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Dispute over reservation land lasted a century

Warm Springs Indians struggled from 1871 to 1972 to get back a piece of land taken as a result of a survey everyone admitted was in error.

The Oregon Historical Society created this map in 1983 to show the
location and extent of the disputed areas. A larger version (on which
you can actually read the fine print) is here, on the OHS Website. (Click
"enlarge this image," under the thumbnail of the map on the OHS page.)

If there’s a category in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest-running land dispute, the 101-year struggle over the “McQuinn Strip” might be a contender.

But it might not qualify, because the land was only disputed for the first 16 of those years. The other 85 were taken up with a struggle to get the losing party to give the land back — something that didn’t happen until 1972.

Oh, and did I mention — the party that wouldn't give the land back was the United States Government?

Here’s the story:

In the 1850s, torrents of settlers were coming to Oregon, lured by the promise of free land. All one had to do was build a house, plant some crops — and clear the Indians off it.

These settlers were diligently doing all three of these things in 1855. General Joel Palmer, superintendent for Indian affairs, could see that this would lead to bloodshed in northern central Oregon, where the Walla Walla and Wasco tribes were strong.

A portrait of General Joel Palmer, negotiator and architect of the
Warm Springs Indian Reservation. (Image: OHS)

To forestall this, Palmer and the tribes worked out a deal: They would give up title to some 10 million acres in exchange for undisputed ownership of a 900,000-acre chunk of it, in which the government would agree not to let anyone settle.

The Indians, though quite unhappy about the whole situation, recognized that this was the best they could expect. The deal was made, and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation was formed.

Sixteen years later, in 1871, a surveyor opened up the land dispute by using the wrong mountains as a border marker – an error he certainly could have avoided had he bothered to talk to the Indians or even looked at the map Palmer had sketched out. This error resulted in the 900,000-odd acres shrinking by almost 10 percent.

Although the tribes protested immediately, the government promptly gave the survey its stamp of approval and green-lighted settlers who wanted bits of the disputed part.

In 1886 Congress finally had the place re-surveyed. The work was done by John McQuinn the following year. McQuinn confirmed that the earlier survey was in error, thus bringing the “dispute” part of the story to an end.

But possession is nine-tenths of the law. By 1887, many settlers had claimed parts of the “McQuinn Strip,” and fought furiously against any suggestion that they give it up.

A view of the Kah-Nee-Ta Hot Springs Resort and Campground in
2009. (Image: Simmonspdx/ Wikipedia)

Congress dithered. It formed a commission to study the problem; the commission recommended sticking with the faulty survey even though it was wrong. In 1917, Congress offered a cash payment for the land – which the Indians refused; they wanted the land back. Finally, in 1930, Congress kicked the matter over to the courts, giving the tribes clearance to sue over it.

They did, and so was launched one of the more baffling legal farces in state history. In 1941, the court agreed that the Indians should have the land, but refused to give it to them. Instead, the court ruled that they were entitled to a dollar an acre – which someone decided was what the land was worth in 1886 dollars – plus interest. The total was just over $240,000.

But, the court added, the government has had to spend a total of $252,089 “in behalf of the tribes” over the same period. 

Therefore, the court ruled, the tribes had to give up their claim on the land AND pay the government $11,005.

The sign at Kah-Nee-Ta Resort. (Image: Ken Morton)

I haven’t been able to determine whether the tribes took this as an insult. It’s certainly possible that it was intended as one. In any case, it went nowhere.

Things started looking better after the war, though. In 1948, Congress passed a bill giving the tribes all the revenue from timber sales and grazing permits there. By 1970 this had brought the tribes almost $6 million, and enabled them to build Kah-Nee-Ta Resort in the 1960s.

Finally, in 1972, Richard Nixon signed a bill into law – a bill sponsored by Oregon Rep. Al Ullman and senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield – giving the land back.

(Sources: Linn, George W. “101-Year Land Dispute,” Little Known Tales from Oregon History, vol. 1. Bend: Sun Publishing, 1988; www.ohs.org)