Saturday, June 17, 2017

Early Nez Percés: Image versus reality

After the Nez Percés treaty of 1855, mentioned in my blog item of about a week ago, white Indian Agents made every effort to downplay the warrior traditions of the tribe. By selling that image they could validate their decision to make what they considered big “concessions” in “giving” the Nez Percés such a “generous” amount of land. After all, they said, “The tribe has always been a friend to the white man,” so they deserve special consideration.

The Agents tried equally hard to sell that notion to the Nez Percés themselves, hoping to counter the glamorous image of those tribesmen who followed the old fighting traditions. Only then could they hope to impose “assimilation” on the bands.

After the 1863 treaty, the Indian Agency stepped up its efforts to sell that image. It was a source of great frustration that they had little success within the bands, although they did fine with whites who wanted to believe that the Nez Percés were becoming peaceful, non-threatening agrarians.

I address this issue in my book, Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho.

Here are a couple of excerpts: “… historical records contradict the pacific image [of the Nez Percés]. Recall that when Captain William Clark first met the Nez Percés in September 1805, the ‘great chief’ of that band was off raiding enemies.”

“Right into the Seventies [1870s], tribesmen regularly fought east of the Rockies. There, they joined Crow Indians against the latter’s traditional enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne. Men like White Bird and [Chief] Joseph’s younger brother Ollokot earned impressive warrior reputations.”

To reach their Crow allies in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, bands of Nez Percés had to cross territory nominally claimed by the Blackfoot coalition. Tribes in the coalition had a notably fierce – and well-deserved – reputation as fighters. Yet it is recorded that they were generally careful to avoid Nez Percés bands unless they had a distinct advantage in numbers and/or weaponry.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Oregon Treaty of 1846 Largely Settles U. S.-Canadian Border [otd 06/15]

President Polk. Library of Congress.
On June 15, 1846, the United States and Great Britain reached an agreement that settled almost all the remaining disputes about the border between the U. S. and Canada. This treaty, arranged under President James K. Polk, meant that the future states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and some of Montana were indeed part of the United States.

The U. S.-Canadian boundary had been established as far west as the Continental Divide by the "joint occupancy" treaty of 1818 [blog, October 20]. That had left the area west of the Divide between latitude 42º N and 54º 40' N "in limbo." People commonly referred to that region as the “Oregon Country,” and some in the U. S. wanted all of it. (Note that "we" usually say "Americans" in cases like this ... but citizens of Canada are also "Americans," so I've tried to be very specific.)

Russian claims to the area complicated matters until they reached accommodations with the other two countries in 1824-1825. The Russians finally abandoned Fort Ross in northern California (Spanish-claimed territory) in 1841.

In the U. S., the issue boiled over during the 1844 presidential elections. The Democratic Party platform took an aggressive expansionist stance. Platform provisions demanded the annexation of Texas and laid claim to the entire Oregon Country. Their candidate, James K. Polk, eagerly ran on that platform. The Whigs equivocated and their candidate, Henry Clay, could not seem to make up his mind.

Southern expansionists supported the Texas annexation, partly because that would add another slave state to the Union. Northerners wanted the Oregon Country because it was seen as our “due” and would add several non-slave states. Claims and counter-claims muddled the Oregon issue in the minds of voters, whereas the Texas situation was clear-cut.
Disputed Pacific Northwest region.
Slightly modified Oregon Country map from Wikipedia Commons,
original creator not specifically identified.
Polk won the election by a close margin in the popular vote: less than 40 thousand out of over 2.6 million cast. Outgoing President John Tyler, a Whig, moved quickly to "steal his thunder." With Tyler’s urging, Congress passed a joint resolution to annex Texas. Texans then voted for a matching Ordinance of Annexation. Thus, statehood for Texas became a non-issue for the new administration.

With Texas relegated to "old news," rhetoric on the Oregon Question heated up. The inflammatory slogan, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight," espoused the position that the U. S. should demand the maximum concession on the Canadian border dispute.

