Battlefield Archaeologists Find Oregon Indian War Anything But Ancient History

Aug 5, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 11:50 pm

During the decade before the U.S. Civil War, a different conflict made a big impact on the future of the Oregon Territory. It's known as the Rogue River Indian War. But unlike the Civil War battlefields in the eastern U.S. or American South that receive hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, you’ll be hard pressed to tour -- or even find -- those battlefields.

Now a series of archaeological investigations is resurrecting this Northwest history.

The Rogue River Indian War was an uprising against miners and settlers in southwest Oregon from 1855-56. There were massacres, reprisals, pitched battles and a final forced expulsion of native tribes from their homelands to distant reservations.

Looking back from 160 years later, two things stand out. Artifacts from the mostly-forgotten battles lie just beneath the surface. And the human interest in the conflict among descendants and neighbors takes minimal prodding to unearth too.

Digging at battle sites

A team organized by the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology just wrapped up a month-long excavation near Gold Beach on the Oregon Coast.

The SOU team investigated the former Geisel homestead where a family of German immigrants were slain or taken hostage by tribal warriors. Today, only a family cemetery remains for visitors to see at the forested, four acre Geisel Monument State Heritage Site.

A few miles away, the archaeologists led by Professor Mark Tveskov uncovered the foundations of a crude earthen fort. There at Miner’s Fort, native forces laid siege to more than 100 settlers and miners for a month in early 1856 until the U.S. Army arrived.

"You can see things you can't get just from the written word,” Tveskov said. “Like the desperation of the people at Miner's Fort is not captured in any pioneer memoir where they crafted a kind of heroic picture of what happened. Here we can see them cowering in a cabin being rained on by musket balls, burning their wagons and whaleboats to the last piece of hardware. That's the material record.”

Surprising artifacts

The investigators say they were surprised by how many artifacts they found in what is now a privately-held pasture. Project archaeologist and co-director Chelsea Rose described one of her favorites, a broken chunk of imitation cut crystal.

"I love these because they are absolutely impractical,” Rose said. “They're heavy. They're bulky. They're breakable. They're everything you wouldn't think you'd want inside this fort."

Rose said she can relate to the unknown frontier family who in their moment of desperation chose to flee with a cherished leaded glass bowl.

"We live in an area that is (prone to wild) fire. I have had to evacuate twice for fire,” Rose said. “And what did I bring? Basically, the equivalent of this -- like photo albums, paintings. You know, nothing practical."

The Miner's Fort excavation plots produced huge numbers of musket balls, nails, a few musket parts, trade beads, bottle stoppers, pottery shards, crucibles and little pieces of lead type. Apparently, a set of moveable type from a printing press was being melted down to make bullets and lead shot.

Rose said the excavation unearthed animal bones broken into little tiny pieces, which showed the besieged colonists were desperate to extract every last bit of nutrition from the food they had.

Rose added that artifacts unearthed from the Geisel homestead showed evidence of extreme heat exposure, indicating when the pioneer home was torched, it burned long and hot. She said the researchers avoided uncovering human remains.

‘Reconciling the past with where we're at today'

While the archaeologists and summer field school students worked, they received a steady trickle of visitors bearing questions, stories or artifacts collected long ago. The cultural resources director for the Siletz Tribe visited several times. Robert Kennta said for tribal folks, the history of the Indian war "is not that old." His grandmother's father lived through it.

"That's very fresh in our family stories,” Kennta said, “how he 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."

Kennta said it's difficult to be reminded "of all the suffering people went through on both sides." But he and other tribal visitors came to support the excavation.

"It's 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,” Kennta said. “In some ways, it can help you navigate toward a healthier future."

An Umpqua River valley man, Tom Richmond, journeyed to the dig to connect with his ancestors. Richmond said he can trace his lineage to combatants both inside and outside of Miner's Fort.

"Now that it is excavated, it really catalyzes the whole story and puts a whole new face on it," Richmond said. "I'm really grateful and gratified that (the dig) happened."

It's these kinds of reactions that motivate archaeologists like Tveskov and Rose.

"Everything we do as archaeologists, we're always trying to get back to the people,” Rose said. “All these artifacts are fun to look at, but really they are a means to an end. That is to tell the human story. "

"It is a community building exercise," Tveskov added.

Further investigations

Last month, the National Park Service awarded Southern Oregon University nearly $100,000 to survey several more Rogue River Indian War sites and then "tie it all together" with a National Register of Historic Places nomination. Tveskov hopes that eventually raises the profile of the battlefields and leads to better conservation and interpretation.

Specifically, the NPS American Battlefield Protection Grant will fund a survey of the final battlefield in this Indian war, the 1856 Battle of Big Bend in Josephine County, as well as a dig at the Harris homestead, another pioneer cabin that was attacked and burned down during the conflict near Merlin, Oregon.

Tveskov said those investigations will happen this autumn utilizing SOU staff, students and volunteers.

In 2012, the same investigators reestablished the location of the first battlefield in the war -- the Battle of Hungry Hill -- on BLM forestland near Glendale. Tveskov and collaborators previously conducted an archaeological dig at the site of the frontier Army post of Fort Lane near Central Point, Oregon.

The long-running project has also looked at a traditional native village site that goes back 5,000 years near Port Orford called Tseriadun. That was also a location of a concentration camp for displaced Native Americans prior to their removal to the Siletz Reservation.

A grant from Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department funded this summer's archaeology field school. Eleven students, four SOU staff members and four volunteers did the bulk of the work near Gold Beach.

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