A Most Satisfactory Council

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In May and June, 1855, some 5,000 aroused and suspicious Indians of many of the largest and most powerful tribes of parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho met with white negotiators in the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington in one of the biggest and most dramatic Indian treaty councils ever held.

The meeting had been called by Isaac I. Stevens, an impatient, politically ambitious West Pointer and Mexican War veteran who had arrived in the Northwest in 1853 as the first governor of the newly created Washington Territory. In addition, he was the territory’s Superintendent of Indian Aftairs and the leader of the most northerly of four Pacific Railroad Survey groups dispatched by the War Department to find the most feasible route for a railroad to the Pacific.

A dynamo of a man, still only thirty-seven years old, Stevens saw all three of his jobs complementing each other toward a single grand end. As a governor who wanted to build up the population and prosperity of the territory, he was intent on winning congressional approval for the railroad route he had charted from St. Paul to Puget Sound. That meant clearing the Indian owners away from the proposed route: buying what part of their land he wanted, tucking the natives away on reservations, and ensuring the safety of the right of way for railroad builders and travellers. At the same time, the Indian cessions would increase the territory’s public domain and make land available for more settlers. Stevens bore no ill will against Indians, and even fancied that he admired and respected them. But as an instrument of advancing American civilization, he had a job to accomplish, and with a flair for publicity, he expected to win notice in the national capital for what he would achieve.

During the winter of 1854-55, Stevens concentrated on the area west of the Cascades, where the demands of the settlers for land were the most urgent. In four land-purchasing treaties—which he forced on the Indians in rapid-fire succession by promises, cajolery, threats, and fraud—he permanently extinguished native title to almost the entire country bordering Puget Sound. Then he turned his attention to the territory east of the Cascades, sending agents to tribes in that region to make arrangements for a treaty-making council to be held at the end of May, 1855.

Few whites yet lived in the vast interior of eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and northern Idaho, but already the country was marked by conflict and unrest. It was inhabited by great horse-owning tribes, including the Yakimas, Klickitats, Palouses, Nez Perces, Umatillas, Cayuses, Wallawallas, and Spokans, as well as by many bands that lived along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Large numbers of the horse owners roamed long distances eastward to hunt buffalo on the plains, but in their home villages all the tribes shared a plateau culture that was based on such foods as fish, roots, and small game.

Lewis and Clark had been the first white men in this country, and for many years after the explorers’ departure, the natives had gotten on peaceably with British and American fur traders. Missionaries had entered the region in the eighteen thirties and pioneer settlers, on their way to the lower Columbia, had passed through it after 1841. The increasing numbers of whites had frightened the Indians. The Cayuses, for example, when struck by measles in 1847, feared a white plot to wipe them out; they turned on their missionaries, the Marcus Whitmans, and murdered them (see “Murder at the Place of Rye Grass” in the August, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE).

In a punitive expedition, Americans from the WiIlamette Valley had moved impetuously up the Columbia, hitting many tribes and embroiling much of the interior area in war. By 1850, the whites had withdrawn again to the west side of the Cascades, but great damage had been done. All the inland tribes were uneasy, certain that the Americans woidd return and take their land away from them. When Isaac Stevens had gone through the country in 1853, exploring for a railroad route, the alarm had risen, and rumors had flown from tribe to tribe that the new American “chief” was going to seize their lands. Then, during the winter of 1854-55, reports of the coercion of the Puget Sound tribes had come from anguished Indian friends west of the Cascades.