Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Alvin and Grace: Nez Perce and settlers in the Wallowa Country

Grace Bartlett left Reed College in 1932 to marry a Wallowa Country rancher. She worked on the ranch, raised children, and apprenticed with Harley Horner, the unofficial county historian at the time. With Horner and on her own, she wrote for the Oregon Historical Quarterly, the Wallowa County Chieftain, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, and once, on the sockeye salmon, for Sunset Magazine.

When Alvin’s big Nez Perce book came out, Grace quibbled with his descriptions of early people and events in the Wallowas. Alvin told her to “write it,” and she did. In the wonderful and, I am beginning to believe, unique, The Wallowa Country 1867-1877, published in 1976, 11 years after The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, Grace detailed the 10-year transition of the Wallowa Country from Indian to white occupation.

We learn about the early “open” winter (much like this one) when the whites first brought stock into the valley. They didn’t feed all fall and early winter and the news went to Union County newspapers and then to the Oregonian and the rest of the West that the Wallowas was a “Stockman’s paradise.” It was the first of many misunderstandings.

The settlers soon did learn from the Indians to move cattle to lower canyon ground in winter months. The Indians were not in the upper valleys in winter months—or even spring months. They generally arrived in August and hunted, fished, and gathered foods through the fall. There were meeting places—the forks of the rivers above present day Wallowa, where Old Joseph was originally buried; Indian Town on Chesnimnus Creek, and Wallowa Lake for the sockeye salmon harvest. They kept their own herds of horses and cows in the canyons, and moved there themselves after their summer-fall upper valley sojourns.

In general, Indians and settlers got along with each other. There were a few “Indian haters” among the settlers, and, according to Grace, they were known by their neighbors and not much appreciated. There was also a rabble rousing newspaper in Union County. But most of the settlers—even as war loomed with a conflict over horses and a white man killing an Indian, with subsequent “councils” of Indians and whites, movements of soldiers from Walla Walla, and meetings of Indians, generals, and Indian agents in Lapwai—were busy planting and harvesting crops, dealing with their livestock, arranging schooling for children, and going to the Walla Walla Valley to work for cash during the earlier harvest time there.

There were attempts to reconcile the treaty of 1855, which left the Wallowa Country to the Indians, and which the Joseph or Wallowa band Nez Perce had signed, with the 1863 treaty, which took away the Wallowas, and which they and several other bands had not signed. These attempts involved Washington D.C. and the Indian agency in Lapwai.

Without going into details, a division of the valley was envisioned, but Lapwai Indian agent Montieth, Washington authorities and the settlers could not seem to pull it off, because they could not get the “roaming Nez Perce,” as they called them, to agree to settle down. In other words, if Joseph and his people had just agreed to “become white” in their culture and
agriculture, they might not have been expelled from the Wallowa Country.

Alvin said many times that from the beginning of the European adventure in the Americas, we killed Indians with war and disease, but, more importantly, we overwhelmed them with Euro-centered culture. Often, it was the best intentioned who tried to assimilate them, and kill what he called “Indianness.”

Grace Bartlett’s book, written with Alvin’s strong encouragement, gives a blow by blow account of the way that played out in the Wallowa Country.

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