Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, senior registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.


That the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering said reservation is hereby secured to said Indians; and at all other usual and accustomed stations, in common with citizens, of the United States, and of erecting suitable houses for curing the same; also the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their stock on unclaimed lands, in common with citizens, is secured to them.
Middle Oregon Treaty signed at Wasco, near the Dalles of the Columbia River, June 25, 1855

For thousands of years, native peoples of various tribes resided in what, in the 1850s, was known as the Oregon Territory. Their cultures were closely tied to the land, its waters, and the many forms of life it supported. In 1846 the Oregon Treaty, signed by the United States and the United Kingdom, settled the northwest border between the United States and Canada. More importantly, it set the stage for thousands of American settlers to swarm over what had been Indian lands.  

In 1853, Joel Palmer, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent for the Oregon Territory, negotiated a series of treaties with the tribes of the northwest to obtain much of their land and force them on to reservations. Under the provisions of the 1855 Middle Oregon Treaty, the tribes ceded 10 million acres to the United States, and 578,000 acres were reserved for what became the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

The Columbia River soon became a major east-west route for settlers and others traveling to the Pacific Northwest region. The land reserved at Warm Springs was a remote corner of the territory. One Wasco elder told Palmer, “The place you have mentioned, I have not seen. There [are] no Indians or Whites there yet, and that is the reason I say I know nothing about that country. If there were Whites and Indians there then I would think it was a good country.”

Warm Springs Indian Agency, ca. 1937. (National Archives Identifier 298710)

Today, there are 573 Native American tribes officially recognized by the United States Government, ranging from tribes with less than a hundred members to some with hundreds of thousands.     

In June of this year, the National Archives loaned the original Navajo Treaty of 1868 to the Navajo Nation Museum. The Navajo Nation comprises about 400,000 members and is arguably the largest group of native people in the United States.

More recently, we loaned the Middle Oregon Treaty to the Museum at Warm Springs. About 5,000 from the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute tribes live on the reservation in eastern Oregon. (The Paiutes joined the reservation several decades after the treaty was signed.)

The National Archives holds in trust hundreds of original Indian Treaties on behalf of the United States Government and the American people—it is an honor to loan the original Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855 to the Confederated Tribes at War Springs. . . . We are in the process of digitizing and placing online all the treaties in our holdings to make these important historical records freely and more widely available.

~David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

The Middle Oregon Treaty of 1855 and the establishment of The Museum at Warm Springs are important declarations of The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ inherent sovereignty.  

~Douglas Goe, Museum Board of Directors President

In January of this year, we received a loan request from the Museum at Warm Springs to feature the original 1855 Middle Oregon Treaty in October 2018 as part of their “Memory of the Land” exhibition. In her request, the museum’s executive director, Carol Leone, wrote:

The Museum at Warm Springs exists as an answer to a question that has troubled Native Americans in general, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in particular, for most of the past century. Can this nation’s indigenous peoples take meaningful steps on their own initiative, under their own control to halt the erosion of their traditions, the dispersal of their sacred artifacts, and the loss of their very identify as a culture. After 25 years, the answer this question is, decidedly, yes.

In the months that followed, many emails and multiple phone calls were necessary to explain NARA’s loan requirements and to work out logistical details for transport, installation, and security. The museum partnered with the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, about an hour away, to fabricate a new exhibit case to NARA specifications. The museum’s archivist, Evaline Patt, selected six pages of the treaty to be displayed, including the signature pages.

2018 Warm Springs Museum - Installation Team Photo
Installation Team (left to right): Natalie Kirk, Carol Leone, Joseph Brisbois, Cindy Bradley, and Gus Bradley, 2018 (Photo by Jim Zeender).

In late September, on a sunny, cool, and crisp morning, Carol met NARA conservator Beatriz Centeno and I at our hotel in Madras, and we drove to the museum, where we to discussed plans for the installation of the treaty. Claus Koch from Security Pros joined us to review security protocols while the treaty was on site. Later that morning, Gus Bradley and Cindy Bradley from the High Desert Museum joined us. Gus and his colleague Dustin Cockerham had fabricated the case in Bend.

Our greatest challenge was low relative humidity. With the very helpful museum staff, we were able to have the relative humidity in the gallery raised up to an acceptable and sustainable level (in the weeks that followed, regular reports showed the environment inside the case was being maintained within NARA’s specified limits). When all was ready, National Archives conservator Beatriz Centeno carefully placed each of the six pages into the display case. After taking some time to obtain balanced light levels, everyone agreed the case could be closed.  

Visitors viewing Middle Oregon Treaty at the Museum at Warm Springs, 2018. (Courtesy of Museum at Warm Springs)

With our mission completed, Carol took us on a driving tour of the high desert, and we rode out to the Deschutes River Dam. On our way back to the airport in Portland, we traveled through the Cascade Mountains and had great views of the majestic Mount Hood. Meanwhile, the museum hosted a prayer service to bless the arrival of the Treaty.

On October 25-27, 2018, the Museum at Warm Springs hosted a Treaty conference where “Living Treasures” awards were presented to Redline Billy, Geraldine Jim, Foster Kalama “Ku-Na,” Arlita Rhoan, and Maxine Switzler. 

“Living Treasures,” Foster Kalama, Geraldine Jim, Redine Billy, and Arlita Rhoan (Maxine Switzler not pictured), 2018. (Photo by Natalie Kirk)

We are most grateful to Executive Director Carol Leone and her talented staff, especially Natalie Kirk, Sunmiet Maben, and Joseph Brisbois for their warm welcome and help in making the installation go so smoothly. Dana Whitelaw, Director, Dustin Cockerham, Head Preparator, Gus Bradley, Assistant Preparator, and Cindi Bradley, Director of Exhibits at the High Desert Museum provided invaluable assistance that helped make the treaty display possible. Back home at the National Archives, Patrick Kepley, Jane Fitzgerald, Michael Hussey, Beatriz Centeno, and Abigail Aldrich helped with all the essential preparations behind the scenes.    

Interested in learning more about Native American records?

At the National Archives, we are in the process of digitizing hundreds of Indian Treaties. They will soon be available for free on our online catalog. Our Professional Development webinars will feature Native American themes during the coming year.  

At the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, visitors can view the original Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 in the “Nation to Nation” exhibition.

And for even more information about Native American records at the National Archives, visit our website.  

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