In 1855, the Coast Reservation was established by executive order of President Franklin Pierce. The new reservation ran approximately 102 miles north and south along the Central Oregon coast. The establishment of this reservation set in motion the relocation of several different American Indian groups in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
The new reservation was established as a part of a new Indian policy put into practice by Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny which envisioned Indians being “saved” from the bad effects of American expansion by concentrating them in isolated places. On the reservation, the Indians would have limited contact with non-Indians and could be trained to become self-supporting farmers.
The 27 tribes which were relocated to the new reservation spoke many different languages from four unrelated language families: Athabaskan, Penutian, Hokan, and Salish. In their chapter in The First Oregonians: An Illustrated Collection of Essays on Traditional Lifeways, Federal-Indian Relations, and the State’s Native People Today, Cynthia Viles with Tom Grigsby report:
“Though cultural practices among these diverse groups were relatively homogenous, the linguistic situation was complex. The native peoples adapted to this diversity in two ways: through the adoption of a ‘trade language,’ Chinook Jargon, and through multilingualism.”
With regard to the use of Chinook Jargon on the reservation, Tom Grigsby, in his report on language in The First Oregonians: An Illustrated Collection of Essays on Traditional Lifeways, Federal-Indian Relations, and the State’s Native People Today, writes:
“Because of the diversity of languages spoken on the reservation during this period, a trade language (Chinook Jargon) was adopted during the latter half of the nineteenth century and continued to be spoken as a lingua franca until the early 1900s.”
Concerning the Athabascan dialects spoken on the reservation, Tom Grigsby reports:
“In fact, each of the Athabascan dialects was mutually intelligible and would have been understood by the speakers of the day. Put another way, the differences between these dialects wee probably not much greater than the differences between Australian and American English as spoken today.”
Traditionally, Indian people had been multilingual, but on the reservation speaking any language other than English was discouraged. Cynthia Viles with Tom Grigsby report:
“Representatives of the U.S. government knew that to control a language is to control a people’s culture; the official government policy was to erase any vestige of ‘Indian’ behavior.”
With regard to the size of the reservation, E. A. Schwartz, in his book The Rogue River Indian War and Its Aftermath, 1850-1980, reports:
“It stretched along the Pacific coast for more than one hundred miles from Cape Lookout on the north to an obscure stream between the Siuslaw and Umpqua Rivers on the south, and it took in all the land to the eighth range of townships west of the Willamette meridian, as much as twenty-two miles inland.”
The good intentions of the new Indian policy are often ignored on the Coast reservation. E. A. Schwartz writes:
“Politically appointed agents and superintendents treated their jobs as opportunities to become bigger men, politically and financially.”
The map shown above on display in the North Lincoln County Historical Museum shows the tribes in the area. Shown above are the ancestral homelands of the tribes of Western Oregon. This map is on display in the Burrows House Museum in Newport, Oregon.
The headquarters compound for the new reservation was built on a hill overlooking a broad expanse of meadow on the Siletz River. Three forts were built on the borders of the reservation: Fort Yamhill, Fort Hoskins, and Fort Umpqua.
According to a display in the North Lincoln County Historical Museum in Lincoln City, Oregon:
“The reservation was intended to free up land desired by white settlers for farming and gold mining without the threat of conflicts with Native Americans. Ostensibly, it was also meant to provides a place where the remnants of much larger bands could learn to be self-sustaining farmers, and with the help of the U.S. government, repopulate their bands.”
The Coast Reservation was placed under the administration of the Siletz Agency. The first Indian agent for the new reservation, Robert Metcalf, describes it as being
“so mountainous and destitute of vegetation…that even mountain goats would perish with hunger.”
When Metcalf left Oregon to join the Confederate Army in 1861, it was reported that he took with him $40-60,000 which he had acquired from graft during his tenure as Indian agent.
The Reservation, known as the Coast Reservation or the Siletz Reservation, was established for 27 Indian tribes whose original territories ranged from southern Washington to northern California. These tribes spoke at least ten different languages.Sandy Nestor, in Our Native American Legacy: Northwest Towns With Indian Names, reports:
“The Indians were told they would be provided for, and had to leave all their belongings behind. When they arrived at the Siletz Reservation, all they found were empty promises, because nothing was there for them.”
The first Indians from southern Oregon arrived at the reservation in July 1856. They had travelled by steamer to Portland and then marched to the reservation. They disliked the reservation and only the abusive threats of the Indian agent kept them from fleeing.
In 1857, the Lower Coquille were removed to the Coast Reservation. In July 1857, the Indian agent reported that there were 554 Shasta (Upper Rogue River)Indians on the reservation as well as 1,390 Athapascan-speaking Indians, and105 Indians from local tribes. He described them as—
“wretchedly poor, and destitute of all the securities and comforts of life, except what is supplied them by the government.”
E. A. Schwartz reports:
“The reservation regime itself promoted starvation and disease. The Indian Service provided neither adequate food nor adequate housing.”
