The Indians drove them off, but others came to settle coastal Oregon.

John M. Kirkpatrick and his eight-man party watched as the band of several dozen Quatomah Tututni Indians pressed their thread-like advance up the narrow ridge from the beach below in the area of present-day Port Orford,Oregon. The timing was right. He touched off a small field piece, and it spewed its bar lead shrapnel into the advancing Indians. “The execution was fearful,”recalled Kirkpatrick, “and such a tumbling of scared Indians I never saw before or since.” The fusillade cut down more than a dozen Tututnis, and Kirkpatrick’s men dispatched several more, bringing the total Tututni dead to 23. During the confrontation the warriors had released a volley of arrows, two of which found their mark. One of Kirkpatrick’s men took an arrow to the breastbone, while another caught one in the neck. Establishing a settlement in Tututni territory on Oregon’s southern coast figured to be a tougher task than expected.

On the previous day, June 9, 1851, Kirkpatrick’s force had disembarked from the American steamer Sea Gull onto the sheltered beach. A settlement there would provide an anchorage to serve inland settlements and mining camps.The Tututnis had greeted the newcomers and seemed disposed to trade. Sea Gull Captain William Tichenor told the landing party he would return in a fortnight with more supplies and weapons. In the meantime Kirkpatrick’s men had to make do with a modest amount of supplies and weapons—two rifles, three outdated flintlock muskets, a revolver, two derringers, a rusty sword and the small cannon.“You will never need them,” Tichenor had reassured Kirkpatrick with a laugh.

“There is no danger from the Indians.”Yet Kirkpatrick seemed to be spoiling fora fight. On landing he had told Tichenor that he didn’t like the looks of things and that “those Indians mean mischief.”It was Kirkpatrick who had insisted on taking the cannon off Sea Gull and carting it up the sea stack that would become known as Battle Rock.

The Tututnis comprised several loosely knit Athabascan-speaking villages along a stretch of the southwestern Oregon coast centered on the mouth of the Rogue River. The extended family served as the social and political unit, and the people followed the ebb and flow of the seasons to fish for salmon, gather edible plants and berries, scavenge the occasional beached whale and hunt marine mammals, deer and fowl. The Tututnis and their ancestors had inhabited this coastline for eight millennia.

After the June 10 confrontation the nine tense newcomers maintained their position on Battle Rock. Kirkpatrick informed the Indians through sign language that he and his men would leave in 14 days when Sea Gull returned. All remained quiet for those two weeks. But on the 15th day,with no sign of the steamer, a war party of perhaps 400 Indians gathered for an assault of the stack. Well-placed shots from Kirkpatrick and James Carrigan cut down the Quatomah headman, which halted the Tututnis’ advance. The defenders,however, realized that with ammunition running low and night falling, they could not stop another run at their position.At dusk the would-be settlers deserted the rock and fled into the wilderness.

On June 26, just a day after the Kirkpatrick party’s flight from their perch on Battle Rock, the steamer Columbia arrived. (Sea Gull had been held up in port.)Captain A.V.H. LeRoy found signs of a battle but no trace of the men. But beneath a stump atop the stack he discovered a cryptic note penned by Kirkpatrick: “We are now surrounded by three to four hundred Indians hungry for our scalps.” On return to Portland, Captain LeRoy reported a supposed massacre.

Two weeks after hearing the bad news,Anson Dart, superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory, visited the site. After interviewing the Indians, he concluded a massacre had indeed taken place—but it was the Tututnis, not the white men, who were the victims.

According to the accounts recorded by Dart, the Tututnis had greeted Kirkpatrick and his men on the beach and helped unload supplies, even the cannon. Immediately after Sea Gull had departed, Kirkpatrick instructed the Tututnis to come at dusk to the big rock and receive pay for their help. As they worked their way up the rocky ridge, the Tututnis told Dart, they were expecting gifts not gunfire. So when Kirkpatrick set the firebrand to the cannon’s touch hole, it came as a shock. To the Tututni that outcrop at Port Orford would not be known as Battle Rock but Massacre Rock.

Dart knew from his dealings with the coastal Indians that the Tututnis’ customary tactic was to draw out their enemies, not fight them head-on. The Indians knew the white men had a cannon with them, so an uphill charge on a narrow ridge seemed highly improbable. At the first clash at Battle Rock, the warriors claimed, they only let their arrows fly in self-defense while retreating under fire.“Instead of an Indian massacre of a white settlement,” Dart later surmised,“it was an atrocious massacre of peaceable and friendly Indians.”

Kirkpatrick and his men had indeed made it safely away from Battle Rock.After six days on the run in the wilderness, they reached the mouth of the Umpqua River, where friendly Coos Indians fed them and ferried them across the river. On the following day the party reached white settlements farther up the Umpqua. On July 11 Kirkpatrick returned to Portland and assured the populace he and his men had not been the victims of a massacre.

Captain Tichenor, meanwhile, returned  to Port Orford, with 70 well-armed men.From their base William Green T’Vault set out with a vanguard of about a dozen men on August 24, to establish a route to the interior. The small expedition was a disaster. After the party lost most of its supplies, several men deserted. T’Vault pressed on, and after running afoul of another tribe, the Coquilles, was fortunate to return with five of his men.

On September 14 Dart, too, returned to Port Orford. This time he bought along U.S. Army Lieutenant August Kautz and20 dragoons to establish a post and prevent any further trouble with the Indians. As the settlement of Port Orford progressed (it wasn’t formally founded until 1856), the encroachment of Tututni territory also continued.

On September 20 Dart executed treaties with “chiefs and headmen” of the coastal tribes. The terms of the one he negotiated with the Yoyotan, Youqueechee and Quatomah people promised an annual allotment of $2,500 worth of clothing and other provisions, to be supplied for10 years. In turn, the Indians ceded all land between the Rogue and Coquillerivers, up to the crest of the Coast Range(roughly 600 square miles). For that same term the treaty permitted the Indians “free and unmolested possession of the ground now occupied by their houses” and to continue to fish freely.

Over the next few years settlers ignored the treaty, which was never ratified, and this led to several minor clashes with the Tututnis. Initially, the Indians had some tactical successes. But in 1855 all-out war erupted between the whites and the Rogue River tribes, and the following year the Tututnis and other bands were forced off their lands. The Army loaded them onto Columbia at Port Orford and shuttled them northward for relocation on the Siletz Reservation. There agency authorities split up families in a preemptive attempt to deter an uprising. The Tututni culture was further diluted as agents mustered them in with the Chetcos, Tolowas and other coastal clans and collectively designated them the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. Further white settlement over the next 20 years reduced reservation lands by three-quarters.

Agent Dart fairly summed up the Tututnis’ 19th-century downfall in a July 1851 letter to Indian Affairs Chairman Luke Lea in Washington, D.C., in which he wrote that the settlers “look upon Indians as intruders and having no more rights in this country than wild beasts.”


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.