North through an unknown country
Last week, we left John Kirkpatrick and his eight men escaping from angry Indians. They were trapped just off the beach at Port Orford, on a narrow rock formation that because of the two attacks the men survived there in June 1851 is now known as Battle Rock.
William Tichenor, captain of the steamship Sea Gull had dropped the men off and promised to return from San Francisco with more arms and men in 14 days; however, he arrived three days late.
“To our great surprise,” said an Oregon Statesman newspaper correspondent onboard the ship, “the nine men left there … were missing; and from the appearance of the Indians, who immediately fled on our approach, we are forced to believe that all is not right.”
Kirkpatrick and his men had already begun their escape two days earlier.
“We had determined to keep as near the beach as possible,” John said. “We traveled with all our might to get as far as we could before night approached.”
Three miles north they met a group of about 30 Indians armed with bows, arrows and knives. The nine men bluffed an attack on the group with their rifles. “They broke for the timber,” John said. “We then took to the woods and traveled two days and nights, and then made out to the coast.”
When they reached the coast, they discovered a fresh trail, about 20 feet wide, where some of the Indians apparently had tried to track them. John and his men followed the trail north another five miles, where it turned back.
“I suppose they followed us thus far the first night,” John said, “and the light of morning disclosed to them that we had not traveled on the beach, and they turned back.”
Another 15 miles and they reached the Elk River and surprised two villages of Indians who appeared ready to fight. Back in the woods, chased by Indians, they traveled up river about eight miles and managed to cross by lashing together some old logs.
For two days they stayed in the mountains hoping to find the wagon road that led from the settlements to California. Unsuccessful, they headed back to the coast. By then they hadn’t had anything to eat for four days but salmonberries, similar in size to a raspberry. The coast brought them a new diet treat — sea mussels instead of just berries.
When they reached the mouth of the Coquille River, they met friendly Indians who fed them and then ferried them across the river.
They thought they had crossed the Umpqua River and moved upstream looking for the settlements they knew were nearby. Ten miles later they realized this was not the Umpqua. “We then struck across the sand hills,” said John, “waded through a large swamp, and struck for the coast.”
Eight days after their escape from Battle Rock, they were finally at the mouth of the Umpqua. The residents of Umpqua City were joyously stunned. For over a week the world had thought them dead — massacred.
After plenty of warm handshakes and welcome hot meals, they rode a ship to the river town of Scottsburg. While the others remained to rest, John continued on to Portland.
Captain Tichenor had arrived in Port Orford with 65 men, four cannon, and a large supply of ammunition. He also brought two land surveyors to mark the town where he would settle and where he would be buried in 1887.
In the early 1860s, John Kirkpatrick left Oregon for the Idaho gold rush. There he ran and lost in a race for the United States Congress.
One of the survivors, Ralph Erastus Summers, came back to live in Port Orford in 1857. He died in 1909 and he is buried with his wife at the top of Battle Rock.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.