After months of research, students at the University of Oregon have narrowed potential sites where they think five Cayuse men were buried or reburied after they were hanged for the death of missionary Marcus Whitman.
The burial locations have been unknown for generations, but students in the UO Clark Honors College have given citizens of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) reason to believe the sites may one day be identified. The CTUIR includes citizens of the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes in eastern Oregon.
“While the five Cayuse men hanged in 1850 in Oregon City have come to be called ‘the Cayuse Five’ in recent years, we must remember their names and the importance of each of their lives to their families and our Tribes, then and now,” said Bobbie Conner, director of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the museum and archive repository for the CTUIR.
The five men’s names are Ti’ílaka’aykt, Tamáhas, ’Iceyéeye Cilúukiis, K’oy’am’á Šuumkíin, Łókomus.
“The five executed men were closely related,” Conner said. “Three were brothers and two were cousins. They are not forgotten and this work must continue for as long as is necessary.”
Repatriation, justice or reconciliation
In 1836, about a decade before what came to be called the Whitman Massacre, Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa Whitman, Reverend Henry and Eliza Spalding, and William H. Gray established the Whitman Mission, near Walla Walla, Wash. Their goal: convert the Cayuse to Christianity.
In the mid-1840s, Americans traveling the Oregon Trail carried diseases to which the Cayuse had no natural immunity.
Whitman, a doctor, was unable to effectively treat Native people sick with diseases they had never before encountered. As a result, Cayuse children died of measles and other illnesses far more often than the sick white kids treated at the Whitman Mission. In the eyes of the Cayuse, Whitman was a healer who couldn't heal.
Tensions erupted on Nov. 29, 1847 when the Cayuse attacked the Whitman Mission, killing Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 11 others.
To the Cayuse, there was no question of their right to dispose of a doctor (medicine man, or tewat) whose patients were dying in droves.
The incident sparked the Cayuse War.
Two-and-a-half years later, five Cayuse men, accompanied by two Cayuse headmen, presented themselves to federal officials.
It’s unlikely that the five men were themselves involved in the attack on the Whitman Mission, but the Americans demanded punishment in order to end the war.
“What happened is these five came together and decided that they would turn themselves in,” former CTUIR communications director Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III told MyNorthwest in 2017. “Matter of fact, one of the quotes from, I believe, Tamáhas was: ‘Much like your savior Jesus Christ gave himself up for you, we are giving ourselves up for our people in order to stop the Cayuse War,’ that had promulgated because of the death of the Whitmans.”
Sams is currently the director of the National Park Service.
Federal troops shackled the five men and took them to Oregon City, which was then the capital of Oregon Territory.
The five warriors were tried by a jury of white men on a single count of murder for Marcus Whitman’s death. The four-day trial took place in an Oregon City tavern, crowded with a few hundred onlookers.
The Cayuse Five asserted their innocence and said they only came to federal officials to recount what they knew of the deaths at Whitman Mission. The five men, speaking Cayuse, had trouble communicating during the trial, even though a translator was present.
The jury convicted the men and a judge sentenced them to death. U.S. Marshals oversaw their hanging in June of 1850, despite promises from the new governor to pardon the men as soon as he took office.
They were buried near Oregon City, but knowledge of the exact location was lost.
“The fact that we do not collectively know the burial sites of the Cayuse Five stands in the way of the prospect of repatriation, of justice, of reconciliation, or whatever else we who are living may decide is the wisest course of action,” said Michael Moffitt, the University of Oregon Law School professor and former dean who designed the UO course to search for the burial site.
‘Find and honor their ancestors’
On June 3, 172 years to the day after the public execution of the Cayuse Five, 18 students from the UO Clark Honors College presented their findings at the school’s Many Nations Longhouse. Among those in attendance were tribal elders, historians and religious leaders, along with a member of the CTUIR Cultural Resource Committee, Tamástslikt staff and Native students who attend the University of Oregon.
