In 1850, five Cayuse men were hanged in Oregon City for the death of a missionary — despite asserting their innocence. The University of Oregon recently hosted a class that narrowed down the burial sites of the five men, Underscore News reported. Bobbie Conner is the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Michael Moffitt is a University of Oregon professor and designed the class. They join us with more about the men, who are frequently referred to as the Cayuse Five, and the events leading up to the incident.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In 1847, members of the Cayuse Tribe attacked the Presbyterian Whitman Mission near what’s now called Walla Walla. They killed 13 people. Three years later, five Cayuse men – who maintained their innocence – were found guilty of the attack and hanged in Oregon City. Their burial site has been lost to time. Now, students in a University of Oregon class have been working to find that site. For more context on the so-called Cayuse Five and the work to find them now, I’m joined by Bobbie Conner. She’s a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Michael Moffitt is with us as well; he designed the class. He is a law professor at the University of Oregon. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Michael Moffitt: Good morning.
Bobbie Conner: Hello.
Miller: Hello. Bobbie Conner first. Why did the Whitmans, this duo of missionaries, come to what’s now called Walla Walla in the first place?
Conner: There was a visit by four Nez Percé-Cayuse men in 1831 to William Clark, who was then the governor of the Missouri Territory. They were there seeking teachers for our people. They most likely did not meet with Clark, but published accounts of the visit by the men, three of whom died before able to come home, was that there was a call from the wild. Of course in the United States there was a second great awakening, and the evangelical portions who wanted to provide missions among the Iindians responded. In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and Henry and Eliza Spalding came to the west over the Rocky Mountains, and the Whitmans were recruited for the Cayuse station that they came to call Waiilatpu.
Miller: How much do we know about what the relationship was like between these missionaries and Indigenous people in the area?
Conner: There’s quite a bit of documentation for a variety of reasons: between both the Catholic priests in the region at the time, the correspondence between the missionaries and [correspondence] with their headquarters at the American Board of Foreign Missions. So there’s quite a bit of documentation. In addition, others traveling through the area who were writing at the time, documented the relationship between the Whitmans and the tribal people, which was riddled with tension in the 11 years that they were missionaries here. They were first welcomed by a leader named Hiyumtipin, who died in 1840 or 1841, and who was succeeded as the headman of the village where they were hosting their mission station by Ti’ílaka’aykt, who then became the headman of the village in which they operated.
Miller: What exactly were the tensions?
Conner: There were many, over time, one of which was about privacy. Within three years, the Whitmans had made a very aggressive move on about 200 acres of Cayuse land, with farming and planting of vegetables and gardens and cattle and other kinds of operations. The first three years of their work was heavily devoted to establishing the structures of the mission. They had an agreement – that they seemed to be unaware of – that they would pay rent to the Tribe’s leaders annually. Those rents were never paid, so that was the beginning of the tension. There was also a history of trying to teach the wolves a lesson about predation, and so there were wolves that were poisoned. One of the other missionary assistants, William Gray, put emetics in watermelons to prevent theft of those watermelons, so that people who borrowed or stole a watermelon from the gardens of the mission would be treated to that form of poison and would suffer. There was a gristmill, and the gristmill was not allowed to operate on Sunday, the Sabbath. There were tensions that increased after Dr. Whitman and Mrs. Whitman’s daughter passed away due to drowning in the stream. She was rescued by the headman, Hiyumtipin. She had been a symbol of peace in the relationship because the Tribes had named her a Cayuse girl because she was born in Cayuse country. At her death, tensions continued to multiply. Part of the tensions reached a peak because two things were rapidly encroaching on the lives of Cayuse people: One was the migration through the Blue Mountains, through our homeland, of thousands of people on the Oregon Trail – by 1847, roughly 4,000 – who were not only polluting water holes and over-hunting the trail that they passed through on, but also they came with diseases amongst them, and there were other impacts in the homeland. Dr. Whitman was also a physician, and he began his medical practice almost as soon as he established his mission. He had been warned numerous times that practicing medicine amongst our people could face the penalty of death if he was not a successful medicine man. Of course we came to learn throughout the pandemic that wiped out half of the Cayuse people – the measles pandemic in 1847 – that he could minister aid to non-Indians, white children and adults, and they would recover, and our people would perish regardless of his treatments. So he was an unsuccessful medicine man. For the record, there is no evidence that he ever baptized a Cayuse to his Christian faith, although his neighbor, sometimes rival, and often later his proponent, Reverend Spalding, baptized many up in the Nez Percé country. So the 11-year history is very colorful, and it’s captured pretty carefully by Dr. Theodore Stern in a book called ‘Chiefs and Change.’
