Published on March 9, 2011 by Alice
Charlot (1830?-10 Jan. 1910), head chief of the Bitterroot Salish (who are also known by the misnomer “Flatheads”), was known in the Salish language as “Claw of the Small Grizzly Bear,” the son of Victor, or “Plenty Horses,” head chief of the Salish from 1854 to 1870, and Agate (?). He was also known as Victor Charlot, and his name is sometimes rendered as Charlo. Little is known of Charlot before he succeeded his father in 1870. Charlot’s early life, like that of all Salish by the nineteenth century, was based in the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana, although the tribe utilized an immense territory and often made two trips annually to hunt bison on the plains east of the Continental Divide. The Salish suffered heavily during this period from successive epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases, and from raids by the Blackfeet, a larger tribe with better access to firearms. Due in part to these losses, the Salish made several arduous journeys to St. Louis seeking the “powers” of the “Blackrobes,” and in 1841, Jesuits established a mission in the Bitterroot Valley.
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In 1855 Isaac Stevens, the first governor of newly formed Washington Territory, moved through the inland Northwest negotiating treaties with many of the region’s tribes. Stevens was intent on placing the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and one band of the Kootenai onto a single reservation whose center would be the St. Ignatius mission and the nearby Hudson’s Bay trading post of Fort Connah. Chief Victor, however, surprised Stevens with his unbending determination that the Salish remain in the Bitterroot Valley. Victor, like Charlot after him, maintained a resolute policy of peace with the whites but also refused to cede control of the tribe’s beloved valley, coveted by whites as the most promising agricultural land in the region. Stevens, Victor, and other tribal leaders finally agreed on a treaty that contained a complicated scenario for the Bitterroot, establishing a “conditional reservation” unless a presidentially authorized survey should decide that the “Jocko” or Flathead Reservation was better suited to the needs of the tribe. When the government did nothing over the next fifteen years, the Salish concluded the valley would remain their permanent home.
In 1870 Victor died during one of the annual bison hunts east of the mountains. As Charlot assumed leadership of the tribe, the Salish were still the predominant single force in the area, but the balance of power was shifting dramatically with the construction of military roads, the onset of the Montana gold rush, and the beginning of the cattle industry. At the urgings of white settlers and the territorial delegates, President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order on 14 November 1871 that falsely stated that the required survey had been carried out, that the Bitterroot had been determined “not to be better adapted to the wants of the Flathead Tribe,” and that the Salish were therefore to be removed to the reservation. However, when future president James Garfield was sent to Montana in 1872 to negotiate the removal, Charlot refused to sign the agreement, in spite of threats and pressure. Two subchiefs did sign: Arlee, a Nez Perce by birth, and Adolphe. Although the original copy of the agreement showed no mark beside Charlot’s name, the copies published for the Senate, which were used for the vote on ratification, had Charlot’s mark forged onto them. The false appearance of an agreement spurred many white settlers to crowd onto Salish lands in the Bitterroot Valley. To Charlot’s further outrage, the government treated Arlee as the head chief and extended to him a house, land, and a stipend. Over the following two years, about twenty Salish families joined Arlee on the Jocko reservation.