Oregon History: Indian Wars

building in Jacksonville
The discovery of gold in southwestern Oregon in the early 1850s led to wars between whites and Native Americans. At the center of the mining boom was Jacksonville, which, by 1855, was billing itself as the "Queen City of Oregon." (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Camas lilies bloomed in such profusion that meadows looked like lakes amid the forests. The tarweed seeds ripened and the women set the fires. Armed with beaters and funnel-shaped baskets, they began the annual cycle of gathering. Acorns ripened, matured, and fell from the oaks. Their flour, when leached of tannic acid, provided a nutritious gruel or bread when baked on flat stones near the fires. Salmon surged up the rivers. Eels clung to the rocks as they ascended the rapids. Deer and elk browsed on the nutritious plants in the foothills. Flecks of gold glistened in the crystal-clear water of the streambeds.
This was the setting when, during the winter of 1851-52, packers on the trail to California discovered the placer mines of southwestern Oregon. Within weeks a reckless population, most of them hardened miners from California, surged over the Siskiyous or stepped off the gangplanks of ships putting in at Crescent City, Port Orford, Umpqua City, or Scottsburg. The rush was on. It meant quick riches for those who found the right pothole in bedrock filled with nuggets or the fortunate miners whose riffle boxes captured the fine particles of gold that glistened in the black sand. For the Indians of the Rogue River country it meant that all they had known and their very lives were at stake.
The causes of conflict erupted everywhere. The Donation Land Act became law in 1850. Years passed before treaties, negotiated in 1853 and 1854, were ratified. Some, such as those of Anson Dart or the Willamette Valley Treaty Commission of 1851, never gained Senate approval. In spite of the promises of superintendents of Indian affairs Dart and Palmer, the white people poured in. Dispossession ruled. The miners drove the Takelma, Shasta, Chetco, Shasta Costa, Mikonotunne, Tututni, Galice Creeks and Cow Creeks from their villages. Located on old stream terraces, the Indian homes were prime locations for placer deposits.
The hungry newcomers hunted the game, decimating the deer and elk populations. The Territorial Legislature in 1854 prohibited sale of ammunition or guns to Indians, deepening their disadvantage. The miners and residents of Jacksonville, Canyonville, Kerbyville, and Gold Beach liked bacon and ham. They let hogs run wild, catching them in baited traps. The hogs ate the acorns, a primary subsistence food for the Indians.
Lower Table Rock
Some whites banded together in the mid-1850s as "exterminators" to kill Native Americans in southern Oregon. This included aggression against Takelma Indians camped near Lower Table Rock, shown above. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Mining debris poured down the Illinois, Rogue, South Coquille and South Umpqua Rivers. The salmon runs diminished; the eels died. Crayfish, fresh water mussels and trout choked on the flood of mud. Starvation threatened. The claimants of Donation Lands fenced their fields with split-rail fences and built log cabins. They worked with a will to stop Indian field burning. The Indian women found it impossible to harvest tarweed seeds and the blackberries that formerly regenerated with the annual fires did not grow back. The settlers turned under the fields of camas lilies, and their cattle and horses grazed off the blue-flowering plants.
The mining districts--whether in the Rogue River country or the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon--caused major ecological disruption. The rush for quick wealth through mineral exploitation unraveled nature's ways and long-established human subsistence activities. Then came the "exterminators"--unprincipled men who believed only dead Indians were good Indians. They formed volunteer companies and perpetrated massacres against the Chetco Indians in 1853, the Lower Coquille Indians in 1854, and in wanton aggression against Takelma Indians camped near the Table Rock Reservation in 1855.
Frederick M. Smith, sub-Indian agent at Port Orford, in 1854 addressed the attacks on the Indians in his district. They were ravaged by hunger, dispossession of their villages, onset of new and fatal diseases, and overt murders. Reporting the massacre of the Lower Coquille Indians, he wrote: "Bold, brave, courageous men! to attack a friendly and defenceless tribe of Indians; to burn, roast, and shoot sixteen of their number, and all on suspicion that they were about to rise and drive from their country three hundred white men!" Smith's lament, the mourning cries of the Indian women, the death rituals of rubbing the hair with pitch, and the inexorable course of hunger, attack, and death precipitated the conflicts known as the Rogue River Wars. The troubles seethed between 1852 and 1856. Finally the U.S. Army had sufficient forces to mount a campaign in 1855-56 to destroy the Indians' ability to resist.
Vanquished by the combined operations of the Oregon Volunteers and Army regulars, the Indians of the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys and the southwestern Oregon coast were then removed to the Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations. Forced marches through winter snows or over the rocky headlands and through the sand dunes of coastal Oregon became trails of tears for hundreds driven to the distant reservations. Other survivors were herded aboard the Columbia, a sidewheel steamer, which removed them from Port Orford to the Columbia and lower Willamette River area. Then they had to walk the muddy trail to the reservations.
photograph of Joel Palmer
Joel Palmer negotiated treaties in 1855 with Native Americans living in eastern Oregon. Learn more about Palmer. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The myth of independence was shattered by the actions of Oregon's frontier residents. For their "services rendered" in the conflicts of 1853, the volunteers billed the federal government for $107,287, and they were the primary cause of the hostilities. When the conflicts ended in 1856, they worked for years to gain settlement. Finally in 1890 Congress passed the Oregon Indian Depredation Claims Act. Aged pioneers filed affidavits to claim reimbursement for lost pillows, ricks of hay, rail fences, and beans and bacon during the conflicts of the 1850s. A dependent generation's elders once again tapped the federal treasury for support.
Troubles with the tribes erupted anew in the 1850s on the Columbia Plateau. In 1855 Superintendent Joel Palmer and Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory summoned the Indians of the eastern plateau to the Walla Walla Treaty Council. In a matter of days they hammered out agreements, ceding lands but reserving others with the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Yakima. Subsequently Palmer met the Wasco, Wishram, and Warm Springs (or Tenino) at The Dalles and entered into a treaty with them. All of these agreements were noteworthy for enumerating rights. The tribes, who had engaged in traditional subsistence activities from time immemorial, reserved rights to fish "at usual and accustomed grounds and stations," to erect fish-processing sheds for drying their catch, and to hunt, gather, and graze livestock on unenclosed lands.
While Congress was considering the treaties, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began urging the Indians to remove to their new reservations and take up an agrarian lifestyle. Few wanted to engage in such backbreaking labor or give up fishing, hunting, and gathering. The pressure was on. Emigrants arrived every fall and settlement spread east from The Dalles. Pioneer cabins lined the shores of the Gorge, threatening to disrupt the Indian fisheries. Then came gold discoveries on the Fraser and Thompson rivers in British Columbia and in the Colville district on the north-central plateau. The influx of miners led to an eruption of troubles and, in time, to the Yakima Indian War of 1855-58. The forces of the U.S. Army, supplemented by companies of Oregon Volunteers, defeated the hostile bands.
The 1850s were a wrenching time of transition. Steadily the Indian numbers diminished, their food sources destroyed and their lands appropriated. These were terrible times for the region's native peoples.