Sparking the Rogue River War

In 1854, many of the southern Oregon tribes were already on the Table Rock Reservation. They had signed several treaties selling their lands and were moved to Table Rock, awaiting the completion of the Siletz Agency on the Coast Reservation. The reservation was somewhat porous and many of the tribes were allowed to come and go in search of food and supplies. As well many of their brethren tribes further away remained off-reservation, having refused to remove, and were engaged in conflicts with the American settlers and gold miners.

On about May 12th Lt. Bonnycastle at Fort Jones in Northern California was told of an attempt by an Indian, “Joe” of the Shasta Tribe, to molest a white woman. The encounter was noted, and  stopped,  and Joe fled.  The white men who halted the molestation reported the outrage to Bonnycastle. The Lieutenant set about bringing Joe to justice. He sent word to the chief of the Shastas, Bill, that the surrender of the boy was required. Bill negotiated with Lieut. Hood and Indian Agent Rosborough holding out for promises that the boy would be tried, but he would not be hung. No promises were made and over time Bill promised to deliver the boy in two days. Three days went by and finally Bonnycastle went looking for Bill to compel the surrender of Joe.  Upon reaching Yreka, additional Chiefs from Scotts Valley visited Bonnycastle asking for a promise that the boy would not be hung. Bonnycastle again refused to promise this, and instead raised the stakes, threatening to hold the whole Shasta tribe guilty and would engage the services of a De Chutes band of Indians to hunt them all down.

The day when Bonnycastle was returning to Fort Jones, a group of Indians overtook the party and an old chief asked some important questions.

“The old chief was very anxious that I should go with him to see that the woman had not been hurt, and it was with some difficulty that I could make him understand that the intention (of the rape) was almost as culpable whether successful or not- Indeed the Indian could not see why I spoke of the offense as being of such magnitude, when their squaws are constantly run down, sometimes by men on horses, and raped.”

To this inequality, Bonnycastle had no response. Many white Californians did not feel the Indians deserved to maintain their lands and lives now that the area was claimed by the Americans, having been taken from Mexico following the victory of the Americans in the Mexico-American War.

To complicate this situation, on the night of the 17th of May, a pack train was attacked, and a white man killed. Bonnycastle concluded that the attack was by the Rogue River Chief Tipsha. The Shastas not having turned in Joe yet, Bonnycastle left his encampment to track down the Rogue Rivers in the Siskiyous. Calling for help to track down the Rogue River tribe, Bonnycastle was able to obtain the services of 38 Deschutes, all mounted. The next day the trail of the Rogue Rivers was taken up, the Deschutes were easily able to track them, and they detected six Natives were involved in the attack on the pack train, who subsequently split into two groups, one group traveling north and one group to the Klamath river.  Upon tracking one group to the Shasta camp, the Shastas told Bonnycastle that Tipsha has admitted to the murder, and asked the Shastas to join him in waging war on the whites. And that once the Shastas heard this, they killed Tipsha, his son and a son-in-law, and one other Indian escaped. The Shastas, desired to keep the peace, and admitted to having missed Bonnycastle in his camp and that they had taken Joe to Yreka instead.

Capt. Goodall was ordered to bring Joe to Fort Jones and unfortunately told his orders to a group of four white men. When Goodall was bringing the Shastas with Joe back to Fort Jones they stopped at the Klamath Ferry. Chief Bill and five men went to bath in the river and these four white men were there with the band of De chutes, some on both banks of the river. There at the river the Shastas were fired upon by the white men and two immediately were killed, while two escaped. Bill momentarily survived but was shot, and when one of the white men, Brichey, came to scalp him alive, Bill fought and got the knife away, but was shot four times and died. After the Shastas all ran away into the woods, the De chutes band plundered their camp, and took some of the Shasta children and went north to sell their plunder.

After these blatant murders by the group of white men, Bonnycastle wanted to have them brought up on charges, but knew that it would be useless and none of the white civil courts in the area would hold white men guilty for murdering Indians. Bonnycastle sent some troops north recover the children of the Shastas, and sent a writ to San Francisco for the arrest of one of the white men, Brichey, who was traveling back to the east coast by steamer.

It is unclear from Bonnycastle’s letter whether the murderers were ever held accountable for their actions. The white men likely took their “redskin” scalps from the Indians to Sacramento to get reimbursed for their expenses for the Indians they had killed.

In April of this same year, 1854, Joel Palmer had visited the region and worked to get the Rogue River Chief “Tipsey” to come onto the Table Rock reservation. Tipsey initially agreed and after receiving some of his treaty goods, then refused to come onto the reservation. Palmer issued orders to force the various bands of the Rogue Rivers to come onto the reservation to eliminate further bloodshed, as the Rogue River War of 1853 was now concluded, leaving many whites and Indians in the area in a state of heightened agitation. In Palmer’s report, he then recounted a brief version of the Bonnycastle story, noting that Tipsey and his son were now dead.

It is the racist and genocidal actions of the Americans which goaded the Rogue River peoples, for years, into a final series of conflicts in 1855 and 1856, which are now called the Rogue River Indian War.  The tribes in the region knew that any slight by one of their number would cause whites to kill them, which is why they wanted assurances that Joe would not be hung. Frontier justice was the rule in those parts.

Many of the tribes on the reservation, in 1855, after suffering numerous attacks by whites on the reservation, confederated together under Chief John of the Shastas, to revenge the deaths of their peoples, and to drive all whites from the territory. In 1856, after a series of battles, the Rogue River Confederacy dissolved as Chiefs surrendered to save their remaining people. They went to Port Orford and were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation and the Coast reservation, transported on several trips by steamer and with an final walk north on the coastal trail of tears.



Bonnycastle letter to Gen. Wool, of 7/25/1854, California superintendency, reel 33 (Last letter on the reel)

Palmer  report of 1854, United States Congressional Serial Set, Volume 3144

The Bonny castle story is previously published in Federal and scholarly sources, one of which is,

The Destruction of California Indians: A Collection of Documents from the Period 1847 to 1865 in which are Described Some of the Things that Happened to Some of the Indians of California by Robert Heizer, 1993


Congressional Edition, Volume 751, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1855 (available on Google Books)


2 thoughts on “Sparking the Rogue River War

  1. Despite the typos, this post makes the case for racism and genocide of Whites all up and down the Pacific coast in the mid-1800’s. What I found saddest of all was that fellow Indians could be enslaved with a few trinkets so easily, to ‘track down’ and murder their own kin. Appalling…yet Native people today are no less divisive and hateful towards each other. I myself have experienced this treachery among my own Tribe. Education is the only thing that can change this. So thank you, David Lewis, for this research you do, that helps our people today learn better ways.

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal