Reminiscences of Senator James W. Nesmith and General Joseph Lane.


As a natural consequence of the occupation of the Willamette Valley, the white settlers gradually pushed their way over the Calapooia Mountains into southern Oregon. Those who were attracted to California, by reason of the discovery of gold, found their only safety in traveling in large parties, well armed and constantly on the alert. Many who recklessly decried danger by attempting to make the journey alone, found speedy and certain death at the hands of an implacable foe.

Later on, small parties who undertook to explore the country in different directions were overwhelmed by numbers and savagely slaughtered; a few only escaping to tell of the fate of their companions, and recount their own thrilling adventures. Settlement in the region referred to was resented with murderous energy by the Indian tribes whose habitat it was. Nevertheless, the inevitable occurred, and in several of the fertile valleys of southern Oregon, the whites established permanent and thriving settlements.

Rich deposits of gold had also been discovered along the streams in several localities, and a large number of the adventurous and sturdy miners formed camps at points convenient to their diggings. The sullen hostilities of the Indians manifested itself from time to time by murder and pillage. The vengeance of the white was always swift and sure. [begin page 212]

These conditions could not long exist without producing open war between the two races; they culminated in what is known as the "Battle of Rogue River," which was fought on June 23, 1851, in which the Indians were severely punished.

A temporary pacification ensued. Treaties were entered into, only to be subsequently rejected by the senate. Hostilities were resumed in the succeeding year. A battle was fought in the Coquille River, resulting in the defeat of the Indians. Peace was again temporarily restored. Hostilities were again resumed, and culminated in what is known as the Rogue River war.

The Indian depredations and outrages committed in the spring of 1853 so exasperated the people of southern Oregon that a small company of volunteers, under Captain Isaac Hill, who bad obtained arms and ammunition from Captain Alden, then in command at Fort Jones, California, attacked a body of Indians near Ashland, killing six. The remaining Indians fled, but speedily returned to that vicinity with reinforcements, and wrought bloody destruction upon a company of emigrants.

A messenger was dispatched to Governor Curry, who at once requested Major Rains, then in command at Fort Vancouver, to furnish a howitzer, rifles, and ammunition. The request was promptly granted. Lieut. A. V. Kautz and six artillerymen, taking with them a howitzer, started for the seat of war. An escort was deemed necessary. The Governor called for volunteers. A company was soon raised, and James W. Nesmith was commissioned its captain.

He marched to Albany and there awaited the arrival of Lieutenant Kautz. This occurred shortly afterward, and the whole party proceeded southward, but did not reach the seat of war until the troops, volunteers and regulars, under command of General Lane and Captain Alden, [begin page 213] respectively, had engaged the Indians with such success as to induce the latter to request a parley, with a view of entering into a treaty, which was shortly thereafter signed and scaled, and in due time ratified.

More than a quarter of a century after these events took place, Nesmith thus thrillingly described them:


By James W. Nesmith.

During the month of August, 1853, the different tribes of Indians inhabiting the Rogue River Valley, in southern Oregon, suddenly assumed a hostile attitude. They murdered many settlers and miners, and burned nearly all of the buildings for over a hundred miles along the main-traveled route, extending from Cow Creek, on the north, in a southerly direction to the Siskiyou Mountains. General Lane, at that time being in the Rogue River Valley, at the request of citizens assumed control of a body of militia, suddenly called for the defense of the settlers.

Captain Alden of the regular army, and Col. John E. Ross of Jackson County, joined General Lane and served under his command. Old Jo, John and Sam were the principal leaders of the Indians, aided by such young and vigorous warriors as George and Limpy.

The Indians collected in it large body, and retreated northward in the direction of the Umpqua. General Lane made a vigorous pursuit, and on the 24th of August, overtook and attacked the foe in a rough, mountainous and heavily timbered region upon Evans Creek. The Indians, had fortified their encampment by fallen timber, being well supplied with arms and ammunition, made a vigorous resistance. In an attempt to charge through the brush, General Lane was shot through the arm and Captain Alden received a wound from which he never fully [begin page 214] recovered. Several other of the attacking party were wounded, some of whom subsequently died of their injuries. Capt. Pleasant Armstrong, all old and respected citizen of Yamhill County, was shot through the heart, and died instantly.

