The Cabbage Head Decoy and other Linn County stories of the Kalapuyans

Fear of the Kalapuyans

Fearing of “Indians” in the 1850s in Oregon was a real and powerful thing among the white settlers. tribal people did not live like white people, dd not obey the laws of the United States and seemed to have their own harsh forms of justice. As such the humanity of the tribes was severely questioned and dismissed in numerous settler narratives of the region. Settlers and other used stereotypical characterizations fo the savage and heathen tribes to revalue and dehumanize them. once sufficiently dehumanized, tribes could then be destroyed and removed from the path of American progress, what has been termed “manifest destiny.” About many small communities there are stories of the savagery of the tribes, and the reactions by early settlers. This collection is from Linn County, Oregon.

In the mid-1850’s, the “Cayuse War” was happening in skirmishes along the Columbia, and many tribal chiefs of several tribes saw what was happening; that the “Whitemen” were coming in ever-increasing numbers and would soon take all the land and drive the Indians out. Molalla Chief Crooked Finger noted this, and participated in the actions of resistance and retribution towards the Whitemen, not unlike many other tribal leaders.  Numerous reports of small thefts in the valley, as well as numerous reports of Indian men, like Crooked Finger, entering White homesteads and ordering White women to cook for them, suggests that some tribal chiefs were exacting a form of retribution upon the settlers, for taking land without permission, for not paying the tribes, and for not paying deference to previous long-term tribal occupation and authority.

All of these conflicts in various regions of the Oregon Territory caused stress with settlers towards Indians. The fears of the settlers towards the tribes, were stirred in part by rumors, and later by stories and editorials published in the newspapers. The Statesman Journal in Salem was the “conservative” newspaper for Oregon at the time, and published numerous editorials and letters about Indian depredations upon White settlements on the Columbia and in Southern Oregon. Numerous letters published in the paper called for the “extermination of all Indians” before they could gather their forces and attack the Willamette Valley Settlements. Fears of an attack by a confederation of tribes caused the raising of volunteer militias from among the settler communities, who trained to resist attacks by Indian tribes. In fact only two such threats occurred in the Willamette Valley, the Battle Creek incident (1846), and the battle of Abiqua (1848). Both instances most likely involved outsider tribal visitors to the valley, Klamath bands. The militias worked to push the Klamaths out of the valley and back to their home territory, even though they were friends to the Molalla.

After 1851 the Oregon Gold Rush causes a similar response as genocidal gangs of white militia, also called Volunteers or Rangers, and paid by the Oregon Legislature, committed genocide on numerous Indian villages for minor depredations claims, like theft of cattle or horses. It is more likely that these actions of the Rangers caused the feared response. Additional attack on tribal centers at Chetco, Coquille and Crescent City cause tribes in the south to be on edge and ready for retribution against the Whitemen who stole their land, murdered their people and raped their women. In 1855, the tribes at Table Rock Reservation become fed up with the continued attacks on their people on the reservation and choose to act. The Rogue River Confederacy of tribes, gathered under Chief John and left the reservation to fight a total war against all settlers, in an attempt to drive the whites from their lands, take back their lands and save themselves from genocide.

There were increasing calls for extermination of the tribes during times when wars were raging in the region, which caused backlashes against the settlers from the tribes. Extermination fever was raging in northern California after 1849 as settlers and miners sought to claim the best resource rich lands, and in the process committed innumerable acts of genocide on the tribes in California and Oregon. Settlers and ranchers joined together as companies of Ranger militia, supported by the states of Oregon and California, and worked to exterminate villages of tribes in the region encompassing northern California and southern Oregon. General John E. Wool, Commander of the Pacific, investigated the allegations of tribal aggression and determined that the blame belonged solely to the whites, publishing his opinion and report in the newspapers of the time.

The authority for the militias began with early fears of an uprising of the tribes among prominent pioneers in 1843 when these fears prompted them to begin forming the Oregon Provisional Government. In 1841-43, during the Wolf Meetings these prominent settlers gathered, wrote, and voted upon laws for the new government, including a law to form an Oregon militia, created in order to protect the American settlements from Indian attacks. Some scholars suggest that the whole reason for forming the government was to protect the settlements from the Indians. This may have been one of the reasons; the other being to secure Oregon for the United States, and away from Great Britain.

