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Clash of cultures

White miner David Dilley was passing through the Rogue Valley on his way to the California gold fields in 1851 when he camped for the night with a few young Native American men.

One of the men took Dilley’s rifle and killed him, enraging white people up and down the Siskiyou Trail. But rather than seeing the robbery and murder as a crime, white people saw it as an act of war, said local historian Ben Truwe.

“The Indian population was as diverse as any population,” he said “They had uncontrollable young men, they had hot heads and they had criminals.”

Some Native Americans robbed other travelers, stealing mules, baggage and other items.

The end result was a U.S. Army major passing through the valley with his men teamed up with groups of miners to rove the area, killing Native American men, destroying villages and capturing women and children.

From the Native Americans’ perspective, they had been living in the area for 12,000 years — exacting tributes or tolls from people passing through, Truwe said.

“Now there were groups of mounted, armed white men riding into their territory and murdering their friends and neighbors,” he said.

Truwe will discuss the clash of cultures during a talk titled “The Rogue River Wars: New Perspectives.” The free event is part of the Windows in Time history series.

Due to COVID-19 safety concerns, Truwe will give his talk online via the Zoom videoconference service from noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Sept 2. To register, see jcls.libcal.com/event/6809328.

A recording of the program will be made available later on the Jackson County Library Service’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/JCLSN2K.

The 1850s in the Rogue Valley were marked by periods of shaky peace broken by murders, hangings, massacres, ambushes, sieges and battles.

At the beginning of the decade, white settlers were just beginning to set up farms and ferries to cross rivers. Then gold was discovered in Jacksonville in 1851.

“Within six weeks, thousands of white men were flooding into the Rogue Valley,” Truwe said.

Most were young men on their own, acting without the influence of parents, women and laws. Their goal was to get rich, he said.

“Anything that got in the way of that was seen as a threat to their livelihood and their future,” Truwe said.

Pressure on Native Americans was mounting. Farmers’ pigs were eating acorns and camas bulbs that were a staple of the native people’s diet. White men were shooting at deer, making them skittish, and mining operations were filling the creeks with silt, harming salmon runs, Truwe said.

The winter of 1852-1853 was known as “The Starvation Winter” for Native Americans and whites alike, with some resorting to chasing and clubbing deer, he said.

“The last flour in the valley was worth its weight in gold. Flour was that precious,” Truwe said.

The summer of 1853 brought more trouble when two white men were killed in separate incidents. Jacksonville residents heard the gunshot that killed a merchant near town, and rumors spread they were under siege by Native Americans.

Two Native Americans were captured near the Applegate River, brought to Jacksonville and hung. It’s possible they were “bell boys” — people hired by white packtrain operators to ride their lead horses, which wore bells, Truwe said.

Farmers brought in an 8-year-old Native American boy. One white man pleaded for the boy’s life and won his release, but then another man rode into Jacksonville and argued that “nits make lice,” Truwe said, referring to the term for lice eggs.

“They hung this child in downtown Jacksonville,” he said.

At the Battle of Table Rock in 1853, Native Americans agreed to engage in peace talks after they learned there was a man on the white side, Joseph Lane, who had helped secure the release of Native American women taken to California. Although Lane was shot and bleeding, he crossed to the Native American side to negotiate.

Native American men helped carry wounded white men 25 miles to Jacksonville, and Native American women brought water to the soldiers who had been firing upon them, Truwe said.

The fragile peace did not last.

In 1855, a mob of whites in Northern California lynched the son of Tecumtum, or Elk Killer. Also known as Chief John, he was the leader of a band of Native Americans along the Applegate River.

A group of Jacksonville vigilantes also massacred about two dozen Native Americans in a village near Little Butte Creek.

Truwe said Chief John led a small group of men on attacks on a series of settler cabins. One white woman died inside her burning cabin, too afraid to come out. The group killed a white man, and pigs fed on his body. Another white woman hid in her cabin with her daughter after her husband was killed. She held off the attackers until she was rescued the next day — becoming a heroine among the settlers.

The war between the two colliding cultures reached its peak at the Battle of Hungry Hill in steep, rugged terrain northwest of Grants Pass.

Roughly 400 Army soldiers and militiamen faced off against about 250 Native Americans, including women and children, Truwe estimated.

The Native Americans taunted the white men into running down a mountainside and then up a ridge, exhausting them in the process, he said.

The Native Americans won the battle, but they ultimately lost the war and were forcibly removed to the Grande Ronde and Siletz reservations in northwest Oregon in 1856.

Chief John and his group were among the last to surrender and he was sent to the reservation. Two years later, he and one of his surviving sons were imprisoned in the San Francisco Bay area after being accused of plotting an uprising, according to the Oregon History Project.

His daughters petitioned to have him released and he was eventually allowed to go back to the reservation. A photo of Chief John shows him after his release from prison in 1862, Truwe said.

He didn’t survive long, passing away in 1864.

“The guy you’re looking at in that photograph is a broken man,” Truwe said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Courtesy photoChief John, also named Tecumtum, or Elk Killer, was one of the last to surrender in the 1850s wars between Native Americans and white settlers, miners and soldiers battling in the Rogue Valley.