Descendants of Mitchell Bay Indians (San Juan Island) and Their Struggle for Lost Treaty Rights

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 7/20/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21075

The traditional life of Native Americans on San Juan Island was permanently disrupted in the second half of the nineteenth century by an influx of homesteaders, many of whom, however, chose Native American wives to share their lives and new endeavors. A generation later children of local Indian women were offered the possibility of obtaining land promised to Indians in treaties from the 1850s but never provided. Thomas Bishop (1859-1923) and his Northwest Federation of American Indians gathered information on those with Native blood not enrolled in federally recognized tribes or living on reservations to pressure the government to make good on its commitments. In 1916 the Interior Department dispatched Charles Roblin (1870-1953) to survey Western Washington Indians and develop a list of potential candidates for land allotments on existing reservations. Included on the final roll were 146 first-and-second-generation descendants of 12 women from San Juan Island's Mitchell Bay Tribe who had married settlers. While those applicants were unsuccessful, and the tribe was never recognized by the government, current islanders from early settler families continue to take great pride in tracing their roots to these Native American island forebearers.

Coast Salish Life on San Juan Island

Located in the far Pacific Northwest in the Salish Sea between the Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands archipelago has an archaeological record of human habitation dating back at least 14,000 years. Artifacts and human remains suggest the existence of established villages by 9,000 years ago. Stories passed down through generations of Native Americans already on San Juan Island when the first non-Indian explorers arrived told of their long history in the area. Lummi Indians, for example, taught their children that the first man, swet'an, came down from heaven on the north coast of San Juan Island near today's Garrison Bay, and that location "was the center of the universe. This man became the ancestor of the kale'gamis people" (Bailey-Cummings, 5). This group eventually evolved into the Lummi, Saanich, and Songhees tribes, which together with the Sooke, Semiahmoo, and Samish tribes are now often called collectively the Northern Straits Coast Salish people.

Coast Salish families undertook a seasonal rotation of activities on San Juan Island. In spring women harvested and prepared camas bulbs that they cultivated, an important food source, and worked to maintain crops of other meadow plants. Men repaired fishing nets and made hooks for fishing halibut, rockfish, lingcod, and other species. In late spring deer were hunted -- captured in nets and then clubbed or speared. In early summer families moved to fishing camps to take advantage of the immense salmon runs that occurred especially along the southwest side of San Juan Island. Traditional family sites were prepared for reef-net fishing, an extremely efficient technology developed by island Indians, and the large catches were then wind-dried or smoked for winter consumption. While the men fished and hunted, women harvested, cooked, and preserved berries and other fruit, along with horsetail and bracken rhizomes, among other plants. Summer was also a time for trading among the network of tribes and for socializing. Intermarriage among the groups was common, and there seems to have been little concern for firm distinctions of tribal membership. When the salmon season waned, attention turned to harvesting clams, oysters, mussels, and other seashore food. And by late autumn families had returned to winter villages in the islands or on the mainland.

A Changing World

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought traders and explorers to the islands first from Russia, Spain, and England, and later the United States. With these newcomers came also devastating diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. Outbreaks in 1782, 1830, and the 1850s resulted, it is estimated, in an 80-to-90-percent loss of population in a 75-year period. In addition, Coast Salish villages had become frequent targets of tribes from the north who came in raids to seize goods, destroy property, kill local residents, and carry off prisoners to be forced into slavery. By about 1840 the island's winter villages had been largely abandoned. Lummi and Samish tribal members still returned to traditional summer fishing grounds each year but then retreated in the fall to more fortified villages on the mainland or Vancouver Island.

By the 1850s events were taking place elsewhere that would profoundly affect the lives of San Juan Island Indians and other Western Washington tribes long into the future. On March 2, 1853, Washington Territory was created and President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) appointed Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) as its first territorial governor. In addition to his other responsibilities, Stevens was charged with making treaties with Native Americans throughout the territory to secure resources and lands for the growing flood of settlers and for the railroads. In the next two years, Stevens negotiated five separate treaties, effectively seizing control of all the land from the Columbia River to the Canadian border. One, the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed on January 22, 1855, was negotiated with chiefs and representatives of numerous Puget Sound and Northwest tribes, including the Lummi who gave up extensive areas of their traditional homeland and in return were granted a 15,000-acre reservation (to be shared with the Nooksack, Samish, and other local groups) near Bellingham. According to the terms of the treaty, all tribal members acknowledged their dependence on the U.S. government and were to move to their reservations within one year of the treaty's ratification.