Military and volunteer actions on the Columbia, at Yakima, and in the Rogue River Valley, against tribal confederacies caused there to be a lot of tension in the Willamette Valley towards tribal people.

Much of the fears by these settlers were stirred by real fears that the war on the Columbia, against the Yakima and Columbia Tribes, would spill into the Willamette Valley, and include the Kalapuyans and Molallans. In fact, there were federal records of Klickitat Indians going among the tribes to attempt to form a larger confederacy, and of Klickitat bands serving as the middle-men traders of guns and munitions with tribes in conflict areas, like Rogue River.  For the Kalapuyans, the reality was that they were so devastated in the 1830’s by diseases that they had little will or people to make war against the Whitemen, even if they saw themselves losing all their lands and rights. As well, the Kalapuyans and Chinookans had begun the process of integrating their society with that of the white settlers. The settlement culture employed Native people as general laborers for agriculture, woodworking, hunting, fishing, and there was much intermarriage between the two peoples. By the 1840s the Kalapuyans were so immersed in culture change, and assimilation, that they were not going to join a confederation to eject the settlers from their lands.

Still, the stereotypes of tribal societies were common among the settlers. Some people in Linn County recalled times when they feared the local tribes. There had never been any conflict with the Kalapuyans in the county, and so their fears were built upon, in part, much misinformation in local newspapers from editorials written to demonize tribes. This editorializing helped create a layer of mis-characterization, helping settlers feel that they may be ethically eliminated, killed and removed, once they were commonly thought of as somehow less than human, more akin to wolves,  and therefore less deserving of any rights in society.

“Mother has often told me how one day while picking blackberries on the Muddy Creek, near where the Oakville Cemetery is situated, a large and ugly looking Indian suddenly came upon her and how she ran home like a frightened rabbit.” (Agnus Smith, Peoria, p. 92)

“The Indians along the Calapooia in Linn County were almost always harmless and peaceable. However during the Rogue River Indian troubles everyone was nervous and anxious. We had one Indian scare during that time. My father was away at Albany and my oldest brother was cutting wood along the river at some distance from home. He saw some Indians passing through the country and ran home to report that Indians are coming. My mother has just hung out a wash to dry and was baking. She has some cookies in the oven but she left everything just as it was and started out with his family to seek safety. They went away as far as the Shedd farm where Shedd now stands. There they met a man and told them their troubles. He said “I do not think that the Indians mean any harm. I will go back with you.” When mother had put out the wash to dry she hung one red handkerchief across the head of a cabbage in the garden.  When they came near home my brother said “I see one Indian, See his red head down near the house.” The man then said , “If it is an Indian I will shoot him. He shot, the supposed Indian did not move. He shot again. He said, “I am sure I didn’t miss it. If it is an Indians he is dead.” They went up and found the red handkerchief on the cabbage head with two bullet holes in it.” … (Thomas Bird Sprenger- Shedd, p. 22)

“The Indians were very numerous about this valley when I was a boy. It is the truth that I used to see many more Indians than whites, but that was because the Indians were always traveling about and the whites stayed at home and worked and attended to their affairs. An old Indian would come along in the rainiest day, turn his ponies loose and settle down to camp without any other shelter than a big fir tree. Sometimes they became very troublesome, but it was rather dangerous to try to restrain them. However, it is said that Riley Kirk, father of Andrew Kirk, who still lives in Brownsville, would thrash the Indians soundly whenever they became too troublesome, a thing that most settlers did not dare to do.” (Lewis Tycer, Crawfordsville)

“At one time in the early days, there was a great Indian scare in their neighborhood. Something startled my sisters family and they ran out from their home and ran to the nearest neighbors. They joined them in their flight and so the panic spread from neighbor to neighbor and from house to house. One woman who was carrying a small child, hit the child’s head against a tree in her flight, and for a time it was feared that its head had been crushed. All finally took refuse among deep brush in a deep canyon. There they waited throughout the night. Once while they were waiting they heard the dogs back at the settlement begin to bark, & they said to each other “now the Indians are at the cabins. They will carry off everything that we have and burn the houses.” In the morning however when they finally returned cautiously they found their houses still standing and not a thing touched. It was finally decided that the cause of the panic was the low flight of an immense flock of wild geese, which, confused in storm and fog had dropped very low and frightened a band of horses. These horses, stampeding through the night had been mistaken for wildly riding Indians.” (Lewis Tycer, Crawfordsville)

