Thursday, January 27, 2022


Article Index

II. Governor Isaac Stevens, the Nisqually People, and the Medicine Creek Treaty

This land is your land, this land is my land

This land was made for you and me.

Washington Territory, formerly governed by the British as part of the Oregon Country, split off from the Oregon Territory in 1853 with the new governorship awarded to Isaac A. Stevens.

A West Point man, Stevens had fought in the war with Mexico (1846-48) as field commander of the Corps of Engineers where his duties included mapping the way through jungles and mountains from Veracruz to Mexico City for the advancing American army. Victory in that war had expanded the United States westward from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coastline and northward from the Rio Grande to the 49th parallel. After the war Stevens's taste for battle remained even as he reentered civilian life and became assistant director of the U.S. Coastal Survey. Eventually his success at mapping the Pacific coastline, his political maneuvering, and his ambition led to his appointment as Governor of Washington Territory. Stevens advocated for a stronger standing army that would support the westward migration of white settlers into the newly acquired land where they would encounter murderous Indian tribes.

Racial rhetoric during the war with Mexico undoubtedly affected Isaac Stevens as well as other army men who later participated in the settlement of the West. Addressing his constituents upon his arrival to the territory in November 1853, Stevens proclaimed his vision of manifest destiny: From your hands an imperial domain will descend to your children . . . in the cause of humanity and freedom. With backing from Congressional Democrats, Stevens and a surveying party had trekked overland from St. Paul, Minnesota, surveying a northern route through the mountains for a transcontinental railroad that would, in time, bring settlers and commerce to the Northwest. By wagon trains, white settlers had been migrating to Oregon; the railroad would bring them to Washington Territory. Along the way passing through Indian country, Stevens had encountered many Indian tribes in his capacity as newly-appointed superintendent of relations with the natives.

In his new post, Stevens found a small band of hardy settlers clustered in the fertile territory west of the Cascade Mountains and south of Puget Sound. Some were engaged in logging, but most were homesteaders drawn by the lure of free land. One of Stevens's first tasks was to deal with the indigenous tribes on whose homeland the settlers were making their farms. The Nisqually, the largest tribe, were fishers and hunters and lived along the lower and upper reaches of the river that came to bear their name.

In a February 1854 address, Stevens assured the new territorial legislature that the verdant countryside would become the highway of the trade of nations. In order for this to happen, Indian title to the land had to be expunged so that the settlers' Donation Act claims could be certified. Stevens asked his legislature to petition Congress to authorize land surveys and treaty negotiations. The Nisqually were to be subject to the first treaty. But, of course, they held no land title and knew nothing of surveys.

Before the year ended, Stevens had his treaty with the Nisqually and two other smaller tribes. It was never clear whether the Nisqually leader, Leschi, understood the import of what took place, much less the nuances of the treaty language translated from English into Chinook Jargon. Nevertheless, he was said to have made his mark with a cross, signing away rights to 4,000 square miles of ancestral land in exchange for three reservations of two square miles each. The Nisqually were to be ushered out of the fertile river valleys, which provided them with abundant fish and game, to live on a thickly forested, stony bluff high above the Puget Sound. Stevens was highly gratified with this result; the Nisqually were not. Stevens's loyal enforcer, Frank Shaw, also the treaty team's interpreter, had no sympathy for the Indians. In later years, he said:

[T] here was a great deal of humbug about making any treaties with the Indians. . . . The question was, shall a great country with many resources be turned over to a few Indians to roam over . . . making no use of the soil for timber or other resources, or should it be turned over to the civilized man who could develop it . . . and make it the abiding place of millions of white people.

I further confess that I was one of the men who believed in allowing the Anglo-Saxon race to take up the burdens that the Indians were incapable of carrying . . . . [W] e who have been in this country from the first inception of the new order of things . . . pray that this American civilization may not stop until it penetrates every nook and corner of this continent.

Wars ensued. To the territorial legislature Stevens vowed that the war shall be prosecuted until the last hostile Indian is exterminated. Leschi was eventually captured, tried for murder, and hanged.

Unlike the British, who had come to the northern sector of the Oregon Territory mainly to trade with the Indians, the Americans had come to settle the land and develop its resources. Assimilation of the native northwest tribes was unthinkable. Extermination or settlement on reservations was to be the final solution. Not until Congress unilaterally imposed it in 1924, were Indians offered citizenship.