Governor George L. Curry's Administration

Legislative Message, 1857

Source: Oregon State Archives, Oregon Provisional and Territorial Records, 1857, Calendar No. 9376.


Address to the Legislative Assembly

Messages – Governor G.L. Curry

Year 1857

Fellow Citizens of the Council and House of Representatives

As in all probability you constitute the last Legislative Assembly that will convene under our present form of government, I have deemed it appropriate if not in the line of my official duty, to address you upon an occasion which would seem to invite an expression of thought upon the past and present of our history, and to suggest a consideration of matters touching the interests of the Territory, as well as the welfare and prosperity of the State which is soon to be inducted into power.

When the history of Oregon comes to be written the mind of the historian will be impressed by the earnestness and sincerity of character—the unobtrusive, unostentatious conduct of those who formed its population from the first reclaiming of the wilderness—the pioneer epoch—to the more refined advancement into social and political existence. Another generation, in the realization of the ease, comfort and affluence, and the various enjoyments of a higher civilization, which will have resulted from ceaseless industry and undiscouraged enterprise, may accord the need of praise to the unwearied toil and patient suffering of those who tracked the wilderness and subdued it to the wants of man. Our pioneer settlers possessed integrity of character. They were energetic and diligent, warm-hearted and strong-willed. Difficulties and [reverses] did not dishearten them, dangers could not. These attributes and labor constituted their only capital and with them they achieved success. They were co-laborers in the service of utility; the pinchings of poverty and their daily privations only made them be more apt and efficient workmen. They accomplished a purpose with every effort. They congregate[d] to reward a bounty for wolf-scalps, and separate[d] after having inaugurated the first republican government on the shores of the Northern Pacific—the polity of which has received the unqualified commendation of the first statesmen of the Union. The only instance of true and successful “squatter sovereignty” in the history of our Country.

The Territorial system of government may be regarded as somewhat [___lous] under the federal Constitution, in its definition of the enjoyment of the full rights of citizenship. It is an imperfect and unsatisfactory form of government, and may continue to be a fruitful source of trouble and discontent. It would seem just and politic, having full faith in the capacity of the people for self government, that the citizens of the Territories should no longer be [debarred] the right, which no Constitutional power prohibits, to elect their own executive and judicial officers. Such an amendment of the system would free it from its most objectionable feature—that vestige of monarchical custom which should find no practice, or toleration, in a confederation of republican States, where the intelligence of the people is the basis of the government.

The provisional government which had been instituted by the mixed population of Oregon, after an existence of nearly six year, having admirably achieved its purpose, gave place to the jurisdiction f the United States, in our present Territorial system, on the 3rd day of March, A.D. 1849. In a few months a more satisfactory change will have transpired in the assumption of the powers and authority of a sovereign State. It is a circumstance especially gratifying and congratulatory that, while other Territories have been afflicted with turbulence and desperate feuds, in this effort to perfect their form of government, Oregon has accomplished it with dignity, determining the same questions and causes of unhappiness, without the [disruption] of social obligation, the violation of peace, or the infringement of her honor. This in the main is owing to the fact that we have been let alone by outside pseudo-reformers and philanthropists, that we have not been cursed by the presence of political advocators and emissaries of fanaticism to excite indecent passion, prostitute the public good, and make the blessings of our fathers a [byword?] and a scorn.

The people of the Territories are fully competent to manage their own political concerns. They know best their own interests and necessities and least of all do they require foreign influences to educate them as to their political rights and duties. In the peaceful pursuit of agricultural life the settler seeks to obtain a comfortable subsistence. Nature is his daily companion, and the sentiments she inspires elevate his mind and pacify his heart. Is he not to be trusted in the exercise of his prerogatives! Vice does not flourish where agriculture has made her home. The Territories, as the common property of the nation, should be regarded as neutral ground, rather than as arenas for fanatical strife. Life has a better and higher purpose, and the nation a nobler mission than is involved in an interminable one-[sided] crusade.

The Constitution, which has been adopted with such a feeling of unanimity, reflects credit upon those who framed it and our citizens have exhibited their excellent judgment in approving it as the fundamental law. It is liberal in its provisions, and its spirit is in harmony with the progressive and improving impulse of the age. It inculcates the principles of economy in the administration of the government, which it is to be hoped may be always rigidly observed and maintained, for extravagance has characterized the times and should be guarded against by every prudent means. There is nothing that will so fetter the uselessness of the State and impair its healthful vitality. It is an instrument that should be patiently submitted to the test of time, and careful practice and construction, before any encouragement is given to any change whatever.

