Indian Catchers of Coastal Oregon 1850s

A truly remarkable fact of Oregon history presented itself while conducting some coastal research. In 1856 and for years after, the Indian agents employed and contracted with enterprising individuals to seek out and capture Indians still remaining in the lands or escaped from the reservations, and return them.

The image recalled when hearing about this profession, is that of the Child Catcher in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the movie, this truly evil character went around German towns hunting down children to imprison them, using candy for enticement. The Child Catcher is perhaps a direct reference to how the Germans in WWII had squads of Gestapo soldiers that were deployed with the sole purpose of seeking out Jews to capture and imprison them. As well, many non-Jews participated in identifying and informing on hidden Jews in their towns.

In Southern Oregon, the new settlers in the various coastal towns would inform on the Indians living in the forests, mountains near them, sometimes on the edges of towns, by writing letters to the Indian agents to guide them to these “truant” tribal peoples. The settlers did not like these savage Indians, as they would sometimes steal from them, and would have loud parties that would disturb the new communities both in their peace, and in their moral sensibilities against alcohol. Then there were also many instances of fights breaking out between Indians and whites.

The tribes in this time were being forced to remove by being marched to the Coast reservation. This is the agreement that was made when they signed the Coast Treaty, that they would remove, and get paid for their land, and gain a permanent reservation. But this never happened, and still the agents forced their removal to the reservations, and after it was clear that the treaty would never be signed, the agents forced them to remain on the reservation. But conditions on the reservation were extremely harsh, with much starvation, poverty, lack of housing and little money, services or health care.

Many Indians chose to leave rather than continue to suffer and tempt death in the reservation. They would travel south along the Coastal trails and secrete themselves past white settlements until they returned close to their original abodes. Then they would live in the forests away from white settlements. White men would eventually notice them, either from thefts or conflicts or they would be happened upon when men were searching for gold, and report the settlement to the Indian Superintendent. The Superintendent would notify the Indian agent in charge of the particular district and they would hire the Indian catchers to bring the Indians back, or to the reservation. In this manner, hundreds of Indians were forced to come onto the Coast reservation, where they lived a very rough lifestyle.

The contractors, the Indian Catchers, were prominent men. One of the most well-known was Captain William Tichenor, who had instigated the battles with the coastal Sixes, Tututni, and Rogue tribes at Battlerock in 1851, and established Port Orford. Tichenor was a good hunter, and at times, extremely harsh in his treatment of the Indians, especially males who may have participated in the Rogue River Indian War. In this contracted position, for which he was a special agent for a time, he was extremely efficient, in just a few months developing expenses more than $20,000 for capturing and marching bands of Indians to the Coast Reservation. This is a very large sum for this time period and suggests there was a lot of profit to be made in this “business.”

The payments for catching Indians would come directly from the funding allowed the Indian superintendent for the removal of the Indian tribes, generally around 10,000 a year. The remainder would come from funding allocated for upkeep of the reservations, and/or treaty annuities. And, since the majority of the Coastal tribes were not covered under any ratified treaty, there was no appropriation for their continual removal.

In the annual report for the district for 1858  (Annual Report of the COIA 1858, p 256-) there is a bit of an explanation and context for the removal of the Chetco peoples. The project of removing the Chetcos began in September of 1857 and was largely completed in November. Special Agent Tichenor collected some Indians and started for the reservation. The chiefs were not cooperating and left the column to escape into the mountains. Tichenor then requested a military escort for the remainder of the Chetcos, and Lieutenant Lorain, of Fort Umpqua, went with a small command to escort the Indians north. They collected about 150 Indians. Once past the Rogue River, several escapes were attempted, after the soldiers left the column. Finally, acting on a tip from some of the women, Tichenor laid a trap for the males, ordering his men to shoot if they tried to escape again. They did try to escape and they were all shot, men and young boys, leaving only women and children remaining. Those killed were buried on the side of the trail and Tichenor then escorted the remainder to Fort Umpqua. E.P. Drew (Indian Agent of the Umpqua District) stated that Tichenor was perfectly justified in his actions. But regardless, white men were not held accountable for any acts against Indians in this area, no court of law would have found them guilty, and Indian eyewitness testimony would not be allowed. This whole project was very expensive to the Indian service in Oregon (over $20,000 paid to Tichenor alone) and did not clear the land of all Indians, with small camps of Indians remained in the hills, most were being forcefully removed for many years following.

The following are excerpts of numerous letters from M234 and M2 microfilm series that address situations of Indian Catching. The first letter suggests a racial and nationalistic component to the program, to preserve the land for “American citizens” a likely direct reference to White Americans, since black settlement was illegal in Oregon.

