Placing the Blame for Conflict

Historiography – The following is a sampling of statements made at the time of the fighting or by later historians (even a novelist). You make the call.

1. Governor Stevens, following his return from east of the mountains, stated:

Fellow citizens! War has existed for three months, and still exists. A war entered into by these Indians, without a cause; a war having not its origin in these treaties, nor in the bad conduct of our people. It originated in the native intelligence of restless Indians, who, foreseeing destiny against them, that the white man was moving upon them, determined that it must be met and resisted by arms. We may sympathize with such a manly feeling, but in view of it, we have high duties.

Stevens recalled his pleasure in making treaties “to civilize and render the condition of the Indian happier.” His hopes had been betrayed: &#x201CNothing but death is a mete punishment for their perfidy-conditionally to the justice, mercy and leniency of our government.”

. . . The spirit of prosecuting this war should be to accomplish a lasting peace-not to make treaties, but to punish their violation.”

A newspaper (1855):
2. Governor Stevens didn’t arrive from his latest treaty-making until January 19, 1856. He was greeted by the entire populace and a 38-gun salute from the blockhouse cannon. He responded with a blood-and-thunder speech in which he promised that “the war shall be prosecuted until the last hostile Indian is exterminated.”

He went further in his warlike remarks in his address to the legislature, letting his implacable hatred for Leschi and the other Indians who had opposed him spill out to be recorded in the journal of the house of representatives:

”I am opposed to any treaties; I shall oppose any treaty with these hostile bands. I will protest against any and all treaties made with them: -nothing but death is a mete punishment for their perfidy-their lives should pay the forfeit.”

A newspaper (1855):
3. Marshaling further reserves of indignation, Wiley (A supporter of Stevens) proceeded:

“”The COURIER justifies the Indian perfidy of these misbegotten heathen in murdering innocent and in offending Americans * * * It is not our business here to inquire how the war began. It now EXISTS and there is but one duty, and that is TO CONQUER A JUST PEACE * * * We have read the treaties already negotiated, and we pronounce it FALSE THAT SUCH TREATIES ARE THE CAUSE OF THIS WAR. There is not an instance in the history of our Indian affairs where so much benevolence and liberality has been extended to the Indian tribes.”

4. They obviously would have ignored Superintendent Joel Palmer’s assessment of them at the outset of the war, which was expressed in a December 1, 1855, letter to General John E. Wool:

The future will prove that this war has been forced upon these Indians against their will; and that too, by a set of lawless vagabonds for pecuniary and political objects and sanctioned by a numerous population that regard the Treasury of the United States as a legitimate subject of plunder. The Indians . . . have been driven to desperation by acts of cruelty against their people. Treaties have been violated and acts of barbarity committed by those claiming to be citizens that would disgrace the most barbarous natives of the earth.

5. Ezra Meeker (no admirer of Stevens), many years later wrote:

To my mind the fact is abundantly proven that the Indians strenuously object to having all their land taken from them save a small area of heavily timbered upland, totally unfit for cultivation; that the governor stubbornly refused to give way an inch, but insisted that they must submit to his will, and that not lonely did Leschi not sign the treaty, but many others whose names are attached as signers did not sign, or give their assent.” (Pioneer Reminiscences, page 245)

6. From: Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1910.

The governor later discovered that a mistake had been made in giving the Nisquallies an unsatisfactory reservation. On his recommendation that error was corrected. It was deemed honorable and essential that the government should endeavor to settle these questions with the Indians. It is altogether probable that the treaties contributed toward the causes of the wars that followed them. The Indians saw that the white men were coming to take their lands. These negotiations were proof of that fact, and the Indians simply endeavored to make one more stand against the wave of civilization thus threatening to engulf their old ways of living. The charge, made by some, that the wars were caused by Governor Stevens or his method of making the treaties, is both unfair and untrue. Hazard Stevens took says: In all his councils Governor Stevens took the greatest pains to make the Indians understand what was said to them. To insure this, he always had several interpreters to check each other and prevent mistakes in translation, and was accustomed to consult each the chiefs as to whom they wanted as interpreters.

