Choosing War Rather Than People

Isaac Stevens

August 3, 2011

They didn’t arrive by choice.  When the fourteen Tribes and Bands, who were to become the Yakama Nation, arrived in Walla Walla, Washington in 1855, it was more of a summons than a request for conversation.  Isaac Stevens, Washington Territory Governor, had an agenda and used the resources at his disposal (mostly military) to call for a meeting with Tribes across the northwest.

Stevens agenda was one of ambition rather than concern for the people (White or Indian) living or moving into Washington Territory.  Having supported Franklin Peirce’s bid for presidency, Stevens wrangled his appointment as the governor of the Washington Territory.  At age 35, Steven’s became the youngest governor in Washington history (either Territory or State) and he did not intend this position to be the highlight of his career.  When “Indian Commissioner George Manypenny  wrote and directed him to ‘enter at once upon negotiations…having for principle [sic] aim the extinguishment of the Indian claims to the lands…so as not to interfere with the settlement of the territories,” Stevens intended to show he was the man for the job.

Negotiations at Camp Stevens in Walla Walla resulted in the Tribes and Bands of the new Yakama Nation (Yakama) ceding 11.5 million ancestral acres.  The Treaty of Walla Walla held that the Yakama’s “settle upon, the same [reservation] within one year after…[treaty] ratification by the [President and Senate of the United States].”  Holding hard and fast to the Treaty’s ratification clause meant Yakama Tribes and Bands had roughly five years to move from their traditional lands to the reservation.  However, letting his political desires get ahead of him and the need to influence folks in D.C., “Governor…Stevens…carefully laid [out a] plan that in just one or two years would free up the entire territory for white settlement.”  The first step in the implementation of Stevens plan was to scarcely allow two weeks to elapse from the signing of the Treaty before opening Yakama ceded lands to White settlement.

Allowing white settlers claim ancestral Tribal lands prior to Yakama’s having the opportunity to move to the newly created reservation revealed a level of incompetency that was to have white folks call for Stevens’ resignation in the future.  In allowing only two weeks to elapse before White settlement began on Yakama, Stevens intentionally laid the groundwork for conflict.  That conflict was certainly to lead to the deaths of both Yakama and white settlers, seems to have mattered little to Stevens.  Rather, conflict served Stevens in two ways.  First, politically, he met the urgency of folks like Manypenny who wanted a quick extinguishment of “Indian claims to the lands.”  Second, the Treaty legally (from a U.S. standpoint) gave sovereign nation status to the Yakama’s, thus diminishing Stevens control over both the Yakama people and the reserved lands.  By opening ceded lands to settlement, Stevens created conditions that would advance his control over the Yakama people and their reserved lands.

With settlers claiming land before Yakamas had the opportunity to leave land they ancestrally lived on, conflict soon arose.  Stevens engaged the forces at his disposal, and war began.  War allowed Stevens to justify implementing military control on the reserved lands of the Yakama.  Therefore, within a year of Treaty signing, with the military establishment of a fort (Fort Simcoe) on the reservation, Stevens gained the control he desired.  The war lasted three years and with its end, the military left the fort.  Yet, the unjust conditions, which Stevens implemented, remained and were soon experienced in another manner as the Yakama Indian Agency replaced the military at Fort Simcoe.  Soon, the lack of choice raises its head again as the Christianization, civilization, and education of Yakama children begins.

© David B. Bell 2011


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