The warpath not taken

How would Pacific Northwest history have differed had we taken pioneer James Swan's advice about how to treat the native population?
Crosscut archive image.

The S'ꀙKlallam tribal leader Chetzemoka. (University of Washington)

How would Pacific Northwest history have differed had we taken pioneer James Swan's advice about how to treat the native population?

On the way back from British Columbia, I spent a day bathed in post-storm sunlight in Port Townsend, Wash. The rays lit up those old Victorian homes better than their elaborate paint jobs. And what is it about the low, autumn light that puts fire into old red bricks – madronas, too?

In my recent travels, and related reading, I've been learning more about the history of the Northwest and the clashes between the indigenous peoples and the settlers. I recently read Kurt Nelson's Fighting for Paradise: A Military History of the Pacific Northwest (Westholme Publishing, 2007), which gives a relatively neutral blow-by-blow account of Indian fighting in the old Oregon Territory, which is roughly the region Crosscut calls "the Great Nearby." We include British Columbia and Alaska, too, so our version is a bit closer to James K. Polk's "54-40-or-fight" Northwest. But we cover a region a lot less violently than a frontier militia or a pissed-off band of Cayuse used to.

Anyone who takes a serious, sober look at the way white settlers treated the Indians is appalled and has to acknowledge that that history is incredibly bloody. Northwest Indians didn't go quietly to their reservations, didn't just fade like ghosts into history, didn't simply die from disease. Many of them fought back and were conquered. Some even survived.

Michael Medved argues that America did not practice genocide – ethnic cleansing, perhaps, but not genocide. But many people in the West believed in the sentiment attributed to Gen. Philip Sheridan at a meeting with Indian Chiefs at Fort Cobb, Oklahoma Indian Territory, in 1869: "The only good Indian I ever saw was dead." In fact, first-person accounts by some Northwest pioneers often refer to killing Native Americans as making a "good Indian." Interestingly, this was often in contrast with government and military policy. The cavalry was sometimes sent over the hill to rescue the Indians from whites.

The Northwest Indian war from 1853 to 1858 – the so called "Great Outbreak" caused, in part, by the government's attempts to force treaties on the region's tribes – was a long, hard-fought conflict that involved virtually every man, woman, and child, white or Indian, in the region. The military – regular U.S. Army and local militias – fielded forces that amounted to about 20 percent of the population and sustained casualty rates as high as 20 percent, according to Nelson's book. And since it was essentially being fought as "total war," no man, woman, or child on either side was entirely safe.

But it was also fought by two unequal sides. One was gaining in strength (the whites, through immigration) and the other losing strength (Northwest Indians suffered massive depopulation since first contact, from disease and displacement). During the early 19th century, the white population of the Oregon Territory doubled while the native population was halved. To the Indians, those hardy pioneers on the Oregon Trail must have looked like J.R.R. Tolkien's Orcs.

From a position of strength, whites pressed their advantage. Much of the conflict was about lies and broken promises, often because white civilians would not always accept treaty terms. One example that makes me squirm with shame was the way settlers took advantage of a typo in a treaty with the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. They were promised access to a fertile camas prairie in Idaho – an area central to their subsistence (camas root was a hugely important food staple) and culture – but farmers moved in, aided by the final document, which rendered "camas" as "Kansas" prairie. Everyone knew it was a mistake, but the loophole was a useful rationalization for ignoring promises made. That helped trigger a new Indian war.

You can't help but wonder what might have happened if the government and settlers had just tried being straight with everyone: make a treaty, stick to it, deliver on your pledges, don't sugar-coat the bad news, treat others decently. Wow. We still can't do it, can we? If we had then, maybe more Native Americans might have survived; cultures might have not been wiped out; maybe there'd be fewer casinos; we whites might have better Karma.

What triggered this train of thought was my wandering through the Jefferson County Historical Society in Port Townsend. They have a nice, small display devoted to James Swan, the renaissance pioneer: author, diarist, lawyer, government official, oysterman, ethnographer, and on. He lived much of his life in Port Townsend and we owe him a great deal for his documentation of northern coastal Indians like the Makah and Haida (most of the art and artifacts he collected are in the Smithsonian). These tribes and others in the region had a reputation for fierceness. In a photograph of Swan's friend (one hangs in the museum), the S'Klallam tribal leader Chetzemoka underscores that reputation with a fearsome scowl.

But Swan had a simple message for his fellow pioneers. Author Ivan Doig, who plumbed Swan's diaries in an 1980 memoir, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, likened him to a kind of oracle. On the wall of the museum is a quote from an article in a territorial newspaper in 1861 in which Swan describes why he never armed himself when visiting or living among coast Indians:

The secret of my success with these people is in the rule I always follow. I never tell an Indian a lie even in a joke ... I have always found that a civil tongue is the best weapon I can use.

Even in a violent time, the truth and a civil tongue can go a long way. Simple, no?

I wonder how much the history of the Pacific Northwest would be different if our predecessors had taken Swan's advice to heart.

Our descendants will likely wonder the same about us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.