When Mark Tveskov stands on a ridge over Sunny Valley and looks west, he knows the treasure he seeks is somewhere out there.
The treasure has no monetary value but it is priceless in the eyes of archaeologist Tveskov, director of Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology in Ashland. He has spent three years digging into dusty files and walking ridge lines in search of the Hungry Hill battle site, one of the key skirmishes in the Rogue River Indian Wars of 1855-56.
"I believe we are in the neighborhood — we see the lay of the land as it was described," said Tveskov, who has pored over countless documents written by those who were alive when blood was shed on Oct. 31, 1855.
Historical documents describe the battle site as being in the Grave Creek hills west of Sunny Valley and Wolf Creek, north of the Rogue River and south of Glendale, he said. However, the Hungry Hill west of Glendale is not the one associated with the battle, he said.
"People have been trying to figure out where it is for a long time," he said.
Pioneer William M. Colvig, in the weekly Medford Mail newspaper on Aug. 8, 1902, indicated he believed the battle occurred near Leland, a long-defunct hamlet a few miles north of present-day Merlin. Colvig had lived in the Umpqua River drainage as a child during the short-lived war.
In his 1995 book, "First There was Twogood: a Pictorial History of Northern Josephine County," historian Larry McLane suggested the battle occurred near a site local residents call Bloody Spring, Tveskov said.
But no one has found any evidence of the battle in either area.
Tveskov, 46, who is concerned about preserving the site once it is located, figures there is more speculation than known facts about the battle that occurred on Halloween.
"Like a lot of things here in the state of Jefferson, a lot of remarkable things that happened are not well-known about in the American West," he said. "But there are many other military battles elsewhere where there were fewer casualties that are better known."
The U.S. Army forces, which included local militia and the precursor to today's Oregon National Guard, suffered between 30 and 40 casualties during the Battle of Hungry Hill, he said, citing contemporary accounts.
"It is estimated the Indian casualties were six to 15, but there is no way to know for sure," he said. "We know there were at least 200 white guys and who knows how many Indians."
What he does know for sure is that the Indians won the battle that day.
"It was definitely a defeat for the Army," he said. "When the two large forces came together, the Indians had full advantage."
After the Lupton massacre, in which more than two dozen Indians were slain in a village near the Table Rocks on Oct. 8, the fleeing Indians split into at least two groups, he said. One sought protection at nearby Fort Lane, while the other, led by Chiefs George and Limpy, headed down the Rogue River, killing several settlers en route, he said.
"George, Limpy and (Chief) John led the resistance," he said, although he believes John took his people into the mountains between the Applegate and Illinois valleys and did not participate in that particular battle.
The Army let it be known that any local Indians who failed to surrender would be considered enemies, he noted.
"They made a dichotomy between those who were friendly and those who were considered hostile," Tveskov said. "They said, 'If you don't come into Fort Lane or Fort Ord on the coast, you will be regarded as hostile.' The chiefs were expected to fight it out."
One of the officers leading the soldiers was Capt. Andrew Jackson Smith, commanding officer at Fort Lane.
"What happened was that Lieutenant Augustus Kautz, who was reconnoitering a trail from Fort Ord to the interior, stumbled upon the Indians' stronghold," Tveskov said. "At the time, he had no idea these attacks had gone down. He ran across their camp, and was shot in the chest. He was saved because the bullet hit a notebook he had in his pocket."
Upon reaching the Rogue Valley, Kautz immediately contacted Capt. Smith at Fort Lane, informing him where the Indians had gathered.
"The Army and the local militia converged on Sunny Valley, where they were joined by several companies of the (territorial) governor's militia," Tveskov said, noting the latter was a forerunner of today's Oregon National Guard. "All this came in response to the Lupton massacre.
"This was a very serious situation, a very traumatic time," he added. "For a brief moment, these three different groups were united. That's one of the things that makes this battle so interesting. It was the only time that Captain Smith cooperated in a big way with the civilian militia."
The point, he said, was that each faction had a different agenda. The Army was trying to put down an insurrection while keeping the civilian militia in check, he said.
"After the defeat at Hungry Hill, the Army and the local militia never worked together again," Tveskov said. "There was a lot of acrimony after that."
There is even a report of territorial Gov. Benjamin Harding ordering the civilian militia to stand down because of its lack of discipline and atrocities that were committed, he said.
Yet none of the historic accounts provides the exact geographic location of the battle site, said Tveskov, who has compiled countless documents written by those who were alive during the battle.
"The information about the battle is usually secondary information from the 19th century," he said.
"I have found a map made by local scouts of the Indian encampment in the Grave Creek hills," he said, although noting the map and an accompanying letter by a militia volunteer does not pinpoint the location.
"Strangely enough, there is less information from the Army about the battle," he said. "For the second part of the war, there is quite a bit of detailed information. But no one (historians) has been able to find it for the first part of the war.
"None of us have been able to find primary Army accounts that you would normally find after a battle," he added. "It could be the reports were burned during the San Francisco fire (and earthquake in April, 1906). That's the missing element. But we haven't given up on finding that yet."
Nor has he given up on a ground search for evidence of the battle.
"We've been out there on the ridge lines we've identified that were most likely used for the assault," he said. "But we haven't found anything yet — no musket balls, no buckles."
Similar items were found during archaeological digs at Fort Lane, he said.
"We are either using the wrong methodology, or there are no artifacts or we are in the wrong spot," he said. "I don't know what the answer is."
Although the Battle of Hungry Hill was just one of roughly a dozen skirmishes during the wars of 1855-56, it was a major battle, he said, adding that researching the site would shed more light on the short-lived war.
"It was an important battle," he said. "I want to do more research this (coming) year to try to find it."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.