The Rogue River War – a series of conflicts between a confederation of tribes – loosely around the Rogue River Valley- and the American Ranger Militias and United States Army, is addressed historically (by many) as a single war. However, the Rogue River area had two periods of war separated by barely a year of relative peace. The first Rogue River War erupted early in the 1850s when the Oregon Gold Rush caused thousands of Americans to invade the Rogue River region to mine for the precious metal. The tribes did not appreciate the invasion of the rude Americans and fought back causing a series of skirmishes, looting, and violence. The first war continued into 1853 because the tribes were upset at the continued loss of their lands and resources and the lack of responsibility of the American government to pay them for their lands with a ratified treaty. The 1851 treaties were never ratified, which caused the loss of trust in the United States by the tribes, and much of the increased violence.
Joel Palmer was appointed in 1853 and he approached the job with understanding of both sides of the conflict. He saw the colonization happening to the tribes and also saw the decline of the tribes. He saw them being pushed into a corner and fighting for their very survival. The relative peace of 1854 was actually a powder-keg, as described by Palmer, just waiting for a flame. The tribes were putting up with a lot from the Americans, they saw how American laws only really applied to them, while Americans got away with numerous murders and illegal acts. The tribes were fighting fro their survival and in doing so were starving with the interruptions in the seasonal gathering and stored of foods and the impacts of the newcomer miners and farmers which depleted the resources in the region through hunting, fishing and plowing up Native prairies. They then endured the hanging of their people and were making movements to remove to the Table Rock reservation under inducements by Palmer and Sub Agent Culver. Culver even addresses how he pit the tribes against one another to help “police” the tribes disaffected by the American invaders.
Fortunately, some of the Tribal wants and needs are communicated across the ages through the letters of their Indian agents. Here are some of the reports of the time,
I have already issued part of the blankets. They are a thing much needed by the Indians at this time, in fact they are suffering for want of them. They have not now the same opportunities of getting clothing as formerly, because they are not permitted to mingle with the whites, as formerly many of them worked for whites and obtained clothing in return. Some of the Indians do not reside on the reserve (Table Rock Reservation) this winter, as the war prevented them from laying up foods for winter, they are compelled to get it along from day to day. This they cannot do so well in a comparatively strange country. of course it would be folly to think of making them stay on it to starve. But for them to go there in the spring and have the whole season to lay up food, they can live on the reserve and have an abundance of food for the winter season. But they all hold themselves ready to go on the reserve at any time I may direct. (Report of Culver, December 14 1853)
Rogue River Indians, These Indians are also divided into several bands known generally by the name of Chief who presides over the band, as Joe the Head Chief who has a band. Sam the war chief has his band, and Jim a subordinate and civil chief has his band. These three are called the principal chiefs and the two former have to a great extent controlling influence over all the other bands, Jim, I believe however, has the greatest number in his band together with several others the names of which are not known to me.
The whole number in the bands above named is reported by Mr. Culver Agent in that district to be one thousand and one, & it is presumed there are other tribes indirectly connected with these bands, such as the Grave Creeks, Sucker Creeks, Althouse Creeks etc., amounting in all to some five or six hundred more.
The country claimed by the five first named bands, was purchased by treaty in September last for the sun of sixty thousand dollars. It embraces an area of some three thousand five hundred square miles and is rich in minerals and much of it unsurpassed for fertility of soil by any lands on this coast.
A tract included in the above purchase has been set aside for a temporary Reserve for them until the policy of the government in regard to the final settlement of the Indians in Oregon is known, and a proper selection made for a permanent home, whither when removed, they are to receive fifteen thousand dollars in addition to the sixty thousand, However it is not yet known whether the treaty will be ratified, but a failure to ratify could not but be a serious obstacle to the maintenance of friendly relations with these and other tribes. Admitting the estimates as herein given to be correct and I have reason to believe them so as nearly as possible at this time, there are in this Territory west of the Cascade Mountains about eight thousand four hundred Indians. (report of Joel Palmer, January 1 1854)
The three Indians who have been in custody, charged with murder, two of Kile and one of Edwards, were executed on the 10th. I am watching closely that no retaliatory acts on the part of friends of those three, may take place. They do not complain about their being hung, but they say some whites killed some of our people on Deer Creek not long since, “now if we see that you do the same to your own people then we are convinced of the justice of your laws.” (Culver to Palmer February 23, 1854)
I said this morning in writing to General Lane “This valley may now will be compared to a bomb shell, a slight cause may ignite the fuse, the explosion would carry destruction to every part of it,” This can and must be averted. (Culver to Palmer February 23, 1854)
The irritated state of feeling among the Indian tribes in the southwestern portion of Oregon, and the constant apprehension of the settlers impressed with the importance of taking immediate steps to place our relationship with these tribes on a firmer basis. The numbers attracted to that region by the discovery of gold, and the reckless character of many traversing every part of that country wholly without regard to the rights of the Indians, and embracing every opportunity to annoy insult plunder and murder them, preclude the hope of much longer maintaining peace with them unless the purchase of the country can be affected, and proper provisions be made for their removal to a region remote from the mining districts… (Joel Palmer to Manypenny, February 27, 1854)
Since my last, four have been killed and one wounded, by other Indians in this way: the bad ones stole and killed stock, the good ones in arresting them were compelled to kill some before the rest would be taken. This seems hard, but peace cannot be preserved two weeks in this valley without such a course; the bad ones must see that they cannot escape. Two were killed on Butte Creek, one up Rogue River, and one on Illinois Creek. In the early part of last winter I was compelled to establish a sort of police arrangement among them, that I could act quickly and understandingly, which I have preserved since that time. (Culver to Palmer March 26 1854)
Efforts have recently been made with some of the bands of this valley to obtain their consent to remove to such places as might be hereafter selected for them, but without success. They seek only to be permitted to occupy a small portion of the country claimed by them. Regardless of the future they look only to the present, and are willing to conform to any terms prescribed which allow them to reside on or near the homes of their fathers. (Joel Palmer to Manypenny, February 27, 1854)
The next war with the Rogue River tribes does not happen until the summer of 1855 when Chief John gathers support from many other tribes. Most of the southwestern Oregon tribes are on the Table Rock Reservation trying to live in peace – under the terms of several treaties – while being subjected to continued attacks from the Americans, some traveling from California to attack the reservation. Chief John with his Rogue River Confederacy decide to leave the reservation to drive the Americans from their lands and work their way westward through the Siskyous attacking cabins and settlements on the way, and killing many. The American army finally then gets involved, and have a standoff with the Rogue River Confederacy at Big Bend. Defeated, the Tribes surrender at Port Orford to be transported to the Grand Ronde and the Coast reservations (the coastal section from Newport to Salmon River), most arriving in the summer 1856. In 1857, many of the Rogue Rivers (Takelmas and Athapaskans, some Umpquas) and Shastas are transferred to the Siletz Agency from Grand Ronde.
All letters are transcribed from the records in, RG75 M2 Oregon Superintendency, Reel 4.
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.
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