Miller: So this is all the important lead-up to what happened in November of 1847. What can you tell us about that day? November 29, 1847.
Conner: According to what we know, Ti’ílaka’aykt had been approached by some young men about exacting a toll on Dr. Whitman. And he had said his heart was with his children. It is noted that it is possible that three of his children died the day before the Whitmans were killed. But, within the 24 hours preceding the killing of the Whitmans, there had been nine deaths in the village closest to the Whitman mission. It was an attack, the rough estimate is, by 11 or 12 Cayuse men, mostly young men. It was targeted at Dr. and Mrs. Whitman. She was the only female killed in the attack. Eleven others, young men and men, were also killed. There is much record following the attack – not only from court transcripts but also from documentation subsequent with the 1848 Peace Commission and many other governmental actions – that many of the people who were involved in the actual killing act were subdued and killed in what has come to be known as the Cayuse War following the killing of the Whitmans, when more than 200 volunteer militia were dispatched to our country to purportedly capture the culprits or the perpetrators, but what became an open hunting season on Indians in the state, what’s now the state of Oregon, the Oregon Territory.
Miller: Who were the Cayuse Five, then?
Conner: The five men that are frequently referenced in that umbrella are Ti’ílaka’aykt, Tamáhas, K’oy’am’á Šuumkíin, Łókomus, and ‘Iceyéeye Cilúukiis. Those five men…There are different names in history over time that are recorded, and some of those names often get clouded by the fact that most non-Indians could not speak our language, including, for the most part, the Whitmans. [They] did not speak any Cayuse, and they did not often refer to young men by their names. They referred to them as the ‘son of’ another man or so-and-so junior. So the naming of the five is different in various historical accounts. But those are the five men who were hanged.
Miller: Michael Moffitt, how did you get involved in this? And where did the idea come from to actually create a class to get students to see if they could figure out where these men were buried?
Moffitt: The connecting piece between Bobbie’s story and my class is that we have very good documentation about the trial that took place in Oregon City in 1850. We know a lot about the people who were there at the time. We know that the men were executed on June 3 of 1850, and all evidence suggests that they were buried that same day. We have a few records indicating a few clues about where they might be buried. But in the 170 years since, that information has been lost, which stands in the way of the prospect of repatriation or justice or reconciliation or many of the other things that one might imagine with a historical incident. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the five men that Bobbie named were in fact themselves not involved in the killing. And, from a legal perspective, the trial was problematic in a number of ways. So this is the kind of context in which one might think about the prospect of some kind of historical reconciliation process. But there is this precondition that has not been satisfied from the perspective of the Cayuse. They quite reasonably have indicated that such conversations are premature while we do not know the burial sites of these men…
Miller: If I may interrupt… As you noted, this was a high profile trial. It was attended by hundreds of people. Why is it that the burial sites became a mystery? Were they a mystery from the beginning, or were the geographical details lost to time?
