The following is a direct transcription of a report from Joel Palmer of the Chetco Massacre of 1853. This is a well-known massacre on the southern Oregon Coast, and referenced in many of the ethnographies and Native histories of the area. In the account Palmer describes a grisly scene of a successful attack on two Chetko villages, burning the men in their houses, shooting many, and completely destroying both villages over a period of two days. Some people survive this account but life for them will never be the same.
Palmer references an attack and massacre of the Tolowa villages at Smith River, California. These are well known massacres that obliterated hundreds of Tolowa Deeni people over many years, beginning in 1853. They are somewhat referenced in my Tolowa historic timeline. This fact once again points out the need to ignore the state lines when we do ethnohistoric research, because there were not distinct and separate massacres, like a California Massacre, and a Southwest Oregon Massacre, in reality it was a single racial and colonial movement by White Americans to exterminate all Indian people.
The Tolowa consider the Chetco their direct relations. The Tolowa Deeni region was politically divided as a series of Yetlien (political area of land and resources), that extended from north of the Klamath River estuary to the Chetco River, and the two Chetco villages were the principal villages of the northern Yetlien.
The notion that these vigilantes were never held accountable for either massacre is horrible to imagine. At some point it would be a good idea to identify the individuals as they may have contributed to many more such massacres. They would be considered serial mass murderers today. As well, were these men supported in some fashion by funding from Oregon or California? Because there were laws at this time that allowed Americans to claim depredations by tribes and we can assume that some of these depredations were actually caused by the Whites themselves. This situation was in fact more common that anyone imagines.
Then, Palmer also references another massacre at Coquille. This may be the massacre spurred by the T’Vault party, and the subsequent attack on the Coquille Villages by the US Army from Fort Orford. This is a historic event that followed the Battle Rock Massacre (1851). I have yet to find the Smith report that Palmer references.
Palmer does not mince words, does not give A. F. Miller and his associates any benefit of doubt, he simply calls them murderers and monsters. Palmer goes further to describe how even though Miller was arrested and tried at Port Orford, he was released because Indian testimony was not respected in a court of American law. Palmer points out the lack of true justice against White men.
Palmer’s intent is clear, to notify the United States government of how deprived the Whites are in this lawless frontier area, and how threatened the Tribes are of the possibility of complete extermination. Palmer at this point is building the case for removal and for ratification of the treaties on behalf of the tribes.
Joel Palmer Annual Report 1854
I continued my route up Illinois River to its head; across the divide to Smiths River in California; down Smiths River to within ten or twelve miles of Crescent City; thence S.W. to the Coast, thence on the coast to our Southern boundary, recrossing Smith’s River fifteen miles north of Crescent City.
On Illinois Creek and its tributaries, there is considerable good farming land, and a few claims are already taken. From this creek to Smiths River the country is mountainous and barren, with a growth of scrubby pine and spruce and a variety of underbrush and wholly unsuited to agriculture. But the entire country from Jacksonville to the Coast is a mining region, sown with gold, and as such is now intensely occupied. On the trail being the great Thoroughfare from Jacksonville to Crescent City, there are houses at convenient distances to the accommodation of travelers. Near the coast and along Smiths River are tracts of excellent land, much of it covered with a dense forest of Red Wood. Some trees are over twenty feet in diameter. There are a few prairies of great fertility and abounding in various kinds of luxuriant grass. About three miles north of our boundary line a stream empties into the Ocean designated on the map of the Coast Survey as Illinois River- the Indian name- Chetko.
There are many indications of having once resided a numerous people. In the fall of 1853, one Miller and several associates located land claims in this vicinity. They first built their houses about a quarter of a mile from the mouth of the River, to which the Indians made no objection. Subsequently knowing that the newly discovered mines would attract a large population, they projected a town speculation, formed an association, and selected a site at the mouth of the Chetko River. The face of the country is such that the crossing must be at the mouth of the river by a ferry. Here were two Indian villages on the opposite banks of the river of twenty lodges each; this ferry was of no small importance. The new town site included one of the villages and when preparations were made to erect a house within its limits, the Indians strongly protested; but at last acquiescing, the cabin was built and occupied by Miller.
