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So Rugged and Mountainous
Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812â"1848
By Will Bagley
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
We Had to Travel Through an Indian Country
When Joel Walker's two wagons—carrying the first American family that crossed the plains to settle in the Far West—set out in 1840, they did not enter an uninhabited wilderness: they entered Indian Country. The family "met a large number of Snake Indians" at Independence Rock, Walker recalled, and traveled with them for about two weeks. "From the time we crossed the Missouri River we had to travel through an Indian Country to the Pacific Ocean," wrote 1847 Oregon emigrant David Shelton. In addition to the dozens of tribes that lived along the route, the West was already home to hundreds of men of European, African, and Polynesian descent. Different nations asserted their sovereignty over the western half of North America, but their power existed mostly on paper.
From the Continental Divide to the Pacific, Mexico held title to a vast territory south of the 42nd parallel, but it controlled only a narrow strip of California's coast and the old settlements in New Mexico. North of the parallel, the United States and Great Britain both claimed the Pacific Northwest up to Russian Alaska, but Indian Nations and a corporation, the Hudson's Bay Company, ruled the land. Thomas Jefferson had engineered the purchase of the French claim to "full Sovereignty" over the Louisiana Territory in 1802, but he also promised to execute all treaties and agreements between France "and the tribes and nations of Indians until by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes or nations other Suitable articles Shall have been agreed upon."
Congress created "Indian Country" west of the Missouri River in 1834, but the tribes who lived there had not ceded one square yard of earth to the federal government. "You know as well as we, that every foot of what you proudly call America, not very long ago belonged to the red man," Shoshone leader Washakie once reminded the governor of Wyoming Territory. All the lands between the Missouri and the Pacific Crest—the Great Plains, the High Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Snake River drainage, and the Great Basin—were under the firm control of Native peoples. Many Indian nations held conflicting claims to the same "particular district of country," as the treaties put it, but the post traders and white fur hunters living in the West had no legal title to the ground they lived on: they were as landless as medieval serfs.
Far from being a static, unchanging, and idyllic Eden in 1840, the American West had experienced sweeping changes for centuries. Before 1700 C.E., tribes such as the Absaroka, Lakota, Pawnee, Cheyenne, and Arapaho had hunted and raised corn on the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Like the overland emigrants who followed them, unrelenting forces drove Indian nations farther west as displaced eastern tribes armed with the magic of powder and steel fled an advancing invasion from across the sea.
Long before the tribes of the American West actually encountered whites, the European discovery of what it called the New World had profound impacts on the continent's Native population. Word of the arrival of hairy white-skinned men raced across the continent. Many Indians could greet the first white men in their land as the Comanche Ten Bears welcomed an emissary from Washington: "I heard of your coming when you were many sleeps away." Spreading from one people to another over ancient trade routes, European technologies, goods, animals, and deadly diseases reached the tribes well in advance of the mercenaries, merchants, and missionaries who brought these wonders to the New World. Less tangible, but just as consequential for the Indian peoples, were their encounters with the strangers' radically different belief systems.
The first Americans to settle on the Pacific Coast also brought with them a tradition of seizing Native lands extending back to the first English adventurers to reach Virginia. The drama that played out over the next four decades between Indians and emigrants echoed historic themes, events, and philosophies that had already embroiled North America for centuries. The peoples of the Far West could have learned from the words of Mahican John Quinney, who spoke at a Fourth of July celebration in New York in 1854: "Smallpox, measles and firewater have done the work of annihilation. Divisions and feuds were insidiously promoted between the several bands. They were induced to thin each others ranks without just cause; and subsequently were defeated and disorganized."
The Work of Annihilation: Old World Diseases and Technology in the New World
From the moment Columbus arrived, European diseases devastated Native populations who had no resistance to plagues such as smallpox and measles. Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta introduced smallpox to Oregon in 1775, and new epidemics swept through the Pacific Northwest in 1781 and 1830. A large population survived the first onslaught—in the 1850s an old trapper told Lieutenant Lawrence Kip he had often seen a thousand canoes pulled up on the beach at Fort Astoria. The introduction of the horse to the Cayuse and Nez Perce helped them thrive, but even before overland emigration began, John McLoughlin estimated that 90 percent of the Indian population west of The Dalles had been swept away. For some groups, the destruction was total, or nearly so. For most, the new diseases decimated families, bands, and tribes, taking the fathers who hunted game, the mothers who gathered or tended plants, and the children who would have been the next generation.