Mouth Rogue River, O.T., January 29, 1857

That since the declaration of Peace in Southern Oregon the route from this point to Crescent City cannot be passed in safety in consequence of numbers of Indians being suffered to remain in the vicinity of “Whaleshead” and Chetco, that to this time have not been subdued or removed-

In the month of October last Capt. Wm. E. Tichenor (being duly authorized by you) came to this place and took some fifty men, women & children which we had by our efforts through threats and negociation collected together- with the most positive assurance on his part that he would return with a sufficient military force to compel the Indians at Whaleshead & Chetco to come in and go to the reservation.

We do not come before you as supplicants but demand as a right to ask you to adopt and execute such measures as will ensure peace and security to us for the future and throw around us the shield our Country Cheerfully guarantees to all “American Citizens.

Port Orford April 5, 1857

I have ascertained that there is about thirty bucks and about the same number of squaws and children at Chetco River and 6 bucks and 5 squaws at Pistol River. The farmers in Chetco valley want the Indians taken away from there if they can be. The Pistol River Indians are in the mountains and would be very hard to get at until summer fairly sets in the others could be got without any trouble.

Oliver Cantrell

December 2, 1857

I sent an order to Tichnor to get them from the Agent in charge & bring them with their people- a few are now in Illinois Valley. Capt. Tichnor is in pursuit of them.

E.P. Drew

June 17th 1858

[Tichenor] stated, that he gathered in this party, on his own responsibility: [he was acting as a subagent, under authority , in Jany. and Feby. last, when the party of Indians, for which Lieut. Lorain’s command was sent, were assembled on the Chetco river; and brought through their reservation to the Siletz]: that the Indian men in the party-say 15 in number- tried several times to effect an escape, and return to their old haunts; and he was convinced from the report of some of the squaws, that at a certain place on the route, they would make another attempt; and that in consequence, he so disposed of the men in his employ, that when the point was reached, they fell upon these Indians, killing fourteen of them, and wounding the two boys- one Indian man, a squaw & some few children escaped-

E.P. Drew

Fort Umpqua, 19 June 1858

It affords me much gratification and pleasure to bear testimony to the efficient, ceaseless and judicious efforts of Mr. Wm Tichenor of Port Orford, O.T., in securing and safely conducting to the Grand Round Reservation the families of several bands of Indians, the warriors of which, two years ago, were in open hostilities to the whites and unpunished perpetrators of numerous murders and depredations.

George P. Ihrie, Commanding Commanding “B”, 3rd Artillery, Fort Umpqua (M2, R16)

E.P. Drew, Indian Agent of the Umpqua Reservation reported in 1858 the removal of the Chetco people with some detail.

Annual Report, June 30th 1858

“The Removal of the Chitco and Pistol River Indians from Southern Oregon to the Siletz Reservation, which was commenced in September last [1857] in pursuance of your instruction and under the immediate superintendence of Special Agent Tichenor, has proved somewhat expensive and caused no little annoyance at this office. The Indians were all collected by the 1st of November preparatory to starting for the reservation, but some dissatisfaction was manifested by the chiefs, and there being no troops present to guard them they all left for the mountains, which detained Special Agent Tichenor and party there until I could obtain for him a military escort. Major Scott, at Fort Umpqua on my representations and requisition, immediately ordered a small command of troops under Lieutenant Lorain, to Chitco. They remained with Special Agent Tichenor a few days collecting the Indians together. Having collected about one hundred and fifty, consisting of children and old and decrepit men and women, they started for the reservation. After crossing Rogue River, there being no further need of his services. Lieutenant Lorain with his command returned to Fort Umpqua. Some twenty of the most desperate warriors, with their families, who refused to surrender, were left in the mountains, and, soon after the troops left, they made an attack upon white settlements at Rogue River, burnt several houses, and murdered two or three of the settlers, It was deemed advisable, under these circumstances, to direct Special Agent Tichenor, on this return from the Siletz, to proceed at once to Chitco, and induce the Indians, if possible, to come in and go to the reservation. He proceeded at once upon this duty, and, having collected the greater portion of them, started with them, about the middle of may for the reservation. After leaving camp and when on the road, the men endeavored to make their escape several times, but were foiled by the adroitness of the special agent. Being informed by the women that they would endeavor to make their escape at a certain point on the trail, in the morning of the 6th of June, he immediately sent forward a small party to prevent any movement of the kind, and with orders to the men to fire should the Indians attempt to run. The Indians attempted the escape, and were all shot, with one exception. After burying those shot, he proceeded with the squaws and children, and arrived at this agency June 16, 1858. From what I have been able to learn from the Indians who witnessed the fight, I am of the opinion that they never could have been taken to the reserve without a strong guard; that the agent was perfectly justified in his acts; and that the course pursued was the only one that could have effectually relieved that portion of Oregon from a lawless desperate and troublesome band of marauding savages. A small number of women and children yet remain in that country…”

