A visit to Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua 161 years ago

Recently historian Dr. Stephen Beckham forwarded an interesting letter from William Jennings Martin, appointed Indian Agent for the Coos and Umpqua territories by Joel Palmer in September 1853, visited Coos Bay and the mouth of the Umpqua river in October 1842 – exactly 161 years ago. At the time, Martin was headquartered in the Umpqua Valley in the town of Winchester.  Martin is mentioned in Dr. Beckham’s book “Land of the Umpqua: A History of Douglas County OR”; Martin was born in 1815 in Kentucky, raised in Missouri and in 1837 had enlisted to fight the Seminole Indians.  He was wounded, later married, and eventually came west.  He settled in 1846 in Yamhill county, then a few years later moved down to Winchester.  He served as Indian agent for just a few years.  According to this site compiling information on the Martin family, Martin lived many more years in southern Oregon, passing away in 1901. In October 1853, the Cow Creek treaty had just been negotiated but at that point none had been with coastal tribes.  Martin wanted to get an idea of tribal population, territory and attitude to negotiating land sales. Anyway, with that bit of background, here is the letter:

Winchester Oct. 14th 1853

Mr. Joel Palmer Supt. Of Ind Affairs O.T.

Sir – On my arrival at Co-ose Bay I proceeded to ascertain the disposition of the Co-ose indians. I found them entirely friendly to the whites. I could talk but little with them, on account of none of them being able to speak the jargon. The Co-ose Bay Company deserve much credit for the good judgement that they have shown in their proceedings with these indians, never promising them any thing which they have not performed.

The Co-ose Indians are all enjoying fine health they are stout and robust men. I was not able to ascertain their number on account of not being able to talk with them as I would like to have done. I made them no presents, as I thought it was not necessary until such a time as I would be able to talk with them. I have found an Umpqua indian who speaks the Co-ose and jargon well. All that I wanted is some goods, shirts, blankets and a few pieces of calico.

They are anxious to sell their lands, and make a small reserve to live on – they live entirely by fishing and don’t wish to move at present. They claim all of the country commencing at Ten Mile Creek ten miles south of the mouth of the Umpqua, down the coast to near the Coquille River, then back to the summit of the Coast Range of mountains, which will include all of the Co-ose Bay Country. The country is mostly level and covered with Spruce, Fir and white cedar, and contains an immense quantity of fine stone coal. The Co-ose country in my opinion will make one of the largest and richest country in Oregon. The soil is as rich as any land in the territory. The Bay is a beautiful sheet of water running back into the country some twenty-five miles, completely land locked. I could not learn the depth of the water on the Bar at the mouth of the river.

I would propose buying the land of the Co-ose Indians as soon as possible – for the sooner the better for both whites & indians, as it will no doubt save both trouble and expense; there is no doubt but all of our indian difficulties in this country have their origin in behalf of the indians believing that the whites intend taking their lands from them without paying them for it, but when they find not to be the case, they at once have the most implicit confidence in the white people; after their lands are bought all that is needed is never to deceive them in the first instance, for if they ever lose confidence in the whites it is a very hard matter to get them to replace that confidence again. I have just let out the building of those two houses for the Cow Creek indians to JB Nichols for the sum of three hundred and fifty dollars.

On my way up from Co-ose I saw the lower Umpqua Indians those at the mouth of the Umpqua River and some at the great fishery near Scottsburg. They are all willing to sell their lands to the United States and make a small reserve. They claim to the Umpqua and always have been willing for the whites to have all of their land, except a small piece covering their fishery. The indians here in the valley say that that the Indians below the Hudsons Bay Fort are a different people from them, but I have no doubt but they are all the same people. Those here in the valley say they don’t want to sell their land, but want the whites to have it to take and settle on all of it – as they have no use for the land and only wish to live among the whites. I told them that the President did not want to cultus iscum their land, but wanted to pay them for it which pleased them very much. All the Umpqua indians live by fishing and digging roots. I have not been able to find out their number as they are scattered all over the country in small bands. From all I could gather from both whites and indians I will set the Co-ose Indians down at 200. The lower Umpquas from the H. B. Fort down at 200, and from the Fort up on the waters of the Umpqua 150, supposeing them in all to amount to 550. It would be well to have some presents to give all of these people, they are anxious to have some goods, as the winter is now approaching and take them in part pay for their lands. It will be no trouble to call all of them together at about three or four places. I may perhaps come down soon to see you about some goods for the indians. In the mean time I will Mr. Magruder my interpreter here to find out all the indians in this valley and their numbers. I find it quite a job to get things straightened and in proper shape. I feel confident of being able to accomplish much with those indians after I shall get them to understand what I want.