Tribes devastated by the new diseases suffered more than the loss of key individuals and families: the enormous death toll left the survivors disoriented and easy prey for a cynical strategy of divide and conquer. Encounters with nineteenth-century technology and its obvious advantages undercut the spiritual foundations of Indian society, increasing the dislocation already tearing at the tribes. Steel, firearms, textiles, mirrors, and books fueled their desire to somehow master the white man's medicine.
Traditional leaders and healers found themselves unable to vanquish these new plagues. In many tribes, the recognition that their medicine was powerless against these deadly incursions instigated a profound debate about what course the people should follow. Traditionalists held that the fault lay not with their gods but with the people who had forsworn ancient ways or had forgotten the rituals needed to maintain harmony in the universe. Young warriors argued that only force could stop the deadly invaders; others hoped to negotiate with the newcomers. As time passed with no respite, many began to suggest that acquiring the white man's magic and the ability to decode the books in which it was recorded was a matter of urgent necessity.
America's Native peoples quickly recognized the advantages of European technology and acquired it eagerly. The white man's goods may have been unfamiliar, but the trading networks that distributed them throughout western North American were ancient. For centuries Pacific Coast dentalium shells had moved far inland from one tribe to another. Southwestern turquoise made its way north, west, and east, and skillfully crafted baskets and pottery were appreciated in villages far from the peoples who made them. Traders brought salt to those who had none in their lands, and buffalo hunters exchanged fine robes and meat with tribes that raised squash, beans, and maize.
With the goods came new or better ways of performing familiar tasks. Neighboring peoples shared, adopted, and adapted more effective methods of chipping a flint blade or trapping game. Initially the Indians had no reason to suspect that the goods and technologies Europeans brought would differ in significant ways from those that preceded them. "We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country," Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said of his people's first encounter with French traders. "They brought many things with them to trade for furs and skins. They brought tobacco, which was new to us. They brought guns with flint stones on them, which frightened our women and children. Our people could not talk with these white-faced men, but they used signs which all people understand."
Different peoples had differing interests, but alcohol and firearms were the most popular items in the Indian trade, followed by metal tools and utensils, glass or metal beads, mirrors, and woven fabrics. The trinket trade enriched cagey white traders, but firearms could alter the balance of power, giving those who first acquired them immediate superiority over their enemies. Yet single-shot weapons were unreliable at best, and traditional snares or bows and arrows were often more effective for hunting. "It is unlikely that the gun swept like a wave across the plains, nor did the native peoples everywhere accept it immediately as an unmitigated boon," Preston Holder noted. "The bow lasted alongside the gun for many decades." Cumbersome and erratic muskets made better weapons for defense than for offense, and the more accurate and effective repeating rifles and revolvers that could give a tribe a manifest advantage against its enemies were late arrivals. Still, as more and more nations acquired these weapons, guns became essential for survival. When the German immigrant adventurer Frederick A. Wislizenus visited Fort Hall in 1839, most of the tribes still relied on bows and arrows, but through trade many of them had obtained firearms, "the use of which they have well learned."
Life on the Great Plains is completely dependent on water. Grass, the green engine that ultimately powers both animals and people, depends on the generosity of the heavens, and when the clouds are miserly, life retreats in both range and numbers. The notion that there is an "average" yearly rainfall in the American West is an illusion, since the arid West is dominated by extremes—it either rains like hell or it does not rain at all. Cycles of flooding downpours and devastating drought follow one another randomly, and rainfall varies so dramatically from year to year that the mathematical average of precipitation is meaningless. Over the broad sweep of history, drought has been the recurring reality, and during the five thousand years before the birth of Christ, aridity was the defining feature of the plains and the life it supported—for example, during the driest years at the beginning of the cycle, the better adapted Bison bison replaced the huge Bison antiquus, whose horns could span six feet. Dry years extended the shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies that fed the bison, but wet years produced the tall grasses that later fueled oxen and mules. When one of the wettest periods in the central plains' history ended about 1220 C.E., more Indians were living there than ever before or since, but during the thirteenth century cultures across the West withered and sometimes disappeared in an extended drought. The decades before 1840, however, were once again blessed with ample rainfall and its result, bountiful grass.
