Joel Palmer and Isaac Ingalls Stevens

Joel Palmer was born on October 4, 1810, to Quaker parents in Ontario, Canada, and grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Indentured to a nearby family for four years, he received only three months of formal schooling before moving to Philadelphia at age sixteen. Four years later, he married Catherine Caffee, who died after childbirth. Palmer married his second wife, Sarah Ann Derbyshire, in 1836. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to the Whitewater Valley in Indiana, where Palmer oversaw a canal construction project and served as a Democratic representative in the state legislature in 1843, 1844, and 1845.

Palmer traveled overland to Oregon in the spring of 1845, without his family. The diary he kept on the trip was published in 1847 as Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains and aided later Oregon immigrants as they prepared equipment and planned routes. After returning to Indiana in 1846, Palmer journeyed west again, this time with his family, arriving in Oregon in the fall of 1847.

Shortly after the Palmers arrived in Oregon, Cayuse Indians, panicked by a measles epidemic and suspicious of newcomers, murdered missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and eleven others, sparking the 1848 Cayuse War. Palmer acted as commissary-general of the volunteer forces and as a peace liaison to tribes who may have been tempted to join the Cayuse.

Later in 1848, Palmer left for the gold fields of California. Returning to Oregon in the spring of 1849, he filed a donation land claim in Yamhill County and laid out the town of Dayton. At that time, new settlers were vying with the Native population for land and resources. Newcomers to the region were divided over how to best deal with Indians; some advocated for assimilating them into American culture while others called for their complete extermination. Palmer was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for the Oregon Territory in 1853, charged with negotiating treaties with Indians in Oregon Territory and moving them onto reservations. He negotiated nine cession treaties. In the politically charged atmosphere, newspapers and officials sometimes accused Palmer of acting too favorably toward Indians, and he was removed from the superintendent’s office in 1857.

Palmer served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives in 1862, as a state senator from 1864 to 1868, and as Indian agent to the Siletz in 1871. He was unsuccessful in an 1870 run for governor as a Republican. He ran a variety of businesses, including a mill, until he died in Dayton in 1881.

Isaac Ingalls Stevens was born in New England, on Lake Cochichewick, on March 25, 1818. His well-established family had first settled in the Americas in the seventeenth century. He attended Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated at the top of his class in 1839. Joining the Army Corps of Engineers, he worked as a surveyor and engineer and then served as an officer in the 1846–1847 Mexican War.
In 1852, Stevens gave strong support to Democrat Franklin Pierce’s presidential bid. He was rewarded in 1853 when his application for the governorship of the new Washington Territory was accepted. As governor, Stevens also acted as the superintendent of Indian affairs. Before traveling west, he secured a third appointment: commander of the survey of the northern route of the transcontinental railroad. From June to November, Stevens traveled overland from Minnesota to Fort Vancouver.

Upon completion of the railroad survey, Stevens spent some time in Washington reviewing affairs, meeting with leading citizens, and organizing a territorial government before returning to Washington, D.C., in 1854. While there, he lobbied and received funding for, among other things, treaty councils with Indians. Joined by his wife, their four children, and an Irish nurse, Stevens traveled back to Washington Territory. They reached Olympia in December 1854.

Stevens had been instructed to complete the treaties rapidly. He held his first treaty council, at Medicine Creek, on the day after Christmas. Not all councils produced treaties. Stevens struggled to comply with the commissioner of Indian affairs’s request to make room for settlers by locating Indians on a few reservations — necessarily combining many tribes — and with the various Indian groups’ desire to retain their cultural and geographic independence from one another. In thirteen months, Stevens completed ten treaties. In 1857, Washington Territory’s voters sent Stevens to Washington, D.C., as their delegate to Congress. While there, he ensured that the treaties he had negotiated were ratified.

During the Civil War, Stevens served as a colonel with the 79th New York Highlanders before being appointed brigadier general and, later, major general of volunteers. On September 1, 1862, he died in the battle of Chantilly.

Sources: “Joel Palmer” and “Isaac Stevens,” Washington State History Museum, The Treaty Trail: Isaac Stevens’ Treaty Councils, 1854–1856, (accessed July 18, 2005); “Joel Palmer,” Notable Oregonians, Oregon Blue Book, (accessed August 18, 2005); Stanley Sheldon Spaid, “Joel Palmer and Indian Affairs” (M.A. thesis, University of Oregon, 1950); Kent D. Richards, Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979).