Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Medicine Creek to Fox Island: Cadastral Scams and Contested Domains

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Medicine Creek to Fox Island: Cadastral Scams and Contested Domains

Article excerpt

RISING BLACK AGAINST THE HORIZON and fleetingly visible from the interstate highway that runs along the southern edge of Puget Sound north and east of Olympia, Washington, an old Douglas fir snag is nearly obscured by the riparian trees and brush. The Treaty Tree stands at the place where on a dreary Christmas Day in 1854 Governor Isaac I. Stevens negotiated terms for the Medicine Creek treaty with some seven hundred Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin, Steilacoom, and other landowners whose territory embraced four thousand square miles. Here was born a bitter conflict that erupted when Indian peoples in Washington and Oregon territories confronted the power of the U.S. government as it sought to move the Indians out of the way of white settlement. (1)

The treaty council was held near a stream known to the Nisqually as She-nah-nam, referring to a sacred space where shamans could go to derive their power from the water. Translated by the Americans as Medicine Creek, it was also called McAllister Creek because it flowed north into the Sound past a sawmill and cabin on land claimed by an early emigrant, James McAllister. West of the creek, hidden in the woods opposite the site chosen for the negotiations, was a Nisqually village; and to the southeast towered the great snow-covered mountain that the Indians called Tacobet and the Americans renamed Rainier. Although the settlers represented a minority of the territorial population, their dreams of expansion were already manifest in the growing number of farms scattered along primitive roads between the tiny towns of Olympia and Steilacoom. (2)

Medicine Creek was the first of seven treaties negotiated by Stevens in his role as Indian superintendent in present-day Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Combined with another eight treaties completed by Oregon's superintendent of Indian affairs, Joel Palmer, and three that Stevens and Palmer negotiated together, most--but not all--of the Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest were brought into a complex legal relationship with the U.S. government. Not only did the eighteen treaties determine what lands the Indians relinquished and what they retained, but they also laid the cornerstone for Native sovereignty and self-determination--that is, the ability of Indians in the Pacific Northwest to execute control over their own affairs, land, and property through self-government functioning under tribal laws and leaders aided by the protection of the American government. The treaties initiated what is today the basis of tribal identity and legal existence. In the 1850s, however, the federal government regarded the treaties and reservations as provisional, the means by which Indians could be organized and contained until their land was allotted and people were assimilated. The one-sided and at times arbitrary nature of the Medicine Creek negotiations and the hostilities that followed served notice from the outset that anything close to Native sovereignty and self-determination would be a long time in coming and achieved only through grueling struggle at a heavy cost. (3)

The remnants of this story are paper, ink, and microfilm--scattered letters, maps, and reports gathered from the National Archives and Records Administration and various other libraries and repositories. The original transcription of the Medicine Creek council minutes no longer exists and later renditions are only incomplete abstracts of the primary source. With little hard evidence on which to rely, irreconcilable opinions have transformed the history of the Medicine Creek council and its aftermath into a disjointed collage of observations, assertions, and interpretations, rendering it almost impossible for researchers to discern a rational pattern of events and decisions. By using letters, surveys, and maps drawn at the time of the negotiations and a little-known account of the Fox Island council of 1856, along with Native testimonies and oral tradition, we can project possible scenarios that might shed light on the Medicine Creek treaty and its consequences, which are among the most perplexing, contentious, and disputed in Pacific Northwest Indian and white relations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.