However, as Texas statehood moved toward reality, it became clear that war with Mexico would almost certainly result. At the time, chaos gripped Mexican leadership, with the ministerial “lineup” changing almost monthly. The only constant, it seemed, was popular anger over the loss of Texas. Officials who made concessions to the U. S. would be driven from office. So, barring some major change in Polk’s position, Mexican leaders almost had to go to war … even though many knew Mexico would probably lose.

At the same time, American representatives in London warned that annoyed British officials were now considering preparations for war. Polk and his colleagues realized they were in no position to fight two foreign wars, especially when one of the opponents was the greatest power on Earth.

Thus, “cooler heads prevailed” and the new treaty ended the dispute with Great Britain just over a month after Congress declared war on Mexico.
References: [Brit]
Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2008).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford University Press (1965).

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Water Starts Flowing Through Egin Bench Irrigation Canal [otd 06/01]

On June 1, 1883, water flowed from a pioneer canal onto Egin Bench farmland. The Bench bends for about 12-14 miles along the west side of Henry’s Fork, some 25 to 35 miles north of Idaho Falls.
Egin Bench farmland near Henry’s Fork.

The first settlers arrived on the bench during the summer of 1879, shortly after Utah & Northern Railway tracks reached Eagle Rock (today’s Idaho Falls). While they saw potential there, they had to be content at first with cutting hay and raising stock. The river level lies 30 to 40 feet below the plain along much of the Bench's expanse. Farming had to wait until a ditch could be dug to take water from the river above today’s St. Anthony.

Still, the area proved attractive to homesteaders and a post office was established at Egin within a year. Locals thought “Garden Grove” would be a suitable name. The U. S. Postal Service said no … that name was already taken within Idaho Territory. As the story goes, the settlers met to pick another name on a nasty, cold day. They then chose “Egin,” an Anglicized version of the Shoshone word for “cold.”

The settlers began digging a canal during the fall after they arrived. However, they lacked the capital to hire more men and equipment, so it took four long years to complete the channel. Still, by all indications, that first water delivery in 1883 was a success. Perhaps enough water came through to mask what they would learn later.

Soon, more settlers began to break out land and dig irrigation ditches. The results were a shock to farmers used to normal flood irrigation: The coarse, sandy soil absorbed the water almost faster than they could deliver it.

Reports indicate that this phenomenon discouraged some settlers, who left. In reality, Egin Bench is one of the few places in the world that provides natural sub-irrigation. Although the ground absorbs a tremendous amount of water initially, a layer of basalt stops the seepage not too far down (the depth varies). After that, the underground flow can only go sideways.
St. Anthony Sand Dunes,
a popular recreational spot west of the bench.

Once the soil is “charged,” crops receive moisture directly to their root systems, and evaporation losses are minimal. With such a structure, the depth of the water table can actually be regulated by raising or lowering the water level in a network of strategically-spaced canals.

Egin Bench subirrigation also has a notable side effect. Water began to “escape” west by percolating underground over the impermeable rock layer. When it had charged all that area, the flow resurfaced to form today’s Mud Lake, 25-30 miles away. Before that, the low area had water only during periods of very heavy run-off.

Today, large greenhouses often use sub-irrigation to water their indoor crops. Sub-irrigation of field crops using man-made structures is very costly and is generally done only in special situations. (The trade-offs involved are far beyond the scope of this brief article.)
References: [French]
Mark Fiege, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1999).
“Golden Jubilee Edition, 1884 1934,” Idaho Falls Post-Register (September 10, 1934).
Andrew Jenson, “The Bannock Stake of Zion: Parker Ward,” The Deseret Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 9, The Deseret News Co., Salt Lake City, Utah (1891).
L. A. Zucker, L.C. Brown (eds.), “Agricultural Drainage: Water Quality Impacts and Subsurface Drainage Studies in the Midwest,” Ohio State University Extension Bulletin 871, The Ohio State University, Columbus (1998).