Oregon Tries to Reconcile the Past at Rogue River

“[The Indian War is] very fresh in our family stories, how [my grandmother’s father] by some miracle was able to survive the wars as an orphan boy spending that last winter in a kind of hollowed out sugar pine snag, just scraping by.” – Robert Kennta, member of the Siletz Tribe.

PHOTO: opb.org

PHOTO: opb.org

ROGUE RIVER, OREGON – Archaeologists are still seeking to uncover a sensitive part of Oregon’s recent history: The Rogue River Indian War.

The Rogue River Indian War was a conflict between miners and settlers and the Native American tribes living in Southwest Oregon around 1855-56. There were several massacres, including the famous Rogue River Massacre, battles, and a final exile of the native tribes from their home in Oregon to several surrounding reservations.

160 years later, Archaeologists are working to uncover related artifacts, hoping to bring the story of the Rogue River Indian War to light.

Archaeologists led by Professor Mark Tveskov have been working on the foundations of an earthen fort, called Miner’s Fort.

During the Rogue River Indian War, Native Americans besieged over a hundred settlers for nearly a month early in the year of 1856. They were only rescued when the US Army arrived to relieve them.

There, the archaeologists found musket balls, nails, musket parts, trade beads, bottle stoppers, pottery shards, crucibles, and bits of movable lead type. The settlers were using the lead type to make bullets when their own ammunition ran out.

Among the artifacts, the archaeologists also found tiny bone fragments. Researchers says this indicates that the settlers were trying desperately to eat every last thing they had in a bid for survival.

A few miles away, another team of archaeologists from the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology were working at a homestead for over a month. It was there that a family of German immigrants were murdered by a group of native warriors. Today, all that remains of the site is a cemetery.

Rogue River, Oregon. [PHOTO: visitingashlandoregon.com]

Rogue River, Oregon. [PHOTO: visitingashlandoregon.com]

The archaeologists have been visited by several locals who have all come to ask questions and tell stories and show the historical artifacts that they’ve held in their families for generators. Among them was the cultural resources director for the Siletz Tribe.

The story of the Rouge River Indian War isn’t very old. Many family members in local native tribes remember hearing stories about it from members that lived through it. It’s a tale that is still very painful and very fresh, festering beneath the surface.

The archaeologists working at these historic sites are hoping that through uncovering these digs, they’ll encourage the members of the native tribes to tell their story. Perhaps, through exposure to the narrative, more people will become more aware of Oregon’s history and some healing will take place.

Research isn’t done. In July, the National Park Service donated Southern Oregon University $100,000 to continue working on more Rogue River Indian War sites across Oregon. It covers work on Big Bend in Josephine County, the site of the last battle of the war, and a dig at the Harris Homestead, another pioneer cabin that was caught in the conflict.

They’re hoping that, as the archaeologists uncover more artifacts at these sites, the sites will emerge into the public eye and garner more visitors, raising awareness for this chapter in American history. It’s a project that seeks to draw together both sides of the conflict and get everything out on the table.

“[The digs are] part of that reconciling of the past with where we’re at today and understanding what your family has been through and your whole community has been through. In some ways, it can help you navigate toward a healthier future.” – Robert Kennta, member of the Siletz Tribe