"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Chief Harmelt believed white man’s promises

By on July 25, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

“I did not come here to lie to anybody. I have come here with a true, honest heart. I would like to have you listen to what I have to say. You can’t make me believe that all white men are rascals.” 

Wenatchee/P’squose Chief John Harmelt said those words in 1893 as he worked to secure for his people the reservation the government promised them in 1855. 

In May of that year Governor Isaac Stevens, Washington’s first Territorial governor, called all central Washington tribes to a treaty council in the Walla Walla Valley.

On the final day of the council, Governor Stevens was desperate to get the signatures of several tribal chiefs still reluctant to sign. Stevens’ week long campaign of promises, intimidation and threats had not won over all the chiefs. 

Tecolekun, the Wenatchee/P’squose chief at the council saw an opportunity. He refused to sign unless his people were given a small reservation of their own at the most culturally important and productive salmon fishery in north central Washington.

Article 10 of the Yakima Treaty, hastily written that last day, July 9, and signed by Governor Stevens, promised a reservation at the forks of the Wenatchee River. The reservation would be a township in size, six miles square. 

The Wenatchee/P’squose and the Yakimas traditionally both used the fishery and both understood that the “forks” of the Wenatchee River referred to its confluence with the Icicle River. The lack of more specific language in the treaty defining the location would lead to problems.

The U.S. government, for its part, was obligated to ratify the treaty in Congress, which it did four years later in March, 1859. The government was also obligated to properly locate and survey the reservation. 

Thirty seven years later, in 1893, there still had been no survey. 

John Harmelt dressed in his ceremonial beaded clothes and headdress during the last tribal Pow Pow at Cashmere in 1931. Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center 012-51-1019

White settlers were moving onto reservation lands and the Great Northern tracks crossed the fishery. Through all those years the Wenatchee/P’squose lived up to their obligation and did not join any war against the United States. They believed the government would keep its promise.

In 1856, the year after the treaty was signed, the Yakima wars were heating up. 

White miners had been killed crossing Yakima land and Colonel George Wright suspected the killers had fled to the Wenatchee country. 

Colonel Wright brought troops over Blewett/Swauk pass and followed Peshastin Creek down to the Wenatchee River. At the fishery reservation he saw 2,000 Indians harvesting the huge salmon run.

Colonel Wright was familiar with the terms of the Yakima Treaty and the fishery reservation. He held council with Wenatchee/P’squose Chief Skamow and laid out the six-mile square boundaries of the reservation. 

Skamow was John Harmelt’s grandfather. Harmelt was a boy then but recalled later that, “The council was held across the river from the Icicle. The boundary line was right at the fishery. It extended (six miles) down the river from the Icicle.” 

Wright drew it out and gave the paper to Chief Skamow who kept it in a leather pouch around his neck. The pouch was later lost in a canoe accident.

Two years later, in 1858, Chief Skamow and his men helped and protected a group of white miners when they were attacked by Columbia/Sinkiuse and Yakima warriors after crossing the Wenatchee River on their way to Canada. 

Soon after that, Captain James Archer, commander of Fort Simcoe south of Yakima, rode into the Wenatchee Valley with his troops in search of the warriors that had attacked the miners. Archer held a council with Chief Skamow who, likely, showed Archer the map made by Colonel Wright. 

According to John Harmelt, Captain Archer told Skamow, “I am much pleased with you because you protected the whites. Your land is six miles square. There will be two miles added to each side.” Captain Archer’s reports mention the Skamow council but there was still no survey.

In the summer of 1893 the government finally acted and ordered Oliver Iverson to survey the fishery reservation. 

Yakima Indian Agent Jay Lynch had already concluded (wrongly) that the confluences of Nason Creek and the Chiwawa River with the head of the Wenatchee River were the “forks” mentioned in the treaty. Iverson was told to begin the survey at Lake Wenatchee where the Wenatchee River begins and follow the river to its confluence with Chiwaukum Creek. 

This would put the reservation 12 to 15 miles upriver from the Wenatchee/Icicle confluence and not at all the six-, or eight-mile square laid out by the treaty and by Colonel Wright.

Iverson and his crew had barely finished the survey when Lewis Erwin replaced Lynch as Yakima Indian Agent. He ordered Iverson to do the survey again and move the reservation 10 miles farther west into the mountains. 

Iverson did that but noted that the fishery reservation was now 25 miles distant from the Wenatchee/Icicle forks. Chief John Harmelt noticed it too.

Agent Erwin described meeting the chief following the survey. Harmelt told Erwin that, “the fishery was not properly located and that it was not where they wanted it.” Erwin responded with a lie, telling Harmelt that he, Erwin, “had no discretion to change the location.” 

Chief Harmelt responded, “Does our Great Father in Washington think a salmon is an eagle that lives on top of the mountain, or does he think a salmon is a deer that lives in the woods and hills, or does he think a salmon is a mountain goat that lives among the rocks of the snow-covered mountains? Tell our Great Father the Indian does not care for the little trout in the lake, but wants the salmon that lives in the rocky places in the river where the Indians can find him. Our fishery is in the river where you saw it. We want our fishery in the river where Governor Stevens gave it to us a long time ago.”

Agent Erwin told the P’squose the location could not be changed and strongly recommended that they sell the reservation back to the government if they didn’t want it. 

He insisted that Chief Harmelt and his people accept $9.30 each from the government for the incorrectly located reservation. Harmelt steadfastly refused the money saying they could not sell land they didn’t own or had ever lived on.

Erwin was angry and frustrated. 

Without informing Chief Harmelt, he called a meeting with the Yakimas. He told them that all the concerns of the P’squose had been satisfied, that they were happy with the outcome. He said the government wanted to buy the unwanted reservation from the Yakimas. The agreed on price was $20,000. 

The Yakimas used the money to improve an irrigation system on their reservation. The P’squose people got nothing.

In 1897, government Indian Inspector W.J. McConnell discovered the fraud. He was furious. He fired Erwin and wrote to the Secretary of the Interior. “Ours is not a nation of liars and robbers. The people of the U.S. can afford to buy out those who have settled on the fishery reserve and give it back to the rightful owners.” 

It was an idea that might have worked then but it was ignored.

In 1899 John Harmelt and Louis Judge wrote their own letter to the Secretary of the Interior. 

“It was promised that we should have this land as long as the grass grows and the water runs, and that the strong arm of the government would protect us… We notice that the grass still grows and the water still runs, the arm of the government is still strong. We are weak. We need the protection you promised us. You have not given it to us.”

Chief Harmelt was still making his case in 1933, four years before his death. 

In a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Chief Harmelt said, “Our Wenatchee reservation was taken from us in 1894; our hunting and fishing rights were also taken at that time, against our wishes. We, the Wenatchee Indians, wish to have our fishing and hunting rights restored to us in the Wenatchee Valley and forests.”

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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