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Speaking out for American Indians

During the Rogue River Indian Wars, Talent resident John Beeson was forced to flee his farm in the dark of night.

But it wasn't out of fear of being attacked by local Indians.

"He was basically driven from his home on Wagner Creek under threat of death — he was forced to leave by local residents," said Liz Carter, 46, of Eugene, Beeson's great-great-great-granddaughter.

A 1983 graduate of Medford Senior High School who teaches historic preservation at the University of Oregon, Carter said her ancestor was an outspoken advocate of Indian rights.

"It was certainly a noble cause, a very worthy effort," she said. "Unfortunately, he didn't have the success he was hoping for. He only had a small window of time to get anything done because the Civil War started shortly afterwards."

Beeson spoke out against the poor treatment of Indians by his fellow settlers after he and his wife, Ann, and their son Welborn arrived in Talent in 1853.

"Under the deep conviction of duty, I never failed, from my arrival in to my departure from the (Rogue) valley, to declaim against the great wrong our people were doing," he wrote to the New York Tribune newspaper on Sept. 30, 1856.

Although many "good citizens" privately told him they had similar convictions, none would speak of it openly, he wrote.

He wrote of regret "that so many of my neighbors and friends should cower in base subjection, to speculators and rowdies, and yield their constitutional right to freedom of speech." He wrote he was happy to be alive, "contrary to my own expectation and the predictions of my friends and foes, who said I should fall by an assassin."

Immediately following an angry meeting in Jacksonville which he did not attend but one in which his life was apparently threatened, Beeson decided to flee the valley on May 26, 1856, shortly before the nine-month Rogue River Indian Wars ended with the battle of Big Bend on the lower Rogue River. His wife and grown son, who were not the targets of local ire, stayed on the farm.

"Having been privately informed of what was intended, I fled in the darkness of night to Fort Lane, and was, by an escort of United States troops, conveyed beyond the scene of excitement," wrote Beeson, who did not return to the area for about a decade.

Born in England in 1803, he emigrated to the United States in 1832, settling in Illinois, where he was a staunch abolitionist.

It was en route to the Oregon Territory where he first saw atrocities committed upon Indians by settlers, according to his 1857 book, "A Plea for the Indians."

"Among them it was customary to speak of the Indian man as a Buck; of the woman as a Squaw; until at length, in the general acceptance of these terms, they ceased to recognize the rights of Humanity in those to whom they were applied," he wrote. "By a very natural and easy transition, from being spoken of as brutes, they came to be thought of as game to be shot, or as vermin to be destroyed. This shows the force of association, and the wrong of speaking in derogatory terms of those we regard as our inferiors.

"Thus the poor Indian, by being spoken of as a brute, is cast beyond the pale of a common humanity where the killing of him ceases to be murder, and no atrocity is considered cruel or unjust," Beeson added.

Beeson took exception to claims by newspapers that native people had started the hostilities with barbaric acts.

"It is a fact there are far more murdered Indians than Indian murderers; and when the whole truth is known, I believe it will appear that Indians are less savage than some who assume to be civilized," he wrote.

He said Capt. Andrew Jackson Smith, the commanding officer at Fort Lane, an Army outpost near present-day Central Point, noted that, "if there were any Christians in the Rogue Valley, they were to be found among the Indians."

In addition to speaking out against the Rogue River Indian Wars, Beeson took up the fight for other Indians throughout the United States, lobbying Congress and writing letters to newly elected President Abraham Lincoln.

He also fought efforts to allow members of the militia to claim compensation from the federal government for their "military" time.

"In my opinion, John Beeson's greatest accomplishment was to deter payments for those Indian war veterans whom he believed to have escalated conflict and provoked retaliatory reactions from the Indians," said historian Jan Wright of Talent.

"His work did not directly improve the lives of the Indians as much as it annoyed and thwarted those who sought to personally benefit from a war they helped promote," she added.

After Beeson spoke with President Lincoln and testified before Congress in opposition to paying Indian war militia veterans, the lawmakers initially balked at the veterans' requests for compensation, Wright said.

"It was after most of the vets had died and John himself had died that the government started allowing for Indian war pensions," she said, referring to the Oregon Indian Depredation Claims Act of 1890. Beeson died in 1889 at age 85.

Both Carter and Wright observed that Beeson's travels back East were difficult on his wife and son back on the Wagner Creek farm.

"His work in the realm of Indian advocacy was admirable, but I sometimes struggle with him having left his family for so long," Carter said, noting it was hard for the family to make ends meet.

Wright agreed with Carter that John Beeson would have made more headway in his fight for Indian rights had the timing been better.

"If the White House had not been so occupied with the Civil War during the prime years of John's influence, there may have been more progress made," Wright said. "Lincoln suggested to Beeson in one of their meetings that after the war he would be able to concentrate on the plight of the Indians."

Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated about the time the Civil War ended, in April 1865.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

John Beeson worked to promote Indian rights and thwart the efforts of militiamen to get reimbursed by the U.S. government for a war he believed they helped promote. - photo courtesy of Talent Historical Society