Mostly unknown today, George Gibbs went hands-on with several crucial aspects involving Washington Territory, including documenting Indigenous tribes and languages and participating in surveys for the transcontinental railroad’s northern route and the territorial-Canadian boundary. Later, he worked on resolving Hudson’s Bay Company’s claims against the United States.
Although a Harvard Law graduate, Gibbs delayed his commencement two years until 1838 to travel in Europe and learn drawing. He relished the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. His mix of disciplines prepared him well for his eclectic work in the Pacific Northwest.
At 34, Gibbs found himself bored with law and heading for the California Gold Rush, following his brother Alfred, a soldier, to Fort Leavenworth. In May 1849, they trekked with Col. William Loring’s Mounted Rifles to Oregon, marching there to protect American citizens flooding into Oregon Country along the Oregon Trail. Gibbs kept a journal of his travels with the cavalry until June at Fort Laramie. He also enhanced details of an 1842 map of John Charles Frémont.
Arriving at Oregon City, Gibbs decided he’d open a law office in Astoria, where he soon became a customs assistant at $2,000 a year (about $80,000 today). While at Fort Vancouver in 1849, he added details to a map left there by mountain man Jedediah Smith and drew pictures and maps of the fort.
A dispute about duties on the Hudson’s Bay Company cargo ships coming up the Columbia River led to his 1851 resignation. Then he mined gold in California for a year. Afterward, he worked with the Northern California Treaty Commission. The living conditions and decimation of the Indigenous peoples shocked Gibbs.
Returning to Fort Vancouver, he took part in treaty discussions in the Willamette Valley, negotiating with Indigenous tribes. From 1853 to 1855, Capt. George McClellan, a classmate of Gibbs’ brother, hired him to help survey the U.S. transcontinental northern railroad route. His written report was included along with McClellan’s, stating that the best route was through the Yakima Pass. As the survey group wandered, Gibbs encountered Indigenous peoples and made estimates of their numbers, which he included in his report. (During this survey, Congress split Washington and Oregon into two territories.)
In 1854, Gibbs conducted a census of Indigenous tribes, which he compiled in “The Indian Tribes of Washington Territory.” The census showed him an adept student of Native culture in the Pacific Northwest. His count showed population declines among most tribes compared to an earlier Hudson’s Bay Company count. Gibbs also wrote a second report, “The Geology of the Central Part of Washington Territory.”
Isaac Stevens, the new Washington Territorial governor, hired Gibbs to assist in treaty negotiations with territorial tribes. A contentious debate arose about reservations during negotiations and before the treaty signing. Gibbs argued Northwest tribes’ customs and languages varied, suggesting several small reservations and writing salmon rights into the treaties.
Gibbs stayed in the field, surveying the Canada and the Washington Territory boundary and researching the territory’s tree growth until 1862. He briefly returned to New York City, where he defended Fremont’s home during the draft riots of 1863. Later, he worked on settling Hudson’s Bay Company claims against the U.S.