The Flathead Indians 150 Years Ago, 1869

The Flathead Indians

In 1869, Flathead chief Victor dictated a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in which he discussed the problems facing the Flathead in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. He asked for justice for his people.


At the time when the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made contact with the Flathead, their homeland was in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. For many generations they had lived in Western Montana and with the acquisition of the horse, they hunted as far east as present-day Billings and south into Wyoming.

The name Flathead, wrote Father Lawrence Palladino, S.J., in his 1893 book Indian and White in the Northwest: A History of Catholicity in Montana 1831 to 1891,

“Their heads are normal and shapely, and therefore the name Flat Heads in its obvious meaning and literal sense cannot be applied to them, save as a misnomer or a libel.”

While there are some stories that tell of the Flathead migrating to Western Montana from the Pacific Coast and having practiced cranial deformation, most likely the name comes from a misinterpreted sign used in one of the sign languages that enabled people who didn’t speak the same language to communicate in a basic way. In his 1930 M.A. thesis The Selish: Spartans of the West, Albert Partoll writes:

“The Selish or Flatheads, were identified in this sign language by patting the head with the right hand above and back of the ear. It is self evident that in seeking the verbal equivalent the translation of Flathead might be easily inferred.”

In a somewhat different version, Marcia Pablo Cross, in her 1996 M.A. thesis Bighorn Sheep and the Salish World View: A Cultural Approach to the Landscape, reports:

“In sign language the sign for the Bitterroot Salish was enacted by placing both hands to each side of the head, meaning the tribe that resides between the mountains.”

1855 treaty

In 1853, President Millard Fillmore appointed Isaac I. Stevens as the territorial governor of Washington. In addition to being territorial governor, Stevens was also appointed as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory and worked for the railroad to determine a route for a transcontinental rail line. In his preface to Indians, Superintendents, and Councils: Northwestern Indian Policy, 1850-1855, anthropologist Clifford Trafzer describes Stevens this way:

“An ardent advocate of white expansion, Stevens wanted to liquidate Indian title to the land and concentrate as many Indians as possible on a few reservations.”

Historian Roberta Ulrich, in her book Empty Nets: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River, writes:

“His major mission was to compress the Indians onto as little land as possible, preferably in areas not coveted by whites, to open the way for settlement.”

According to Clifford Trafzer and Richard Scheuerman, in their book Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest:

“Since his principal concern was the opening of Indian lands for the expansion of the American empire, Stevens devoted himself to extinguishing Indian title to the land.”

Stevens has little experience in dealing with Indians. Clifford Trafzer and Richard Scheuerman write:

“Stevens was a trained military man who knew nothing about Indians except what he had heard in lectures or read in books.”

Like many others in the American government, Stevens viewed Indians as racially inferior and as impediments to the expansion of civilization. Clifford Trafzer and Richard Scheuerman write:

“Stevens believed himself to be superior, and he assumed from the outset that whites had a right to direct Indian policy, thus determining their future—regardless of what the Indians thought.”

In 1855, Governor Stevens negotiated a series of treaties with the Indian nations of Washington Territory, which included at that time portions of northern Idaho and western Montana. Historian Kent Richards, in his biography of Stevens in Shadows of Our Ancestors: Readings in the History of Klallam-White Relations, writes:

“In conducting the treaty sessions, he did not think it necessary to pay much heed to Indian complaints that traditional customs, habits, superstitions, or religious mores would be violated by the treaties. After all, the long-term consequence of the treaties, in Stevens’ view, was to replace the traditional pattern of Indian life with the superior white civilization.”

In western Montana, Governor Stevens met in treaty council with the Flathead (also called Salish), Pend d’Oreilles (also called Upper Kalispell), and the Kootenai. He considered these tribes to be unimportant but wanted to consolidate them, together with other tribes, on a single reservation.

Stevens insisted that all three tribes be treated as a single nation because they were all Salish. He was apparently unaware that the Kootenai are not a Salish-speaking people. At the treaty council, the head chief for the Flathead was Victor. The Americans appointed Victor as the head chief over all three tribes.

Chief Victor refused to sign the treaty until it included provisions for a separate reservation for his people in their Bitterroot Valley homeland. Stevens promised the Flatheads that they could have their own reservation in the Bitterroot.

Events of 1869

In Montana, the petition of the non-Indian settlers in the Bitterroot Valley requesting the removal of the Flatheads was forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior. In his 1968 M.A. thesis Early Administration of the Flathead Indian Reservation 1855 to 1893, Richard Seifried reports:

“The petition argues that it would cost less to remove the Indians than to move the whites out of the area.”

In response to the petition, General Alfred Sully, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana Territory, negotiated a new treaty with the Flatheads. While Sully favored the removal of the Flathead from the Bitterroot Valley, the Flathead were determined to remain in their homeland. The new treaty, however, permitted both Indians and non-Indians to live in the Bitterroot. The non-Indians objected to the treaty as it allowed the Indians to remain in the Valley. Richard Seifried reports:

“Influential Montana citizens complained, stating that each Indian family should get a farm and all other land be turned over to white settlers.”

Under the new treaty, the Flathead had a reduced reservation. The treaty allowed non-Indian squatters to remain in the valley but required that any new settlers obtain permission from the chiefs and the Indian agent. The treaty also promised each Indian family a wooden house and a farm wagon for every two families. The Flathead retained their right to hunt, fish, and gather in any reservation area not fenced. The treaty was signed by Victor, Arlee, and Joseph.

Non-Indians throughout Montana condemned the treaty. The prevailing attitude among non-Indians was that no land should be retained by Indians. As a result, the treaty was not ratified.

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