Siletz Agency, June 28th 1859

Quite a number of Indians have left this agency within the last ten days with the declaration that they were going back to Rogue River and the Coquille. Their intention is probably to see if they will be permitted to remain quietly there and if so to return when all will leave the Reservation. They have taken what few arms I let them have for hunting and will doubtless do some mischief if they are not kindly received by the citizens of Rogue River. I would be glad to have you render us what assistance you can in arresting and bringing these Indians back to the reserve. You will please have your Indians keep a strict watch over their canoes, so as not to allow any to pass in the night…. If any have returned to Coquille, please write whether I can get the assistance of the military from Ft. Umpqua to recapture them… Please have the military arrest and punish any Indians from the Agency who may be found (there) without a pass…

R.B. Metcalf to E.P. Drew at Fort Umpqua


Fort Umpqua, July 20th 1859

…(agent Metcalf having notified me that many of the Indians under his charge were leaving the reservation)… If the Indians have left the Siletz Reservation, as Agent Metcalf supposes, the necessity for funds at this agency becomes more pressing, as the expense of pursuing and returning them to the reservation will again no doubt as heretofore devolve upon this office. At present I am unable to say whether any Indians from the Siletz have passed the Umpqua on their way south or not.

E.P. Drew

Forced removals and Indian Catching continued well into the 1860s. Federal officials did not allow Indians to be off-reservation without a pass. Indians has less rights because they were not citizens of the United States and Federal authorities had full control of their administration. The states had almost no jurisdiction over the tribes. So Indian catching continued with small family groups being captured and returned to the reservations, some gaining a reputation for escaping often. Later in the 19th century, when travel became easier and faster, the Indian agents would simply ask local law enforcement to detain and jail the escaped Indians, and the agents themselves would go get them and bring them back from jail. Many peaceful Indians were allowed to remain off-reservation, because they offered labor to farmers who would vouch for them.

Empire City Aug. 1st 1864

Mr. Turner is here from Rogue River he says that he has brought up with him 6 Indians, 2 men 2 squaws and 2 boys he says that there is only 2 Indians left on Rogue river… they will go to the reservation…

H.H. Luse. (M2 R21)

Another important issue, of which Indian Agent Drew at the Umpqua Reservation was very aware, was that none of the Coastal tribes had a ratified treaty and so there was no agreement that they had to follow, and so they did not have to remove to the Coast Reservation. There were no federal laws, or territorial laws, that outlawed Indians living off the reservations, if they did not have a treaty. They were members of their own sovereign tribes and bands and had every right to just remain where they wanted to, without any removal. So the actions of forced removal to the Coast Reservation for the majority of these peoples, was completely illegal. Then to force them to remain on the reservation, was also illegal under US laws of the time. Today, this situation would be a human rights issue of the highest order.

(One additional similarity is the policy of forced removal of children from tribal homes so they could be taken to boarding schools. Assimilation on the reservation was not working fast enough so the federal government began to force-ably remove children from Grand Ronde and Siletz, and they would be taken to either on reservation or off reservation boarding schools. The tribal people had no recourse other than comply and officers would come get the kids, some as young at 6 years old. )

The ultimate result of the forced removals of the Coastal peoples was that most of the coastal tribes lost their lands, and without a treaty were never paid for their share of the rights to the land. The stories of forced removal of tribes like the Coos are extremely harsh. But their stories also addressed their treaty, a treaty which by the dawn of the 20th century was all but forgotten. Native scholars, likely spurred by Anthropologists that came among them, Like Frachtenburg, began searching the National Archives and in about 1907 or 1908 found the unratified coast treaty. The tribes began working to claim the payments for their lands promised in the treaty and in 1931 the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw tribes jointly sued the US Federal government. This first Indian claims lawsuit failed when the court refused to recognize that Native Oral History was valid as history and could be presented in court as evidence that the Coos and other tribes existed and had claim to their lands. This and the lack of a good attorney caused their case to fail. The tribes were therefore never paid for their lands.

However, another effect was that their stories of horrible treatments during removal and at Yachats sub-agency were also discounted as heresay. It was not until 1976, during the Hearings for Task Force Ten, in Salem, Oregon, that the tribes’ stories were told and listened to by the Task Force committee. The failure of federal officials to certify that these tribes were racially discriminated against, which caused them to lose their lands, which they have never been paid for, has delayed all attempts to recover the full story of their treatment under the United States. Their story is still not told in its entirety*, and deserves to be recognized as one of the worst treatments of any peoples by the United States and its people.

*A few authors have worked on parts of the story of these tribes, David Beck, Stephen Dow Beckham, and Nathan Douthit, are a few of these scholars.


Letters in M234 and M2 microfilm series.

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