The Indians and whites were so close together that they could easily converse. The most of them knew General Lane, and when they found that he was in command of the troops, they called out to "Joe Lane" and asked him to come into their camp to arrange some terms for a cessation of hostilities. The General, with more courage than discretion, in his wounded condition, ordered a cessation of hostilities and fearlessly walked into the hostile camp, where he saw many wounded Indians, together with several who were dead and being burned to keep them from falling into the bands of the enemy, which clearly demonstrated that the Indians had gotten the worst of the fight. After a long conference, it was finally agreed that there should be a cessation of hostilities, and that both parties should return to the neighborhood of Table Rock, on the north side of the Rogue River Valley, and that an armistice should exist until Gen. Joel Palmer, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, could be sent for, and that a treaty should be negotiated with the United States authorities in which all grievances should be adjusted between the parties. Both whites and Indians marched back slowly over the same trail, encumbered with their wounded, each party keeping a vigilant watch of the other. General Lane encamped on Rogue River, while the Indians selected a strong and almost inaccessible position high up, and just under the perpendicular cliffs of Table Rock; to await the arrival of Superintendent Palmer and Agent Culver.

At the commencement of hostilities, the people of Rogue River Valley were sadly deficient in arms and ammunition [begin page 215] many of the settlers and miners having traded their arms to the Indians, who were much better equipped for war than their white neighbors. The rifle and revolver had displaced the bow and arrow, and the war club with which the native was armed when the writer of this knew and fought them in 1848.

General Lane and Captain Alden at the commencement of the outbreak had sent an express to Governor George L. Curry, then Secretary and acting Governor. Major Rains of the 4th U. S. Infantry, commanding the district, with headquarters at Fort Vancouver, was called upon to supply the threatened settlers with arms and ammunition. Major Rains responded to the call for arms and ammunition, but was deficient in troops to escort them to their destination at the seat of war. Governor Curry at once authorized the writer to raise seventy-five men and escort the arms to the threatened settlements. The escort was soon raised in the town of Salem, and marched to Albany, where it waited a couple of days for the arrival of Second Lieutenant August V. Kautz in charge of the wagons with rifles and cartridges, together with a twelve-pound howitzer, and a good supply of fixed ammunition. Kautz was then fresh from West Point, and this was his first campaign. He subsequently achieved the rank of major general, and rendered good service during the "late unpleasantness" with the South, and is now colonel of the 8th U. S. Infantry.

After a toilsome march, dragging the howitzer and other materials of war through the Umpqua Canyon, and up and down the mountain trails, made slippery by recent rains, we arrived at General Lane's encampment on Rogue River, near the subsequent sit of Fort Lane, on the 8th day of September. On the same day Capt. A. J. Smith, since the distinguished General Smith of the Union army, arrived at headquarters with Company C, First Dragoons.

The accession of Captain Smith's company and my own gave General Lane of force sufficient to cope with the enemy, then supposed to be about 700 strong. The encampment of the Indians was still on the side of the mountains, of which Table Rock forms the summit, and at night we could plainly see their camp fire, while they could look directly down upon us. The whole command was anxious and willing to fight, but General Lane had pledged the Indians that an effort should be made treat for peace. Superintendent Palmer and Agent Culver were upon the ground. The armistice had not yet expired, and the 10th was fixed for the time of the council. On the morning of that day General Lane sent for me, and desired me to go with him to the council ground inside the Indian encampment, to act as interpreter, as I was master of the Chinook jargon. I asked the General upon what terms we were to meet the Indians. He replied that the agreement was that the meeting should take place within the encampment of the enemy, and that he would be accompanied by ten other men of his own selection, unarmed.

