Removal and Decline of the Rogue River Tribes at Reservations

In 1856, all of the tribes from the interior of western Oregon removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. This was a plan created by Oregon Indian Superintendent Joel Palmer after the outbreak of new hostilities in southern Oregon in 1855. Faced with the prospect of a huge war in southern Oregon, and the probable extermination of many tribes, Palmer worked with the US Army to find another temporary valley, away from American settlers, where he could temporarily settle over 2000 Indians until the planned Coast Indian reservation was developed and built-up enough to house the tribes. The Rogue River tribes, and several others, went to Grand Ronde in 1856, and then many  of these people were removed again to Siletz Agency in 1857. The Rogue River tribes were then split between Grand Ronde and Siletz, thereafter.

From 1853 to 1855 nine treaties were negotiated with the tribes of western Oregon and seven of them were ratified by Congress. These treaties transferred the ownership of over 19 million acres of lands from Indian tribes to the United States. In all of these treaties was the promise of a permanent reservation they can call home, away from the Americans, where they would get annual annuities and services from the federal government.

Coast Reservation
Coast Reservation

Palmer’s Plan was to remove all tribes to the Coast Indian Reservation, a 100 mile long strip of land on the Oregon Coast, from the Nehalem River to just south of Florence, Oregon, and 20 miles inland. The character of this area was of an intractable wilderness, the coast range was only lightly explored and inaccessible in many areas. Some tribes refused to enter the Coast range as they feared monsters and demons lurking there. As well the Coast of Oregon did not have many deep water ports or much in the way of raw resources and so there was not a lot of settlement by Americans there. So obviously, it was the best place to remove some 60 tribes to. Palmer set his plan into motion and got the area of the Coast Indian Reservation created by Presidential Executive Order in 1855. However, war broke out in southwestern Oregon, forcing Palmer to alter his plans.

In the Summer of 1855 Palmer walked up the Oregon Coast, ending in Coos Bay negotiating the Coast Treaty. This treaty was never ratified, but sometime previous to this he worked with the army to purchase the Donation land claims of a number of American settlers in the Grand Ronde Valley at the foot of the Coast range, a small offshoot of the Willamette Valley. There he began planning for the removal, temporarily, of the western Oregon tribes to this new reservation. The only treaty to specifically mention the Yamhill Valley  reservation ( Grand Ronde) was the Molalla Treaty negotiated at the end of 1855.

Original plan for the Grand ROnde Reservation
Original plan for the Grand ROnde Reservation

In January of 1856, Palmer brought the Kalapuya chiefs to Grand Ronde to have them approve of the reservation so they could urge their people to come willingly to the reserve. The area was the original homelands of the Yamel Kalapuya tribes, a tribe related to the Tualatin to the north. In late January, Palmer began ordering Indian agents and Special Indian agents to make plans for travel to Grand Ronde. The Rogue Rivers and other tribes were at Table Rock Reservation in southwestern Oregon.

Rogue AKA Table Rock reserve, Belden Map portion 1855
Rogue AKA Table Rock reserve, Belden Map portion 1855

The Table Rock reservation was in the midst of the Rogue River Valley. The Reservation engulfed a huge expanse within included most of the land around the two buttes, Upper and Lower Table rocks, and the valley between, Sam’s Valley, and the buttes and hills to the north.

The Rogue River Tribes, (their common name) were actually tribes and bands of three tribes. The northern Shasta, the Athapaskan speaking tribes around Illinois River and, and the Takelmans, the original Rogue Rivers, who lived in and around the valley of the Rogue. As well, a few of the upper Umpqua peoples were part of this admixture. The various tribes banded together and formed very effective defense forces for their tribal homelands. They first had removed to Table Rock Reserve because they signed treaty’s in 1853 and 1854 after many battles with settlers ranchers and gold miners. Then when they remained at Table Rock, they became a target of continued acts of genocide by settlers in the region.

Not happy that they were vulnerable on the reserve, some of the Rogue Rivers chose to unite under Chief John, and leave. They attacked settlements and raided many in their path, and then fought a series of battles against the US Army, and ended up being removed in the summer of 1856.  The Rogue River tribes that did not leave Table Rock Reservation and attack Americans, were moved northward by Joel Palmer in February of 1856. They marched overland along the Applegate Trail to Grand Ronde. The journey took 33 days and 7 people died. (There is a journal of this removal, yet to be transcribed by me).