Alsea Valley, 1854, Once when mother was alone with the children the Indians had a camp just across the river. In a drunken quarrel their chief was killed. Mother could hear the shouts and screams and expected any minute they would cross the river and attack the cabin. Father was out of the Valley at the time working. (Thomas Judson Risley, Alsea, p.82)

Relationships with the Kalapuyans

From the 1830’s to the 1850’s, before the tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation (1856) the Kalapuyan tribes were living in their homelands alongside the white American settlers. The settlers to Donation land claims, registering their claims at Oregon City’s General Land Office without regards to the previous settlement of the tribes. In a sense the settlers treated them as either a class of indentured servants, or as a vermin they put up until the federal government removed them. The Kalapuyans, for their part accepted settlement of the whites, as they saw the great wealth in new things brought to them. Metals, fabrics, weapons, and beads for jewelry were much sought after. But with settlement came diseases, competition for food and land, and competing worldviews. Tribal people would envision the whites first as neighbors, where they could count on them in times of need, while the white settlers saw the tribes mostly as a nuisance, and would not share their property, food, or good will with the Indians. The settlement itself by the Americans was technically illegal, because none of the land had been purchased from the tribes until the second treaties signed from 1853 to 1855 were ratified. Tribal laws and former occupational rights were ignored, regardless of the Northwest Ordinance, or any statements of tribal lands rights by the Oregon Provisional government.

During the intervening years, there were many levels of trust paid to the tribes as both peoples sought to live together.  Some settlers formed good bonds of trust with tribes, respected them even, and got along well.  Some relations were very poor as tribal people challenged the patience of the Americans who refused to try to understand what the tribal nations were experiencing. Much of the abhorrent behavior of the tribes was likely based on the stress of several generations of loss from diseases, of lost land, of lost family, of culture, of pride, and of sovereignty or agency over the situation of their tribe. During settlement, the Kalapuyans lost vast food resources which were plowed under or fenced away from their normal traditional gathering practices. Deer and elk were hunted out and salmon and other fishes were fished and canned away. Begging for food from the stingy white was futile. Starvation became the motivation for many tribal people to begin stealing from the whites and taking what little they could to survive in their lands.

The following are experiences from the settlers passed down through the generations. The grandparents and parents who experienced the Kalapuyan people, saw symptoms of the losses of the tribes. In many ways, the tribes also influenced the settlers as they took roles in society, introducing new foods, providing labor and trade, and exhibiting unique and exotic ceremonial entertainment.

“The Indians often came to the house to beg for food. One day my mother was sewing near a window when suddenly she noticed that the light was shut off. She looked up and there was a sick Indian looking in. He made motions and asked for “Camas” “Blue Flower”. Mother has no camas and made him understand he was free to look for it anywhere on the place. We never ate the Camas as we always had plenty of flour and meat without resorting to Indian foods.”   (Thomas Bird Sprenger- Shedd)

“when the Ridgeway ferry was running the Indians would come to cross on it and especially when drunk, would make some trouble. There was one bad Indian (named “Three finger Jack”). One day he was at the ferry and making trouble. Father tried to quiet him and he aimed his gun at father and fired, but, fortunately missed. Most of the Indians were good. When we were young mother always had a big Indian woman to do her washings. There were no electric washing machines then. Just a washboard and hand made soap”. (George and Joseph Smith -who’s father was George Messersmith- Ridgeway p.6.)

