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A place called Battle Rock

John Kirkpatrick’s impatient hand held tightly to the tar-laced rope.

Down on the beach, the man in the red shirt thrust a knife above his head and slashed at the moist spring air. His wailing screams blended into the shrieks of at least a hundred warriors. They were coming!

“Wait. … Wait,” John told himself.

The air rained arrows.

James Carrigan picked up an 8-foot pine board to shield himself and another man.

Whoosh, thump! Whoosh, thump! Thirty-seven arrows struck the board, most of their points piecing its one-inch thickness.

T.D. Palmer took an arrow in the neck and blood was gushing. George Ridoubt was hit in the chest. John Slater crawled into a hole behind the tent and covered his head with his arms.

“Wait. … Wait.”

Some of the warriors followed the red-shirted man to the base of the rock and began their climb up the narrow crag of a trail.

“Wait!”

With Red Shirt now in the lead, the final push to the top of the rock was on. The nine defenders, 30 feet above, could now see the vengeful eyes of their attackers closing in — 15 feet away, 10, then 8.

John Kirkpatrick filled his lungs with air and touched the glowing end of the small rope to the cannon’s priming hole. Fire gushed from the barrel and the beach echoed in a fearsome blast.

Shrapnel ripped though 17 attackers, including Red Shirt, killing them instantly. The stunned attackers, having never before heard cannon fire, froze for a moment before tumbling away in a panic.

The June 10, 1851, battle of Battle Rock on the Oregon Coast at Port Orford was temporarily over, but escape was still days away.

In late May, William Tichenor, captain of the steamship Sea Gull, met with John Kirkpatrick in Portland and told him he was looking for eight or 10 men to go with him, as John said, “to a place called Port Orford, where he intended to make a settlement, lay out a town, and build a road into the gold diggings in Southern Oregon.”

John gathered together eight other young men and they sailed from Portland June 4. Even though Tichenor assured the men that there “was not a particle of danger from the Indians,” John demanded arms to defend themselves.

When they arrived June 9, the Indians seemed friendly, but John sensed “they did not like to have us there.” Before leaving them there with a promise to return in 14 days with more men and more arms, John demanded Tichenor give them the cannon onboard the Sea Gull.

“We lost no time,” John said, “in making our camp on what was to be called Battle Rock as long as Oregon has history.”

After that first day’s attack, there were at least 17 Indians, including Red Shirt, dead on the rock or on the beach. About an hour later, “an Indian chief came up the beach,” John said, “and laid down his bow, quiver of arrows and knife.”

Using only signs, John and the chief negotiated a truce. The nine men promised they would leave the rock in 14 days and agreed to let the tribe carry away their dead.

All were taken away except Red Shirt, who the chief kicked before walking away. When the nine men went to bury the man themselves, they discovered he was a freckle-faced white man and concluded he must have been rescued from the wreck of a Russian ship.

On the morning of the 15th day, Tichenor didn’t arrive. Three to 400 Indians began a dancing ceremony on the beach, occasionally snapping their bow strings at the men on the rock and making signs they would soon cut off their heads.

There was another brief attack that ended suddenly when John and James Carrigan took aim at the advancing chief and fired, killing him instantly. The tribe retreated and gathered to mourn the loss of their leader.

On the rock, with their meager ammunition almost gone, the nine men voted to try an escape. Late in the afternoon, while the warriors gathered in a pre-battle celebration, the men took their guns, ropes, a small ax, and two or three sea biscuits apiece, and “retreated north through an unknown country.”

That part of the story next week.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.