Oregon presents herself for admission into the Confederation of States in no [unserviable] attitude. No indecent haste impairs the undertaking. Time has matured the event. Her Constitution compares favorably with those of other states. She has adjusted creditably, permanently and satisfactorily all subjects involving differences of opinion. She has evaded no issue, or responsibility, however delicate or exciting. She understands herself and can be readily comprehended by all. Her manifold interests, in their daily increasing magnitude and importance, demand, and inspire the hope, that there may be no hesitation, or delay, in the acknowledgement of her sovereignty.

You are doubtless aware that Dr. John Evans, a gentleman of high scientific attainments has been engaged for several years, under direction of the general government, in making a geological reconnaissance of this and Washington Territory. With the character of his explorations, and the zeal and energy with which they have been conducted, you are likewise familiar. The publications of his report, which is now complete, ought to be a matter of considerable interest, especially to the two Territories, for we may confidently calculate that he has collected much valuable information which will be of importance to the growing interests of this section of the Union. It is desirable that the fruit of his investigation should be made known to the world. I have no doubt that the passage of a joint resolution, by your respective bodies, instructing our delegate to request Congress to make the necessary appropriation for the early publication of the work might be of service in accomplishing that and The Commissioner of the General Law Office estimates the requisite amount for this purpose at $21,400.00. Consider the labors of Dr. Evans “as eminently useful in a scientific point of view as well as subserving the interests of the Pacific coast, by indicating the localities of the Country possessing mineral and agricultural wealth.” He correctly observes—

“ Either what has been done in the way of exploration and development of coal deposits, under appropriation by Congress, is to go for nothing and remain useless, or be brought to light in proper form, as proposed by further appropriation, to close the business and make the results available. The effect of the . . . measure will be to open up new sources of trade to active industry in the extraction and sale of coal on the Pacific, thereby furnishing the material for propulsion, essential in our rapidly growing steam commerce on the Pacific, at cheap rates, instead of the enormous cost of the article imported from the east.”

Our Indian relations remain in an unsatisfactory state. As demand has been made for the surrender of the murderers of Agent [Bolen] and Wright, and other Indians guilty of similar outrages, although the Superintendent of Indian Affairs has signified to the commanding officer of this military department, the justice and necessity of such an act. Notwithstanding the uncertain [posture] of affairs no apprehensions need be entertained of hostile demonstrations on the part of the Indians west of the Cascade Mountains so long as the government; by an adequate military force and ample appropriation, maintains its present policy of keeping and subsisting them upon reservations.

The abrogation of the treaties with the Indians east of the Cascades, or rather the failure of the Senate to ratify them, has been regarded as a sufficient cause to justify the closing of the large extent of country beyond the Dalles of the Columbia against settlement, or occupation by the whites. I shall not now undertake to oppose the policy of the measure, however questionable it may be, but I have to observe that the section of the Territory allotted to had been opened to settlement by the positive enactment of Congress. The ratification of the treaties with the Indians west of the Cascades, it should be borne in mind, is only of comparatively recent occurrence. Indeed the first treaties were rejected. Because of this no authority military or other, attempted the assumption and exercise of a power doubtful, at least. When the jurisdiction of the United States was extended over this Country, and its authority established, through executive and judicial officers, it was, it is presumed, for the purpose of protecting its citizens in the enjoyment of their rights and interests and afterwards, in order to foster those interests and increase the population, liberal grants of land were made to those already occupying portions of the public domain, and others were invited to become settlers upon it by virtue of the provisions of the same law and receive a similar gratuity. Wherever the settler located his right he held independent of the possessing rights of the Indians, which was unextinguished, and the “intercourse law”, which was quite as applicable as now. It was not his business to inquire who owned the land. He paid for it by his labor to a proprietor powerful enough to guarantee his [patent]. The expiration of certain provisions of the land law does not effect the inherent principle involved in the subject.

Large sections of the country from which the whites have been thus excluded are well adapted for purposes of pasturage, being covered with highly nutritious grasses. Our citizens had been regarding its occupation as highly advantageous for their rapidly augmenting herds of cattle and other stock.