Against those terms I protested, and told the General that I had traversed that country five years before, and fought those same Indians; that they were notoriously treacherous, and in early times had earned the designation of "Rogues," by never permitting a white man to escape with his scalp when once within their power; that I knew them better than he did, and that it was criminal folly for eleven unarmed men to place themselves voluntarily within the power of seven hundred well armed, hostile Indians in their own secure encampment. I reminded him that I was a soldier in command of a company of cavalry and was ready to obey his order to lead my men into action, or to discharge any soldierly duty, no part of which was to go into the enemy camp as an unarmed interpreter. The General listened to my protest and replied that he had fixed upon the terms of meeting the Indians and should keep his word, and if I was afraid to go I could remain behind. When he put it upon that ground, I responded that I thought I was as little acquainted with fear as he was, and that I would accompany him to what I believed would be our slaughter.

Early on the morning of the 10th of September, 1853, we mounted our horses and rode out in the direction of the Indian encampment. Our party consisted of the following named persons: Gen. Joseph Lane; Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs; Samuel P. Culver, Indian Agent; Capt. A. J. Smith, 1st Dragoons; Capt. L. F. Mosher, Adjutant; Col. John E. Ross, Capt. J. W. Nesmith, Lieut. A. V. Kautz, R. B. Metcalf, J. D. Mason, T. T. Tierney. By reference to the U. S. Statutes at Large, vol. 10, p. 1020, the most of the above names will be found appended to the treated that day executed. After riding a couple of miles across the level valley, we came to the foot of the mountain where it was too steep for horses to ascend. We dismounted and hitched our horses and scrambled up for half a mile over huge rocks and through brush, and then found ourselves in the Indian stronghold, just under the perpendicular cliff of Table Rock, and surrounded by seven hundred fierce and well armed hostile savages, in all their gorgeous war paint and feathers. Captain Smith had drawn out his company of dragoons, and left them in line on the plain below. It was a bright, beautiful morning, and the Rogue River Valley lay like a panorama at our feet; the exact line of dragoons, sitting statue like upon their horses, with their white belts and burnished scabbards and carbines, looked like they were engraven upon a picture, while a few paces in our rear the huge perpendicular wall of the Table Rock towered, frowningly many hundred feet above us. The business of the treaty commenced at once. Long speeches were made by General [begin page 218] Lane and Superintendent Palmer; they had to be translated twice. When an Indian spoke in the Rogue River tongue, it was translated by an Indian interpreter into Chinook or jargon to me, when I translated it into English; when Lane or Palmer spoke, the process was reversed, giving the speech to the Indian interpreter in Chinook, and he translating it to the Indians in their own tongue. This double translation of long speeches made the labor tedious, and it was not until late in the afternoon that the treaty was complete and signed. In the mean time an episode occurred which came near to terminating the treaty as well as the representation of one of the "high contracting parties" in a sudden and tragic manner. About the middle of the afternoon a young Indian came running into camp stark naked, with the perspiration streaming from every pore. he made a brief harangue, and threw himself upon the ground apparently exhausted. His speech had created a great tumult among his tribe. General Lane told me to inquire of the Indian interpreter the cause of the commotion; the Indian responded that a company of white men down on Applegate Creek, and under the command of Captain Owen, had that morning captured an Indian known as Jim Taylor, and had tied him up to a tree and shot him to death. The hubbub and confusion among the Indians at once became intense, and murder glared from each savage visage. The Indian interpreter told me that the Indians were threatening to tie us up to trees and serve us as Owen's men had served Jim Taylor. I saw some Indians gathering up lass-ropes, while others drew the skin covers from their guns, and the wiping sticks from their muzzle.

There appeared a strong probability of our party being subject to a sudden volley. I explained as briefly as I could, what the interpreter had communicated to me, in order to keep our people from huddling together, and thus [begin page 219] make a better target for the savages. I used a few English words, not likely to be understood by the Indian interpreter, such as "disperse" and "segregate." In fact, we kept so close to the savages, and separated from one another, that any general firing must have been nearly as fatal to the Indians as to the whites.

