Battle Rock the First Colonization on the Southern Oregon Coast

In July 1851, Captain William Tichenor decided to begin his project to colonize and claim the Port Orford area. He envisioned that the establishment of a town at Port Orford would be an entry point for gold miners into SW Oregon. Tichenor originally hired his band of men from Portland, O.T., promising them that the Indians in the region were peaceful. Tichenor convinced his men that they did not need much armament and that arms would only provoke the Natives. He said he had visited the area many times and the Indians were always welcoming. Still his engages choose to take arms with them in case something happened (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).[1]

It turns out that Tichenor is implicated in history as being very genocidal towards native peoples. See my other essays about the removal of the tribes from the Chetco region.

When the band arrived, on June 9, 1851, they set up camp on a mid-shore rock, a defensible location, what was to later be called Battle Rock and fortified their camp with a cannon from Tichenor’s ship. The rock is situated just off the beach and there is a narrow path to the top. The top of this long and narrow rock is wide enough to host a small encampment with a few trees growing there. On both sides of the rock is water and the walls are too steep to easily scale.  The rock afforded a defensible position for this small party (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).

These Native peoples, the Kwatami Tututni (Sixes band), at first were peaceful. After Tichenor’s ship left they became more confrontational and demanded the men leave. The demands became violent and an attack on the rock occurred. The cannon was fired down the path and some 11 Natives died in this first volley. The resulting battle caused upwards of 17 native deaths with a few casualties among the party.  After this skirmish, two other attempts were made by the Native people to take the rock and each time marksmen in the party shot and killed the leaders, causing the natives to stop their attacks. A parley between the party and the Natives occurred, where it was worked out that the party would be leaving in 14 days, and the Natives would leave them alone until then (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).

It is unlikely that the arms taken by the band of men provoked the Native people. Natives were used to people carrying weapons and owned firearms in the area. Instead, the large scale outbreak of violence and a war of extermination against Native peoples occurring up the Rogue River and in Northern California was the likely reason that the Natives at Port Orford responded with violence. Native people had well-developed trail systems and means of communication throughout their territory. When the war of extermination began on the Rogue River, prompted by the Rangers, runners would have been sent to the neighboring camps to pass on the news of the Americans killing men, women, and children (Beckham 1971; Schwartz 1997).

Port Orford area USGS map from OHS map library, Battle Rock is right

The tribes in the region were all interrelated by marriage. It was common and preferred that men and women marry into tribes further away. In addition, many tribes and bands were politically aligned with the more powerful chiefs. The chiefs at the upper Rogue were very powerful and in 1855-1856 worked to command many tribes and bands in what became the Rogue River war. Thereafter, in history the tribes in this area are called the Rogue River Tribes, when in reality this was a confederation of tribes and bands from the Takelma, Athapaskan and Shasta tribes that banded together to defend their tribes and territory. During the conflict at Port Orford in 1851, tribes from the Rogue River came down to support their brethren the Sixes tribe at Port Orford to oust the interlopers at Battle Rock (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).

larger tribes in the region

After 14 days, the Sixes chiefs, thinking that the party had lied about leaving on Tichenor’s ship, began the attack again. The party fended off another attack and began fortifying their camp further with tree logs cut from the trees growing on the rock. Due to this ruse, the last of the party was able to escape the rock in the dead of night to travel north in an attempt to reach American civilization.  (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).[2]


History after the battle: Escape to the North

The lookouts from the Natives confederation encamped to the south, saw the reinforcement of the position and were satisfied that the party was staying, and went to join their people. The ruse worked and the last of the party decided to leave the rock in haste, thinking they would not survive another attack, were running low on ammunition and without the return of Tichenor, there were no reinforcements. They left the rock in the dead of night and hastily went northward on trails. They immediately encountered a party of natives traveling south on the coast trail. These natives were presumed to be reinforcements to the large party of tribes on the beach at Port Orford, and from their direction of travel may have been Coquille or Flores Creek peoples.

Encounter at the Coquille River

The party of the remaining four men needed to cross the Coquille River the next day. When they arrived on the south bank of the estuary of the Coquille, the Coquille Tribe on the north side saw them and made gestures suggesting that the party was not welcome to cross and that they would be killed. They eventually lured a child in a canoe to the south bank and crossed to what they did not realize was an island in the middle. Trapped on the island, they made a raft and traveled north, disembarking above the Coquille village.

Tichenor arrives back at Battle Rock

Tichenor arrived one day after the party left, about the time that the party is trying to cross the Coquille, and saw that there had been a battle. He left to find more men to return and fortify his claim. He recruited some 70 men in San Francisco and returned to build a fortified fort to fend off the Natives. He also convinced the US Army to send a detachment of men to Port Orford to secure the area for his settlement (Kirkpatrick, et al. 1978).

