Sunday, November 18, 2018

Nez Percés Indian Reservation Opened to White Settlers [otd 11/18]

On November 18, 1895, “surplus” lands on the Nez Percés Indian Reservation were thrown open to claims by white settlers. This action crowned a long campaign to force assimilation upon the Nez Percés and other Indian tribes.
Nez Percés encampment near Lapwai, 1899.
Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

The original 1855 treaty between the U.S. and the Nez Percés essentially confirmed the Indians’ sovereignty over much of their extensive ancestral homeland in the Pacific Northwest. However, that treaty lasted just eight years. Then prospectors found gold in what would become Idaho. Some of the discoveries were clearly inside the Nez Percés reservation, which led to a new treaty that drastically reduced the allotted lands [blog, Jun 9].

Most of the Nez Percés bands rejected the agreement, yet whites officials – with the usual self-serving cynicism – billed it as an all-encompassing document. Continued flagrant violations of both treaties eventually led to the Nez Percés War of 1877 [blog, Jun 17]. After that, all of the various bands of the tribe were forcibly placed on reservations – mostly in Idaho but some in Washington.

Soon, the Nez Percés adapted. The schools filled with Indian children, cultivated plots expanded, and native handicrafts found their way to market. Yet much had not changed, perhaps because the Nez Percés did not put that much emphasis on accumulating material possessions. Indian cowboys grazed growing herds of cattle and bands of horses, making good use of the lush rangeland. Women and youngsters moved across the countryside, gathering camas roots and the other usual bounties from the earth.

Unfortunately, as settlement increased around the reservations, the “empty” lands inside the boundaries became an issue. An item from the Idaho County Free Press (June 18, 1886) captures the prevailing white attitude: “The land is of no use to them for they cannot and will not utilize it. … As long as it is reserved from white occupation it will remain as useless as though located in the desert of Sahara.”

Senator Dawes. Library of Congress.
An unlikely alliance between land-greedy settlers and the national “do-gooder” community found a solution. The  1887 “Dawes” or “Severalty” Act provided that lands on many Indian reservations would no longer be held communally. Instead, individual Indians would own plots patterned after the traditional Euro-American family farm.

Although the law made some provision for grazing, its clear intent was to force tribesmen to become small farmers. Then, the do-gooders were sure, they would assimilate into white society as “stout yeomen of the soil.” White settlers would, of course, make productive use of the acreage left over after these allotments.

Government officials arbitrarily assigned a value to the “excess,” bought it from the tribe, and distributed the proceeds among the individual tribesmen. The land office then made these “purchased” plots available for white homesteaders. Some years passed before the details were ironed out in Idaho, but the resulting transfer finally happened in 1895.

Authorities did nothing to keep claimants out, so most had moved onto the land well before the legal opening. A special correspondent for Boise’s Idaho Statesman (November 19, 1895), writing from Lewiston, was rather disappointed. Yes, he wrote, “there was no lawlessness, no suffering from the snows of winter or the intense heat of midsummer.” But as a result “all the romance which is supposed to attach to occasions of this kind was lost.”
References: [Illust-North]
M. Alfreda Elsensohn, Eugene F. Hoy (ed.), Pioneer Days in Idaho County, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1951).
Francis Haines, The Nez Percés: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1955).
Thomas R. Wessel, “Agriculture, Indians, and American History,” The American Indian: Past and Present, 6th Edition, Roger L. Nichols (Ed.), University of Oklahoma Press (2008).

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