(Thereabouts?) The Indians had enjoyed the benefits of the Ferry, but now Miller informed them that they must no longer ferry white people. They however sometimes did so and were threatened with the destruction of their lodges unless they desisted.
In February last the misunderstanding grew to such a pitch that several of the men who had been engaged in fighting Indians on Smith River were called in by Miller and quartered in his house for nearly two weeks. Becoming unwilling to stay longer, they were about to return to their homes. Miller objected to their leaving him till they had accomplished something for his relief, as on their departure he would be subject to the same annoyances as before, accordingly the next morning at daylight the party consisting of eight or nine men, well armed, attacked the village, and as the Indians came from their lodges they were shot dead by these monsters. The women and children were permitted to escape.
The men remained in the lodges and returned the fire with bows and arrows. Being unable to get a sight of those Indians, they ordered two squaws- pets in the family of Miller, to set fire to their lodges.
Two were consumed in the conflagration, and the third while raising his head through the flame and smoke for breath, was shot dead. What adds to the atrocity of the deed is that shortly before the massacre the Indians were induced to sell the whites their guns, under the ((impression) that friendly relations were firmly established. The Indians kept up a random fire from the opposite village without affect, during the day and at night fled to the mountains. The next day all the lodges on the north bank were burned, and the day following, all on the South, two excepted, belonging to the fields of an Indian who acted with Miller and party. This horrid tragedy was enacted about the 15th of February and on my arrival on the 8th of May the place was in the peaceable possession of Miller. Seeing a few Indians on an Island in the river I took a boat and proceeded to that point with a view of holding a talk. All except an old woman and a small boy fled on my approach. With those I could only converse by signs. I gave them some presents and sent the boy to persuade the Indians to return. An other boy accompanied him back.
I gave each a shirt and sent them again, but no other could be induced to approach us. I left with a settler who could converse with them a few shirts and some tobacco for the Chiefs, and directed him to tell them that I would soon send an Agent to see them.
After the massacre the Indians several times approached the settlement, robbed houses, and once attacked a party of three men, but succeeded in killing none. Twenty three Indians and squaws were killed prior to my arrival.
Miller was subsequently arrested and placed in the custody of the military at Port Orford, but on his examination before a justice of the Peace, was set at large, on the grounds of justification and lack of sufficient testimony to commit. (this sentence does not read well.)
The details of a similar occurrence at Coquille have been laid before you in copy of the report of special agent H.M. Smith of the circumstantial truthfulness of which I am fully satisfied.
These narratives will give you some idea of the state of affairs in the mining districts on this coast. Arrests are evidently useless as no act of a white man against an Indian, however atrocious can be followed by a conviction.
In July of 1854 Indian Agent Parrish had another report of the Chetko Massacre. He reported that the men responsible, Nash and Miller, were killed by three Chetko Indians. The Indians were captured and placed in the jail at Port Orford, likely at the Fort Orford jail, and were under the care of Lieutenant Kantz there.
October 20th 1857, Oregon Indian Superintendent Nesmith orders the removal of the Chetco and the other coastal Indians, to the Coast reservation and is sending Sub-Agent Drew to remove them. October 24th Nesmith sends Drew orders, where he is given $1,000 and directed to work with Captain Tichenor who is serving as a temporary sub-agent for the Southern Coast Indians from Port Orford to the California Border.
M2, Records of the Oregon Superintendency, Reel 7 (the original handwritten record)
Wilkinson, The People are Dancing Again
Douthit, Uncertain Encounters
O’Donnell, An Arrow in the Earth
Schwartz, The Rogue River Indian War and its Aftermath
Whaley, American Folk Imperialism and Native Genocide…, in, Colonial Genocide in Native North America
Whaley, Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee
Beckham, Requiem for a People
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.