Just a year later in January 1856 leaders of the Quinault (sometimes spelled "Quinaielt"), Quileute, and Queets tribes and other smaller bands on the Olympic Peninsula signed an almost-identically-worded-and-structured document, the Quinault Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Olympia or Quinault River Treaty. From their vast area they were given approximately 208,000 acres, located along the Pacific coastline in the southwestern portion of the Olympic Peninsula, for a reservation and assured their traditional fishing rights.

Despite the treaties' requirements that all Indians move to their designated reservations, many did not, including a small band of primarily Lummi/Samish heritage who maintained a fishing village on Mitchell Bay, a sheltered inlet on the northwest side of San Juan Island. The area had been used by untold generations of families for their seasonal homes, fishing, maintaining and harvesting food plants, and other activities. They felt no compulsion to change their ages-long patterns of living and move from all that was familiar and traditional.

At the time of the treaties, there were few non-Indians on the island; most of them employees of the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which in the early 1850s established a large sheep and farming operation there. To enhance the stability of the population, HBC had long encouraged employees to marry Native American women. The earliest American, British, and other settlers, too, often brought with them Native American wives from farther east or married local Indian women after they arrived. These women, skilled in using the island resources and knowing the best times of year for agricultural, fishing, and other activities, were invaluable and supportive partners for early homesteaders. The 1870 census of the archipelago's population (of which San Juan Island had by far the largest portion) records 45 Native American wives of settlers and five of Kanakas (Hawaiians), employed by HBC, out of a total of 80 adult women. However, all other Indians (except two shepherds, also probably employed by HBC) were omitted from the count, making it difficult to determine the actual size of the Mitchell Bay Tribe at that time.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s increasing numbers of settlers began to move into prime farming and fishing areas around San Juan Island. Lands traditionally used for hundreds of years by Native Americans were considered by the settlers to be freely available for the taking, and take they did. For the Indians at Mitchell Bay the land appropriation was a life-altering disaster. One tribal elder interviewed many years later remembered:

"A white fellow moved in there. They homesteaded the whole thing. They just plain homesteaded it wrong and everything. Then, on the other side of the bay, what there was left, the Lummis moved across, just a stone's throw across the bay; they had two great big houses there. They had some small houses, cabin-like, that they stayed in that got homesteaded so the Lummis just lost out there too. White people came and homesteaded the darn place and never left their ground for the Lummis" (Pitcher, 301).

Records reveal that six homesteaders had registered properties totaling more than 700 acres surrounding Mitchell Bay, almost the entire perimeter, before 1890. Indian residents were summarily displaced and families dispersed.

Government Policy and Indian Rights

In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which made it possible for Indians to be granted individual properties, to be held in trust by the U.S. government (since Indians were deemed incapable of managing their own property and lives) and overseen by the Office of Indian Affairs. The goal was to encourage a more "civilized" and settled lifestyle of farming, similar to that of the homesteaders. Only tribal members on reservations could receive allotments, based on the amount of land available and the number of tribal members. While Lummis on their reservation were eligible for allotments, Mitchell Bay Indians, not recognized by the government as a distinct tribe or in possession of tribal reservation lands, were not.

Reservation surveys commenced, a necessary precursor to land allotments, but it was a slow process. A survey of the Quinault reservation was completed in 1904, but allotments could not begin until a treaty document was prepared, agreed to by the Indians, ratified by Congress, and accepted by the government. Part of the agreement stated that if reservation land was left over after allotments had been made, the federal government could sell it to non-Indian settlers and investors. The Quinaults' vast forests and rich agricultural lands were already being eagerly eyed by numerous potential buyers.

An act of 1911 finally directed the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to begin assigning allotments on the large Quinault reservation not just to tribal members already on the reservation but also to Washington tribes "who are affiliated with the Quinaielt and Quilleute tribes in the treaty and who may elect to take allotments on the Quinaielt Reservation rather than on the reservations set aside for these tribes" ("Summary Under the Criteria ... Steilacoom Tribe ..."). Word went out that the Quinaults were open to adopting Indians from other tribes to help keep as much land as possible in Native American hands. Requests for adoption flooded in; many applications were approved by the Quinault Council before its actions were revoked by the Office of Indian Affairs in 1912.