Grand Ronde received over 2000 people during 1856. In April of 1857, the order was given to begin making plans for a number of the Rogue River Tribes to remove to the Siletz Agency. By April 21st, the tribes had not yet moved, but a health report from Grand Ronde from March 1856 shows that hundreds of Indians had left the reservation (there was perhaps a delay in the reports). In October 1856 the censused population at Grand Ronde is 1885 people, and in April of 1857 it is 1155 people, a reduction of 730. For Siletz  Agency in March 1857 their census shows 1431 people, but in June their population is 2049, a growth of 618 people. The original population at the Coast Reservation was the result of those removed up the coast as part of the last removals from Port Orford, and the original inhabitants of the watersheds of that territory (Yaquina, Alsea, Siletz, Tillamookans). In addition, there is hinted in some reports that some of the people who went to Grand Ronde were actually taken over to the Coast to live at Salmon river, an encampment just eats of present day Lincoln City.

Table: Found Population counts for multiple years, Grand Ronde and Siletz and other agencies

date Grand Ronde Siletz-


both Astoria Agency Umpqua Yaquina Alsea Salmon River source
August 1856 1940 GR Health report
September 1856 1950 GR Health report
October 1856 1900 GR Health report
November 1856 GR Health Report
1856 1885 1399 Annual Report
March 1857 1431 S Health report
April 1857 1155 GR Health report
May 1857 1275 GR Health report
June 1857 1195 GR Health report
June 1857 2049 S Health Report
August 1857 1239 GR Health report
Sept 1857 2042 S Health Report
1857 1895 2049 3939 Nesmith 251 690 Annual reports


1195 2049 251 690
1858 1200 2000 Annual Report
1859 960 Annual Report
1860 460 Annual Report
1861 2025 Annual Report
1862 1174 GR Health


1863 (1861 #s) 2025 528 300 Annual Report
1864 530 Annual Report
1865 1322 2312 530 Annual Report
1866 About Equal deaths with births 533 Annual Report
1867 1407 2188 525 300 (inc in GR #s) Annual Report
1868 500 311 Annual Report
1870 369 Annual Report
1875 2000 Annual Report

The difference in population, was not accounted for in the reports. The  apparent 112 missing people (if the count was accurate at all), can be explained several ways. First, there was a good number of deaths each month recorded for each reservation. The highest death count (for months that we have records) is 33 people at Grand Ronde in December of 1856. This count appears to be an anomaly, perhaps a symptom of living in canvas tents, as in most reports it was about 5 deaths on average each month.

Table: Sick and Death counts for Grand Ronde and Siletz

Sick in hospital Sick in camp Death in hospital Death in Camp births
August 1 1856 37 172 1 12
September 1 1856 46 567 1 8
October 1856 59 474 3 10
November 1856 55 501 0 14
December 1856 75 407 1 32
1856 totals 272 2121 6 76
January 1857 23 434 1 23

GR Physician Fired

April 1857 41 233 2 12
May 1857 31 124 1 3
June 1857 39 89 0 0
July 1857 11 34 0 0
August 1857 30 168 1 5
November 1857 15 61 1 3
December 1857 17 72 0 2
1857 totals 184 781 5 25
January 1858 13 61 0 4
February 1858 14 71 1 6
March 1858 60 5
1858 totals 27 192 1 15
June 1863 261 8
March 1865 423 6
June 1865 335 4 8
February to August 1870 700 11 22+

The deaths alone will not account for the discrepancy in the populations counts from Grand Ronde and Siletz. We know from a number of Indian agent letters and reports that many tribes were working to escape the reservation and return to their homelands. The Rogue River tribes and the Coquille tribes in particular are noted as making plans to return. Some percentage of the bands of these tribes did escape and slip around the soldiers and forts and made it back to their homelands. Additionally, there were a good many Indians settled along the coast and its unclear how much access the Indian Agent at Siletz Agency had to the coastline, and as such could not effectively prevent the Indians from leaving. Siletz did not have a road to Salmon River encampment until well into the 1880’s.  So the inaccuracies are likely attributed to a variety of reasons.

The reasons for removal of the tribes are very simple. The Siletz agency is in a very remote valley and it was thought that the  agents could control the Indians who were more aggressive and who had taken part in fighting if they were at Siletz. (In fact there are lists of tribal people who took part in the fighting, likely gathered to determine if that would get annuities or not.) While in Grand Ronde, the more peaceful Indians remained. Many of the northern tribes were looked on as being more peaceful, tribes like the Kalapuyans had never attacked the American settlers or settlements. In addition, agent reports suggested that the tribes at Siletz were concentrated there because the Indian Superintendent thought they had not embraced the treaties. This suggests that when some of the Rogue River tribes attacked the Americans and the settlements, that they were reneging on their treaty.

