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Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmenby Stephen Dow Beckham
By Stephen Dow Beckham
The signs of an Indian presence lay at hand. Atop the ridges near the mouth of the Rogue River and on the shoulder of Mt. Emily in the Chetco country were the rings of stone where young people had hunkered down to dream, pray, and fast during their spirit quests. Along the seashore lay moldering stacks of mussel and clam shells. These middens marked former villages and gave evidence of the bounty of marine foodstuffs that once nourished those who lived there. Rows of shallow, rectangular pits on the margin of the Illinois and Rogue rivers were evidence of the plank houses that once lined the old river terraces. Petroglyphs etched deeply into the boulders marked places where the human will to design and create art had proved powerful and almost timeless.
These were the clues that stirred questions and prodded my research when, in the mid-60s, I decided to explore the history of the subjugation and removal of the Indians of southwestern Oregon from their ages-old homeland. When I began the project, only a few Indians remained in the region. Some were descended from the aboriginal inhabitants of the long-deserted villages. Others had moved into the region from the Klamath River of northern California or more distant places to find a home far from cities, highways, and the modern world.
The research for the book included an exploration of the Rogue River watershed from its headwaters in the Cascades and Siskiyous to its almost lazy entry through the gravels at its mouth into the Pacific. The journey took me to boxes of U.S. Army correspondence, post returns, Bureau of Indian Affairs papers, and cartographic records in the National Archives and Indian vocabularies in the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. I spent days at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley--sometimes with the sounds of student protestors and the scent of tear gas of those troubled times--to read pioneer autobiographies, oral histories dictated in the 1870s, and the handwritten "express messages" from the Oregon Volunteers, I visited county historical museums to seek diaries and letters and read several years of the Alta California (San Francisco), Oregon Statesman (Oregon City and Salem), and surviving copies of the Crescent City Herald (Crescent City, California).
Steadily the materials yielded the story. Sadly, however, my research mission could only indirectly approach the Indian side of the tragic history that unfolded in the 1850s in southwestern Oregon. Except for Edward S. Curtis, famed photographer of Native Americans, none of the anthropologists who interviewed the Indians who had endured and survived the calamitous Rogue River Wars had asked them for their memories of those times. Curtis, whose photographic work brought him to the Siletz Reservation about 1910, secured from John Adams, an Indian from the Rogue River canyon, his compelling and poignant recollections of the panic and desolation that touched the lives of every Indian in that region during his childhood. Although non of his photographs from the Siletz Reservation has survived, Curtis published the Adams narrative, a rare indian voice on the impacts of Euro-American settlement.
My research also included visits to Grand Ronde and Siletz. In the 1960s those former reservations were no longer Indian land. Terminated by Congress in 1956, the tribes were dispersed. The government patented and sold both individual and tribal trust lands. I was kindly received by and visited with Mary Alice Muncie, Archie Ben, Arthur Bensell, Ida Bensell and Clara Riggs. Several had recommended that I talk to these elders who were knowledgeable about tribal history. Indeed, they knew the past and some, like Ida Bensell, could yet speak in the measured words of Tututni, the dialect of coastal Asthapascan once spoken in her family's village at the mouth of Euchre Creek. When I questioned these people, however, about events in the 1850s, I got little response. Maybe the affairs were too painful. Maybe I was too inexperienced as a young researcher to life the lid of memory and find more of the Indian view of history.
Hickford Meservey, a Chetco descendant whose family was not removed to the reservations, was one whose memories connected with the Rogue country. He knew the places and pointed out the site of the Lobster Creek massacre, Skookum House, the cemetery where both soldiers and Indian fighters were buried at the Big Bend, and the remnants of the soldiers' trenches were, in June 1856, they confronted the last desperate assault by the Indians of the Rogue River attempting to defend their families and their homes. His father, George Washington Meservey, had initially sparked my interest in the region's history during interviews in the early 1950s.
Aware that I had but little more than half the story, I nonetheless proceeded to write this book. too long had the racist narratives pointed to the Rogue Indians as "savages" and "barbarians." Too many readers had encountered the "glorious deeds" of Oregon Volunteers, a motley rabble who repeatedly provoked warfare with the Indians by their attacks on villages, abuse of Indian women, and callous disregard for the presence of the U.S. Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
This book also sought to identify the ecological consequences of Euro-american settlement and the impact of mining in the 1850s on the Rogue and Klamath watersheds. What had been a land of abundance endured significant upset. Settlers' hogs rooted out and devoured camas bulbs. Pioneers, fearing for their split-rail fences and log cabins, suppressed the Indian fire ecology, which had produced a bounty of seeds and open forest understory. The newcomers' guns took a heavy toll on the dear and elk. Farmers' plows turned under the fields of seeds and lilies. The work of hundreds of miners turning over gravel bars to find gold in the crevices and potholes unleashed a torrent of mud that clogged the streams and disrupted the runs of life-sustaining fish. In less than three years the twin plagues of settlement and mining drive the indians from their homes and to the brink of starvation.
This research also confirmed the failure of federal Indian Policy in Oregon. What occurred in southwestern Oregon and northwestern california in the 1850s was a microcosm of events in many parts of the American West. The treaty program was too late and incompletely carried out. Superintendent Anson Dart's Curry County treaties failed to secure ratification. Superintendent joel Palmer's treaties reserved for the indians, no rights and only temporary reservations. Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel were few and ineffective in attempting to thwart the machinations of the "exterminators." The U.S. Army troops at Fort Lane, Fort Orford, and Fort Jones were likewise unable to support the Indian agents and bring order to a disorderly frontier.
Requiem for a People was initially published in 1971, after taking nearly three years to wend its way through the University of Oklahoma Press. A lot has happened since it was written. Indian Education Act programs in the 1970s and the 1980s stirred tribal memories and encouraged later generations of Indians to share and study their traditional culture and history. Western oregon's Indians appeared in 1976 before the Indian Policy Review Commission and testified about the disaster of the Termination program. On a case-by-case basis, the tribes went to Congress to present their pleas for the restoration of a federal relationship. Congress agreed and extended recognition to the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw, confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Klamath Tribe, and the Coquille Tribe.
During these years of change and restored relationships, I was privileged to work with several tribes on their agendas before Congress, in land claims litigation, and in Indian Education Act programs. The most memorable event of all, however, was the "Journey in Time" mounted by members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz in 1979. I joined nearly forty tribal members of all ages for a weekend expedition to the homeland of their ancestors in southwestern Oregon. We walked in the old villages, stood on the beach where the surviving refugees were shipped out on the steamer Columbia for the reservation, and hiked to the spirit quest sites on the high ridges. We talked and considered what we had seen. One evening we gathered around a large campfire, felt the wind sweep along the canyon, and listened to the rush of the Rogue River through its nearby riffles.
The story of the Indians of southwestern Oregon tugged at my heart strings when I was a young person. The research for this book helped teach me the craft of history. The inspired teaching of John Walton Caughey and the nurturing of his wife, LaRee, in the craft of writing were part of the unfolding process of my education as this book emerged from seminar papers to become my master's thesis at UCLA. The events of 150 years ago that were of such momentous consequence for the native peoples still have significance for those of the present generation who have inherited those places. All one need do is look and listen. The evidence of countless generations is there etched in the rocks, defined in the house pits in the ground, and documented in the middens where generations once cooked their food. Words like Chetco, Takilma, Hustenaden, Misletni, and Shasta Costa yet identify specific places. Their cadences confirm a heritage and history worthy of attention.
Stephen Dow Beckham
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