THE COUNCIL OF TABLE ROCK, 1853.
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:
A REMINISCENCE OF THE INDIAN WAR. 1853.
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
Rickreall, April 20, 1879.
EXTRACT FROM A LETTER FROM GENERAL LANE
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
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
Very truly your friend and obedient servant.