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A Brief Interpretive History of the Rogue River War and the
Coast, Alsea, and Siletz Reservations to 1894

      The Rogue River War began in October, 1855, when a mob from the mining town of Jacksonville, in the Rogue River Valley in southwestern Oregon, killed at least twenty-eight Indian people who were camped near the Table Rock Reservation.
      This and several subsequent attacks on Rogue River Valley Indian people were meant to start an Indian war that would employ miners unable to mine because of a drought. Like several conflicts in nearby northern California in the 1850s, the Rogue River War was a pork-barrel war. Land was not an issue. Leaders of the southwestern Oregon Indian people had signed treaties giving up most of their territory.
      Both the Oregon superintendent of Indian affairs, Joel Palmer, and the U.S. Army commander on the Pacific Coast, General John Ellis Wool, publicly opposed the war. But Joseph Lane, the territorial delegate in Washington, a man of some influence in the ruling Democratic party, declared himself in favor of any and all wars, and was expected to procure quick payment of war claims.
      Indian people who elected to fight, led by Tecumtum, took shelter in the Coast Range. They successfully resisted attacks, most notably in the Battle of Hungry Hill at the end of October. Others elected to put themselves under the protection of regular troops at Fort Lane under the command of Captain Andrew Smith. They were taken in January, 1856, to the Grand Ronde Reservation in northwestern Oregon.
      In February, 1856, the Indian people in the mountains took the war down the Rogue River to the Pacific Coast, perhaps to buy time to find food after a difficult winter. They nearly cleared the coast of non-Indians, but in May they came under attack from two directions. Regular troops moved north along the coast from Crescent City, California, and met little opposition. Most of the combatants submitted to the commander of this force, perhaps because they had some confidence that the army would protect them from volunteer troops. The volunteers, meanwhile, came down the Rogue River toward the coast, and at Big Meadow attacked Indian people who had already submitted to the regulars.
      The followers of Tecumtum made their final resistance at Big Bend on the Rogue River, where they almost overcame regulars who were guarding a prisoner-of-war camp.
      Most survivors of the war were taken away by steamboat, but some were obliged to walk up the coast to their new reservation, the Coast Reservation, on the central coast.

The Reservations

      The Coast and Grand Ronde Reservations were arguably the earliest reservations established along the lines policymakers and reformers were discussing at the time. They were meant to concentrate Indian people, keep them isolated from non-Indians, and train them for integration into American society as farmers, shorn of Indian culture. Schools were established, and missionary work was encouraged.
      The Coast Reservation was badly managed by a string of corrupt agents (for example, Robert B. Metcalfe and B.R. Biddle), who did not share the philosophy behind the new reservation policy. And it included very little usable farmland. The Indian people fished, hunted, and did farm labor in the Willamette Valley to support themselves. They held on to their own system of social and political organization, based on small villages.
      In 1865, the Coast Reservation was broken up. The middle section, including Yaquina Bay, was taken by an executive order following lobbying on behalf of a road company seeking to get a federal land grant by building a road from the Willamette Valley to the bay. The northern part of the reservation, where the agency was located on the Siletz River, became known as the Siletz Reservation. The southern part, which remained under the jurisdiction of the Siletz Agency, became known as the Alsea Reservation. It was managed from a sub-agency at the mouth of the Yachats River.
      In 1875, Congress closed the Alsea Reservation and took the northern part of the Siletz Reservation. This was presented as an economy measure, saving the cost of the Alsea sub-agency. Skeptical senators inserted a clause requiring Indian consent. The Indian people declined to consent. But the agent at Siletz claimed they had indicated a willingness to consent, and the federal commissioner sent to negotiate with them, their former agent Benjamin Simpson, certified their agreement. Some people were removed to Siletz, after many difficulties and much suffering, but most refused to go.
      In 1894, the Siletz Reservation was allotted under the Dawes Act or General Allotment Act of 1887. Allotment is the division of reservation land into small tracts given to individuals as their private property. Reformers saw it as the final step from tribal life to assimilation, and assumed that it would allow Indian people to take their place in American society as farmers.
      Although they had long worked individual plots of land, Siletz residents had resisted allotment in the 1870s, probably because it would have divided their villages and wrecked their social and political systems. But by the middle 1880s, they were living in separated houses, probably because that was the pattern of housing chosen by agents as new housing was built, and allotment became acceptable. In 1891, they negotiated with the government for the sale of the four-fifths of the reservation that was not allotted or otherwise set aside.
      See index for documents about allotment on the Siletz Reservation.
      The results of allotment on the Siletz Reservation are suggested by quantitative data from 1887 and 1904, which also suggest that much more land was allotted in the 1890s than had been considered tillable in 1887.