The UO honors class, titled “Searching for the Cayuse Five,” is one of three academic projects examining the Cayuse Five. Living relatives of the five men hanged welcome each project.
“Contemporary descendants Les and Armand Minthorn have been stalwart in their efforts to find and honor their ancestors,” Conner said. (Les Minthorn is the uncle of Armand Minthorn.)
In addition to the student reports, Tamástslikt staff accepted five boxes of archival and library material from the family of the late Ronald Lansing, professor of law and the author of “Juggernaut,” a historical narrative of the Cayuse Five trial.
The tribes presented gifts of appreciation to the class, the Lansing family, Moffitt, and Howard Arnett, UO professor of American Indian Law, who had worked previously with Conner at Tamástslikt.
A cougar hide was given to Les Minthorn, who carries the name of his ancestor, K’oy’am’á Šuumkíin, “cougar shirt.”
‘A mind-blowing amount to follow up on’
In April, a busload of 16 students began the class by traveling from the UO campus in Eugene to Oregon City and up the Columbia River to present-day Celilo, and then to Tamástslikt. Conner, Arnett and Moffitt accompanied the class.
Students also spent a day at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site at Weyíilet, west of present-day Walla Walla, Washington. They heard testimony from seven Cayuses and from former Whitman Mission Superintendent Timothy Nitz before touring the grounds.
In Oregon City, CTUIR anthropologist Dr. Jennifer Karson Engum, Oregon City Public Works Director John Lewis and city planner Christina Robertson-Gardiner met with students at McLoughlin Promenade, a city park that provides views of the estimated location of the hanging site at Willamette Falls.
Karson Engum provided the class with documents, clippings and oral histories that CTUIR staff had accumulated over the years, which gave them a starting point for further investigation. For two months students pored over information — church and legal records, oral histories, genealogy and mapping.
The class scrutinized trial records to understand what happened during the days after the men were taken into custody and before they were hanged. Karson Engum communicated with students throughout the course to clarify sources, references and perspectives.
Students looked at old land records to try to determine who owned which plots and when. By mapping the current area with overlaid historical diagrams, accounts of the execution that mention the bodies being taken by handcart and buried near a creek west of the city could be given a modern context.
Two of the students spent more than 24 hours digging through Lansing’s Juggernaut notes. One account in Lansing’s boxes included a 1937 statement from a man whose father was present at the execution and burial.
As a small boy, his father showed him the burial site several times. He provided a detailed description of where his father told him the Cayuse were buried. His account included directions by footage, such as when he wrote: “Proceed from this unmarked point south 150 feet…” It also included logistical markers, like his comment that the site was “about 10 feet north of a forked white fir tree 20 inches in diameter … and to the south end of a row of scrubby fruit trees …”
The students ruled out two cemeteries and a location near a suspension bridge on the east side of Oregon City. Nitz and Tamástslikt staff threw out another, reducing the number of potential sites from six to two. A seventh possible site has been identified, but the land owners are unwilling to participate in the search effort.
A century-and-a-half of Willamette Valley rain reduced the likelihood that the burial sites remain undisturbed, according to a document unearthed by the students relating to a federal permitting process.
The document, written two decades ago, states that “the most likely burial site … does not take into consideration the effect of flooding and erosion over the 150 years since the burial of the five Cayuse men … over years [the burials] could have been moved due to area floods or erosion.”
The writer said in his report that he understood there had been at least seven floods over the last century and a half.
Moffitt said he and the students wanted to provide a definitive answer on where the five men are buried today. Ultimately, that wasn’t possible.
“We recognize that the decisions about possible next steps are to be made by the Tribe,” Moffitt said. “We would welcome the chance to continue to work with Tamástslikt in some capacity, if that would be of interest.”
Conner said the next research priority will be working with officials in Oregon City and Clackamas County, and continuing work with students to identify the timing of the men’s reburials and the motivation behind those moves.
“We have a mind-blowing amount to follow up on with this material,” Conner said. “And more work to do in a more focused future.”
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Confederated Umatilla Journal.