Beautiful Dead Indian Memorial Road, running through Cascade foothills and national forests from Ashland to Lake of the Woods, got its unfortunate name because in 1855, settlers found two Indians dead on a small prairie about where Hyatt-Prairie Road comes into it now.

Pioneers attached that “Dead Indian” moniker to the prairie, to the creek whose headwaters are there, and to the wagon road, which pioneers blazed on top of an ancient Indian trail connecting the Klamath and Rogue basins over the Cascades.

Stories about the men varied wildly then and still do, but apparently, no slur was intended by the name — and no one is sure how the Indians died.

“I’ve heard they found two bodies, but when you’re dealing with pioneer history, it’s not very exact or well written down, and things get exaggerated, so I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened,” says Ashland historian George Kramer.

Historian-archaeologist Jeff LaLande of Ashland, who has researched the issue over many decades, says it’s pretty certain that the Indians either died of disease (whites brought in many new diseases to which Indians had no defense), or they were victims of inter-tribal warfare with Klamath Indians on the other side of the Cascades.

It was the time of greatest hostility between natives and settlers and, says LaLande, if settlers had killed them, they would have openly claimed the deed.

The deaths happened at the time of the Rogue River Indian Wars when a man named Fred Alberding, who was emigrating over the Cascades, apparently lost a horse during the night and, seeing smoke of nearby Indians when he awoke, assumed they had stolen it. Alberding dashed into Ashland and rounded up a posse of 15 men, noted local historian Bill Miller in a 2011 Mail Tribune story.

In the ensuing clash, three settlers were wounded and one, Granville Keene, was killed. The settlers fled and soldiers from Fort Lane were called in. That’s when at least two Indian bodies — and some say as many as 15 — were found.

Patrick Dunn, a settler who lived near the present Emigrant Lake, and other members of the posse found the dead Indians in their wikiup, says LaLande.

“They were on a punitive mission to punish and likely kill assumed livestock rustlers," he says. "The two stories about how they died were told at the earliest date, so they hold the most weight — and didn’t implicate the whites. If settlers had killed them, they wouldn’t be shy about it. They would be proud of it. They felt they were taming the country.”

Showing how fuzzy 160-year-old history can be, LaLande says he never found evidence that soldiers got involved or that there was a battle between Indians and whites. In addition, LaLande doubts any immigrant was on that wagon road, because they used the Applegate Trail, some 20 miles to the south.

If it was an inter-tribal attack, it likely would have arisen from the longtime enmity between Klamath Indians on the east side of the Cascades and Shasta or upland Takelma on the west side — or disease took them down, notes an entry in the online "Oregon Encyclopedia" by Ann Staley.

It turned out that the Indians accused of stealing the horse that started the whole ordeal had been gathering berries, and the missing pony wasn’t stolen but wandered back in on its own, noted Miller.

As the civil rights movement bloomed in the mid-20th century and America became more conscious of degrading epithets — this one certainly made the grade — the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, which oversees county roads, was called on to change it.

A huge dust-up ensued, with many letters to editors and vigorous testimony at meetings. In 1993, the board changed the name to Dead Indian Memorial Road. Those who didn’t like it, including many Native Americans living here, tried to get their point across by saying: "How would you feel if it were named 'Dead White Man Road?' ”

The name also carries baggage from Gen. Philip Sheridan, who infamously said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" (which later on became, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”).

Kramer observes of the new road name, “I thought it wasn’t much of a name change. I remember the logic against changing it was that people didn’t want the cost of getting new business cards. The new name is not less offensive, but it’s not an issue for me. But then, I’m not Native American.”

The wagon road now called Dead Indian Memorial Road did not run to the Klamath Basin until about 1870. It was completed by Klamath Indians under the supervision of Oliver Cromwell Applegate, the son of legendary Lindsay Applegate, who blazed the Applegate Trail, an alternate and safer route than the Oregon Trail. It parallels portions of Highway 66 now.

Regardless of the flap, the highway is one of the beautiful drives in Oregon, with great views of Pilot Rock, Mount McLoughlin, Mount Ashland and the town of Ashland nestled in the upper Bear Creek Valley. It provides access to Shale City Road and the Grizzly Peak trail, passes Earth Teach Forest Park and goes into the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Klamath national forests, with access to Howard Prairie Lake, Hyatt Lake and Lake of the Woods, where it joins Highway 140.

— John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.