      In subsequent years, much of the allotted land would be lost to the Indian community. For several years, the Indian service routinely sold allotted land when the owner died rather than cope with dividing it among the heirs. Other allotments were sold or given up for taxes because they included too little farmland or grazing land to produce a living income.
      Despite many problems stemming from poverty and the pressures of adaptation, the Siletz people retained their distinct identity, even after the federal government terminated their status as a federally-recognized tribe in the 1950s. They reclaimed their recognition from the federal government in 1977, and in 1980, they secured creation of a new Siletz Reservation.

This account is based on the research for the book The Rogue River Indian War and Its Aftermath, 1850-1980 by E.A. Schwartz, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1997.

Link to Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians website.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bancroft, Hubert Howe (Frances Fuller Victor). The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Vols. 29-30. San Francisco: The History Company, Publishers, 1888.

Beckham, Stephen Dow. The Indians of Western Oregon: This Land Was Theirs. Coos Bay, Oregon: Arago Books, 1977.

Beckham, Stephen Dow. Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 (republished in 1997 by Oregon State University).

Beeson, John. A Plea for the Indians. Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1982.

Bensell, Royal A. All Quiet on the Yamhill: The Civil War in Oregon. Gunther Barth, ed. Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1959.

Castillo, Edward D. "The Impact of Euro-American Exploration and Settlement," in Robert F. Heizer, ed., Handbook of American Indians: California. Vol. 8. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, 99-127.

Davenport, T.W. "Recollections of an Indian Agent." Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 8 (March 1907): 1- 41, (June 1907): 95-128, (September 1907): 231-64, (December 1907): 353-74.

Douthit, Nathan. Uncertain Encounters: Indians and Whites at Peace and War in Southern Oregon, 1820s-1860s. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2002.

Du Bois, Cora. "The 1870 Ghost Dance." University of California Publications in Anthropological Records 3 (1946): 1-152.

Glisan, Rodney. Journal of Army Life. San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft Co., 1874.

Nan Hannon and Richard K. Olmo, eds., Living With the Land: The Indians of Southwest Oregon Medford, Oregon: Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1990.

Hendrickson, James E. Joe Lane of Oregon: Machine Politics and the Sectional Crisis, 1845-1861. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Kasner, Leone Letson. Survival of an Artifact. Dallas, Oregon: Itemizer-Observer, 1976.

Kent, William Eugene. The Siletz Indian Reservation 1855-1900. Newport, Oregon: Lincoln County Historical Society, 1977.

Nash, Wallis. Oregon: There and Back in 1877. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1976.

Nash, Wallis, Two Years in Oregon. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882.

Nesmith, James W. "A Reminiscence of the Indian War, 1853." Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 7 (1906): 213-221.

Newsom, David. David Newsom: The Western Observer 1805-1882. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1972.

O'Donnell, Terence. An Arrow in the Earth: General Joel Palmer and the Indians of Oregon. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1991.

Price, Richard L. Newport, Oregon: 1866-1936, Portrait of a Coastal Resort. Newport: Lincoln County Historical Society, 1975.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Robbins, Harvey. "Journal of the Rogue River War." Oregon Historical Quarterly 34 (December 1933): 345-58.

Schwartz, E.A. "Sick Hearts: Indian Removal on the Oregon Coast, 1875-1881." Oregon Historical Quarterly 92 (Fall 1991): 228-264.

Trennert, Robert A, Jr., Alternative to Extinction: Federal Indian Policy and the Beginnings of the Reservation System, 1846-51 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1975)

Victor, Frances Fuller. The Early Indian Wars of Oregon. Salem: Frank C. Baker, State Printer, 1894.

Youst, Lionel, and William R. Seaburg. Coquelle Thompson, Athabaskan Witness: A Cultural Biography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Oress, 2002.