While I admit that I thought that my time had come, and hurriedly thought of wife and children, I noticed nothing but coolness from among my companions. General Lane sat upon a log, with his arm bandaged in a sling, the lines about his mouth rigidly compressing his lips, while his eyes flashed fire. He asked brief questions, and gave me sententious answers to what little the Indians said to us. Capt. A. J. Smith, who was prematurely gray-haired, and was afflicted with a nervous snapping of the eyes, leaned upon his cavalry saber, and looked anxiously down upon his well formed line of dragoons in the valley below. His eyes snapped more vigorously than usual, and muttered words escaped from under the old Dragoon's mustache that did not sound like prayers. His squadron looked beautiful, but alas, they could render us no assistance. I sat down on a log close to old Chief Jo, and having a sharp hunting knife under my hunting shirt, kept one hand near its handle, determined that there would be one Indian made "good" about the time the firing commenced.

In a few moments General Lane stood up and commenced to speak slowly but very distinctly. He said: "Owens who has violated the armistice and killed Jim Taylor, is a bad man. He is not one of my soldiers. When I catch him he shall be punished. I promised in good faith to come to your camp, with ten other unarmed men to secure peace. Myself and men are placed in your power; I do not believe that you are such cowardly dogs as to take advantage of our unarmed condition. [begin page 220] I know that you have the power to murder us, and you can do so as quickly as you please, but what good will our blood do you? Our murder will exasperate our friends and your tribe will be hunted from the face of the earth. Let us proceed with the treaty, and in place of war, have a lasting peace." Much more was said in this strain by the General, all rather defiant, and nothing of a begging character. The excitement gradually subsided, after Lane promised to give a fair compensation for the defunct Jim Taylor in shirts and blankets.

The treaty of the 10th of September, 1853 was completed and signed and peace restored for the next two years. Our party wended their way among the rocks down to where our horses were tied, and mounted Old A. J. Smith galloped up to his squadron and gave a brief order. The bugle sounded a note or two, and the squadron wheeled and trotted off to camp. As General Lane and party rode back across the valley, we looked up and saw the rays of the setting sun gilding the summit of Table Rock. I drew a long breath and remarked to the old General that the next time he wanted to go unarmed into a hostile camp her must hunt up some one besides myself to act as interpreter. With a benignant smile responded, "God bless you, luck is better than science."

I never hear the fate of General Canby at the Modoc camp referred to, that I do not think of our narrow escape of a similar fate at Table Rock.

Rickreall, April 20, 1879.


ROSEBURG. Monday, April 28, 1879.

MY DEAR SIR: Your note of the 23d instant, enclosing a copy of an article giving an account of our Council or Treaty with the Rogue River Indians on September 10, 1853, was received two or three days ago and would have been answered on receipt, had I not been too feeble to write. I am feeling quite well this morning, though my had trembles. You will get this in a day or two, and the article will be published in the Star on Friday and will reach you on Saturday.

The article is written in your own free and easy style; Bancroft will doubtless be pleased with it; it will form a portion of his forthcoming book. Dates and incidents given in the article are in the main correct. You could, however, very truly have said that neither you nor myself had a single particle of fear of any treachery on the part of the Indians toward us, and the proof was they did not harm us.

We had at all times been ready to fight them, and to faithfully keep and maintain our good faith with them. We never once, on any occasion, lied to them, and as you know, when the great Indian war of 1855-6 broke out, and you were again in the field fighting them, poor old Jo was dead, and you, or some other commander, at old Sam's request, sent him and his people to the Grand Round Reservation.

Old John and Adam, and all others except Jo's and Sam's people fought you hard, but the Rogues, proper, never forgot, the impression we made upon them in the great Council of September 10, 1853. It was a grand and successful Council; the Rogue Rivers, proper, fought us no more; they did not forge their promises to us.

Very truly your friend and obedient servant.

Joseph Lane.    

[ Oregon Historical Society Quarterly, VII, 1907, pp 211-221. ]

Senator James W. Nesmith

Senator Nesmith

Senator Lane

Senator Joseph Lane