“The Indians ate many roots and fruits which I do not know, but I do remember the sacks of camas which they sometimes carried with them. One year an Indian brought a sack of dried camas and left it with my father to keep for him. There was a little hole in the bottom corner of the sack. I was very fond of dried camas, and whenever I happened near the sack I would reach into that hole and take out some to eat. When the Indian returned the sack was decidedly empty, and the Indian was very angry. Father pacified him by telling him to go into the garden and help himself to whatever he thought fair. The Indian filled two or three sacks of carrots, beets, turnips, etc. and went away feeling better.” (Lewis Tycer, Crawfordsville)

“When I was small my father used to grow hops. He was among the first to secure Indian help from the Siletz Reservation for his hop picking. In those days it was no possible to just go out and hire individual Indians to pick, but all business had to be transacted through some chief or agent who would bring in a crew at the required time. The old Indian whom my father used as a go-between was called Wappato Dave. He was the hardest looking Indian that I knew in all my life. He said “Indian big fool, let white man come. Indian should shoot white men when few. Then have land like old time. Now too many white men, no can do.” He meant every word of it to.” (George B. Wells, Buena Vista, p.56)  

“When the Indians came about in the early days, they were always anxious to receive food. They almost always seemed hungry. My parents always gave them food, and they appreciated it greatly. My mother used to tell an amusing anecdote about one old Indian who came to her house. This old Indian came along “heap hungry” and asked for something to eat. Mother gave him food then asked his which he would like, coffee or milk. He answered, “I take coffee and milk.” Mother brought him out both, and he would eat a bit and then take a sip of coffee, eat a little but more and then take a sip of milk, and so on. It was very amusing.” (A.T. “Bud” Morris, Sweet Home. p.23)

“The old Arlington Hotel one of the first hotels in north Brownsville stood at the north-east corner of North Main and Spalding avenue. I can remember when it was being built. When the foundation was completed and the ground floor laid the people of the town celebrated and hired a lot of Indian hop-pickers to come and hold a war-dance on the new floor. They painted up and put on their full dress and howled and danced for hours. I can remember my sister Josie and I hanging on to our mother’s dress and watching them, scared to death of the yelling savages.”(Perry Ross, Brownsville. p.77)

“the first house on Father’s claim was a log cabin, built in 1851… the cabin was near a small creek and nearby was a favorite camping place of the local Indians but father always said that they were good and honest people, better to get along with than most white people. Father often had to go for supplies to Oregon City and leave his family alone.  There were one or two Indian families who were especially friendly and honest. When father was about to leave home he would speak to these families and ask them to care for mother and the children. They would immediately move their camps across the creek and camp closely surrounding our cabin. In that way they kept at a distance the bothersome members of the village.” (Clara C. Morgan Thompson, Saddle Butte, Shedd, p.83)

“Milton Hale was always very good to the Indians and got along well with them. He owned the land near the old ferry on the Santiam near the town of Syracuse, and on that land there was a cemetery. When Old Lucy and Old Pete died Milton Hale took them to the old family cemetery near Syracuse and had them buried there.” (Emma Sneed, Albany)

“John Crow… bought the claimed [land] rights of Chief Buckskin Bill, a Calapooia and a close friend to Skookum John known as the Indian rail maker of Lane County [Loraine, Oregon & Crow Road]. Few people know that the Indians made most of the rails for the “Pioneer worm fences.” Skookum John and his band of Indians made the rails for the McAlisters, Daniel Lucas, A.J. Barlow… John Crow, … and many other pioneer settlers of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s. Skookum John … was a powerful man. His wife was named Mary. After the death of my grandfather in 1868, Skookum John and his wife Mary, moved to the Gibson ranch  ten or fifteen miles west of Eugene. They set up quarters for him and he worked for the Gibsons many years. There is a story that when very old, Mary would beg Skookum John to kill her and get her out of her misery. Old Skookum John would pet her and cheer her the best he knew. So it went for several years. Someone at the Gibson ranch killed a wild hog, skinned it and put the green hide in a smoke house. Mary discovered this and knowing there Skookum Jon was working, and also knowing that he always took a gun with him, she put on this wild boar skin and went on hands and knees through the timothy on the other side of the fence from Skookum. She grunted like a hog and Skookum John grabbed his gun, poked it through the fence and shot his wife, Mary at the “butt of the ear,” killing her instantly. Court investigations were made, but Skookum John was released without censure.” (Register Guard July 20, 1953)


The essay was assembled to help inform a new exhibit at the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville which is being installed in May and June 2019. The research for this essay was conducted in the summer of 2018 with the aid of the staff at the museum and using  their set of settler narratives. This selection is not comprehensive.

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