Chelsea Rose cupped tiny fragments of animal bones in her hands — evidence from a siege that saw settlers hunkered down in a makeshift fort on the Oregon Coast for a month with virtually no food.
"The bones are chopped to bits. They were cooked to extract every ounce of marrow and nutrition. This right here is what starvation looks like," said Rose, a historical archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology.
Professionals from the lab are working with SOU students this month to methodically excavate two sites north of Gold Beach — Miners' Fort in a cow pasture and the forested setting of the Geisel pioneer family's cabin just off Highway 101. The research is funded in part by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Although nothing of the original fort and cabin still stands above ground, the sites are key to understanding a harrowing chapter of the Rogue River Indian War that raged between settlers and Native Americans in the 1850s.
The war in the Rogue Valley spread to the coast when the Tututni people decided to fight back against the miners and settlers, angry that their land and food sources were being taken by the settlers.
Eager to find gold, miners were clogging and silting up the streams that were home to fish. Pioneers violated federal law and settled on land that had not been ceded by treaty. Their pigs rooted out camas bulbs that were a mainstay of the Tututni's diet. Both miners and settlers shot deer and other game, reducing wildlife populations, said SOU Laboratory of Anthropology Director Mark Tveskov, who has been researching the Rogue River Indian War since 2004.
On Feb. 22, 1856, the Tututni launched coordinated attacks against pioneer settlements between Port Orford and the California border, killing dozens. The male members of the Geisel family were among the victims.
A desperate night
Immigrants from Germany, the Geisel family settled on the Oregon Coast, on the very edge of the Western frontier.
"It was a very globally diverse place. The Geisels were from Germany. There were a lot of different languages being spoken," Rose said. "Except for the Native Americans, they're all strangers in a strange land."
Although they had fine tableware, the seven-member Geisel family was crammed in a small one-room cabin.
When the Tututni attacked, they killed John Geisel, 45, and his three sons, ages 5, 7 and 9. Geisel's wife and two daughters — one an infant — were taken captive.
The cabin was set ablaze and burned with such heat it melted most of the glassware. The bodies of Geisel and his sons were never found. They were likely cremated inside the burning cabin, Tveskov said.
Later, after tensions died down, the ashes of the destroyed cabin were raked together and a monument commemorating the deaths was placed on the site, he said.
The Geisel Monument State Heritage Site is now a state park.
Fleeing to Miners' Fort
Survivors of the coordinated attacks fled to Miners' Fort, a rudimentary structure overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
"The term 'fort' is a very generous term," Rose said. "It was a very crude structure."
This month's archaeological dig has uncovered underground stones that mark footings for the fort's outer walls, but those walls were likely built up with sod and driftwood dragged up from the beach. The sod walls were standing into the 1900s, when they were plowed under.
When researchers excavated Fort Lane, a Central Point-area Army post used during the Rogue River Indian War from 1853-1856, they found salmon bones, evidence of butchered chickens and other clues to the food eaten there.
"Here, there's none of that," Tveskov said as he looked over the Miners' Fort site. "They dropped what they were doing and ran here. The only food remains are small bits of broken bone as if they were cracking them open. There's this palpable feeling of desperation in the artifacts."
The SOU experts and students are finding lead musket balls everywhere they dig at Miners' Fort.
"There are 10 times as many musket balls from the 30 days they were here than from the three years people used Fort Lane," Tveskov said.
They have also uncovered moveable type from a printing press with the letters and numbers still visible. The miners and settlers melted down the lead type in tiny fireproof bowls called crucibles, then formed the lead into musket balls.
"There was a frantic effort to make musket balls. That overwhelms everything," Tveskov.
The survivors were on their own, with approximately 100 men, a dozen children and 10 women — five white and five Native American — trapped inside the fort.
After the coordinated attack, settlers to the north in the Port Orford area saw columns of smoke rising from burning buildings in the Gold Beach area. They also saw fires by looking through a spyglass.
On Feb. 28, 1856, eight men launched themselves in a whale boat and rowed south to help. Trying to land ashore in the surf, six men from the Port Orford rescue party drowned. The two survivors had to take shelter themselves in Miners' Fort.
On March 2, 1856, six men inside the fort who had heard of a cache of potatoes went out to try and retrieve the food.
"When they tried to leave, they were picked off by Native American marksmen," Tveskov said, noting both sides were armed with guns.
An African American pioneer known as Negro Ned was among the six men killed while trying to get potatoes for the starving people inside the fort, he said.
Adding to the mix of ethnicities involved in the war, a Russian immigrant named Charlie Brown and his Native American wife Besty negotiated the ransomed release of John Geisel's wife and daughters from the Tututni. The trio joined the besieged miners and settlers inside the fort on March 6, 1856.
Mixed in with bone shards, trading beads, musket balls, buttons and a pen fragment, students have found scattered pieces of heirlooms like cut crystal.
Settlers from Europe and more eastern parts of America had brought the heirlooms as they made the journey through rugged mountains to the Oregon Coast.
"When people flee from a wildfire these days, they grab the sentimental things, like photo albums. It was the same for the settlers," said SOU student Elizabeth Thompson. "They lived a really rough existence here, but they still grabbed those sentimental items. Those things had made the journey with them. People grabbed special things, not bags of flour."
Almost a month after the start of their ordeal, the people holed up in the fort were rescued when U.S. Army Col. Robert Buchana and his troops arrived on March 20, 1856.
No settlers and miners who stayed inside the fort are known to have died during the siege. In an official report, they claimed to have killed 41 Native Americans while defending the fort, Tveskov said.
The white women asked the soldiers to execute the Native American women who had been inside the fort, but the soldiers refused, Rose said.
Instead, the white men who had partnered with the Native American women were given a choice. They could formally marry the women and keep them at their sides, or refuse, and the women would be forced to a reservation.
Two couples got married, including Charlie Brown and Betsy, who had negotiated the release of the Geisel females. Three men refused to marry, forcing their three Native American partners to a reservation, Rose said.
Many remaining coastal Native Americans were rounded up and sent north to reservation land in June 1856.
Settlers in the area didn't forget what had happened to John Geisel and his three boys.
In 1858, a group of Native Americans was being escorted by government agents to a reservation. In an apparent act of revenge, settlers attacked and killed an estimated 13 to 19 of the Native Americans near the site of the burned-down Geisel cabin, Tveskov said.
The murders were part of back-and-forth violence targeting both Native American and pioneer settlements.
"The war was a war we're familiar with today," Tveskov said. "Two cultures were in conflict. It was in everyone's home. There was no front line."
Thompson said she feels a mix of emotions as she helps excavate the site of the siege at Miners' Fort.
"When I pick up something, I think, 'This has been in the earth for 160 years.' They were here such a short time. It makes it really profound to have a piece of their history in your hand," she said. "It tugs at your heart and makes you think about how desperate they were."
At the same time, Thompson said she and the other SOU students have a feeling of accomplishment about helping to illuminate a troubled time in history.
"As a group, we celebrate every find," she said. "We're part of telling the story."
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.