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Rogue River War

It was not until the 1840's that a large influx of settlers entered the Oregon territory. Much of this was due to the arrival of missionaries. In 1824, the Reverends Jason and Daniel Lee made the perilous overland journeys from Fort Independence, Missouri. The Lees established a mission on the present site of Salem. Other missionaries followed in their footsteps. Doctor Marcus Whitman and the missionaries arrived in 1838. These missionaries had a profound effect on the settlement and subsequent growth of the Oregon territory.

In 1838, the Reverend Jason Lee returned to the eastern part of the United States with a petition signed by 27 English-speaking settlers and nine French-Canadians asking the United States for protection. While Lee was not successful, he did convince the populace of the bountiful resources of the northwest, thus starting a great overland migration of settlers. In 1839, the total European population of Oregon did not exceed 100. Four years later, with the overland route well-marked and explored, more than 900 persons had settled in the territory.

In 1843 the migration of immigrants destined for the Willamette Valley in Oregon began, mostly passing through the area of the southern Plateau. The "Oregon Trail," passed through the territory of the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, although all groups of the southern Plateau felt the impact. With the increase in American settlers from the east, the influence and protection afforded by the English controlled Hudson Bay Company in the area rapidly waned. In February 1843, an informal meeting was held at the Oregon Institute in Salem (now Willamette University) where a committee of six named and authorized to call a general meeting of the settlers to discuss matters of importance.

On March 6, 1843, the meeting was held. The first order of business was establishing bounties on destructive animals. The second saw the naming of a committee of 12 to "take into consideration the propriety of taking measures for civil and military protection of this colony." The committee of 12 was directed to consider and recommend some type of civil government to administer the territory. At the same time, the committee was asked to make recommendation as to the need for militia or civilian-soldier force.

The settlers met again in May 1843, and the committee of 12 recommended the formation of territorial government and the formation of a military force. Prior to the meeting's end, four constables were appointed -- a major and three captains -- and instructed to form companies of mounted rifleman. These four men constituted the nucleus of Oregon's first militia and market the genesis of what is now the Oregon National Guard. A few weeks later, on July 5, 1843, territorial government was formed.

Meanwhile, the flow of immigrants into the area continued unabated, growing to 4,000 by 1847. During this time, the Indian population grew uneasy and tension increased. Nevertheless, peace was maintained.

A significant incident, so far as Oregon's military history is concerned, did occur at Willamette Falls, now known as Oregon City. In March 1844, a Wasco Indian, named Cockstock, and four Molalla Indians, rode into town, brandishing weapons and threatening local citizens. George. LeBraton, the clerk of the provisional government, attempted to arrest them but received a fatal gunshot wound. An arrow also killed an innocent bystander. In the melee that followed, Cockstock was slain by Winslow Anderson, a free black settler, but the Molallas escaped unharmed.

Until this time, good relations had been maintained by the Indians, and the military force authorized by the territorial government had never been formed. But, as the word of the Cockstock incident spread, a 25-man company of mounted riflemen was organized under the command of Captain T. D. Keysur. This unit became the first military unit in the territory, and it was here that the heritage of the Oregon citizen-soldier truly began. The force did succeed in maintaining peaceful relations with the Indians, although only for a short time.

During this lull, the United States in 1846 concluded a treaty with Great Britain which gave the United States all territory south of the 49th parallel, and fixed the southern boundary of Canada. This treaty established the final boundaries of the Oregon Territory, and the United States for the first time stretched from sea to sea.

Shortly after the Oregon Territory became part of the United States, tragedy struck. On November 29, 1847, members of the Cayuse Indian tribe, under the belief that they were being poisoned, attacked the missionary station of Doctor Marcus Whitman near Walla Walla. Fourteen people were killed, including Doctor and Mrs. Whitman, and 53 women and children were taken hostage. Later, the hostages were released, ransomed by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company which still had considerable influence with the tribe.

News of the massacre reached the provincial capital of Oregon City nine days later, and Governor Abernathy immediately reported the incident to the territorial legislature, recommending prompt action. Even though federal support was not available and funds were short, the legislature authorized the governor to arm and equip a company of riflemen and directed it to proceed and protect the mission at The Dalles until help arrived.

The following noon, a 45-man company, known as the "Oregon Rifles" under the command of Captain H. A. G. Lee, was sworn in and equipped as best available means would allow. The same day, the legislature further authorized Governor Abernathy to raise a regiment of volunteers to punish the Cayuse for their part in the Whitman massacre.

No real difficulty was encountered in obtaining volunteers for the regiment, but equipping the force was another story. In the end, the volunteers for the regiment had to provide their own horses, clothing, weapons, and blankets. The only available source of bulk ammunition belonged to the Hudson Bay Company, but the company would not extend credit to the territorial government. The officers had to sign for ammunition on their own personal credit, hoping to be repaid later by legislature.

Shortly after Christmas 1847, Governor Abernathy selected A. L. Lovejoy as the first Adjutant General of the Territory of Oregon. Also selected for command of the regiment was Colonel Cornelius Gilliam, a veteran of the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Seminal War of 1835. Gilliam, who had immigrated to Oregon in 1844, was an ordained minister. Joel Palmer was appointed Commissary General and Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, Captain Lee's Oregon Rifles reached The Dalles and encountered a heavily armored band of Indians attempting to steal cattle from the mission. During a running fight, one volunteer was wounded and three Indians were slain. The Indians, however, successfully made off with 300 head of cattle, a serious loss to a territory where beef was exceedingly scarce and a single chicken egg cost fifty cents.

