Rogue River Wars
The Rogue River Wars was an armed conflict in 1855–56 between the US Army, local militias and volunteers, and the Native American tribes commonly grouped under the designation of Rogue River Indians, in the Rogue River Valley area of what today is southern Oregon.1 While the conflict designation usually includes only the hostilities that took place during the mentioned period of time, numerous previous skirmishes had been escalating in the area, eventually breaking into open warfare.
The interaction of the Rogue River Indians and the first settlers who established homesteads in the area was relatively peaceful. However, the situation changed drastically with the opening of the Oregon Trail and the gold rushes in northern California and later in eastern Oregon. Larger groups of settlers and miners entered the area, consuming without restrictions the natural resources upon which the Indians relied on for living, like hunting, fishing and chopping down entire forests of oak trees.
The first recorded hostilities can be traced to American Ewing Young’s travel to Oregon in 1834 when his party murdered several natives and buried their bodies on the island where the party was camped.2 These bodies were later discovered by the local tribe and led to a retaliation the next year when an American fur trapping party passed through and was attacked by the Indians.2 Four of the eight European-Americans were killed with William J. Bailey and George Gay as two survivors.2 Then in 1837 (as part of the Willamette Cattle Company) Bailey, Gay and others were herding cattle north to the Willamette Valley when Gay shot and killed a native boy for no other reason than in retaliation for the previous attacks years earlier.2 The local indians were unsuccessful in seeking vengeance during the remainder of the cattle drive as only a few animals were lost to their attacks.2
The Guide to the Cayuse, Yakima, and Rogue River Wars Papers 1847-1858 at the University of Oregon summarizes the war as follows:
Throughout the 1850s Governor Stevens of the Washington Territory clashed with the US Army over Indian policy: Stevens wanted to displace Indians and take their land, but the army opposed land grabs. White settlers in the Rogue River area began to attack Indian villages, and Captain Smith, commandant of Fort Lane, often interposed his men between the Indians and the settlers. In October 1855, he took Indian women and children into the fort for their own safety; but a mob of settlers raided their village, killing 27 Indians. The Indians killed 27 settlers expecting to settle the score, but the settlers continued to attack Indian camps through the winter. On May 27, 1856 Captain Smith arranged the surrender of the Indians to the US Army, but the Indians attacked the soldiers instead. The commander fought the Indians until reinforcements arrived the next day; the Indians retreated. A month later they surrendered and were sent to reservations.3
The Battle of Hungry Hill, the largest battle of the Rogue River Wars,4 occurred on Oct. 31, 1855, Two hundred Native Americans, located in the mountains "southwest of present-day Roseburg"5 and armed with muzzleloaders and bows and arrows managed to hold off a group of "more than 300 ... dragoons, militiamen and volunteers."5
The Native Americans were "camped with their women and children" 5 on the top of a hill, with the soldiers located across a narrow ravine about 1,500 feet deep. The U.S. troops had planned a surprise attack, but their position was given away by a warning fire. Seeing that they had been discovered, the soldiers attempted to charge down the ravine and up the other side, but were thwarted, as the Native Americans had good cover in the high ground, and many proved to be good marksmen. "U.S. troops and militiamen retreated out of the mountains ... As many as 36 were dead, missing or severely wounded. Native casualties numbered fewer than 20."5
Archaeologist Mark Tveskov, who discovered the site using metal detectors, states that although this battle involving 500 people was a "major defeat" for U.S. troops, it is not well known for a variety of reasons, such as "the disappointment and blame among militiamen and Army regulars over the defeat. Back then, Oregon telegraph cables were in their infancy, and photographers who would document the Civil War several years later were not on hand. If Hungry Hill had happened after the Civil War, it would have been front-page news in The New York Times."5
- Waldman, Carl. "Takelma and Tututni resistance." Atlas of the North American Indian, Third Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009. American Indian History Online. Facts On File, Inc. (accessed December 4, 2012)
- "Ewing Young Route". Oregon's Historic Trails. End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Retrieved 2006-12-21.
- Smith, Rose M. and Barrett Codieck (2010). "Guide to the Cayuse, Yakima, and Rogue River Wars Papers 1847-1858". University of Oregon. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
- ICTMN staff (November 7, 2012). "Lost Oregon Indian Battlefield Discovery Attributable to ‘Detective Work’". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved December 4, 2012.
- Wilson, Kimberly A.C. (October 12, 2012). "Hungry Hill, the lost site of historic Indian battle in southern Oregon, is found". The Oregonian (Portland, OR). Retrieved December 4, 2012.
- E.A. Schwartz, The Rogue River indian War and Its aftermath, 1850-1980. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
- The Fort Lane Archaeology Project—Fort Lane was an important base for the US Army during this conflict
- Guide to the Rogue River Wars (ca. 1855-1857) at the University of Oregon.