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Rogue River Peoples, Oregon

On a bright summer day I was visiting the Rogue River Valley and stopped at upper Table Rock. I knew about the trail to the top and park and took that trail. I felt many things about that place, I am a descendant of the Takelma peoples, sometimes called Rogue Rivers, and my people were moved from this place more than 150 years ago. For those of us tribal people, we feel drawn to our former tribal lands, and once there the discovery of the landscape and its dramatic features is everything, it is character building, it is identity affirming, it is life itself. I probably have 500 generations of my family buried in this place, perhaps 15,000 years of history, my people are part of this land and I feel that powerful connection.

Upper Table Rock
Upper Table Rock as seen from Lower Table Rock 2013

Then in the 19th century, our lands were invaded by white people first traveling through, then a bit later feverishly seeking gold. The whites became numerous and they took advantage of us and we fought back. Our women were raped and our people killed by these newcomers as we fought to survive in our own lands. We even heard from their officials. Men like Gen. Jo Lane visited us and told us that we need to be peaceful and leave the white people alone. We tried to live in peace but kept on being attacked by their outlaws and rogues. Their laws were not our laws. Our laws told us that when someone wrongs you or your family they must pay for their actions. Since they refused, we were in our right to take what they had, what they valued, their horses, cattle, and guns. We did that lawful thing and took from them the value of the things they took from up. If they left their goods unguarded we took that. if they have many horses we took a few. If their men were bad men of bad hearts we took their lives. That was our law, laws which they refused to honor even though they were the newcomers, and we were the first people. Then when things became very bad they began murdering whole villages of our people and we became angry. Their papers promising peace were useless, We had even moved to their reservation as their promised peace and payment for our lands, and their bad men kept attacking us. So a great man rose, Chief John, we called him now, even though we knew his first name Tecumtum, Elk Killer. John was very angry telling us the truth from his heart, that the treaties were lies and we needed to take our lands back from these bad people. We must kill them all so they will leave forever. So many tribes joined the Chief, many chiefs of their own tribes and they began killing all people they found settled on our lands. we lasted four seasons and then were defeated at Big Bend. we knew then we could not beat these people now and chose to remove north to find peace at the place they promised, where everything would be better. But we found that that reservation took was full of bad people who did not care about us and we began getting sick. many of us died in those first years. They would not give us enough food, they gave us canvas tents for houses and we could not hunt because they took our weapons. We willed with many tribes now, more than 20, and some showed us how to live in this place, where the food on the coast was, and how to get it. Very few of our people survived into their 20th century, still fewer became citizens in 1924. So many of us are gone. by the time our seventh descendant found their way back to the homelands, there were few people to show us the culture any longer.

Now the details of the tribes of the Rogue River valley are muddled in history. Families from several tribes in the valley now claim their ownership of the valley. There are the Takelma people, usually noted as the first tribe of the valley. Then the less well known Latgawa people, also called upland Takelmas. It is thought that few of these people survived or perhaps no people are yet alive from this tribe. There is also the Hanesakh tribe, a division of the Takelmas that lived in the eastern hills. Then there are the Shasta people. They were present in the valley, the most northern of these people likely lived at Ashland, along Bear Creek. Chief John is said to have been Shasta by his family and many ethnographic accounts. There were also many Athapaskan tribes in the vicinity, like the Applegates. and in the headwaters of the Rogue River the southern Molallas. Finally, the Klamaths were known to be very close to this valley, just over the eastern ridges.

The name Rogue River tribes is not technically correct. The original tribe was the Takelmas, and later during the war, the title Rogue River was applied to the tribes who joined the Rogue River Confederacy who fought to drive the Americans from southern Oregon. The parties to this designation were Takelma, Shastas, some Athapaskans, and even Cow Creek Umpqua. Cow Creek peoples were not really even “Umpqua” peoples, they lived on the Cow Creek River, a branch of the Umpqua near the Umpqua Valley, but they spoke Takelma language. They are then actually part of the Takelma culture sphere.

