Opinion

Opinion: Failure of treaty paved way for horrors of Indian wars





Professor Boyd Cothran discusses the history behind the 1864 Treaty with the Klamath:
Elijah Steele knew he wasn’t authorized to negotiate an Indian treaty. As a lawyer, a judge, a former Wisconsin state senator, a founding settler of Siskiyou County, Calif., and the agent of Indian affairs for the Northern District of California, he was well aware of the protocols established by the United States Constitution. But Washington, D.C., was far away, and the nation was in the grip of civil war. And besides, on Feb. 14, 1864, Valentine’s Day, several hundred Klamath Basin Indians, much to his surprise, were camped outside his home in Yreka.

Steele’s guests – Lileks of the Klamath, Schonchin of the Modoc and Josh and Jack of the Shasta Indian tribes, as well as others – wanted him to help negotiate a settlement among themselves and with the ever growing number of settlers pouring into the region. In fact, by the winter of 1864, against the backdrop of intense battles and increasing death tolls to the east, with Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Mississippi tearing up railroad ties on its way to Meridian, Miss., rumors of an impending war between Indians and settlers reverberated through southern Oregon and northern California’s Klamath Basin.

Steele knew he had to do something. And he did: The unauthorized agreement he helped forge brought peace, and offered an alternative vision of United States-Indian relations in the region. But it was a vision that wouldn’t last.

Settler-Indian violence was nothing new in Siskiyou County. Between 1847 and 1858, the Oregon and Washington Territories had been destabilized by a series of bloody wars, while farther to the south, in the gold fields of California, murder and mayhem reigned. This period of violence transformed the lives of the region’s Native Americans. Most Indians west of the Cascades were removed to distant or marginal reservations. Indians in California, though, suffered disproportionately. Scholars estimate that some 80 percent of the Indians in the state died from violence or the impact of displacement during the upheaval following the Gold Rush.

Get the Story:
Boyd Cothran: The Valentine’s Day Treaty (The New York Times 2/14)