In the depths of the cold winter of 1856, more than 300 men, women and children began trudging north from the Table Rock Reservation under the watchful eyes of a U.S. Army unit.
Seven tribal members died during the roughly 260-mile journey that began Feb. 25 at their temporary reservation and ended March 25 at the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations in northwestern Oregon.
The forced march came during what was known as the Rogue River Indian Wars, which began when a militia from Jacksonville killed men, women and children in an Indian village at the mouth of Little Butte Creek in October 1855. It ended in June 1856 with the battle of Big Bend on the lower Rogue River in which Chief John and his warriors were ultimately defeated.
"The war was one of the most rapid and really violent endings of traditional population existence that occurred anywhere in this country," said Janet Joyer, historian for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "The Rogue River Indian Wars were well-known for having been a very difficult, bitter period of time."
It was so challenging that Army officers who fought in the conflicts were considered well-trained for leading men into combat in the Civil War, which started in the spring of 1861, she said.
"For the Indians, the Rogue River wars and what transpired were critical events that changed their way of life completely," she said. "The result was they were taken away from their homeland and from everything they knew how to relate to the land to survive."
The indigenous peoples who had inhabited the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois river valleys for centuries saw drastic changes in a very short time to their homeland, said historian and author Kay Atwood of Ashland.
"In the five years between 1851, when more-or-less 'permanent' settlement began in the Rogue River valley, and 1855, when the final wars broke out, long-held anger and fear along with more recent violence and retaliation between Euro-Americans and Indian residents spilled blood throughout southwest Oregon," Atwood said.
"When the fighting ended, their white captors drove the surviving prisoners northward away from long-held homes," she added. "White farmers obliterated signs of their predecessors from the landscape as they built houses, planted crops and replaced the oak forests with pastures."
Lake Oswego resident Stephen Dow Beckham, 70, author of the 1971 book "Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen," said hatred and racism fueled the wars.
"The war was the direct result of the aggression by exterminators — Indian haters — living in the Rogue River valley," said the retired history professor. "They had an attitude of racism that native people were sub-human, savage and had no right or entitlement to be their neighbors."
Moreover, many in the volunteer militia profited from the war by charging Uncle Sam for any conceivable item they may have used, he said.
"For them, it was a means of garnering income for the use of arms, powder, bars of soap — anything they could possibly charge the government," he said.
The historians said several factors came together that did not bode well for the Indians of southwestern Oregon, including the opening of the Oregon Trail, creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848, and promises of free land in the 1850 Donation Lands Claim Act. And the discovery of gold in Southern Oregon in 1851 brought a swarm of gold seekers to the region, they added.
However, the Organic Act of 1848, which established the new Oregon Territory, called for Indians living in the region to be treated respectfully and reimbursed for any land taken from them, Joyer said.
Unfortunately, the fine print had no influence on would-be violators of that act.
"Escalating the conflict in 1853 was an incident in which miners marched a 7-year-old Indian boy through the streets of Jacksonville and then hung him," she said. "Of course, that really incited the Indians."
Like other historians, she is quick to observe that atrocities were committed by both Indians and whites in the early 1850s, just as there were acts of kindness by the different factions.
"The Indians ceded most of the Rogue River valley, which was 3,500 square miles, in return for $60,000 in the (Sept. 10, 1853) treaty of Table Rock," Joyer said. "But 25 percent of that had to be paid back to the government for the cost of (earlier skirmishes). The other 75 percent was paid for in blankets, clothing, food and other things."
Yet hostilities continued. In what became known as the Lupton Massacre, a militia major named J.A. Lupton organized a 35-member volunteer militia in Jacksonville and attacked an Indian village at the mouth of Little Butte Creek on Oct. 8, 1855, killing indiscriminately.
In an Aug. 8, 1902, article in the weekly Medford Mail newspaper, a precursor to the Mail Tribune, pioneer William M. Colvig of Medford noted the attack was considered a cowardly act.
"It is said that about thirty men, women, and children were killed by Lupton's men," Colvig said. "The major himself received a mortal wound in the fight. This fight has been much criticized by the people of southern Oregon, a great many of them believing that it was unjustifiable and cowardly."
The attack triggered retaliatory raids the next day upon settlers in the region as a group of Indians moved downriver, Joyer said. However, another group, led by Chief Sam, for whom Sams Valley is named, sought protection from militia attacks by going to the Army's Fort Lane, perched on a flat across and downriver from the Table Rocks.
Both Joel Palmer, the territorial superintendent of Indian affairs, and Gen. John E. Wool, the U.S. Army's West Coast commander, opposed the conflict. But Joseph Lane, a territorial delegate to Washington, D.C., expressed his support for the war.
Known collectively as the Rogue River Indians, they comprised different tribes that included the Takelma, Shasta, Galice Creeks and others.
Chief John, an Indian leader known as Tecumtum, led his people late in the battle of Hungry Hill on Oct. 31, which the Indians won. The exact site of the battle is the target of research and speculation today.
But Chief John wanted only to return to his homeland at the mouth of Deer Creek in the Illinois River drainage, just west of where Selma is today.
"My heart is sick with fighting, but I want to live in my country," he said during a truce with Army officers at Oak Flat on the lower Illinois in May 1856.
"If the white people are willing, I will go back to the Deer Creek country and live among them as I used to do," he added. "They can visit my camp and I will visit theirs; but I will not lay down my arms and go to the reservation. I will fight."
Two other chiefs signed the peace treaty at Oak Flat but Chief John refused. He and his warriors met the Army regulars and militia at Big Bend on the lower Rogue River in June.
"The battle of Big Bend was the final battle of the Indian wars — a 36-hour battle," Joyer said. "You can still see the depressions in the ground where they dug in."
A local settler named Charlie Foster slipped away to bring back re-enforcements from Agness to save the day for the Army, she said.
"Chief John and his men left and hid out for two or three weeks before they caught up with them," she said, noting he and his people were forced to march up the coast to the reservations.
He was the last local chief to surrender to the U.S. Army, she said.
When J. Ross Browne, a special agent with the U.S. Treasury Department, visited the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations in September 1857, he noted there were 909 Indians from the Rogue Valley. He met with several chiefs, including Chief John.
"A long time ago we made a treaty with Palmer," Chief John told Browne, apparently referring to the 1853 treaty. "There was a piece of land at Table Rocks that was ours. He said it should remain ours, but that for the sake of peace, as the white settlers were bad, we should leave it for a while. When we signed the paper that was our understanding. We now want to go back to that country.
"I will consent to live here one year more," he added. "After that I must go home. My people are dying. I want to go home to my country."
When he wasn't allowed to leave the reservation, he allegedly plotted an uprising and was arrested with his son Adam and sent to Alcatraz Prison in California, Joyer said.
"After three years in prison, he came back and lived a quiet life at Grand Ronde near his two daughters," Joyer said. "After all he had been through, digging in his heels every step of the way, he died of old age."
The old chief died on June 6, 1864.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.