The Massacre Narrative is a specific type of story where is documented as a traumatic event in history. Generally, dozens if not hundreds die. massacres occur because of conflicts between cultures. One culture is working to destroy the competing culture. This is not something that Americans like to believe in their country.
For the Coquille River people, they lived in this location for thousands of years and had there own set of laws and ethical codes of behavior. They are inter-related to their neighbors in many ways and even spoke dialects in the same language family as many neighbors. Occurrences in one area of a region have a dramatic effect on all peoples as news travels fast over “moccasin telegraph” when survivors tell their neighbors about attacks. The first major battle in this region happened upon Jedediah Smith’s 1826 party where tribes in the region, most likely Lower Umpqua, attacked, and killed most of the party as news of the rudeness of the Smith party reached them from the south.
Then in the 1840s additional landings were happening on the coast and forays of Americans into the interior valleys looking for places to settle and eventually gold. By 1849 the gold rush in California is on and thousands of Americans are invading tribal lands looking for gold. There was rarely any consideration for the tribes and their territories, resources or rights to be undisturbed in their lands. By 1851 the Oregon gold rush was begun.
Skirmishes, conflicts battles, and massacres occurred when Americans worked to eliminate all Indians from the land, to free it for wholesale exploitation. The US government did nothing to control its people and in fact in many ways, enabled them to invade further by passing laws suggesting they were free to claim any lands, even though the land was still owned by the tribes.
Tribes on the Oregon coast heard all this news and were ready for invasion of their country. In 1851 the battle at Battle Rock set the stage for the tribes to resist when faced with invasion to the north of Port Orford. When the T’vault party arrived they were attacked causing a retaliation by the US military, and a massacre of the Coquille village on the lower river.
Some of the narratives are from white participants and historians, while others are from the Coquille and their neighbors. As these narratives are collected further we get a real sense of how traumatic this was for everyone involved. Here below are some of the stories of attempts by Americans to exterminate the Coquilles in their own lands.
1851, October 5- It seems that it is my painful duty to [inform] you of another massacre, in the south, or rather on the coast in which your friend T’vault was murdered. The circumstances are these, Ewing harbor or Point Orford on the coast some 80 miles south of the mouth of the Umpqua has been occupying the attention of the public. The Sea Gull last month carried down Dr. Dart Sup. Int. 20 soldiers and a number of citizens among them Esq. T’vault. From Point Orford T’vault with 20 men started to hunt a road through the Coast Mountain to the mines often spending some time unsuccessfully all but 10 of the party returned, but the remainder with T’vault at their head continued the search to the northward until they came to a stream that enters the ocean about 40 miles south of the mouth of Umpqua. On this river the party embarked in two canoes paddled by Indians, to run down to the beach, and land on the North side- a large number of Indians had collected on the bank of the river, and as soon as the canoes touched the shore commenced the butchery of the unfortunate whites. Out of the ten only three succeeded in making their escape to the Umpqua, one of them badly wounded with arrows in the back. Two of these men were ten and one of them twelve days in making their way to the mouth of the Umpqua being forced to conceal themselves and travel by stealth they were in a most wretched condition when they arrived there…For the love of God urge upon the Government the necessity for military protection to the country if none is granted emigration, settlements, mining and everything else must stop, until the people rise and exterminate these red devils from our borders. (Jesse Applegate, October 5, 1851, to Joseph Lane-OHS Joseph Lane Correspondence Collection)
1852, January 14- The Indians of the territory are at this time very quiet. The U.S. Troops have been called out to the Coquil River and have killed some 15 Indians & destroyed their salmon fishing traps etc. This is in consequence of their killing of T’vault party of five men. The Cokwill empties itself into the ocean 60 miles north of mouth of the Rogue River. (Parrish January 14, 1852, to Joseph Lane- OHS Joseph Lane Correspondence Collection)
1852, January 23- I am sorry to be obliged inform you that our Indian matters are in a bad fix our Indians are much disappointed yet they are not hostile. They have been expecting an annuity this month and they think the U.S. [Gov] to trifle with them. (Parrish January 23, 1852, to Joseph Lane- OHS Joseph Lane Correspondence Collection)
1852, April 26- Kowes River and… Siuslaw… The Indians inhabiting not only those rivers, but by means of a road recently cut from the Kowes River to the Coquelle and Port Orford it becomes passable to all the Indians tribes of Southern Oregon west of and inhabiting the western slope of the Coast Range of mountains, as well as those of the upper valley of the Umpqua east of this range. It is believed that a greater number of Indians can concentrate at this place in a given time than any other point on the coast south of the Columbia River. I would also state that although most of the Indians in this immediate vicinity are friendly to the settlers, yet many serious depredations have recently been committed by parties of Indians supposed to be from the south. In several instances houses have been broken into during the temporary absence of the occupants … in some cases articles of mark value have been taken… (Nathan Schofield April 26, 1852 to Joseph Lane-OHS Joseph Lane Correspondence Collection)
Lottie: at the Coq. War a father and his son hid in a semisubterranean house & were not detected but then the whites set fire to all that Ind. houses when night came, that man & his son burned to death. Several of the people came running across the divide into South Slough, and hid there, & the whites could not tell them from South Slu Indians after they had fled there, since talked the same same language. The war started when the Coq. Inds. killed 10 whites visiting the Coq. R. in a canoe. (Harrington Microfilm Reel 22 section 95, NAA online)
The Moving-People, Long ago when the moving people (the whites) first came here, the moving people stealthily attacked before dawn the (Lower Coquille) Indians (above Bandon Prairie). They killed woman and all. Others they did not kill. The boy babies the white people killed, the boy babies they killed. (Jacobs, Coos Narr. & Ethnol. Texts, p. 10.)
Lottie, Never heard it was at Bandon Prairie but this is surely O.K. A few escaped. Old Polly who died only a few years ago and she talked South Slu lang. went & hollered to the whitemen: No more men, Men all killed off. (Harrington Microfilm Reel 22 section 95 NAA Online)
Lottie Evanoff, When I grew up, all the Coq. people were killed off, only a few old women being alive. Old Ned had been hit & survived- he had a scar on top of his head where a bullet.
The 1st Ind. war happened at Coquel, previous to the R. River war, my father was telling me they were bunches of whites arrived here on a raft, & Inds. here took the half the whites stowed them in canoes around Coos Bay. But the division that went to the Coquille they said in Ind. what for are we taking these dead people along, & there upon purposefully the whites tip over the canoes as they were taking the Coq. R. & them strip them that…One white man they found up at head of isthmus Slough, plumb naked & they kept him when stronger they ferried the 2 across Coos R. & they walked to Umpqua. One they found naked at head of South Slough. They started doctoring him, he had been ca 10 days. He had an arrow sticking in his back, the whole arrow he couldn’t reach it. An old Ind. carrying lunch along went up to head of S. Slough to where wolves drove elks in the ck.(creek) & thus found that white man. The whites a year later came down to Coos Bay from Umpqua & my uncle Jim went with these white & told the Coq. culprits. (Harrington Microfilm Reel 24 section 20, NAA online)
Recently a discussion of generational trauma made me think about the reactions of the people today to news that there were massacres among our peoples. It may very well be the case that many people on the reservations avoid returning to their lands because of the history of loss. The massacres were so traumatic that people chose to forget and repressed memories of this trauma rather than live with it and as more was forgotten through the generations, the tribes forgot how horrible was this time. People made the reservations their homes and many never returned to that place of trauma. We still have much healing to accomplish if this is the case among some of the tribes.
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.