George Gibbs (1815–1873) was an American ethnologist, naturalist, and geologist who contributed to studying the languages of indigenous peoples in the Washington Territory. Known for his Native American customs and language expertise, Gibbs participated in numerous treaty negotiations between the U.S. government and the native tribes.
Gibbs graduated from Harvard in 1838 with a law degree and returned to New York City to practice law with (Jonathan) Prescott Hall. In 1840, he was instrumental in reviving the New York Historical Society, where he worked as a librarian from 1842 through 1848. He was a supporter of the Whig Party, which led to a later appointment by President Millard Fillmore. Midway through 1853, Gibbs moved to Steilacoom, Washington, where he was hired by George McClellan to work along with James Graham Cooper as an ethnologist, geologist, and naturalist in McClellan’s section of the Northern Branch of the Pacific Railroad Survey, between the Puget Sound and the Spokane River. He gathered and preserved many specimens which became a part of Cooper’s zoological reports of the expedition and were later supplied to the Smithsonian. McClellan’s party met up with Isaac Stevens‘ (the expedition leader and appointed Territorial Governor) party that had left Minnesota in June to survey west. Both parties arrived in Fort Vancouver in November 1853.
Upon his return to Steilacoom, Gibbs wrote two reports, Indian Tribes of Washington Territory and The Geology of the Central Part of Washington Territory for McClellan on his observations of the Indian Tribes of Washington Territory. He sent the report in early March 1854, and soon thereafter he was hired by Governor Stevens to assist him with negotiating treaties with the Washington Indian tribes.
He earned a reputation as the “most apt student of the Indian languages and customs in the Northwest” because his skills with Governor Stevens helped convince the natives to sign the treaty. Before the treaty was signed, there was a vigorous debate about how many reservations should be built. Gibbs brought an argument to the table that because there was much variety in the Indians’ customs and languages, and in their needs for fishing rights, amongst others, many small reservations should be built.
He also was given the job of sending out a census on the Washington Territory’s tribes. That resulted in a report that showed marked population decline, comparing to Hudson’s Bay Company information, which was a bit older. The decrease in the population may have been due to epidemics that wiped out a large portion of the tribal population.
In early 1855, the Territorial Legislature appointed Gibbs Brigadier General of the Militia. No funds were appropriated for the position, and he never actively led a militia. He was, however, an active opponent to Governor Stevens’ reaction to the skirmishes.