Opening the Coast Reservation: the Oyster Harvest Rush 1863-1866

In 1864, Oregon Indian Superintendent, J. Perit Huntington, was in charge of Indian affairs for Oregon. Huntington was concerned about a recent movement of Americans onto the Coast Reservation. At the time there were federal laws excluding Americans from going onto or settling Indian reservation lands. The tribes of western Oregon, from 1853-1855, signed treaties which sold the majority of their western Oregon land, and in 1855 the Coast Indian Reservation was created by presidential executive order. This reservation stretched from just south of Florence into the Tillamook region, 100  miles along the Oregon Coast, and 20 miles inland from the coastline. The reservation was 1.3 million acres set aside especially for the estimated 60 tribes from western Oregon. By 1855, the tribes had already agreed to sell much of their land, upwards of 19 million acres, and the Coast Reservation was to be their permanent reservation, forever. However, Americans continued to arrive and coveted all the land regardless of the treaties or the rights of tribes.

By the 1860s, increasing American movement to the west coast, to Oregon, California and Washington Territory, had resulted in the majority of all of the good arable land already claimed. The lands set aside for the tribes were the last remaining unclaimed lands and the most rugged, roughest, most inaccessible and undesirable areas for people desiring to be farmers. Yet even these “frontier” lands held resources that could be exploited and Americans wanted them all. Aided by federal laws, of which the treaties had become a part,  Superintendent Huntington was able to enforce the federal restriction on squatting on reservation lands, and ordered his agents to eject the squatters.

This was a struggle throughout the west and American sought opportunity within every resource they could find. Encroachment continued on many reservations. New gold rushes began whenever and wherever gold was discovered. The Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes had extensive reservations, yet gold rushers began settling on their gold-rich lands on the reservation. For the Nez Perce, this situation ended up causing the Nez Perce War where they lost all their lands. By the 1860s gold was discovered increasingly in more northern rivers, and many miners went into the frontiers of Washington Territory (1873) and British Columbia (Many rushes, beginning Queen Charlotte’s 1850, the last Yalakom 1941) and eventually Alaska (Klondike Gold Rush 1896).

Coast Indian reservation

On the Coast Reservation something odd occurred in 1864. Yaquina Bay suddenly became very popular to people from San Francisco. It so happens that in California newspapers on 1864, rumors of gold being discovered in the Aquina River (Yaquina) caught the attention of miners. (Perhaps “gold” was a euphemism for opportunity by this time.)  Opportunists in San Francisco looking for new wealth began hopping steamers to Oregon to be let off the ship at Yaquina Bay on the Oregon Coast. The miners began congregating and settling at the Yaquina estuary near where the Native village was.

 

Letter of November 11 1863 Huntington

Superintendent Huntington began getting reports of American gold miners, oysters harvesters and squatters settling near the small Indian settlements on the Coast Reservation at the Yaquina Subagency, and the Alsea Sub-agency, where Yaquina, Siuslaw, and Alsea Indians were settled on the coast. This sub-agency was a part of the Coast Reservation and American were not allowed to claim reservation lands. Huntington issued orders to his agents to expel the squatters from the reservation. He had to be very careful to not step on their rights as Americans while issuing decrees, notices, and orders to his agents to expel all non-Indians. At least a full year of these reports and expellation orders occurred.

Letter of 11 27 1863 Superintendent Huntington to sub-agents

 

It is unclear whether gold was ever found on the Yaquina, but what was discovered and exploited was the Yaquina Bay oysters (originally found in 1861 by Americans who were shown them by Indians), which became a delicacy in San Francisco. Soon Oyster steamers from San Francisco voyaged to Yaquina Bay and hordes of oyster gatherers harvested as many of the delicious oysters as they could. Then they sold the oysters in San Francisco to restaurants, and established oyster beds in San Francisco Bay to grow the juveniles to full size. The California newspapers of the time were ablaze with comments about the Yaquina Bay Oysters. They were called the finest on the coast.

Sacramento Daily Union Sept 5 1864

The oyster harvesters, unable to establish permanent settlements on the coast instead erected temporary shanties to live in while they harvested oysters. They called their town “Oysterville” and remained at the good will of the Indians in that location. In 1864 Agent Ben Simpson at the Alsea Reservation issued an exclusive contract for one Oyster harvester to harvest legally at Yaquina. The Coast Reservation was to receive $1000 a year for this permit. The money was much needed at the reservation because Congress refused to fully fund the large reservation, mainly because only about 300 of the estimated 2500 Indians on the reservation could claim any treaty rights. The Coast Treaty (1855), which would have funded the reservation, was never ratified by Congress.

Yaquina Bay Oysters

Still, increasingly squatters came to live at Yaquina and Huntington was faced with a full scale invasion of the reservation from Californians. In order to prove his case to Americans who disbelieved that the reservation was legitimate, Huntington sought new maps of the reservation because his office did not have maps. He was able to get a map made in Eugene after a few months work. Then in 1864 a dispute erupted over the rights of the Indian agents to control the rights of Americans to “Beach Mine” for gold at Yaquina. A Captain Hillyer disputed the rights of the agents to tell him where he could mine.  Huntington clearly asserted the government’s rights, and had his agents eject Hillyer from the reservation.

Then in 1864 a lawsuit was leveled at the federal government to prove that they had the right to place a reservation in this location in 1855, and had legal jurisdiction over the rights of Americans to mine and take oysters there. The case was heard in the Circuit Court of Benton County in April of 1864. The United States clearly won this case, because all American lands are at their foundation, federal lands, after purchase from the tribes.

Reduction of Coast reservation in 1865

The government was under increased political pressure to open this area of the coast to settlement by Americans. Those who wanted to open settlement argued that the tribes still had too much land because there were only about 2500 Indians on the Coast Reservation at the time, and so the rest should be opened for settlement. Besides they were wasting resources on the coast, like oysters and  rich deposits of gold. Congress chose to open part of the reservation and split the Coast Reservation in two parts. They opened the middle at Yaquina Bay to legal settlement by 1866. In a few years, the Yaquina Bay Oyster beds collapsed due to over-harvesting and oysters became rare on the Oregon coast. When this section was opened to settlement, Indians living there were forced out of their homes and the Yaquina sub-agency closed, the tribes being forced into the Alsea and Siletz Agencies.

Yaquina town was incorporated in 1871- assumedly at or near the site of Oysterville.

The Coast Reservation was further reduced by Congress in 1875 with the removal of the northern and southern sections l including closure of the Alsea Reservation (south). The remaining section of the reservation, was the Siletz Valley and the immediate coastline up to the Salmon river (Nechesne), and now called the Siletz Reservation. The reservation was again reduced in 1901, to only the Siletz Valley, and Lincoln County was formed from the coastal properties.

Today, Oyster and mussel harvesting are being researched for the Oregon coast as potential industries to expand upon.

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