The Rogue River War erupted in October 1855, when a swarm of men from Jacksonville, a mining town in the Rogue River valley of southwestern Oregon Territory, massacred at least 28 Indians encamped in the vicinity of the Table Rock Reservation.
That and several subsequent attacks on Rogue River valley natives were intended to spark a war that would employ miners, unable to mine owing to a long dry spell, as paramilitary "volunteers." Acquiring more land from the Indians was not a factor.
Leaders of the southwestern Oregon Indian people had already inked treaties relinquishing the lion's share of their homelands. The Rogue River tribes had endured the aggression of Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush immigrants, and had put up stiff resistance to them in the early 1850s. The U.S. Army inflicted numerous punitive assaults against the Rogue River natives, beginning in 1851.
Background: The Rogue River Treaty - 1853
The accord of 1853 was signed near the Table Rocks of the southwest Oregon Territory. The treaty was initially signed with an X mark by Chief Sam, known as Ko-Ko-Ha-Wah, meaning "wealthy," and four other chiefs of the so-called Rogue River Indian Tribe* along with General Joseph Lane and others representing the United States.
The result was a vast tract of land, reckoned at more than two million acres fit for settlement, ceded to the federal government. The selling price was $60,000 minus $15,000 to be paid to settlers for miscellaneous expenses incurred prior to the treaty.
The document was the first in the Oregon Territory (present-day Oregon and Washington) to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, when it was approved in April 1854. President Franklin Pierce signed the treaty in 1855.
In addition to supposedly securing an end to hostilities between natives and settlers, the treaty established a temporary reservation situated around the Table Rocks. The people were impoverished by their removal to the reservation: It wrenched the traditional tribal economy and social system into disarray.
Hostilities resume - 1855
Joel Palmer, Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs; and General John E. Wool, the U.S. Army commander on the Pacific Coast, actually opposed the new hostilities. But General Lane, the territorial delegate in Washington and a heavyweight in the ruling Democratic party, asserted himself in favor of war, and anticipated receiving swift remuneration for war claims.
Indian people who chose to fight, led by Tecumtum (Chief John) of the Etch-ka-taw-wah band, took refuge in the Coast Range. They effectively repelled assaults, most notably in the Battle of Hungry Hill at the end of October 1855. Others chose to place themselves under the protection of regular troops at Fort Lane, commanded by Captain Andrew Smith. They were removed in January 1856, to the Grand Ronde Reservation in northwestern Oregon.
In February 1856, the natives in the mountains brought the fight down the Rogue River to the Pacific Coast, apparently to buy time to find food following a harsh winter. They nearly cleared the coast of non-natives, but in May they came under attack from two directions.
Regular army troops moved north along the coast from Crescent City, California, and met little opposition. Most of the combatants submitted to that unit's commander, apparently because they believed that the army would protect them from more predatory volunteer troops.
The volunteers, meanwhile, came down the Rogue toward the coast, and at Big Meadow attacked natives who had already submitted to the regulars.
The followers of Tecumtum put up their final resistance at Big Bend on the river, where they nearly overcame regular troops who were guarding a prisoner-of-war camp.
In 1856, in a ghostly reminiscence of the Cherokees' Trail of Tears, between 900 and 1,000 natives were compelled to relocate to the Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations west of present-day Salem, Oregon. Some were obliged to trudge up the coast to their new domicile, the Coast Reservation, on the central coast. There was fierce resistance to the removal because people thought they would be allowed to stay at Table Rock.
*The Rogue River Indians were not a single tribe, but a conglomeration of many related tribal groups. The estimated population of those tribes in 1850 is about 9,500.
See Indian Wars Time Table .
Native American Cultural Regions map .