Chief John, Tecumtum, was the leader of the Rogue River Confederacy for over a year in southwestern Oregon. The Confederacy formed when tribal bands on the Table Rock Reservation were attacked by Americans seeking to punish and exact retribution on the Indian there for previous battles, skirmishes, and petty thefts in the region. The region of southwestern Oregon and northern California was a conflict zone for about eight years by 1856 with settlement and gold mining causing numerous territorial conflicts in the region. Gold miners, in particular, were apt to make a try at gold mining for a year or two in their attempt to get rich quickly, all the while forcing tribes off their lands, destroying food sources, polluting water sources, raping native women, and murdering any Indian who got in their way. And while the federal government did not support their actions in policies and laws, federal agents did not hold Americans accountable for their actions, established a series of forts to provide support to Americans in the district, and established a bounty system in the state of California and the Oregon Territory to pay back settlers and others for their losses from Indian “depredations.” No such similar losses were paid back to Native peoples for their loss of land, livestock, food sources, murders on their people, rapes of their women, or thefts by Americans.
Chief John was one of the men at Table Rock Reservation to talk to his people about the abuses suffered on his people, and in 1855 one further attack on the village at Bear Creek in the Rogue Valley became the last straw. Chief John gathered his supporters, several bands of Athapaskan (Chasta Costa), Shasta, Takelma, and Cow Creek Umpqua peoples, to leave the reservation and fight for the return of their lands. These tribes had ceded these lands to the United States through three treaties in 1853 and 1854 (Rogue River, Chasta, and Cow Creek Umpqua). these treaties became ratified by Congress and they directly stated that there will be peace between the Indians and the Americans. The tribes on their part appeared to be following their agreements int he treaties and there are no recorded outbreaks of violence connected to them for about a year. There were some thefts and some travel off of the reservation to acquire foods, but the tribes lived on the reservation in relative peace.
After the Bear Creek Village was decimated by American militia, Chief John and his followed left the reservation a fought a series of battles through the Siskyou mountains, attacking any American settlement in their path, killing men, women, and children. I suggest here that the Rogue River Confederacy wanted to take back their land, assuming that the Americans had broached the treaties through the attacks and through the inaction of federal agents to hold the American perpetrators accountable. There was clearly an unequal system of justice in place, and this frontier area was not at all under the rule of law.
Chief John and his people were defeated in July of 1856 and were sent to the Coast Reservation to live. John moves in 1857 to the Siletz Valley and he becomes a leader to many at the reservation. He is known to have spoken publically to his people about their poor treatment on the reservation and telling them all that they should leave and return to their homes in southwestern Oregon. He is arrested and with his son, imprisoned at The Presidio in San Francisco for several years, in around 1862 he is released and returns to Oregon, to the home of his daughter, at the Grand Ronde Reservation. There he remains until his passing, known by many as Tyee John.
Chief John’s original tribe has been debated for years by scholars of Oregon Native History. Many have assumed him to be Takelman, the original Rogue River tribe of the Rogue River Valley. In numerous accounts, he is addressed as being Rogue River. Rogue River identity itself is confusing, as it has been used by many scholars to mean many different concepts. The Table Rock Reservation was sometimes called the Rogue River Reservation, and in many government letters tribes are assigned an identity related to which temporary reservation they resisted at. Then, after the confederacy formed under Chief John any Natives in than region became known as Rogue River Indians, regardless of their original tribe.
But, Chief John in many accounts before and after he removed to Siletz, was a Shasta Indian primarily. The band he grew up in was a northern Shasta band, from his village at Deer Creek. The furthest north the Shasta peoples had expanded was to the creek at Ashland, Oregon. John was likely from parents of several Native tribes, as it was tribal law that people must marry outside of their tribe. So it may be the case that his mother was Takelma or another tribe, but he centrally was Shasta. His kinship from other tribes would have aided his forming the confederacy.