Ethnographic accounts from Harrington suggest some details about the Takelmas that are rarely noted. First, they lived as much around Grants Pass as in the Rogue Valley. Frances Johnson Harrington’s informant and travel partner had many placenames that spanned a region from Lower Table Rock to Grants Pass and Jump Off Jo area and down into the Umpquas valley. She identified as Takelma. Harrington also took trips with Molly Orton, identified as an upper Takelma or Latgawa descendant. Orton described placenames from Gold Hill to the south of Ashland, to the east near to the Klamath territory and west to the Applegate area.

Orton’s placenames about Ashland are very interesting as there is a pejorative road named Dead Indian Memorial Road, that stretched from Ashland to the Klamath Lakes. Numerous of Orton’s recalled names were around Dead Indian Road and one, in particular, suggests the original need for the road in trade with the Klamaths. The placenames also suggest that the Latgawas had a presence here.

This fact will upset the pro-Shasta peoples. there are today several groups of Shasta people demographically divided by time and the US government. The placing of the Oregon-California border through the Shasta territory creates one division. Then Shastas in the north signed a treaty and were removed to the Grand Ronde and later Coast Indian reservations. Then in the 1980s the Shasta tribes of California organized under the Redding Rancheria in part, were restored. So today we have formal and informal groups of Shastas vying for attention. I have heard one group this that Dead Indian Road is a memorial to their people. Another group claims that the territory was owned by the Shasta’s solely. Generally, these stories are still very confused and few have references to any first-person accounts yet. Maps created of tribal territories, anthropological, linguistic, or otherwise, are largely based on European notions that all nations had to have distinct land claims with borders and boundaries. This is likely not the case, as there are situations all over Indian country were there are shared areas and shared resources. In the history of the region, the Takelmas were probably the first tribe, with movements into the area by Athapaskans and Shastas. There was quite likely a Shasta village at Bear Creek, but we need to think outside of the construction of tribal history that makes it a flat plane without much depth. There were movements of peoples and its highly likely that the “newer” tribes were moving into the region very recently. More work needs to be done on the Shasta knowledge of this region to see if they too had their own names for features around Ashland.

Historical confusion is the main issue here. White historians wrote histories of the region label the “Indians” as savages who committed war upon the settlers. These stories are written without asking Native peoples their perspectives about their history, nor filling in the historic and cultural contexts of what was happening to the tribes as to why they reacted so violently to the Americans. Those people who just believe this is another attempt at History revisionism, need to really review older histories of the region for “any” native derived perspectives about the Rogue River wars? Native peoples are labeled “warlike” “violent” and even “Rogues” from very early on. Why? Answer that question in your own time doing your own studies. Then answer what you would do if someone invaded your homelands and killed your people? Now then we can understand why the history of the region has centered around beating the Rogue River Indians in the 1850s and driving them out. Then answer what you really know about these tribes. I am guessing not much. Now understanding this begin your history all over again, build it from scratch, and work to understand both sides of the issues. I think you will find that the Takelamas and Other tribes were really under the gun to fight or die and they tried to do just this. Farmers took their lands and plowed under their root foods, hunted out their game, and drove them from their lands. That real threat to survival was what caused the wars.

Watch for the next essay about the Takelmas and Latgawas with some placenames marked on regional maps. we will also look at some interesting contexts and what sparked the Rogue River Indian war in the first place.

Categories: General History

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.

3 replies

  1. Glad you could put eyes and feet on that place. You make a good point about the tangled and often inaccurate history. Have you ever wrote about the impetuous for these bad hearts? In that what made the settlers believe in “manifest destiny”. Maybe that doesn’t have a place here, on your blog, but I often wonder about that. Hitler seemed to like that idea, but how the hell did the damn settlers “buy into that” ? Maybe it had something to do with Maslow’s hierarchy. I imagine you don’t want to waste your time discussing that; don’t blame you, but I wonder. Thanks for all the writing you share.

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    1. Nothing is out of bounds for me. I normally spend my time addressing ideas not well addressed in the past, unique histories, and native perspectives about notions like Manifest Destiny. Its a pretty well-covered topic in history and Native studies. I think a good number of my essays address the concepts of MD well from many angles.

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