Fur Trappers Fort Walla Walla by Joseph Drayton, 1841, courtesy Oregon Historical

What did 19th century fur traders think and say about our old-time Indians?   Back in the days of the Fort Nez Percés-Fort Walla Walla, Hudson’s Bay Company was collecting questionnaires from their chief factor stationed across the river from the mouth of the Walla Walla River.  The factors’ ‘natural history’ reports were sent to London.  There during World War II the records were sheltered from damage in wine cellars. 

In 2000 the University of Idaho Library published a transcript of Hudson Bay materials by Samuel Black, the factor who documented some words of the now-extinct Cayuse language.  This was information that was formerly accessible only to scholars.  Apparently there were some hanging-around-the-fort Indians:

“There is a considerable number of Indians resident here, Kayouse’s and a collateral band of the same tribe, called Walla-wallas. They live along the bank of the river, in shantys or wigwams of draft wood, covered with buffalo or deer skins.  They are a miserable, squalid looking people, are constantly lolling round and in the Fort, and annoy visitors by the importunate manner in which they endeavor to force them into some petty trade for a pipe, a hare, or a grouse. All the industrious and enterprising men of this tribe are away trading salmon, Kamas root, &c., to the mountain companies.

Notwithstanding the truly wretched plight in which these poor people live, and the privations which they must necessarily have to suffer, they are said to be remarkably honest and upright in their dealing and generally correct in their moral deportment.  Although they doubtless have the acquisitive qualities so characteristic of their race they are rarely known to violate the principles of common honesty.  A man may leave his tent unguarded and richly stored with everything which ordinarily excites the cupidity of the Indian, yet, on returning after a long absence, he may find all safe. What a contrast is this to the habits and conduct of our Christian communities!”—John Kirk Townsend, botanist, passing through the Fort Walla Walla country, 1839.

It could be the principles of tamánwit were operating no matter how impoverished the people became.  Then what about domestic violence?

Hudson Bay asked:  Are women well or ill treated by their husbands? Are they employed solely in household and culinary work or do they engage in hunting and fishing with the rest of their family or what are the usual occupations of the females?

“The Indian Women are very well treated by their Husbands who are often very forebearing except in a Case of infidelity when they often punish brutally inflicting Wounds & often death, the latter however must be in agrevated Cases but for all faults when they do punish its always brutally.  The Women do all the work about the Tent &c as in other parts of the Country but their great & principal Employment is diging Roots & geathering Berries to make all the family live.  Its the Women that often make the Men live, this is a very laborious Employment which lasts long all Summer by intervals yet they are not able to procure a sufficiency eating so Many—The Women never engage in Fishing or hunting or do the Men ever dig a Root for general use.”—Samuel Black

What about suicide?  Hudson’s Bay posed the question:  Do many die during the course of the year—either by natural or accidental death, murder or suicide?  And can you state the proportion out of a hundred that die annually?

“In the Course of one year few die of a Natural Death, some by Accident, some by Murder suicide & their attempts at it is pretty Common amongst both Sexes young & Old from Wounded feelings Contradiction in some favorite Point &c. None by War at present being at peace with their Enemies the Snake Indians; never many I believe were killed in War Business.”–Samuel Black

Then Black would record “Willa Walla” for ‘good’ for instance, “Shiech”, Nez Perces “Taats”, and Cayouse “eswaya [or] Schwayia”.  He recorded ‘water’ as Willa Walla “choos”, Nez Perces “Koush” and Cayuse “Eskanch [or] Eskance”.  This is an interesting little booklet, “faithful to their Tribe & friends” Samuel Black’s 1829 Fort Nez Perces Report, edited with an introduction by Dennis W. Baird. The front desk at Tamástslikt has a copy, as does the research library.

Old Fort Walla-Walla, Oregon Historical Society

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