In 1914 an important meeting was organized in Tacoma by Thomas G. Bishop. Since 1910 Bishop, whose mother was from the Snohomish Tribe, had become increasingly committed to the cause of Native American rights. He had followed the news of the reservation allotments and was especially concerned about the unknown numbers of Indians who were not receiving proper compensation under their treaty rights because they were not on reservations or members of officially recognized tribes. More than 50 delegates representing numerous tribes attended the meeting, whose opening-day highlight was a speech by Chief Taholah, more than 90 years old, of the Quinault Tribe, presented in his native language. Taholah, one of the signers of the 1856 treaty, reminded attendees of the promises made by the government in return for the land ceded in the treaty. The three-day meeting resulted in the formation of a new organization, the Northwest Federation of American Indians (NFAI), with the objective of working to secure proper redress for rights that had been denied to so many Native Americans. Bishop went to work immediately.

Bishop soon arrived on San Juan Island to begin a count of how many Indians there were living off reservations. When he explained to local residents that the Quinaults were willing to consider adopting Indians from other tribes, he found the information was enthusiastically received by a number of children of women from the Mitchell Bay Tribe despite their having little knowledge of the Quinault people or reservation, which was a distant 200 miles away on the Olympic Peninsula. Bishop encouraged them to submit statements of eligibility and application, and he himself notarized many of their affidavits.

Each affidavit followed a specific pattern (probably suggested by Bishop) and always included a declaration of whether the applicant was a half- or quarter-blood Indian, details of parentage including the mother's tribal affiliation and Indian name if known, a list of the applicant's siblings with birthdates, note of marriages with spousal names and ethnic backgrounds, and signatures from three people who could attest to knowing that the applicant's mother or grandmother was a full-blood Indian of the Mitchell Bay Tribe. The affidavits also included a personal statement that the applicant was hardworking, of good moral character, and would follow all rules and laws of the Quinault Tribe.

Many applied for land for themselves and for their children. Some offered additional statements of need, and all noted specifically that they had never received an allotment of land or other government benefit. Some affidavits were handwritten in pencil or pen on lined tablet or notebook paper; others were typewritten. Stephen Gross (1876-1950), a typical applicant and one of eight children born to Jennie (Z-tat) and Samuel Gross between 1873 and 1895, noted that his "mother was an Indian of the full-blood; and a member of the little band of Indians that habitated here at Mitchell Bay; San Juan Island" (Gross affidavit). Mary Jane Briggs Balch (1872-1931) declared that she was applying for herself and her four sons: "I certify that I have not any home for myself and for my children and therefore petition you for a home for myself and for each of my children; as we are all anxious for homes; and to till the land that will be our own" (affidavit). Applicant Daniel Oakes (1883-1970) noted that his mother, "an Indian of the full blood," was still living and "is in real good health considering her age [ca. 66]; and she has been a very hard-working woman all of her life," and he added that since he had never married, "my aged mother is my housekeeper" (Oakes affidavit).

Over the next two years Bishop determinedly pursued his campaign for land allotments. At the 1915 meeting of the NFAI, he declared, with some flair for the dramatic, that the major purpose of the organization was to "provide some small tracts of agricultural lands for the unallotted Indians of this district, who are now wanderers on the face of the earth, and whose economic conditions are pitiable indeed" ("Summary Under the Criteria ... Steilacoom Tribe ..."). Bishop was authorized by the NFAI membership to go to Washington, D.C., taking 1,000 affidavits, to present the case for reparations directly to the federal government. Stationery with the NFAI letterhead was made available to applicants to record their statements. Charles Crawford (1864-?), who was born at Port Townsend, made use of the stationery to declare eligibility as a Mitchell Bay Tribe descendant; his mother Hon-Hontoo was born, he reported, on Orcas Island.

Bishop was able to convince the Office of Indian Affairs that there was potentially a large number of Indians in Western Washington who could claim that they had not been granted their treaty rights. The Secretary of the Interior, therefore, decided that, first, more precise information was needed: a list of specific names and a tally of the actual number of claimants were required. The person chosen for this undertaking was Charles E. Roblin (1870-1953). Roblin had received a law degree from the University of Michigan before launching a career with the Office of Indian Affairs in 1903. Much of his work for the previous decade had focused on land issues and allotment. Roblin was assigned two specific tasks: 1) to collect or verify applications for enrollment on the Quinault Reservation in preparation for recommending approval or rejection of each application, and 2) to make a separate list of those who could not be enrolled on the Quinault Reservation and collect detailed information on each individual as a basis for decisions on future actions.

