'Unfair and unjust trial' for Native prisoners charged with murdering Protestant missionary Marcus Whitman

Umatilla's tribal chair said their Cayuse ancestors were executed in Oregon City on June 3, 1850, "after an unfair and unjust trial," in one of the first formal judicial proceedings held in the new Oregon Territory. On May 13, 1850, a grand jury indicted the five Native prisoners named Telakite, Tomahas, Clokomas, Isiaasheluckas and Kiamasumkin on charges of murdering Protestant missionary Marcus Whitman over two years prior near Walla Walla, Washington.OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Cayuse chiefs Tiloukaikt and Tomahas were drawn circa 1847.

Approximately half of the tribe died during a measles epidemic that began at the Whitman Mission in 1847. In a letter to the Secretary of War in October 1849, Gov. Joseph Lane said there were no more than 800 Cayuse left.

As soon as he took office on March 3, 1849, Lane opened negotiations with the Cayuse for the arrest of "those concerned in that horrible massacre." In a meeting with Cayuse tribal leaders at The Dalles in April, he offered peace and friendship if "the murderers" were "tried and dealt with." If not, he promised the Cayuse a war "which would lead to their total destruction," because the newly expanded federal government "could not discriminate between the innocent and guilty."

According to the Oregon Historical Society, the Cayuse surrendered five volunteers from their band in an attempt to broker peace. But these five Cayuse volunteers likely weren't the ones who actually killed Whitman for bringing the epidemic, according to the general consensus among historians. Ronald Lansing, an Oregon law professor and author of a book about the trial, said the Oregon Territory's new judge committed a clear violation of the hearsay rule and the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment by telling jurors the defendants' guilt was proven by the fact that the tribe had turned them over to the authorities.

Dr. John McLoughlin, founder of Oregon City, testified at the trial that he had warned Whitman of the dangers of living among the Cayuse, partly because they customarily killed medicine men whose patients died. Elizabeth Sager, who was 10 years old at the time of the attack, said she saw Isiaasheluckas and another Indian "attempting to throw down" Luke Saunders, the mission's schoolteacher.

Judge Orville C. Pratt denied motions by the defense for a different trial time and place less hostile to the Cayuse, or to dismiss the indictment based on ex post facto law, in other words charging a crime that took place before the founding of the Oregon Territory, which then lacked any formalized federal law criminalizing the incident. A jury of 12 white men deliberated 75 minutes before reaching a guilty verdict.

Lane declared his resignation as governor, effective on June 18, 1850. Lane's replacement vowed to pardon the five Cayuse, but pardoning power wouldn't take effect until 25 days after trial. In light of the pending pardon, U.S. Marshal Joseph Meek wondered if it was proper to delay the hangings for two more weeks, but Judge Pratt told Meek to proceed as ordered in the court's ruling to take the prisoners to the gallows.

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