to those who arrived between 1850 and 1853, with qualifying wives entitled to same-sized grants. When the law was extended until 1855 it was amended to require that land-seekers occupy the land for two years and then pay $1.25 an acre. Ethnologist George Gibbs, who was part of Stevens' railroad survey party in 1853 and later served as surveyor and secretary of his treaty commission, called the act "the great primary source of evil in Oregon and the western part of this Territory in which, contrary to established usage and to natural right, the United States assumed to grant absolutely, the land of the Indians without previous purchase from them." The result, he said, was growing friction between whites and Indians because, "as settlers poured in, the Indians were unceremoniously thrust from their homes and driven forth to shift for themselves." Over its five-year life, the act granted about 8,000 claims covering nearly 3-million acres in Oregon and Washington; more than 500 of the claims were along the shores of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Often overlooked is that the Donation Land Act was not just something created by the federal government to promote migration to Oregon or to rob Indians of their land (although it did both). Rather, the measure also provided a way to affirm the land claims staked out by settlers before the Oregon Country had become an American territory. That it favored white settlers cannot be denied; however, the prospect of voiding their land claims and requiring them to refile was not politically palatable and apparently never seriously considered.

With the Indians of western Washington, Stevens also encountered another dilemma: Few of the tribes had a formal or extensive political organization with a leader who had the clear authority to negotiate and cede lands to the government. Stevens resolved this by anointing his own chiefs:

In making the reservations it seems desirable to adopt the policy of uniting small bands under a single head. The Indians are never so disposed to mischief as when scattered, and therefore beyond control. When they are collected in large bands it is always in the power of the government to secure the influence of the chiefs, and through them manage the people. (See Report of Governor Isaac I. Stevens, 1854.)

If Stevens seems to have displayed an arrogant assumption of power over the Indians, it should be remembered that he was a product of his age. The ethnocentric biases and beliefs common among nineteenth-century white Americans put them at the pinnacle of human development. In 1854 Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution was still in the future and most educated Americans believed that all human societies followed identical paths of progression, moving up from savagery through barbarism to civilization. On this scale of development, Indians were always relegated to an inferior position. According to one of Steven's biographers, Kent D. Richards, the governor probably never questioned this way thinking:

To the extent that Stevens had a philosophy of Indian-white relations, he assumed the superiority of European civilization and the necessity of removing the Indian from its path. He hoped the removal could be accomplished peacefully and that, during a period of benevolent care, the Indians could be educated to cultivate the soil and become productive, valued members of white society.

Stevens made this clear when he made his first report to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1854:

It is obviously necessary that a few reservations of good lands should be set apart as permanent abodes for the tribes. These reservations should be large enough to give each Indian a homestead, and land sufficient to pasture their animals, of which land they should have the exclusive occupation. The location and extent of these reservations should be adapted to the peculiar wants and habits of the different tribes. Farms should be attached to each reservation under the charge of a farmer competent fully to instruct the Indians in agriculture, and the use of tools. (See Report of Governor Isaac I. Stevens, 1854.)

In the same report, the governor also made two other recommendations he believed would benefit the Indians. First, he advocated that Indians be allowed uninterrupted use of "their ancient fisheries." Next, Stevens recommended establishing a system binding Indian apprentices to white masters who would teach Native Americans farming and manual labor skills as well inculcate them with a regular work ethic. Such a system, he thought, "would prove of essential benefit to the Indians and of great convenience to the citizens."

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