The Indians continued raiding and skirmishing at The Dalles, and Lee's troops became hard-pressed to defend the mission. During several Indian raids, Privates Pugh and Jackson were killed, the first two men slain in service of the militia and the state. The defenders continued to be harassed by various war parties until Colonel Gilliam and the regiment arrived late in January. During the last week of January, the regiment went from defense to the offense. After numerous reconnaissances missions proved the hostile force to be a mixture of warriors from the Cayuse, John Day, and Des Chutes tribes.

By early February, the regiment's strength had increased to 537 men, and with arrival of a peace commission appointed by the Governor, the militia force set out for Walla Walla and the Whitman Mission. On the trail, the commission met with representatives of the Yakima and Nez Perce tribes who expressed their neutrality. The Cayuse still remained hostile, as witnessed by an ambush of the column at Sand Hollow on February 24. Five volunteers, including the regimental executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Waters, were wounded in the engagement. The Cayuse dead in the engagement included Chief Grey Eagle, while the war Chief Five Crows, was wounded. Colonel Gilliam was also killed in this ambush.

At Walla Walla, the regiment made camp near the mission site. Using the camps as base of operations, strong probes were made into Indian territory. Patrolling continued well into late spring of 1848 when a shortage of supplies and the need for many of the men to return to their farms for spring planting made a withdrawal necessary. The Cayuse also were so dispersed by this time that further operations were futile. As the regiment departed, it left one company behind at the mission to patrol and to protect the immigrant trail as well as to pursue any Indians should it become necessary. Finally in August, the tribe grew so weary of being hunted that they surrendered the five key Indians who had committed the massacre. These were taken to Oregon City, tried, and executed.

Late in 1848, the first segment of federal troop, the First Regiment of Mounted Rifles of the United States Army, arrived at Fort Vancouver after a six-month overland trek from Missouri. Following them came other regular US Army infantry and artillery units which took over relations with the various Indian tribes.

By 1850 over 11,500 immigrants had passed over the trail, some beginning to take up residence on the Plateau. The pressures brought about by this migration culminated in the Treaty of Oregon in 1846 establishing that area south of the 49th parallel as United States Territory. In 1853 the Oregon Territory was divided into Washington and Oregon Territories and the federal government set about to establish jurisdiction in the area through the establishment of military posts and the negotiation of treaties with the Native tribes.

In 1853, another major Indian War broke out in southern Oregon with the Rogue River Indians. The large southern Oregon area occupied by the Rogue River tribe was extremely rugged and made traveling difficult. The Indians conducted a hit and run type of warfare against the widely scattered white settlements, and regular US Army forces could not cope with the situation. An appeal was made for volunteer reinforcement units.

As reinforcements arrived, the large force took the field, and the Indians sued for peace. Quiet prevailed on the Rogue for the following two years.

Under the direction of Isaac Stevens, territorial governor of Washington and Joel Palmer, territorial governor of Oregon, the federal negotiators and the tribes of the southern Plateau met along the Walla Walla River in June of 1855 to negotiate and sign three treaties: the Walla Walla Treaty of 8 June 1855 with the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla; the Yakima Treaty of 9 June 1855 with the Yakama, Palouse, and twelve other bands; and the Nez Perce Treaty of 11 June 1855 with various bands of the Nez Perce. These treaties established the lands ceded by the tribes to the federal government, over which the tribes retained certain rights, and established reservations which were to become the permanent homes of the tribes although provisions were established to allow the tribes to continue to travel off-reservation for resource gathering and other activities.

Immediate discontent with the treaties led to the wars of 1855-1856. During these wars the fur trade post at Fort Walla Walla was sacked and subsequently abandoned. The eventual defeat of the tribes and their subjugation led to the reservations becoming the dominant feature in their lives. Later land claims, which attempted to establish tribal boundaries, would depend very heavily on the negotiated cession of land identified in the three treaties signed at Walla Walla in 1855.

Just as war ended at one part of the Oregon Territory, another flared up. The regulars were soon called upon to quell trouble with the Yakima tribe. And, as against the Rogue Indians, the task was greater than the regulars could handle. Volunteers again were asked to leave their families, homes, and farms to protect the territory. The Oregon citizens-soldier, as before placed the need of his country above his own. The situation remained the same for the next two years, with conflicts against the Yakimas, Klickitats, Des Chutes, and other tribes. As always, the volunteer soldier had to pick up for the regular forces.

During 1855, when most regular forces were in the northern part of the territory, trouble developed again in the south with the Rogue River Indians. This time, the heavily armed Indians grouped together in large forces. Since insufficient regular US Army units were in the region, the weight of the second Rogue River War fell upon the Oregon Volunteers.

As the war progressed, a small force of regulars and equipment were sent south from Fort Vancouver. Along the way, volunteer units were attached from each of the towns it passed through.

In previous Indian Wars, casualties had been light. It did not remain so at the Rogue River. In one engagement alone, Graye Creek, 26 volunteers were killed or wounded, along with 11 regular Army killed or wounded.

As the war intensified, more and more regular forces concentrated in the Rouge River area, and the initial volunteers were released to return home, only to be replace by other volunteer units. Throughout the winter, battles raged and stretched from Gold Beach on the coast inland to Jacksonville. Further reinforcements of regulars became impossible, and the burden of fighting fell almost entirely upon the volunteers. By May 1856, more than 700 men comprised the volunteer force which continuously pressed the Indians throughout the harsh winter. With little food and goods left, the Indians surrendered in June 1856 after nearly nine months of continuous battle.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:34:54 Zulu