Our present highly capable Superintendent of Indian (Affairs) is wholly engaged in the efficient discharge of the difficult duties of his responsible position. An increase of jurisdiction has made his labours truly Herculean. From the forty second to the forty ninth parallel of north latitude and from the ocean to the Rocky Mountains forms now but one Superintendency. This district of country is much too extensive for any one Superintendent, be he ever so efficient. It will be impossible to give entire and complete satisfaction. There should be two, at least, if not three such officers for a field of service so extended and important. I would respectfully suggest the expediency of your memorializing Congress upon the necessity of authorizing additional Superintendents so as the better to insure the prompt discharge of every responsibility pertaining to this important branch of the public service.

As I hope, and expect, in a few months to be relieved from the further discharge of official duty, by the organization of the State government, and as I shall have no opportunity more fitting, I desire to avail myself of the present occasion to make some brief observations in reference to my course of action during the recent period in which the Territory was engaged in repelling the attacks of hostile Indians. I do so with the more reluctance because so much has been said already upon the subject of the war. The willful perversions of truth in regard to the policy and conduct of the war—the wanton and calumnious assaults which have been made upon those engaged in it, might pass without notice, so far as they effect me personally, but as they reach the people of the Territory, and particularly those brave and patriotic citizens who constituted the volunteer forces, a sense of duty impels me to a difficult course. I have at all times cheerfully held myself responsible for my official conduct, and I cannot but consider it [ungenerous] and unjust, that those who have no accountability in the matter, having merely complied with the directions and requests of their Chief Executive Authority, should be subjected to [accusations] and abuse. An incompetent general, lately in command of the military department of the Pacific, whose vanity and [imbecility] made him unequal to the great emergency that occurred, in order to divert the public mind from his glaring omissions of duty and great military mismanagement, has chosen to make it his especial business to lead on these assaults. The grossness and mendacity of his communications, whether official, or as a newspaper correspondent[s], render him no longer worthy of respectful notice, or consideration. During the war he was chiefly engaged in traveling upon a safe and comfortable Steam ship between here and San Francisco in incubating his opprobrious compositions against a neglected and endangered people, and in bickering and fault-finding with those of his officers who sought to do their duty.

Some of the newspaper editors of the refined east, where the chiefest danger to life arises from voluptuous living, who know the Indian character only through poetry and romance, who seem to care more about cultivating treasonable machinations, and fostering disaffection to the Union, than the advocacy of truth, have filled their columns with wholesale denunciation of their fellow citizens, inhabiting an isolated portion of the Country, who resorted to arms in defence of life and property, rather than risk the general ruin and butchery by remaining cowardly inactive. It is painful to conclude that the success of the whites, in repelling the attacks of the ruthless invader, was less gratifying to such mental organizations than would have been the depopulation of both territories by Indian conquest.

It was the general belief, which has subsequently been fully confirmed, that the most powerful tribes adjacent to our frontier had entered into hostile combination against the whites. In this connection an officer of the regular army has thus written:

“ As you will already have learned the Indian War has become general, and a combination for purposes of hostility to the whites been formed on a scale which those most intimately acquainted with Indian character have heretofore believed impossible. x x x x x x. In southern Oregon the Rogue river Indians combined with some of those on the coast, the Umpquans, Pitt river and Shasta Indians, have also broken out into a fresh war and one of evidently included extermination, against the Whites.”

It is unnecessary for me here to account for the cause of this combination and the subsequent acts of hostility which simultaneously occurred at both extremes of the Territory. The antipathy existing between the two races is no new circumstance. It had its origin far back in the past, in the infancy of the republic. The history of the settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys affords overwhelming testimony of the cordiality of its bitterness. Indeed the westward progress of civilization has been continually marked by Indian massacre and warfare. For had this Territory been without a successful record of the turpitude and atrocity of the Indian character, to which the late calamity has added a most melancholy page.

Before the enrollment of a single volunteer the Indian hostilities had assumed a most serious and threatening character. In the South our people were being surprised and slaughtered and the settlements laid waste. murder and repine held high carnival at noon day. In the North an Indian Agent and other whites had been murdered and a strong body of U.S. troops repulsed with great loss. In the presence of these exacting and formidable circumstances, while the dismayed settlers were calling upon me for protection, was it for me to calculate the cost of defending the Territory and because it involved great expense timidly decline to act and allow independent and irregular action to override the constituted authority? An impartial judgment will answer, no! I should have been recreant to duty had I so done, and deserving of that condemnation which is now sought to be passed upon me.

