Digs will uncover history of Indian war on coast

    On Feb. 22, 1856, dozens of pioneers were killed when the Rogue River Indian War that had been raging in the Rogue Valley spread to the Oregon Coast.

    On that day, the Tututni Indians launched coordinated attacks on pioneer settlements between Port Orford and the California border. The violence of the attack and the actions that followed affected everyone from a recent German immigrant family to an African-American settler to American Indians.

    "It was a landscape of war. This was a war with no front lines," said Mark Tveskov, a professor of anthropology and director of Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology. "This was a war that came to people's homes and affected women, children and men on both the pioneer and Native American sides."

    Beginning in July, SOU and the SOU Laboratory of Anthropology will hold an archaeological field school with a dozen students to conduct research at key sites near Gold Beach on the coast. Tribal researchers and the Southern Oregon Historical Society are aiding in the effort.

    People can visit an archaeological site from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, July 10, and Sunday, July 24, at the Geisel Monument State Heritage Site, 32448 Highway 101, approximately seven miles north of Gold Beach. Visitors can see excavations, go on tours of the site, learn about archaeology and local history and see the latest finds from the project.

    A free public lecture series will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in July at the Curry County Fairgrounds, 29392 Highway 101, in downtown Gold Beach.

    Tveskov will speak July 6 about "The Archaeology of the Rogue River War."

    Ben Truwe of the Southern Oregon Historical Society will present "Digging in the Archives: The Documentary Record of Oregon's Early Years" on July 13.

    Robert Kentta, tribal historic preservation officer for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, will discuss "Siletz Tribal History" July 20.

    Patricia Whereat Phillips, linguist and researcher for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, will discuss "Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians" July 27.

    Tveskov said the Rogue River Indian War marked the final American Indian rebellion against settlers colonizing Southern Oregon. 

    During the winter of 1855-1856, American Indians were fighting in the rugged canyon of the lower Rogue River west of Grants Pass.

    Coos and Curry counties on the coast were sparsely populated by settlers. The coastal Tututni joined the rebellion with their coordinated attack on settlers Feb. 22, 1856.

    German immigrant John Geisel and his two sons were killed in front of John Geisel's wife, Christina Geisel, and the couple's two daughters. The women of the family were taken captive.

    Survivors of the coordinated attack along the coast holed up on a bluff in a rudimentary shelter called Miner's Fort, also known as Fort Miner. The site today lies on private property along Highway 101 north of Gold Beach.

    "They were besieged for 30 days," Tveskov said. "There were 100 people inside the fort. It was a fairly primitive affair of mud and logs. The people of Port Orford sent men down in a rowboat to try and help, but they wrecked in the surf and died. Some of the people tried to forage for potatoes, but they were killed."

    The people in the fort represented a mix of ethnicity and cultures, including an African-American settler and American Indian women who had married white pioneers, he said.

    "The cabins in the fort were segregated. Pioneers with Indian wives were in one cabin," Tveskov said. "Pioneers with European wives were in the other cabin."

    Pioneer Charles Brown and his American Indian wife, Betsy, served as intermediaries and translators. They helped secure the release of the captive Geisel women, who were then released to the fort.

    Tveskov said excavation work at the fort may reveal differences in how the people there lived.

    The Army eventually arrived and rescued the survivors from Miner's Fort.

    Later that year, after the war was over, 19 American Indians who were being escorted by government agents to the newly established Coast Indian Reservation were murdered near the burned-down Geisel homestead, apparently as an act of revenge.

    The homestead location is now memorialized as the Geisel Monument State Heritage Site.

    Because archaeologists specialize in looking for artifacts that reveal the day-to-day life of people in the past, Tveskov said, the Geisel homestead site will provide a window into history.

    "Most pioneer homesteads have layer after layer of history. The Geisel home was burned down," Tveskov said. "It was the 1850s, and they were German immigrants at the very edge of the frontier. This will be a snapshot in time."

    The project is funded in part by Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.

    Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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