In 1857, J. Ross Browne, a special investigator for the federal government, met with the chiefs of the Siletz Indian Reservation. The Indians were told that the President in Washington wanted to know why the Indians were dissatisfied in spite of all that had been done for them.
Chief Joshua explained that his people had made the treaty in good faith and that the Americans had promised his people many things as payment for their land. The government had not delivered these things and had mistreated the Indians on the reservation. He testified:
“That all these things were to be given to us in payment for our lands. That we would not have to work for them, but had a right to them under the treaty.”
Old John, the Applegate Valley war leader, told how his people were dying on the reservation. The treaty had promised them the Table Rock Reservation and his people wanted this reservation back.
Chief George of the Applegate-Galice Creek Indians testified that they also had retained the Table Rock Reservation, that they had not sold it to the United States.
The testimonies given by the chiefs stressed that while they had sold some of their lands, they had retained some and that they had been promised that they could return to these lands following the Rogue River War, but the government would not allow them to do so.
J. Ross Browne reported that there were 27 houses for the Indians on the reservations and there was lumber for 30 more. A total of 57 houses meant that each house would have to hold 36 Indians if all Indians were to have the housing they had been promised.
As with other reservations, the government supplied annuities in the form of goods such as cloth, shoes, blankets, and so on. The Indian agent keep these in a store where they were sold to the Indians for about three times normal market value. Indians who worked for the agency were paid a dollar a day, but they were paid in credit at the store rather than in cash. One of the soldiers who was stationed on the reservation wrote in his journal:
“…he sells goods for three times their value and Uncle Sam pays the bill. In a few words, Indian Agencies are a curse to the Indians and likewise to the country.”
As the Civil War began in 1861, a number of Indians left the reservation because they felt that the “government was broke” and unable to supply them with the promised food and clothing. In 1862, the Indian Superintendent for Oregon visited the reservation. Sixes George told him that the people had to eat frozen, rotten potatoes and the carcasses of dead horses. More than half the people were now off the reservation, many of them assisting farmers in the Willamette Valley.
In 1863 and again in 1864, the Indian agent for the reservation recommended that Yaquina Bay be removed from the reservation. In 1864, he recommended opening up the entire southern half of the reservation for non-Indian settlement. The Oregon delegation to Congress considered the reservation to be too large and pressured Congress and the President to open it up for non-Indian settlement and exploitation.
In 1866, pressure from oyster harvesters and others led to the opening of the Yaquina Bay area to non-Indian settlement. Non-Indians then moved in and took over the Indian houses and farms. The Indian agent was powerless to protect the Indians from this theft. The Indians had originally been told that the land, their farms, and their buildings were theirs permanently.
The land between the Alsea River and Cape Foulweather was taken out of the Coast or Siletz Reservation. This allowed for the development of towns including Newport, Olssonville, and Mackey’s Point. To celebrate, about 350 non-Indians gathered on July 4 for a reading of the Declaration of Independence followed by an excellent dinner. The Indians were given the leftovers from the meal.
While the goal of the Indian Service was to use the reservation to isolate Indians from non-Indians and promote Indian self-sufficiency, the political reality was that the desires of real estate promoters were much stronger. E. A. Schwartz reports:
“The administrators of federal policy in Oregon were only remotely responsible to the commissioner of Indian affairs in Washington and not responsible at all to the Indian people whose lives they were supposed to manage. It was not their concern that the Indians got only the leftovers from the Fourth of July banquet.”
At this time, the government also established a sub-agency at Yachats to manage the southern portion of the reservation.
In 1867, Indian Service inspector John W. Wells visited the Siletz Agency and was impressed by what he saw. He did not, of course, see what the reservation was really like. E. A. Schwartz reports:
“Although the people farmed, their agent-guided agricultural enterprise was not self-sustaining, and they had to rely on their earnings as migratory workers to feed and clothe themselves. Their homes were not on their own parcels of land, like the homes of white farmers, but were grouped on the reservation farms in villages. And their land—if it could even be considered their land—was being loudly coveted by whites.”
In 1867, an employee of the Siletz agency shot and killed an Indian in a fight over digging potatoes. The editor of the Corvallis Gazette warned non-Indians that the “wily and treacherous” Indians were well armed and enraged. As a result, there was increased non-Indian pressure to remove the Indians.
By 1870, there were non-Indian squatters living on the reservation and pressuring Congress to remove more land from the reservation and open it up for non-Indian settlement. They circulated a petition demanding that the reservation be closed. In addition, the state legislature passed a memorial (a statement of facts as the basis of a petition) to Congress asking for the removal of the Indians from the reservation and the concentration of all western Oregon Indians on the Klamath Reservation. The legislature claimed that 40,000 acres of good farmland were being used by only 800 Indians (there were actually 2,800 Indians on the reservation). Congress did not respond to the memorial.