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A History of Treaty-Making and Reservations

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

  •  Territorial Context

Steven's treaty negotiations should be understood in the context of the times and with an awareness of the circumstances-some unique to the region-that complicated Indian-white relations in Oregon and Washington. First, as noted above, federal policy toward Indians was undergoing a significant shift away from a policy of removal and toward a reservation policy. Just what that would look like, however, was not clear. Under the U.S. Constitution, Indian treaties had to be approved by Congress, and Stevens was aware that Congress was interested in limiting the number of reservations and had recently rejected treaties that had set up a series of small reservations in Western Oregon. Despite this, Stevens and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Manypenny, had agreed that some kind of reservation system would be appropriate for the territory but Manypenny left the final formulation of that up to Stevens, urging him to keep costs down and create as few reservations as possible. To help the governor draft acceptable treaties, Manypenny sent him copies of treaties that had recently been negotiated with several Plains Indian tribes, including one with the Omaha. (See Treaty with the Omaha, 1854.) Initially, Stevens envisioned two reservations in Washington, one east of the Cascades and one on Puget Sound. He planned to negotiate first with the Puget Sound Indians in the winter of 1854-55 and then move east of the Cascades in the spring, with negotiations on the remote Olympic Peninsula wedged between the two.

Figure 9. Governor Isaac I. Stevens
University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections, Portraits Collection

Stevens was also dealing with increasing demands from white American settlers to resolve growing conflicts with the Indians in the territory. Those conflicts ranged from personal and sometimes violent disputes between individual settlers and Native Americans to more administrative problems such as resolving questions of Indian land title. As Steven's noted in his first address to the territorial legislature on February 28, 1854:

The Indian title has not been extinguished, nor even a law passed to provide for its extinguishment east of the Cascade mountains. Under the land law of Congress it is impossible to secure titles to the land, and thus the growth of towns and villages is obstructed, as well as the development of the resources of the Territory.

In the same address he categorized the Washington Indians as "for the most part a docile, harmless race, disposed to obey the laws and be good members of the State," but recommended "ample appropriations to actually extinguish their title throughout the Territory, reserving to them such portions as are indispensable to their comfort and subsistence." The demands to push the Indians off their lands to make way for whites were often tempered by the recognition that white settlers relied on inexpensive Indian labor. As historian Alexandra Harmon has noted, "None of the American [treaty] negotiators intended to cut off relations between white and red people; they simply wanted to limit and regulate relations." In fact, although the federal government sought to concentrate Indians in a few large reservations, many of the white settlers sought the opposite: more small reservations nearer their communities.

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