Their identity was tied to the watersheds and plentiful salmon.
You don’t have to be a 19th century Indian wars expert or even know much about American Indians to recognize such North American tribal names as Sioux, Cheyenne, Apache and Comanche. But other tribes that lived, fought and died in the Wild West have little name recognition today. Even during frontier days such bands were little known nationwide, even if they made their mark in a particular region of the West. One such example is the Rogue River Indians, or Rogues, of Oregon.
By the mid–19th century the Rogues, who arrived in the region some 700 years ago, numbered no more than 10,000.They were a multilingual people. Most, though not all, spoke a variant of Athabascan, among the most widely spoken of all North American Indian languages. Not all of the various Rogue bands were able to converse with each other, yet intermarriage was not uncommon. Hudson’s Bay Co. fur traders operating in the region in the early 19th century called these Indians les coquins (French for “the rogues”).
The Rogue homeland centers on the beautifully rugged region of southwest Oregon, an area drained by several watercourses, of which the Rogue River is the most prominent. Hemmed in on the north by the Umpqua Mountains and the south by the Siskiyou Mountains, these watersheds stretch from the Cascade Range west through the Coast Range to the Pacific Ocean. Dominating this part of the country is the nearly perpetually snowcapped, 9,495-foot volcanic cone of Mount McLoughlin.
The territorial boundaries of the various Rogue bands were fluid and best defined by—and in many cases namesakes of—the various river drainages in which each dwelled. For example, the Upper Coquille band inhabited the watershed of the Coquille River, while the Upper Umpqua band lived in the watershed of that river. Other bands went by the name of their leaders or headmen (e.g., John’s band or Tipsey’s band). The Rogues did not have a formal political structure like some other tribes.
Fishing was the basis of the Rogue way of life. Salmon, in particular, was to the Rogues what buffalo was to the Plains Indians, and their runs were events of great importance. Those bands that lived closest to Pacific naturally had greater access to salmon than did those who dwelled farther inland, but the fish was a dietary staple for all Rogues. Rogue superstitions about food were particularly strict with regard to salmon. Each fish had to be filleted a certain way to pass muster, and a young man’s first salmon was not to be touched by his family.
Another dietary staple was the acorn, which held spiritual significance among the Rogues and required a ceremonial blessing prior to its preparation as food. Women used stones to pulverize the acorns into a powder, from which they could render either a gruellike substance or a flour they then boiled or baked into a form of bread. Coastal bands supplemented their larder with crabs, shellfish, mussels, clams and barnacles. Those living farther inland also gathered grasshoppers, caterpillars, pine nuts and camas bulbs, and hunted deer and elk.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, a move to improve public lands in Oregon Territory, served as a stepping-stone to conflict between the Rogues and the whites. The act granted 320 acres to unmarried white males 18 or older and 640 acres to every married couple, provided the settlers arrive in the territory by year’s end. To gain title, claimants had only to reside on and cultivate the land for four years. Many historians consider it the most generous sale of public lands in U.S. history, and its cultural legacy remains apparent in the present-day Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue River valleys. By the time the law expired in 1855, the government had granted more than 7,000 patents, turning over more than 2 million acres of land. The influx irrevocably disrupted the lifestyle of the Rogues.
Gold strikes in southwest Oregon Territory in the early 1850s, coupled with an increasing flow of pioneer traffic, finally sparked conflict with the Rogues. Although not normally aggressive, certain bands were not above taking advantage of a situation. In spring 1850 Rogues attacked and robbed a party of miners returning to Oregon Territory from California with a quantity of gold. It was a portent of things to come.
Motivated by the lure of potential riches, prospectors flooded to the region in ever-increasing numbers to scour likely spots for gold. The invasion adversely impacted the Rogues. The whites hunted out game populations, and debris from mining efforts fouled streams, in turn thinning the yields of salmon and other forms of marine life on which the Rogues subsisted.
Tensions boiled over in October 1855 when a party of militiamen from the boomtown of Jacksonville attacked a village of sick and starving Rogues that had jumped nearby Table Rock Reservation. Fueled in part by residual anger over the earlier Rogue raid and robbery of returning miners, the attack claimed the lives of 28 Indians. This and similar attacks prompted some 400 Rogues to turn themselves in to the commander of regional Fort Lane, seeking protection from the Indian-hating volunteers. Dragoons ultimately marched these Rogues some 200 miles north to the Grande Ronde Reservation near present-day Salem, Ore.
Other Rogues sought refuge in the fastness of the Coast Range. Here, under the leadership of Chief John (also known as Tecumtum) and others, they repelled further attacks by Regular Army units and citizen volunteers, particularly at the Battle of Hungry Hill in late October.
Hostilities continued into 1856. The Army did filter additional troops into the area, but it was the volunteers, who swelled in ranks to more than 700, who most aggressively pursued the holdout Rogues. In February 1856 the grip tightened, as Regular Army troops moved north along the coast from Crescent City, Calif., while the volunteers marched downriver toward the coast, attacking Rogues who had recently surrendered to Regular Army troops at Big Meadow. But the surviving Rogues were not finished and nearly defeated Army troops at Big Bend of the Rogue River. Finally, though, after running desperately low on food and supplies, the remaining Rogues surrendered, bringing the war to a close.
In the aftermath of the Rogue River War, the Army confined the various bands to two reservations, the Grande Ronde and the Coast, intending to isolate them from whites until integrated into white society as farmers. In 1865 the government split the poorly managed Coast Reservation into two sections: The northern unit, on the Siletz River, became the Siletz Reservation, while the southern half was established as the Alsea Reservation, until being absorbed into the Siletz in 1875. Officially recognized today are the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians [ctsi.nsn .us] and Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde [www.grandronde.org], the latter of which includes Umpquas, Molallas, Rogues, Kalapuyas and Shastas.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.