The suggestion that the Rogue River Tribes had lost their treaty rights, was carried  for years  in federal policy. In the following years’ treaty annuities, the annual payments promised to the tribes for 20 years, were sent to Grand Ronde, and every year the Siletz Indian Agents had to beg for money to manage the Coast Indian reservations, because Siletz had gotten most of the “war participants.”

A 1950 report from the BIA even suggested that Siletz had no claims to any treaties,  an example of how the Rogue Tribes and others were blamed for the Rogue River Indian War some one hundred years later. In addition, the vast majority of the non-treaty tribes were on the Oregon Coast, and most of them went to Siletz, and so they also would not have annual annuity payments.

A good argument could be made that the tribes in Rogue River  were defending themselves from American aggression and it was actually the Americans who had reneged on the treaty, by attacking the Table Rock Reservation Indian settlements. Regardless, it is unclear is this issue has been addressed historically, politically, or legally.

The arrangement we see here is one reservation, Grand Ronde, well funded from at least six treaties, because the majority of the people were deemed peaceful. While the other reservation Siletz were impoverished because of an apparent internal administrative decision not to fund the reservation annual needs through the treaties.  As such, as written about previously, there are some 5-10 years of starvation, malnutrition and neglect on the part of the Federal Government at Siletz.

Interestingly, these same problems existed at Grand Ronde. So the amount of funding may not have been the actual problem.

In these early years the agents at Siletz note that the Rogue Rivers constantly are working to leave the reservation move back to the Rogue river, and they are dying at such a rate that the agents fear they will cease to exist soon, thereby eliminating any problems they exhibited. They did not have funding to remove other tribes to Siletz, and many promises of houses and services did not come true.

The agents at the  reservation complained that the Rogue River tribes were lazy and would not work. There may be a cultural explanation of this problem. Many of the tribal chiefs lived in a political system where chiefs did not work in their tribes. The average people worked for them. It would have taken a generation or so for this to change.

In this early era of the reservations, we see that the Rogue River tribes declined. The major factor is likely environmental as the Siletz and Grand Ronde valleys are wetter environment than they were used to in around the Rogue Valley. Neglect by the agents are also a factor as we discussed above. In addition, many of the Rogue Rivers were successful escaping and returning to their homes, to be returned by the army a few years later. But a major factor that has yet to be fully investigated is the access of the tribes to effective medical care. There are indications for multiple years that the tribal people would not go to see the American doctor and there was a huge effort on the part of several agents to convince them to use the medical doctors. This is a major problem of the time as the tribes had no effective cures for the introduced diseases.

One question that has occurred to me is whether the Rogue River tribes were somewhat protected from the new introduced diseases in their original environments. If this is true then they may have fully encountered diseases like malaria only when they entered the reservations in the north. In the north the tribes had already gone through their epidemics in the 1830’s and 40’s and saw losses of about 95% of their populations. This and the fact that many of the northern tribal people were already integrated with the settler populations, meant they already had some immunity.

This research continues.

11 thoughts on “Removal and Decline of the Rogue River Tribes at Reservations

  1. David,
    Thank you, this is a well written summary of a bad period in Oregon history. Many important historical details, substantive population and health data, and good maps.. I had not realized the differences between the Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations.
    From our research here in Lane County, I can help clarify this statement:
    “The Rogue River tribes that did not leave Table Rock Reservation and attack Americans, were moved northward by Joel Palmer in February of 1856. They marched overland along the Applegate Trail to Grand Ronde. The journey took 33 days and 7 people died. (There is a journal of this removal, yet to be transcribed by me).”

    According to Ambrose’s journal, as published in Beckham’s Applegate Trail collection, Amborse noted when they reached the Grand Ronde Reservation March 25 1856 /7that they had traveled 263 miles in 33 days, and that “Started with three hundred and twenty five Indians. Eight deaths and eight births, leaving the number the same as when we started.”
    We know where two of those deaths were in Lane County, but they weren’t along the actual Applegate Trail. Generally the famous Applegate Trail of 1846 followed the old California Trail, or Trappers Trail. However, at Monroe it split off, crossing the Long Tom River and heading through Eugene and along the Coast Fork, then over the Callapooya Mountains south of Cottage Grove in to the Umpqua. This was the first known use of this route, as Pass Creek was considered an impassable marsh.