Perhaps nothing sparked a greater transformation in Native culture than the introduction of the horse, a living engine that could transform the most immense resource on the Great Plains—grass—into a power Indians could harness to travel, hunt, trade, and make war. "All flesh is grass," an American military officer observed on the Platte River in 1845, quoting Isaiah. The horse made a man more than a match for the fiercest bison—and for traditional adversaries who had not yet acquired the new technology. But if the animals expanded a tribe's range, power, and capacity to transport goods, they also provoked conflict, since horses required a vast territory to produce enough grass to support the mounts. "The wealth of an Indian consists chiefly in horses," Wislizenus reported, and he assumed that "all stealing is permissible among the Indians, but horse-stealing is honorable."
The arrival of the horse sparked dynamic changes from the Missouri to the Pacific. Adopting the equestrian lifestyle often upset traditional alliances and embittered existing rivalries. Newly armed and mounted enemies posed the greatest threat to farmers settled in permanent villages, since these peoples could not simply evade armed marauders. By 1840 the struggle to command the resources that provided food, fuel, shelter, and clothing, complicated by the introduction of the gun and the horse, made most of the Native West contested ground.
The Utmost Good Faith Shall Always Be Observed: American Indian Policy
Like smallpox, guns, and horses, European political systems and philosophies touched the Far West long before most tribes had seen a white face. Each of the nations that explored and repopulated the North American continent developed policies designed to govern their relations with the Native inhabitants of the lands they "discovered." The young American government, drawing on these precedents and a history of Enlightenment thought on the status of Indians, soon began to articulate an idealistic policy. "The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent," pledged the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the first legislation of an independent United States to deal with Indians, "and in their property, rights, and liberty, they never shall be invaded or disturbed unless in just and lawful wars authorized by the Congress."
Following European precedent, the new nation held that the "right of discovery" superseded the rights of aboriginal title. According to Enlightenment philosophers, under both moral law and the "laws of nature," individuals who cultivated the land had a privileged position because the human race could not survive without their efforts. Swiss political theorist Emmerich de Vattel held that hunting and gathering alone, which might have been adequate to meet the needs of the people "in the first ages of the world," could no longer sustain a rapidly growing population. Peoples that "inhabit fertile countries but disdain to cultivate their lands," choosing instead to "live by plunder," deserved to be exterminated "as savage and pernicious beasts." The concept that those who tilled the land should own it brought a beneficial revolution to the lives of European serfs, but it was fraught with peril for American Indians—even those who were themselves horticulturalists. But before American citizens could legally take Indian lands for cultivation, federal law required negotiating treaties with the Indian inhabitants to extinguish their aboriginal title.
Congress quickly asserted its right to "regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." In 1831, the State of Georgia challenged federal jurisdiction over Indians. As the Supreme Court ruled, "the acts of our government plainly recognize the Cherokee nation as a state, and the courts are bound by those acts." The justices held that "the Indians are acknowledged to have an unquestionable, and, heretofore, unquestioned right to the lands they occupy, until that right shall be extinguished by a voluntary cession to our government." The Court defined the tribes as domestic dependent nations—that is, as nations with full control of their internal affairs but limited external sovereignty. The federal government had a "trust responsibility" to act as a guardian for the tribes. The law recognized "that their territory was separated from that of any State within whose chartered limits they might reside; that within their boundary, they possessed rights with which no State could interfere; and that the whole power of regulating the intercourse with them, was vested in the United States."
The government specifically addressed the fate of the Indians in the Far West. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty of cession included the "promise to execute such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians" until by mutual consent they came to an accord. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico (which the Gadsden Purchase treaties of 1853–54 conveniently abrogated) provided that "the sacredness of this obligation shall never be lost sight of by the said government when providing for the removal of the Indians from any portion of the said territories, or for its being settled by citizens of the United States; but, on the contrary, special care shall be taken not to place its Indian occupants under the necessity of seeking new homes."
You Must Move a Little Farther: The Displacement of the Eastern Tribes
Americans have always been a people on the move, and this was as true before 1492 as it was after. For millennia America's Indian nations had migrated over thousands of miles in response to weather, disease, war, and perhaps simple wanderlust, but 1840 found many tribes settled on lands that had been their homes for only a few decades.
Excerpted from So Rugged and Mountainous by Will Bagley. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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