The 1892 “Surplus Lands” “Agreement”

As stated in the last article, allotment was both boon and bane to our people for various reasons. Federal policy was directed at de-Indian-izing our people. The allotment policy was an important part of that process, because it meant the breaking up of communal ownership of reservation lands, and getting individual tribal members to accept individual ownership of lands and the resources on those lands.

Allotment was generally a popular notion at Siletz because of the belief that it would protect our people from the kinds of dis-possession that our people experienced in 1865 and 1875. What was probably not understood, was the consequences of taxation (once clear title was achieved), what would happen with inherited allotment lands, and what would happen to the reservation lands that weren’t included in allotments. Well, it didn’t take very long to find out.

The process of allotting lands at Siletz was wrapped up in the late summer of 1892. Before the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, T.J. Morgan had even received a final report as to the completion of allotment at Siletz, he was in the process of setting up a commission to “negotiate” with our tribe for the remainder of our reservation. The Secretary of the Interior had apparently already made the decision to declare the Siletz Reservation land remaining after allotment “Surplus” under a provision of the General Allotment Act.

On August 22, 1892, Commissioner Morgan wrtoe a letter to Reuben P. Boise & William H. Odell both of Salem and H. H. Harding of Carthage, Missouri. The letter was a set of instructions to them in regards to the proposed negotiations. The Commissioner’s letter gives the first of many clues that this proposed “negotiation” was anything but a casual offer to negotiate with our people for our remaining reservation lands. The rushed nature of the affair (not waiting to find out exactly how many allotments had been assigned or how many acres they encompassed) is not the only indication of things not necessarily being on the up & up. There is mention in the letter of several details that had already been taken care of in the planning process, looking forward to our people’s eventual acceptance of this scheme.

The most surprising feature in the letter of instructions is that statement that “A bill is now pending in the Senate to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to reserve from sale five sections of timber land upon said reservation, not required for allotment to the Indians, and located conveniently to the sawmill upon said reservation, and provides that the timber on said lands may be cut and manufactured by the Indians for their own use and for sale under such rules as the Secretary of the Interior shall, from time to time, prescribe, regulating the cutting of timber so as to secure an equality of benefits to the Indians, employment for them, and judicious aid to them in becoming self supporting, the right, title, and interest of the Indians as at present existing, not to be altered, changed or affected thereby.”

In effect, the letter was a contradiction in terms. While proposing to take nearly all of the remaining land and resource base of our tribe – destroying any real chance of economic development of our natural resources – he was also speaking of a bill that would recognize our commercial rights to 5 sections of reservation timber that would be reserved from the cession. If the government was really concerned about our people having an “equality of benefit” and “employment” and “judicious aid in becoming self supporting,” why didn’t the bill recognize that our Siletz people had commercial rights to all of the remaining reservation land? Why was the tribe about to be forced into ceding 191,000 + acres in order to secure commercial rights to a mere 5 sections (3,200 acres)?

“Forced” is my interpretation of what happened, even though Commissioner Morgan’s letter of instructions stated that “no undue pressure should be used to induce them to consent to the cession” It is clear to me that the proposed cession was much more than a casual offer of the government. It is also clear that a simple NO would not be enough to fend off the barrage of inducements and pressures that would then be used to gain our people’s signatures on an agreement to cede the unallotted reservation lands. It was the same situation as the 1865 and 1875 reductions of our reservation with only the illusion of our people having a choice in the matter.

The three Commissioners (Boise, Odell & Harding) arrived at Siletz Agency the first week of October, 1892. They spent a couple of weeks touring the reservation, getting a feel for the lay of the land and getting a visual inventory of its resources. The other thing they did was meet tribal members in various parts of the reservation, stating the reason they were here, and telling the people about meeting that would be held on the subject.

On October 17th & 29th meetings were held at the Agency. Oscar Brown, Johnny Williams and Pengra Logan were used as interpreters. The Commissioners stated the purpose of their visit and went right into discussion about terms of the agreement. The first fear tactic used was that if the people sold the unallotted lands, part of the interest on the sale price would be held back in order to pay taxes on the allotments while they remained in trust. This is something that is mentioned in the correspondence at other times & it baffles me, because my understanding has always been that taxes would not accrue on allotment lands while they remained in trust. The Commissioners warned our people that they would right away need cash to pay taxes on their allotments or else they would lose their allotments & the Sheriff would sell them.

Taxes on allotted lands would not be the only nor the most blatant example of threats, intimidation, lies or promises – that would go unfulfilled, being used to gain acceptance of the Commission’s proposal. The Commission even tried to make our people feel guilty about the boarding school that had been provided, saying that white people had to pay to send their children to school (not realizing, perhaps, just how dearly our people too had paid, for the boarding school that was provided at Siletz).

At one point, old William Strong stated his feelings on the matter, stating that the government would do what it wanted no matter what the Indian people had to say anyway. He also said that when it came to something that had money in it, we never could get anything out of it anyway. The Commissioners promised that if the agreement was signed, that the future generations of tribal members would always be able to request and receive allotments from unclaimed lands within the ceded area. They also promised that clear titles would be given on the allotments within five years (the ones just recently assigned) instead of waiting for the twenty-five year automatic trust period stipulated under the General Allotment Act.

George Harney spoke about the value of the timber on the remaining reservation lands, and wondered how that would be figured into the sale price. The Commissioners replied that the timber was in such steep ground and most of it remote and isolated that it had no market value and would therefore not affect the sale price. The majority of the people finally decided that they had better accept the terms of the Commission & signed the agreement on Halloween Day – October 31st 1892. I think there must have been a feeling that the government would simply take the remaining lands as it had done before – if they didn’t accept the terms of the agreement.

In writing their final report to the Secretary of the Interior, the Commissioners congratulated themselves on driving a close bargain 74 cents an acre for 191,000 + acres. And in spite of what they told George Harney and the rest of our tribal people at the negotiations, they wrote: “We found the lands mostly mountainous and densely timbered with good fir and cedar trees, and well watered with rapid running streams, which will furnish a good means of getting the timber and lumber out.” Complicated designs of complex groups of politicians and businessmen are sometimes hard to figure out, but not necessarily in the case of our 1892 agreement.