Yours with due respect Wm. J Martin, Special Agent.

A few things to note:  Coos Bay people did not know the Chinook jargon in 1853, but he found a Lower Umpqua man who knew jargon and ‘Co-ose’ (probably Hanis, as that is the neighboring language to Lower Umpqua, but it isn’t clear).  Fishing sites were dear & especially valuable to the people, and continued access to their fisheries was paramount.  I think he misunderstood the upriver Umpquas – they did have use for their land, digging camas (from vast fields at Elkton, Lookingglass, Camas Valley and elsewhere) as well as sugar pine nuts, tarweed seeds and other edible plants. It is interesting to note his early observations of tribal territories – he assumed the Upper Umpquas were wrong in noting that those downriver of the HBC Fort (which is where Elkton is today) were a different people; but actually they were right.  That was Lower Umpqua territory; Yoncallas lived at the junction of the Elk and Umpqua in what is now Elkton, and I do not know where the boundary was between Yoncalla and Upper Umpqua but the Athabaskan speaking Upper Umpquas lived upriver from there. (The Cow Creek people lived in the Cow Creek watershed and South Fork Umpqua).

He also noted that Coos Bay people claimed land from TenMile Creek (in what is today northern Coos county) down to ‘near the Coquille River’ and east to the Coast Range.  This is consistent with information given over the course of the next century by various generations of Natives to anthropologists, linguists and in a court of law.  I only mention this because a year ago I was told (by an anonymous scholar in a review, in a tone that came across as quite condescending) in essence that tribal boundaries were all imposed by the government.  I find it unlikely that Martin decided on the spot to create those boundaries and Uncle Sam merrily decided to go along with it for the next century and a half, and the Natives idly went along with it.  The Native people provided indigenous names for these places; I know their Siuslawan and Coosan names (and occasionally Alsea ones, and I have a lovely file full of Alsea and Athabaskan place names).  Native people knew where their fishing sites were, hunting places, plant gathering sites, and so on, and they did not claim these places willy-nilly.   Annie Peterson told Barnett in 1934:  “Crossed over boundaries only on invitation for hunting and when visiting – a war or payment in lieu resulted on territory violation.”  Frank Drew said something much the same in 1932 to Melville Jacobs. Or, as Jim Buchanan put it to Frachtenberg in 1909 (translation by Dell Hymes):

That’s the only way they’ve been talking.

       They didn’t come from any place.

That was their only place.        

They didn’t know where they came from.

Every stream has people on it.

       That’s how they all had a stream.

That’s the way they know themselves.

      All other tribes had their stream as their land.

That rather begs the question of how ‘tribe’ was defined when the villages were apparently politically independent.  I do have some thoughts on that, my own wonderings.  But I’ll save all that for the next post.

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About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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6 Responses to A visit to Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua 161 years ago

  1. Nan MacDonald says:

    Love your work as always – Thank You – with much respect – Nan MacDonald

  2. Pingback: On Bountaries and Tribes | Shichils's Blog

  3. Pingback: Alakichik: Chinook Jargon word | Shichils's Blog

  4. Charlotte says:

    Question? Do you think they were actually anxious to sell? I tend to think our ancestors saw what was happening and understood they needed to claim a portion for themselves to ensure survival. Meaning, that they knew if they didn’t give up some land and lay claim on important areas that they’d be taken and left with no territories to fish, dig, etc.?

    • shichils says:

      I don’t really think they were eager to sell, I think that was the letter writer’s interpretation. I can’t recall where I read it now – it was about a similar wording with a different tribe – and the book author thought it was a cultural misunderstanding; the Indians didn’t think they were selling all rights to land forever. Whereas the agents did.

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