Too often, studies of the history and cultures of tribes are separated by scholars along state boundaries, as if the action of the tribes in southern Oregon are not to be associated with what is happening in Northern California. But this is a fallacy when tribes are written about historically. The Shasta tribe claimed a vast area in southern Oregon and northern California. The tribes and bands in northern California were in the midst of a fight for survival a few years before the same conflict begins in southern Oregon because the California gold rush predates the Oregon gold rush by about a year. The tribes also communicated with each other and knew about the attacks on their people in the south and on the coast. As gold fever expands northwards rather quickly, a matching set of coastal towns are cropping up in California and Oregon to manage the exportation of gold and the importation of goods for gold miners and settlers. The events of the southern Shasta tribes had to affect the northern Shasta tribes as the tribes in the north began bracing for white people to come amongst them, and in fact, early travelers, explorers, and fur trader records suggest some conflict with the tribes when traveling through the Siskyou Mountains between Oregon and California. The news from the south was very bad, due to the poor treatment of the tribes by miners, and so the northern tribes were likely somewhat prepared to meet these newcomers. The conflicts of the early settlers and explorers were so bad that General Jo Lane was prompted to write a peace treaty with the Rogue River Tribes in 1850, a treaty which becomes the first American treaty in the West.
Shasta peoples from the Northern tribe in Oregon were removed further north to live at the Grand Ronde and Coast Reservations in 1856. But today the Shasta tribe is little known to the tribes in Oregon, besides a few prominent families.
The name Shasta is well associated with areas of California while many of the descendants claim the Oregon reservations as their home. The following tribal names are gathered from A Shasta Vocabulary by William Bright and D.L. Olmsted (1959), and The Shasta-Achomawi: a New Linguistic Stock, with four New Dialects by Roland B. Dixon (1905).
These Shasta bands and groups claimed a very large area of Northern California, and are also associated with the Achumawi and Atsegawi tribes of the same language group.
The story of the California gold rush that overtook and overwhelmed the tribes and forced them from their lands is a history of the Shasta and other tribal peoples. The recovery of the whole Shasta story proceeds as historians continue the process of centralizing the tribal perspectives within the history of the past 200 years of colonization of the west.
Note on Victor Golla’s California Indian Languages volume
The book by Golla is amazing for its breadth but ignores the Oregon Shasta peoples. Golla clearly saw the surrounded tribes in California and Oregon as relevant to the book. There are sections about Takelma and Oregon Athabaskan languages all of which surround and bracket the Oregon Shastans. But the whole of the Oregon Shastans is uninterpreted in the book, even as the California groups are addressed. Golla mentions the Oregon Shastans once but then ignores them thereafter creating a significant unexplained space in the book. It may be that Golla did not have much information about them, as the tribes were removed to the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations in 1856. But there are studies of the Oregon Shasta languages, the first by Albert Gatschet in November of 1877, where he collected texts from the Grand Ronde Reservation, from the “Sasti” or “Shasti” people. Gatschet also collected some Shasta texts from people at the Klamath reservation in September of 1877.
Gatschet 706-1- SWORP collection 1/7/20- Grand Ronde- (Shasti Valley dialect) Leonard and Willie Smith at Dayton
Gatschet 706-2- SWORP Collection 1/8/1- Grand Ronde- (Shasti Valley dialect) Leonard and Willie Smith at Dayton
Gatschet 1572- SWORP Collection 1/8/9- Klamath Reservation (Scotts Valley Dialect) White Cynthia
Gatschet 3991- SWORP Collection 1/8/15- Klamath Reservation (Scotts Valley Dialect) White Cynthia
Golla only mentions Gatchet’s MS 706 in his book. As such from Gatschet’s description, Oregon Shastan appears to be more closely related to Shasta Valley. The Smith brothers, Leonard and Willie, were from Shasta Valley, near Yreka, and yet their family was removed to Grand Ronde, gathered up in the removal following the Rogue River Indian war. White Cynthia’s vocabulary which Gatschet describes as being very different, was identified as being from Scotts Valley, Cynthia had been living near Crescent City before removal to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon.
All transcription mistakes are mine alone.
I began this research to find the stories of the mass poisoning of the Shasta in southern Oregon, a story which still eludes me. There may be a mass grave associated with this act of genocide. Any help would be appreciated.
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.