In the embodiment of the volunteer force for service on the northern frontier, a sense of the insecurity of the settlements, and a determination to keep the war beyond them, were the controlling motives which prompted me to augment that force beyond the number I have been called upon to provide by the officer of the army who made the requisition. The number of U.S. troops in the country, beside being stationed at different and remote locations in Washington and Oregon, were inadequate to protect the Territory at the various assailable points. Notwithstanding the increased forced called for by my proclamation of October 11th, 1955, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time, express his appreciation to the head of his department that “any force that might be obtained under it would be insufficient for the service required.” The aim of my policy was a complete and effectual suppression of hostilities, and that by the usual and legitimate mode of warfare. I most emphatically give my denial to the bold assertion that the war was one of intended extermination against the Indians. Neither was there an inclination, or disposition, manifested by any in authority to give it that character, either, by word or deed. The idea is altogether the coinage of a distempered imagination. It is true that the brutal and revolting treatment of our women and children made prisoners – in the [inaptive] attacks of the Indians – the most cruel shameful and insulting advantages which were taken of their captivity and the horrible mutilation of their persons before and after death, very naturally caused a high degree of exasperation in the public mind. Only towards those who were guilty of these aggravated outrages was it desired to meet out a merited punishment. There may have been isolated instances, where, moved by the deep emotion of the ineffable wrong that had been perpetrated, the passions were superior to the sober judgment, in the bosom of the relative, and made him the instrument of retributive justice.

As I have intimated, my policy contemplated a successful conclusion of the war, my plans were matured, my time and energies devoted to this cause. Whether the season was or was not favorable for operation against such an enemy, there was no alternative but to make an effort for success. In the south the effective operations of the volunteers and regulars drove the enemy from their mountainous fortresses and compelled them to surrender and come in upon the reservations. In the north, after the Yackima campaign, the regulars were ordered into garrison, at a time when their services were of the utmost consequence; therefore the only decisive operations in that quarter were by the volunteers.

So soon as I became aware of the inactive policy determined upon by the officer commanding the military department of the Pacific, as to the confederated tribes of the Columbia, I had either to recall and disband the volunteers who were then advancing toward the Walla Walla, and leave the settlements on the north open to incursion and depredation, or prosecute the war with all the vigor it was possible to command. I decided upon the latter course for these reasons: To have retired from the contest at that time would have been Catamount to a defeat. It would have been so regarded by the enemy and would have emboldened them to the commission of greater outrages and afforded them time and opportunity to strengthen themselves by new alliances. The whole upper country was held by the hostiles, and beyond them were parties of our own citizens in the coalville mines, who if the enemy were left in undisputed possession, and their attention and power unoccupied, were liable to molestation and destruction. Besides the U. S. Commissioner to the Blackfeet Indians, and his party, were presumed to be upon their return and would inevitably be exposed to the hostile designs, which, I was credibly informed, had been determined upon against them. When direful necessity compelled me to institute the volunteer service I appreciated alike the magnitude of the undertaking and the inexcusable circumstances that required it. To have recalled and disbanded the volunteers upon the threshold of their duty and left the Territory without defense, would have been, in my judgment, an act unpardonably wrong, and an evidence of gross official incompetency. It would have been a license to Indian aggression and atrocity. The result has vindicated my policy. The brilliant success of the volunteers broke up the combinations of the enemy. Driven from their winter quarters, defeated, dispirited, and dispersed, they fled into distant localities.

In directing the movement on Walla Walla I made no “war on unoffending and friendly Indians.” It was within the scope of stubborn malice and senseless prejudice only to give utterance to an accusation so base and false. I may have committed grave errors in the discharge of my official trusts, but my own conscience, and the truth of history will requite me of one so serious as this.

Unfortunately there was a difference in the policy that controlled the action of the chief officer of the army on this coast and that which guided me. His policy indicated a cessation of operations, and a resistance by the regulars, in case of attack upon them, only in garrison and those garrisons were all within the settlements. Mine included the public security and the successful suppression of the hostilities by active operations and the maintenance of the war in the enemies country, that they should the more effectually experience and appreciate its horrors and to be moved to peace. It was the success of the Territorial troops, acting under orders in pursuance of this policy which secured to have made a necessity for self vindication on the part of that officer, for neglect of duty, be efforts however, vain and impotent. Hence the calumnious reports and untruthful accusations emanating from this, and similar sources.