    Consequently, prior to this, most all traffic had used the Western Route, the California Trail, loosely along today’s Territorial Highway and the Long Tom River. However, this Old Trail, prior to Territorial, took a more direct route to the east of the later Territorial from about Cheshire to Briggs Hill. This later became known as the Applegate Road and as a later, Western Branch of the Applegate Trail.
    With this in mind we can accurately follow the route of this Trail of Tears by using the Ambrose diary.

    On March 15, they had climbed over the Callapooya Mountains- a trip of some 8 to 10 miles- and were camped on the Siuslaw River near today’s Lorane. Ambrose noted that “one woman died today” but doesn’t say where, nor where she was buried.

    They rested Sunday, then traveled 13 miles over hilly country– this is the Old Trail east of Territorial and Crow– and camped “on the west bank of Rock Creek.” (Coyote Creek here was known as Rock Creek because it has a rocky bottom which made crossing easy, instead of mud as it was elsewhere.)
    David, we know exactly where this is, and this spot is sort of sacred to us because we know what happened there.

    The next day, Tuesday the 18th, Ambrose wrote “During the night an Indian died which detained us a short time to bury.” Yes, this was on Coyote Creek, just down the hill from today’s Boehringer place, we have been there.
    They then traveled some 12 miles to the area of Smithfield/Franklin to camp, and finally March 19th reported they’d marched 14 miles along the Long Tom and were camped at Starr’s Point. (Monroe.)

    These sick, exhausted people had marched the full length of Lane County and two are buried here. The finally reached Grand Ronde March 25th as Ambrose reported, 8 births and 8 deaths.
    Anyway David that’s the report from the Lane County section of that terrible journey. Thanks again for your thorough article.
    Doug Card

    1. Thanks Doug for clarifying the trail route. I have not yet looked at this route closely and assumed all or part of the Applegate trail was used. I have the Beckham paper and I have a copy of the Original journal and many associately papers. I think I will be transcribing the journal a bit later and try to link in other correspondence and details, as well as show actual trail routes. There are actually two versions of the removal to and entry into Grand Ronde. One of travel through Rickreall, and the other suggests a cut off before Monmouth westward and through what is now Peedee (?) and then over a short range to the north (Valsetz area) into the valley. They supposedly did this to avoid conflicts with the settlers who may have been lying in wait to attack the tribes. These two routes may be actually from the two major removals, Umpqua and Table Rock. I have transcribed the Umpqua journal, and Beckham is now publishing it in the Umpqua Trapper Journal, the first issue of which is already released and available.

      1. David, the three north-south routes through Lane County have confused a lot of people over the years. We are confident we have it pretty well figured out now.
        Your thoughts on the use of a lesser known trail to avoid conflicts with settlers makes sense. This is similar to Lane County, for the use of the Applegate Trail rather than the Old Trail would have put them through settlements here. There were settlers along that trail as well, though, and Ambrose mentions no conflicts.
        That would be good if you can transcribe the Ambrose diary yourself as I’ve seen variations between copies.
        I’m not sure what you mean by the Beckham paper nor the Umpqua Trapper article as I haven’t seen the Trapper.

      2. The latest issue of the Umpqua Trapper, I think Spring 2016, is the first section of the journal in an essay put together by Beckham, with more details and context than I offer. You can buy it from the historical society, I just joined as a member and I should get the section half of the article soon. Yes the Ambrose journal, I have it, I just need to take the time to transcribe it. What sources do you recommend for the historic trails of the region? Trapper is here at this website, they don’t list the latest issue but it appears to be $6 by mail order.


      3. David, regarding the north-south trails used in 1856, there was a lot of research and writing on this during the Applegate Trail celebration in 1995-96. Charles George Davis published a couple of good books with detailed maps. The late Dick Ackerman of OCTA was very knowledgeable as are OCTA reps today. And of course Steve Beckham’s collection of journals was invaluable.

        In general the best work was done by local historians in each county who knew their area well. I’d mention here Arlie Holt in Polk County, myself in Lane County, Shannon Applegate and Daniel Robertson in Douglas County, and Larry McLane in Josephine . Barbara Wright is an expert on South Benton County.There were several in Jackson. While Devere and Helen Helfrich were in Klamath County they wrote on all of Southern Oregon.
        Trouble is, as this was 20 years ago not all are still available as most of them are either deceased or very old now.
        Best of luck with your important project,
        Doug Card

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