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Remembering the Takelma

Among the earliest residents of the Rogue Valley were the Takelma Indians, families of Americans we know very little about.

Most of what we do know comes from linguist Edward Sapir, a man born 30 years after the tribe was forcibly taken away from our valley and escorted to a reservation in Northern Oregon.

In the early 1900s, Sapir interviewed Mrs. Francis Johnson, one of the last surviving Takelma Indians. She was still living on the reservation and, in her native tongue, told the linguist what she remembered of her life in Southern Oregon.

The tribe had no written language and had lived thousands of years with an oral tradition. The “storyteller” was usually a single elderly man who memorized all of the tribe’s stories and eventually passed them on. As the tribe’s numbers dwindled, more and more pieces of its history were forgotten.

The California Gold Rush soon brought prospectors to Southern Oregon, leading to a series of skirmishes, misunderstandings, battles and outright war, ultimately resulting in a forced removal of the Takelma people to permanent reservations in the north.

A 1911 government census showed only six original Takelma still alive on the reservation, so without Sapir’s writings, memories of their relatives, and the subsequent archaeological research of others, the story of the Takelma might have vanished.

Once they were taken away, some settler’s attitudes changed and soon the Takelma members were remembered for their “nobility” and described as “bold, tall, sure and graceful in their movements among the forests and streams.”

Soon there were token Takelma parks, boat ramps, dairy products, and even cars — but very few Takelma nearby.

With the arrival of World War II, and the outcome still in doubt, the U.S. Navy began building a fleet of tugboats to haul war supplies and tow large ships. The harbor tugs were named for Indian chiefs and 22 were named for Indian tribes.

Commissioned in August 1944, the fleet ocean-going tugboat Takelma left Alameda, California, for its shakedown cruise along the coast. She set off for Hawaii, arriving at Pearl Harbor in January 1945. From there, she headed for the Philippines, where she towed vessels between various Pacific naval bases. Six months later, she headed back to the West Coast, and while en route the war ended.

Takelma was never in one port for long. In early 1947, she towed target ships to the Marshall Islands for the Bikini atomic bomb tests, a role she would repeat in the mid-1950s. She received two battle stars while serving through the Korean War and, in the late 1960s, earned two more stars in Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf.

The Takelma remained a fleet workhorse, crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean year after year until 1979, when she was assigned to San Diego and became a naval reserve training ship. It gave her a chance at one last notable mission.

In 1981, Takelma was one of two tugs chosen to tow the World War II battleship New Jersey from Bremerton to Long Beach, where the warship would undergo refitting, modernization and reactivation.

In September 1993, Takelma was decommissioned and sold to Argentina. Her name was changed to SubOficial Castillo, and, as recently as 2005, she was exploring the Antarctic coast for the Argentine navy.

For those who still care and remember, both tribe and tugboat have left their mark on the history of Southern Oregon.

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.