The Roblin Roll, 1916-1919

Some San Juan Island applicants who had already applied for adoption and allotments prior to Roblin's survey now took a further step. Ben Briggs (1875-1921), a logger, who claimed eligibility through his mother Mary (Seamt-nott) Briggs (1850-1901), had submitted a typewritten affidavit in 1914 that Bishop had notarized. Now, in 1916, he was provided with a form to complete and sign granting power of attorney to Thomas Bishop to act on his behalf in matters relating to his claims. The form repeated much of the same application information. Many of Ben's siblings as well as the children of other Mitchell Bay Tribe mothers also applied for adoption. Some applicants sent letters to Bishop asking that he plead special cases. Susie Gray Cunningham (1872-?) of Orcas, whose mother, Lucy Katone Gray (ca. 1855-1893), claimed to have been of the Mitchell Bay Tribe, wrote on behalf of her brother George Gray (1877-?), who was blind.

"While he may not be able to actively move to an allotment if given him, some of us are willing to assist him in the future as we have in the past. The right for an allotment of land is his, and in the event an allotment be accorded him I feel sure that it will be a blessing towards supporting one whose struggles for an existence will be lessened for one so unfortunate. Please press his claim with all vigor as though he were one of the fortunates" (Cunningham letter).

Those Mitchell Bay Tribe descendants hoping to be adopted and granted lands on the Quinault Reservation were to be disappointed. In December 1918 the tribal council met to review with Roblin the applications and render decisions. For the San Juan Island hopefuls, one issue was especially problematic. In determining eligibility the council took heavily into consideration whether each applicant and family had long-standing ties with the Quinault Tribe and how those ties had been maintained. Had the family visited and if so with whom on the Quinault reservation? How frequently? In reporting what he felt were some other deciding factors, Roblin pointed out that many applicants and their families (including those claiming Mitchell Bay Tribe affiliation) had married and continued to marry non-Indians and that they were living in white communities, had no strong tribal ties, and were citizens of the state. Consequently, San Juan Island applicants received typed form memos signed by Roblin stating that their applications for Quinault tribal adoption and land allotment had been rejected.

Roblin finished his survey and presented his report and roll of those applicants without allotments on January 31, 1919. The results confirmed Bishop's claim that there were many Western Washington Indians who had not received allotments as promised in the 1855-1856 treaties. Included on Roblin's roll were 146 people listed as descendants of 12 women from the Mitchell Bay Tribe. Roblin categorized the many people he had surveyed across Western Washington into two groups: 1) children and grandchildren of Indians on reservations where there was no more available land to be allotted, and 2) a much larger group of descendants of Indian women who had married settlers and founded mixed-blood families. He indicated some doubt about the urgency of the circumstances of the latter group because none had shown any interest in pursuing land claims until they were encouraged to explore allotment possibilities by Bishop and the NFAI.

After Roblin's Report

Predictably, no immediate action was taken following Roblin's report to the Office of Indian Affairs and Department of the Interior. Two years later, with little progress in either the courts or Congress, Bishop was granted an audience with newly-sworn-in President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923).Nothing further came out of that 1921 meeting, and Bishop died in 1923 leaving most issues unresolved. Without Bishop's leadership and drive, the NFAI faded from the scene. In 1924 Congress, grateful for the service of so many Native Americans in World War I, enacted legislation making all Indians U.S. citizens, but the new law had little practical effect on Indian lives. States and Indian agents continued to have jurisdiction over tribal reservation lands and allotments.

In 1925 some further demands for restitution for Native Americans encouraged Congress to at last pass a law allowing Puget Sound Indians to bring claims against the government in the federal Court of Claims. The initial case of Duwamish et al v. United States was filed in 1926, and a San Juan Islands group was briefly noted in the 1934 decision as a non-treaty tribe. In 1957 Mitchell Bay Tribe descendants sued under the name of San Juan Island Indians. The 1962 court finding in that case was that the Mitchell Bay and San Juan Island Indians were the same group of people, descendants of a mix of several tribes who had had villages in the islands -- "The Indian Claims Commission denied the San Juan Island group standing to sue on the grounds that they were derived from the Lummi and Samish tribes and therefore covered under those claims" -- although it noted that "a group calling itself the Mitchell Bay Tribe ... still exists currently" ("Recommendation and Summary ... Samish Indian Tribe ...").

Mitchell Bay Indians never received either federal or state recognition. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century there are still those who claim proudly to be descendants of the Mitchell Bay Tribe women who helped establish farms and enterprises on San Juan Island. One family even maintains its license for an ancestral reef-net fishing site. Many traditions and customs may have been lost, but residents still revere their heritage and are anxious to pass on their family stories to children and grandchildren. As one woman lamented not long ago, "We didn't get any allotment land in San Juan County. It's sad. There isn't any recognition of our ever having been a tribe" (Shukovsky). The Mitchell Bay Tribe was a vital part of the island's early history, and knowledge of its culture and contributions remain part of the heritage to be handed on to future generations.


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