The Valentine’s Day Treaty

Could Elijah Steele’s 1864 vision for settler-Indian compromise in the Pacific Northwest have averted the Indians Wars?

In a piece I wrote for the New York Time’s Disunion series, I tell the story of the Valentine’s Day Treaty of 1864 between former agent of Indian affairs for the Northern District of California and the Klamath, Modoc, and Paiute peoples of the Klamath Basin. The treaty contained the promise of a compromise that was never to be. Here’s the piece!

And here’s an except:

Elijah Steele knew he wasn’t authorized to negotiate an Indian treaty. As a lawyer, a judge, a former Wisconsin state senator, a founding settler of Siskiyou County, Calif., and the agent of Indian affairs for the Northern District of California, he was well aware of the protocols established by the United States Constitution. But Washington, D.C., was far away, and the nation was in the grip of civil war. And besides, on Feb. 14, 1864, Valentine’s Day, several hundred Klamath Basin Indians, much to his surprise, were camped outside his home in Yreka.

Steele’s guests – Lileks of the Klamath, Schonchin of the Modoc and Josh and Jack of the Shasta Indian tribes, as well as others – wanted him to help negotiate a settlement among themselves and with the ever growing number of settlers pouring into the region. In fact, by the winter of 1864, against the backdrop of intense battles and increasing death tolls to the east, with Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Mississippi tearing up railroad ties on its way to Meridian, Miss., rumors of an impending war between Indians and settlers reverberated through southern Oregon and northern California’s Klamath Basin.

Steele knew he had to do something. And he did: The unauthorized agreement he helped forge brought peace, and offered an alternative vision of United States-Indian relations in the region. But it was a vision that wouldn’t last…