Moffitt: Those are both possibilities. Based on the thousands of hours my undergraduate students and I have spent looking at it, my best guess is that the trial was conducted with the very best of… Well, there was great attention to the trial. The men themselves, while they were in custody awaiting trial or actually awaiting execution, were baptized by a French-Canadian priest who was there. We have some records about the handcart on which their bodies were placed from the gallows, but frankly it is unlikely that the bodies of the Cayuse men were treated with the respect or dignity that one would expect if they had been otherwise. At the time, there was not, to my knowledge, any record of any Native peoples’ burial sites being recorded. That is in 1850. That changed later, but in 1850 we don’t have examples of that in other contexts, so convicted criminals who were executed, one would not be surprised if their burial location was not marked. I think the best evidence is that they were – if marked at all – they were marked in non-permanent ways.
Miller: You described well the reasons for this work in terms of a necessary precondition for some kind of reconciliation. What about the reasons for having students do this work?
Moffitt: I want to be clear: the question about whether reconciliation is the right course of action will ultimately rest with the Cayuse. But it’s not even a live question so long as this mystery. So, why include the students? Well, I’m a professor, and we get the great fortune of working with students on questions that matter. In this case, I saw this as an opportunity to do two things. One, it gave me a chance – at the Honors College, where we have all these smart liberal arts undergraduates – it gave me a chance to sort of sing a love song to the liberal arts, in the sense that virtually nothing worth our time can be solved by just looking at one academic discipline. In this class we had a French major and a spatial data science major and a religious studies major and an anthropology major and geology and geography and folklore. They all had a day when they were the rock star, and there were all the other days they needed to listen to their colleagues, so that was great. Then the other thing it let us do, is it let me work with students in helping them to understand how to work with a live client who has live, ongoing interests. What matters isn’t the professor’s idea, at least not entirely. They weren’t motivated because of an exam. They were motivated because someone out there was counting on them to deliver their very best, which meant they then had to figure out what their very best looked like. That was a joy to watch.
Miller: Bobbie Conner, how would you describe the relationship between these students and tribal members or leaders?
Conner: The students, on the first day of the class, made a field trip that included visiting the estimated hanging site in Oregon City, and they came to Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. The following day [they] met with descendants of the five men who were hanged, one of whom carries the name, K’oy’am’á Šuumkíin, after his ancestor who was hanged in Oregon City. These men, two of them 89 and others in their 60s and 70s, testified before the students as to the events and the effects on their family and their desire to bring them home. In order to bring them home, they have to be found. As Michael has alluded to, they were buried in the outskirts of then, 1850s, Oregon City in unmarked graves. Or a grave, we don’t actually know whether it was multiple or a mass grave. These men, these tribal leaders and family members, spoke with great sincerity and gravity to the students about the events of [the] 1840s and 50s, as well, about the contemporary desire and ongoing desire to repatriate the bodies of these men who were hanged in Oregon City. This is an ongoing desire by this family that has never been laid to rest. We were delighted, as a tribe and as families, when Michael Moffitt approached Tamástslikt on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla about the prospect of focusing an Honors College student project on a tribal project. This was the first thing that sprang to mind, and we will be continuing it with the University of Oregon.
Miller: Michael Moffitt, can you give us a sense for how close you feel like you and your students are in actually identifying the site?
Moffitt: At the beginning of the project my dean at the Honors College, Carol Stabile, asked what I thought the likelihood was that we would find the burial site. I told her 5 percent. She let me go ahead with the course anyway, which I have to give her huge credit for. That’s a brave thing for a dean to do. The students were amazing, and the Tribal resources were amazing, and the Oregon City elected officials and city officials were amazing. I think we’re getting close. I feel nervous in saying that out loud because one never knows until one knows for sure. But I think we’ve made enormous progress, and I’m eager to continue working with the Tribe in January to see if we can’t run through the finish line on this.
Miller: Michael Moffitt and Bobbie Conner, thanks very much.
Conner: Thank you.
Moffitt: Thank you.
Miller: Michael Moffitt is a law professor at the University of Oregon. Bobbie Conner is the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute.
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