Arrival of the Survivors to Civilization

The nine survivors walked north for 8 days and arrived at the most southern settlements, at Gardiner in the Umpqua valley in safety. Four if these men, including Kirkpatrick arrived in Portland Wednesday July 8th according to the Oregonian editor. Kirkpatrick was interviewed and described their journey.

Capt. K. states that his party occupied their position at Port Orford for several days, and had several fights with the Indians, but lacking sufficient ammunition to defend themselves longer had retired to increase their number for another attack. The party has several skirmishes on the way, and four of them were slightly wounded. They made their journey in eight days, four of which they were out of provisions.[3]

They were greeted with “loud and hearty cheers” from the crowd down by the docks. The whole colony of Americans in Oregon knew of the Tichenor expedition to open up a port on the southern coast to make the gold fields more accessible. The American settlers and businessmen looked on this enterprise with interest and followed its events through the newspapers. Tichenor interviewed regularly with the papers, keeping everyone updated and advertising that he was opening a settlement in the coast and that it would be lucrative once open.

Alternative Battle Rock Account

In 1851, After the severe fighting at Battle Rock near Port Orford between the garrison which consisted of the nine white men which were brought by Captain Tichenor from Portland in the Steamer “Sea Gull” and landed June 9th 1851 and the Indians, and which fighting commenced just as soon as the “Sea-Gull” had left – an interval of fifteen days, – and was well out at sea, the Indians began again, and the White men being short of ammunition had to take to the woods, and after scrambling through the brush, and men getting down getting on the coast, then back to the brush again; and again making their way to the Coast, they finally reached the mouth of the Coquille, and camped on the place now occupied by the town of Bandon, on or about July the first 1851. Those white men, and they were undoubtedly the first white men, that ever walked on the Bandon beach… were W.H. Kirkpatrick, J.H. Eagan, Joseph Hussey, Cyrus Hedden, McCune, Rideout, R.E Summers, best known as Jake Summers- Slater and P.D. Palmer. At this time there were about two hundred Indians living on the Bandon town site. Their dwellings in an irregular and straggling course, reached from Wash Creek at the bottom of Prospect hill to Ferry Creek. They expected to find the Indians friendly, but when they saw the kindling fires, and making preparation to fight, they again took to the woods, and proceeded about eight miles up the southern bank of the Coquille, where they halted, and constructed a rude raft upon which they crossed over to the northern side. They kept in the woods for about two days living principally on salmon berries, when they reached beach, where they spent four days and feasted themselves on mussels. When they reached Coos Bay which they thought was the Umpqua, they made their way up the southern side until they sighted Coos River. Here they met some friendly Indians, who in consideration of each man stripping himself of his shirt, and handing it to them, gave them a good meal, and ferried them across. They finally reached the settlements of the Umpqua, and at Gardiner, where they were well received (Bennett 1900).


Port Orford into the Present

Once Tichenor’s second party had established themselves and built a fort, the settlement of Port Orford was established. The United States army established Fort Orford there as well, to help secure the region for Americans.  The town became the principal entry for miners, settlers, ranchers and Indian agents into southwest Oregon.  In this manner the southern Coast was secured for the forces of colonization, illegally taking the region from the Sixes and other Tututni tribes. In 1855 a treaty was negotiated with these peoples, but it was never ratified. The peoples were forced to remove to the Coast Indian Reservation, in 1856 and later, and lived in estuaries on the 100 mile reservation. In about 1877 the tribes were released from the reservation, the treaty never being ratified. When many tried to return home, all of their former villages were taken over by white Americans now in the midst of colonizign the coast and establishing industrial economies in the estuaries and bays. In this manner the tribes were divested of their lands. Some of the descendants of these people are members of the five tribes of western Oregon, or living independently outside of any tribe. It can safely be said that the United States never lived up to their promises to their tribes in the treaties. In the 1950s many of these people were paid for their land through the Indian Claim lawsuit, but too late for the people who underwent so much loss in the illegal takeover of the coast. Even today many people remain uninformed of the great attrocities when occurred on the coast in the name of American expansion.

[1] Kirkpatrick offers the most complete account of the battle and follow up events. His accounts begin in 1851 with newspaper interviews and end with this book on the Heroes of Battle Rock, a book that has seen reprint many times. Scholars suggest that Kirkpatrick dramatized his account as some of the details do not match in various different accounts. Clearly the Heroes book, which was edited after his death, dramatizes the heroic nature of the Tichenor party in order to sell the book to tourists and Oregonians.

[2] The non-native Kirkpatrick account is recounted in newspapers and in small books sold to tourists of the Oregon Coast. The various accounts differ slightly, some accounts have greater detail than others. Most of the non-native accounts, do not include any of the perspectives of the native peoples of this region. Their voices have been silent and unexplored in nearly all published accounts. Because of this only about half of the story has been fully explored. This is the case for most histories of American colonization of Native American territories.


[3] Oregonian July 12,1851 p 2

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