One of the most pivotal days in Oregon’s history occurred before the state of Oregon even existed.
Oregon became a state in 1859. But nine years earlier, on Sept. 27, 1850, the Donation Land Claim Act became law. That makes this week the act’s 170th anniversary.
It allowed white settlers — and only white settlers — to claim 320-acre parcels of land in the Oregon Territory, which included the modern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Wyoming. Married couples could get double: 640 acres, or a full square mile of land, free of charge.
The impact was staggering: In 1849, there were only 9,000 European Americans in present-day Oregon; by 1860, there were 50,000.
But crucially, the act also led to the displacement of the people who’d been living on this land for thousands of years.
By 1855, five years after the act was signed, settlers would claim 2.8 million acres of Indigenous people’s land.
That’s a reality that was left out of the history books and classrooms until only recently.
The early days of the Oregon Territory
In the years prior to 1850, the relationship between Indigenous tribes and white settlers was often quite congenial in the Oregon Territory.
“When white settlers began coming to Oregon, they brought a lot of really interesting things with them” said David G Lewis, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who teaches anthropology and native studies at Oregon State University.
“They seemed to be rich people,” he said. “They had a lot of cool stuff,” like metals, guns and fabrics.
Settlers would employ the tribes on their new land claims and hire them as day laborers and teach them skills about how to run a farm. By the 1840s, many tribes had already spent a decade working side-by-side with the new settlers and begun adopting some of their customs.
But once the Donation Land Claim Act was signed in 1850, it became glaringly clear how few rights the native people had on their own lands.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had stated that that native people’s “lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.”
But this new law said land in the territory could be claimed by white male citizens.
“It was just assumed that (the native people) didn’t own land, that the United States had the right to take land as they will and they’re not even citizens,” Lewis said.
A sudden change
By just 1851, the land in the Willamette Valley had been entirely claimed by white settlers. This meant many native tribes that had been living alongside white settlers for years suddenly found themselves in the position of only being permitted to stay on that land at the settlers' discretion.
“By that time, a lot of settlers had been there for a decade or more and they had already built their farms” Lewis said. “Once they’d built their farms and they were settled, they didn’t have any allotted need for the native people anymore.”
At the same time, the farming being done by white settlers destroyed many of the tribes' food sources.
“They literally plowed up the fields of the crops that the native people had been digging,” Lewis said. “Cattle and pigs had destroyed those crops and fences had been built; settlers didn’t allow native people to go through their properties.”
White hunters also wiped out much of the wild game in the area. Suddenly, the tribes could no longer save enough food for the winter. Many native tribes had to resort to either begging or stealing food from the white settlers.
“This was an activity that was really frowned upon in the 1850s,” Lewis said. “Settlers did not any longer want to share their land with native peoples who in the previous generations helped them build their lands.”
‘I want all the money now’
Very quickly, Oregon’s native people recognized they’d made a huge mistake.
“They knew they’d allowed too many settlers into their lands,” Lewis said. “They should have fought back, they hadn’t protected their lands and they saw themselves as victims of the whole process.”
There was no way to anticipate that tens of thousands of people would suddenly be moving into the Willamette Valley in just a few years. But Lewis said the native people were not passive participants in this process either. Once they realized they’d basically given up their land for free, many chose to do whatever they could to make a profit off their land.
“They allowed the treaties to be written, they accepted the treaties and decided to move,” he said, “and to sell their land for whatever they could get for it.”
One Molala chief known as Crooked Finger entered treaty negotiations and drove a hard bargain once he knew his land had been given away.
“He basically said during the first treaty proceedings, ‘I want all the money now. I don’t want to wait, because I’m not going to live that long — I’m not going to live long enough to take payments on my property,’” Lewis said.
Shock waves into current day
Native tribes began relocating to reservations in the 1850s. But by the 1860s, many began going back to their traditional land — to work for white settlers.
“People at Grand Ronde and Warm Springs and Siletz and Klamath all came to the Willamette Valley and helped to do this activity,” Lewis said.
In effect, they became the first Indigenous farm labor force in Oregon.
Lewis said this practice of native people returning to the lands where they once lived, only to work on white-owned farms, was widely practiced until the 1950s — and in some circumstances, even more recently.
“There are people in my tribe, the Grand Ronde, that say they continued to do so into the 1970s,” Lewis said.
The direct impact of what happened in the 1850s and 1860s can be felt even more recently — literally, up to today.
Just this week, the U.S. Congress finally moved to nullify one of the treaties that sprang up in the years following the implementation of the Donation Land Act — the Warm Springs Treaty Of 1865, which governed tribal members' ability to travel off the reservation to hunt, fish and forage.
Lewis said that treaty generally hasn’t been enforced, but added: “There’s a possibility in the future that if the Bureau of Indian Affairs or a president gets it into their mind that they wanted to enforce that treaty, they could.”
“A lot people don’t understand, treaties are the supreme law of the land,” he said. “They have a lot of importance and meaning.”