If the Walla Wallas and their confederates were friendly why did they conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire distrust and alarm in the mind of the settlers among them, which ultimately forced the whites to abandon their homes at the sacrifice of their property? If they were unoffending why did they furnish recruitments to the Baskins and Klickitats? If they were friendly why did individual members of the tribes warn some of the settlers that they were in imminent dangers and urge them to fly without preparation or delay?

If they were unoffending and friendly why did they conspire against the life of their agent? And why did they pillage and destroy Fort Walla Walla and the agency buildings? But it is needless to consume your time in the refutation of a charge so malicious and unfounded.

I have then briefly and plainly alluded to the motives that influenced my action and the policy by which it was governed. Whatever may be the ultimate result to myself, whether or not, I be condemned for doing that which a momentous and critical state of affairs made an imperative duty is of inferior consequences to the early liquidation of the indebtedness accruing from the war. I entertained the confidant belief that the general government in to magnanimous and just to permit the patriotic and self sacrificing spirit coined by my Fellow citizens, in devoting their personal services and property to the urgent demand of the occasion to remain long acknowledged and uncompensated. It is the highest obligation of the government to protect the lives and property of the people, and for such an omission to make the only indemnification possible. Precedents are abundant to show that in similar exigencies the government has always been actuated by that sense of justice and impartiality which should continue and doubtless will to distinguish its conduct. When recently at Washington I succeeded in my efforts in conjunction with those of our indefatigable delegate, in procuring from Congress such action as authorized a board of Commissioners to ascertain and audit the expenses necessarily incurred in the war, I had no reason to entertain any apprehensions as to the final payment of those expenses by the general government.

The Commissioners have made their report and it has gone forward to the Secretary of War. The manner in which these gentlemen have performed their duty will no doubt prove satisfactory to the government.

I would not presume to intimate that there may be no contest upon the appropriation of so large an amount as is necessary to defray these liabilities. The incidents and experiences of Congressional Legislation teach otherwise. However, just and worthy a cause may be, it is never free from trials and [tribulations]. While we hope that no needless delay may occur in obtaining such action of Congress as may be desirable and satisfactory, still any deferment of that action cannot be regarded as prejudicial to ultimate success.

The positive necessity that the military power of the government should afford protection to the to the annual immigration by the overland route to the Pacific is every year more and more apparent. The past season has furnished a sad catalogue of atrocious crimes perpetrated upon such parties by savage hatred and rapacity. The security of the life and property of the American citizen, in his travel through the domain of the nation, must be assured whatever the burden of expense. The protecting power of the government should always surround its citizens, especially within the limits of its own jurisdiction, else its authority becomes a mockery and reproach.

I desire to call your attention to the necessity of some additional provisions to insure the punishment of crime. That portion of the Penitentiary building, which has been used for the confinement of criminals is now insufficient for that purpose, on account of the increased number of convicts, and other arrangements are requisite to be made to guarantee their security and punishment. I would respectfully recommend that some plan be devised to make the institution a self-sustaining one. As at present conducted it is a heavy expense to the Territory.

The offices of the Financial department are required be law to report directly to the Assembly. Their reports exhibit a most satisfactory condition of affairs and I feel it my duty to commend these gentlemen for the faithful and efficient manner in which they have performed their responsible duties.

I congratulate you upon the flourishing condition of the Territory. Town and country are in the enjoyment of excellent health and abounding plenty. Active industry in every department of labor is realizing its encouraging reward. The revenues and discouragements incident to the war have served to exhibit in a most gratifying manner the resolute and energetic character of our population. The spirit of improvement is every where manifest, and the future is radiant with promise.

It is a pleasant reflection, and one that will go with me in my retirement from official duty, that during the period of my administration, which has not been without unusual trials and embarrassments, amid calamitous events, and times of great public exigence, the Territory has steadily advanced in the development of those means and capacities which make a country truly great, and the people prosperous and happy.

May the dispenser of all good continue the bestowment of the divine Favor, that the Future may redound to his honor and glory and the advancement and welfare of the country.

I have the honor to assure you of my desire to cooperate with you cordially in the promotion of the public good.

Executive Office

Salem, December 7th, 1857

George L. Curry

State Archives • 800 Summer St. NE • Salem, OR 97310

Phone: 503-373-0701 • Fax: 503-378-4118 • reference.archives@state.or.us