Long before the Indian buried his tomahawk and ceased to make war upon the white man, the government adopted the policy of inquiring into the causes of his grievances and in cases where such grievances could be conciliated without jeopardizing the interests of the government or of bonafide citizens, that step was usually attempted. In the investigation of these matters it was found that in some instances the difficulty grew out of some act of the government itself, interpreted by the Indians to be detrimental to their interests; in some, from the wanton encroachment of irresponsible citizens; and yet in others from the intrigues of men whose interests were inimical to those of the government, or of some nearby community; but the trouble was most often due to the Indians’ fear of trespass upon their territory; of being deprived of land without due compensation, and, frequently, to his in appreciation or misunderstanding of the government’s attitude toward him.
For several months prior to the opening of the spring of 1858, and during the early part of that spring, there were evident signs of irritation and unrest, among certain tribes of the northwest, which were portentous of evil results. Some of these tribes were strong in membership and their relations to each other were such that defensive or aggressive alliances could be readily formed so that, if occasion arose, very serious resistance could be offered to any force of the army available for service in this section.
Much correspondence was had, therefore, between commandants of forts in the northwest and the general commanding the Department of the Pacific, with reference to the causes of this feeling on the part of the Indians.
Headquarters of the Department of the Pacific were then at San Francisco and General Newman S. Clarke was in command. In June, 1857, General Clarke came to Washington Territory and, having learned of the restless attitude of the Indians east of the Cascades, made a personal investigation into the situation. He held a conference with Colonel J. W. Nesmith, at that time Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon and Washington Territories, at The Dalles, and, from the information considered, it was concluded that the causes were:
- The uneasiness felt among the Indians lest those who were implicated in the murder of Agent Bolan, committed eighteen months before, while Bolan was en route to the country of the Yakimas, should be seized or retaliation be made on the tribes, notwithstanding a sort of pacification made under Colonel George Wright.
- The great objection entertained regarding the treaties made with Governor Stevens, and fears lest the government should enforce them. To these treaties the Indians objected both the want of authority in the Indians who spoke for the tribes, and the conditions themselves.
During the year 1855 Governor Stevens made three separate treaties with the Indians who inhabited the country lying in and adjacent to the Columbia River basin, each covering a separate tribe, or confederation of tribes. The provisions of the treaties were similar except as to the boundaries of the lands ceded. The following is the treaty made with the tribes who were most pronounced in hostile sentiment, not including the Coeur d’Alenes and Spokane:
This treaty had not yet been ratified by the President and Senate, and was not so ratified until March 8th, 1859, and was then not proclaimed until April i8th of that year.
Agreeing with Mr. Nesmith as to the impolicy of enforcing the un-ratified treaties at the hazard of a serious war, General Clarke determined, with the approval of the Superintendent, to remove distrust by letting the Indians know that the treaties were as yet non-effective, and issued instructions to the commanding officers to that end.
As to the murder of Agent Bolan, justice and the policy of the government alike demanded the surrender of the perpetrators, yet, being assured by commanding officers present at the conference held at The Dalles that, with reference to the pacification made by Colonel Wright, the impression had been made upon the Indians, intentionally or unintentionally, that hostilities were to cease, the past be forgiven, and their future treatment to depend on their future conduct, General Clarke “determined not to destroy the future influence of the government with these people by bad faith or the appearance of it, and instructed the officers so to inform them.”
The steps thus taken by General Clarke were somewhat confused soon afterward by the actions of Mr. J. Ross Brown, representing the Indian bureau. It is very probable that Brown appeared upon the scene entirely without knowledge of the things which had transpired tending to establish amicable relations with the Indians. The following correspondence quite clearly sets forth the difficulty which he injected into the situation:
Fort Walla Walla
October 19, 1857
Sir: It is my duty to inform the general that Mr. J. Ross Brown, acting, I believe, as an agent of the Indian bureau, did, in a recent conversation with ‘Lawyer,’ the Nez Perces’ chief, assert that Governor Stevens’ treaty of Walla Walla would certainly be ratified and enforced.
Mr. William Craig, who acted as interpreter on the occasion, gives me this information.
Considering that this statement is in direct opposition to what the Indians have been told by us, and to what as I believe nearly all of them desire, it seems to me in very bad taste, to say the least of it. Mr. Brown could not possibly have known that the treaty will be ratified, and even if he had, the proper time to enlighten the Indians on the subject is obviously after it shall have become a law of the land. He had no right to unsettle the Indian minds on a point respecting which his convictions are probably no stronger than the opposite belief of many others in daily intercourse with them.