It has already been stated that the treaty making was one of the contributing causes of the war that broke out before those pacts of peace were finished. While this is acknowledged, it must always be borne in mind that the treaties were deemed essential by the government and the people at that time. The Indians were relatively few on an enormous area of good lands. . . . It was inevitable that there should be a clash when civilization and savagery met. What better policy could have been suggested than to treaty with the Indians, but their lands, reserve them ample homes, and freely give them teachers farmers, and carpenters, and physicians to prepare them for the overwhelming changes fast approaching? (pp 167-168)

7. Historical “revisionism” appeared in the 1970s as a result of a closer examination of the circumstances surrounding the events of the 1850s. Inspired, in part, by the Indian rights movement this “new” sense of what “caused” events mirrored, more, the sentiments of Ezra Meeker. This was effectively demonstrated in the novel Medicine Creek by William O. Turner (1974). In it the author has &#x201Cfamily man” Isaac Stevens sitting down at the breakfast table with the kids and thinking:

. . . about the treaty he had made with the Nisqualli and the Puyallup at Medicine Creek. Then sent to Congress for ratification as soon as it was signed. Now he was having doubts about it. The reservations were too small. They were too heavily timbered. They weren’t well suited to the tribes they were meant for.

I listened too much to Simmons and the other white settlers, he thought, to people who were blinded by their hunger for land. They see the Indians as something to be cleared out of their way like brush and trees. I let them put the Indian on bad land so they can have the good land for settlement, every last inch of it. In the beginning Gibbs saw that this would happen. I didn’t listen to him and he compromised. I should have listened. I should have talked more to the Indians.

8. “Throws Light on Debated Medicine Creek Treaty” by Edwin Eells
Daily Ledger July 17, 1910

After the close of the Indian war it appeared that there was much dissatisfaction among the Indians with the Nisqually and Puyallup reservations both as to size, location and quality. At a subsequent meeting with the Indians new reservations, the ones they at present occupy, were assigned them to which they agreed. These selections were approved by the president and became their subsequent homes.

Congress made the regular appropriations from year to year to carry out the terms of the treaty, and so far as the record goes, the government performed its part of the agreement. However, for a period of many years there was much corruption and inefficiency in the Indian service and during the war of the rebellion the currency depreciated so much that these several amounts were so much reduced as to be of but very little value to the Indians.

The officers of the government have been severely criticized for the way in which this treaty was made. It has been claimed that the Indians were overreached, given very inadequate reservations, and otherwise imposed upon, that it was one of the contributory causes of the Indian war that followed. It is even claimed tat some Indians whose names were appended to the treaty as signers never made their marks at all, but were violently opposed to its terms, and that one of them went so far as to tear up his commission as sub-chief.

It is true that the land assigned them was very unsuited to their needs. It is also true that at least three of the signers of the treaty joined the hostiles and were very active enemies of the whites in the war that followed.

Question of Undue Influence

Whether or not any undue influences were used to induce the Indians to sign the treaty, and whether those signing all fully understood the terms of the treaty or not, it is quite possible that the influence of strong aggressive men of great will power and superior intelligence did cause some few Indians to make their marks who would not have done so under normal conditions. But with the large majority of the Indians there was a strong desire to settle conditions which were becoming somewhat strained. The Indians had a possessory right of occupancy and whites were coming in and settling down on their choicest lands, with no compensation having been given to them. They were peaceably inclined, felt friendly to the whites, wanted the matters settled and had confidence in the officers of the government, and believed that they were making the best adjustment possible under the circumstances. They therefore willingly assented, although probably not fully understanding all of the details. This as to the large majority, to which of course there were some exceptions.

The inadequacy of the lands assigned them for their use as reservations is the most glaring evidence of imposition on their credulity. On this point it is but just to Governor Stevens to say, that with his scant knowledge of the Indians at the time, their conditions and habits, he had formed a plan to colonize them all on one o two large reservations farther down the Sound. In the very next treaty made a month later with the Snohomish Indians, a large reservation of a full township or 36 sections was assigned them, with a proviso that other Indians might be allowed to move on to it, if thought best. While this arrangement was pending on his mind, it was not polite for him to suggest it to the Indians as a part of the first treaty. He did, however, as stated before, reserve the right to move them to some other place on certain conditions. He, therefore, only looked upon these reservations as temporary assignments and expected that their permanent homes would be somewhere else.

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