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Causes of the 1853 Rogue River War

The first Rogue River War was a series of skirmishes and battles between mainly gold miners and the tribes. The miners had no regard for the tribes and tended to treat them badly. Some miners, the worst of the bunch, would murder native men on sight and take native women to rape them. It’s very hard to find the ultimate beginning of the conflicts, but it likely resides in the treatment of the tribes, and the histories from the 1840s of white encroachment into the region seeking gold riches. Other white men established settlements on the coast in both California and Oregon and these forced settlements also involved murders and attempted genocide of the tribes, most notably those settlements at Crescent City (CA), Smith River (CA), Brookings (Chetco, OR), and Port Orford (OR).

Whites at the time hardly knew much about how the tribes communicated with one another and how interrelated they all were. News of murders and genocides would reach inland tribes and they would then be expecting the worst of the whites and sometimes respond with retribution, revenge, righteous indignation at the death of kinsmen and women. The lack of justice was all part of the formula for war. Tribal peoples in the region had a form of justice that when something like a murder happened to their people, they would expect something in return. Murder could be paid back with enough wealth. But Whites rarely even thought or considered this so the debt due to the tribes grew over years of encroachment and disrespect of tribal territories and peoples.

While the justice system suggested by whites in their treaties and they insisted the tribes follow in their actions, that of arrest and subject to the rule of (US) federal and states laws, did not apply equally to tribal peoples. Rarely did they get to testify in court due to the fact they could not speak English and Justices insisted on English use in court. And so most capital crimes went unpunished when whites did the deeds. But when natives were guilty of some infraction, whites insisted they be arrested and turned over for justice, which normally became forfeiture of their lives.

Must white histories of the Rogue River Wars leave the causes nebulous, if not outright blame the tribes. Rarely have I ever seen a reason cited for why the tribes acted so violently. Of the 1855-1856 Rogue River War, The direct cause was identified by none-less than General John E. Wool, Commander of the Pacific, who came to the opinion after an investigation that the whole cause was white peoples and their constant attacks on the tribes. but the earlier “war”, really a series of battles and not really a formally declared war, but still caused an environment tense and stressful enough to cause federal officials to change their plans to quell the violence and separate the parties.

In September of 1853, General Lane and Joel Palmer teamed up to negotiate two treaties with the Rogue river tribes, the first on September 8th a Treaty of Peace, and the second on September 10th a Treaty of Purchase

The following report of Samuel Culver provided some of the reasons for the changes that happened to the Rogue River tribes. He details the tribal Seasonal rounds and exactly how the tribes lost their root crops to the settlers which caused them to become mostly hunters and fishers. The famine and starvation had to have caused much stress, especially in the winter months when they did not have stores of winter foods. Then they had to move around more often to find the game and perhaps some smaller areas for root crops. This encroachment by the whites on land in the valleys, then more encroachment by white miners in the river valleys, would have caused tribes to feel as if they were losing their country, with feelings of resentment.


Report of July 20, 1854

The food of the Indians consists of Deer, Elk, and Bear meat with fish of several kinds, principally salmon, and a great variety of roots. They cannot supply themselves by the chase for want of ammunition, as there is a territorial statute prohibiting the sale of it to them. And were it otherwise it would not be prudent to give them much at this time. They take more of less salmon during five months in the year. Formerly they subsisted in the main upon roots, of which there was a great variety and quantity, – each kind has its locality and time of ripening or becoming fit for use. But the whites have nearly destroyed this kind of food by plowing the ground and crowding the Indians from localities where it could once be procured. They did not find these roots upon any one tract of country, but there would be an abundance in one locality one month, and of another variety at another place during the ensuing. The settlers interfered by the cultivation of the soil in the valleys with the obtaining of species of food, to such an extent, that while they can get plenty during certain seasons of the year, they will at other times by in a starving condition.

Under these circumstances it was deemed necessary to anticipate the ratification of the treaty and put in a crop of potatoes sufficient to prevent them from suffering, and perhaps starving the ensuing winter, also, on account of the influence it would have in keeping them under control during the summer. Humanity too seemed to require it, for our people had taken from them their means of subsistence, and ought at least in return to see that they did not starve before they received an equivalent for the territory relinquished by them; for as they say promises do not stop hunger. Unless a crop was put in the past spring, of course it could not be done until the next, which would allow more than two years to elapse from the treaty of purchase until they realized an equivalent in the way of provisions, unless obtained sooner for them by purchase and the annuity is not sufficient even to keep them alive if invested in this manner.

The chiefs urged it, and said that although they would like clothes & blankets for their comfort, yet something upon which life could be sustained ought first to be looked to,- and further they urged that it was a thing impossible to control their people with certain famine staring them in the face.

They express a willingness to try to imitate the whites and raise something to sustain themselves whenever the means if so doing is furnished them, and to do all in their power to induce their people to do the same. And I have strong hopes that nearly all can be persuaded to do so.

Samuel Culver, Indian Agent


The Indians that properly belong in what is known as the Rogue River Valley. Though about one quarter may safely be added to cover the number of transient Indian generally in the country…. Transient Indians have been and still are in the habit of taking advantage of the had repute in which those belonging here are held, to come into their country for the purpose of committing depredation, which are charged to those permanently residing here, for generally the settlers are not aware of the fact even, that strange Indians are, or have been, in their midst. At the present times there is a party of Shasta Indians in the mountains, not more than thirty miles from this agency who belong in California. They have already stolen five horses, and before they can be found and hunted out may steal and destroy much more.

It is these tribal forces that moved eventually to the Table Rock Reservation, to try to live in peace as they promised in their signed treaties. There they resided for 2 years, but by 1855 they had had enough as they were continually attacked by the whites. The final straw was the attack on the Deer Creek Village, which wiped out most of a whole band. From 1855 to 1856 the second Rogue River War commenced with Tecumtum, Chief John, taking charge and leading his people and other bands into the Siskiyous to try to retake their lands, likely feeling that the whites had lied again, and reneged on their treaties.

Categories: California Natives colonization General History Oregon Coast Oregon indians Rogue Valley treaties

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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.

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