I will simply add that in my opinion any attempt to enforce that treaty will be followed by immediate hostilities with most of the tribes in this part of the country; for which reason it does appear to me greatly desirable that a new commission be appointed, and a new treaty made, thoroughly digested and accepted by both sides.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel U. S. A., Commanding Post.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco
The particular treaty referred to in the foregoing letter was made between Governor Stevens and the Nez Perces at Camp Stevens, Walla Walla Valley, the same place at which the treaty with the Yakima Nation was made, on June 11th, 1855, was ratified March 8th, 1859, an proclaimed April 29th, 1859. The terms of this treaty were identical with those of the Yakima treaty.
A copy of this letter was forwarded to Superintendent Nesmith, who replied as follows:
Office Superintendent Indian Affairs
November 18, 1857
I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 3rd instant enclosing a copy of Colonel Steptoe’s letter of October I9th, in which he refers to a conversation had between Mr. J. Ross Brown and ‘Lawyer,’ chief of the Nez Perces.
In relation to the opinion entertained by Brigadier General Clarke, that I had not changed my policy relative to those Indians since our interview, I have to say that the general’s conclusions on that subject are correct. I have on all occasions directed the agents who have communicated with those people to impress upon their minds the fact that the treaties negotiated with them were like all other treaties in a similar condition, void and in operative, and must remain so until they receive the constitutional ratification of the President and Sen ate; and I further entertain the opinion that no officer of the government, including the President himself, can give those treaties validity or make them binding while they lack such ratification.
I knew that Mr. Brown had visited The Dalles, and had there some conversation with ‘Lawyer.’ The character of that conversation was never reported to me. If he stated that the ‘treaties would certainly be ratified and enforced. I can only say that he possessed knowledge upon that subject which has been withheld from myself. In order to explain to the general my views upon the subject of those treaties I herewith enclose you an extract from my annual report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, bearing date September 1, 1857.
I am, sir, respectfully, yours, &c., &c.,
J. W. Nesmith, Superintendent Indian Affairs, O and W. T.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General, San Francisco, Cal.
Extract from the annual report of Superintendent Nesmith, in relation to the ratification of treaties, dated September 1, 1857:
“The region of country east of the Cascade Mountains is daily becoming of more importance to the whites by reason of the discovery of gold in its northern limits, and its being traversed by the great thoroughfares leading to the states. Our people are being continually brought into contact with its Indian occupants, which compose several numerous and warlike tribes. In order to maintain friendly relations with them, and prevent constant difficulties, requires the presence of several reliable agents.
The treaties negotiated with those interior tribes, never having been ratified, they are averse to the occupation of their country by white settlers, and every endeavor has been made to prevent intrusion upon their lands, until such time as the government shall decide upon the disposition to be made of the treaties. In order to relieve and quiet their apprehensions in relation to the occupation of their country by our people, I directed Agent Lansdale, on his trip to the Flathead country, to explain to them the failure of the government to comply with its promises by reason of the non-ratification of the treaties, and to assure them that their lands should not be taken from them without receiving a fair compensation; they were also informed that until these treaties were ratified they could expect nothing from the government in the shape of annuities or subsistence. I would recommend that steps be taken to throw open the Walla Walla valley to settlement; it is an advanced point in the interior, which if occupied would protect and increase the facilities for an overland communication with the states. The Walla Walla is a rich valley, unsurpassed in its qualities as a grazing country, and a desirable locality for a white settlement. It has already been purchased by the treaties made by Governor Stevens and late Superintendent Palmer with the Cayuses and Nez Perces; as the treaties have never been ratified, the country is considered open to settlement. I understand that the Indians express some dissatisfaction at those treaties, which may render their modification necessary. The only portion of the country east of the Cascade Mountains now occupied by our citizens is that in the immediate vicinity of The Dalles, on the south side of the Columbia river. This country belongs to the Indians who were parties to the treaty of June 25, 1855. They have been great sufferers by reason of the occupation of their country by the whites, and have never received any compensation; I would therefore earnestly recommend that the treaty entered into between those people and late Superintendent Palmer, on June 25, 1855, be immediately ratified and funds appropriated for its execution. The treaty referred to is liberal in its provisions; the Indians who are parties to it have exhibited good faith towards our government; they have been deprived of their lands, and the United States have received all the benefits of the treaty. I think that justice, as well as good policy, should induce the government to comply with their part of the contract. I would also earnestly recommend that the treaties negotiated by Governor Stevens with the Indians in Washington Territory west of the Cascade Mountains, be ratified as speedily as possible, as it will be difficult to restrain the Indians, who are parties to those treaties, much longer by mere promises.”