More than 150 years after the Rogue Indian Wars, Fort Lane has melted into a field covered with star thistle, with little but foundation...
GOLD HILL, Ore. — More than 150 years after the Rogue Indian Wars, Fort Lane has melted into a field covered with star thistle, with little but foundation stones, clay pipes and brass buttons to show for the federal government’s efforts to protect local Indians from gold miners and pioneers intent on extermination.
This summer, Mark Tveskov, associate professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University, and a crew of students and Southern Oregon Historical Society volunteers have been uncovering what is left with whisk and trowel. It is the most extensive academic archaeological excavation to date of the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This was the first tangible presence of the federal government or any civil authority in the Rogue Valley,” said Tveskov, dressed in long-sleeved shirt, jeans and cap against the ticks and sun, and cowboy boots against the star thistle. “Unlike, say, the stereotypical Western vision of Fort Apache, the primary mission of this fort was to protect the Indians from the whites in that period of time.”
Built in 1853 on what is still rural land owned by Jackson County overlooking the Rogue River, the fort is marked by a monument made of stones scavenged from the foundations of the cabins that housed a company of dragoons.
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The fort has a hard time telling its own story anymore. After the Army abandoned the site in 1856, local settlers quickly collected the bricks used to build the chimneys. The logs had turned to dust by 1900. The bronze plaque from the monument was stolen years ago.
The foundations were still visible underneath the star thistle as late as the 1970s, but now the only signs it was here are the square plots where students and volunteers have dug a few inches into the ground. Many of the artifacts, still being sought by enthusiasts with metal detectors, have ended up in private collections.
Despite all that, “We’re finding things in certain places that give us a much better view of the fort than before,” said student Jeremy Nichols as he picked at the fireplace of an officer’s cabin a century and a half old.
Whites traveling between California and the Willamette Valley had been passing through here since the 1830s on an old Indian trail that traces the same route as Interstate 5, but the first permanent white settlement didn’t come until 1851, following the discovery of gold. When the fort was built two years later, there was a small settlement in Jacksonville, the economic center of the gold rush, grain mills in Ashland, and scattered cabins.
“Once the gold rush came, white settlement of the Rogue Valley was a quick bloom, and conflict with the Indian population was almost instantaneous,” said Tveskov.
Indians angry at the invasion of their homeland and the fouling of their salmon streams by mining attacked the pioneers, and the pioneers attacked the Indians, even when they were on their reservation.
“If you read the pioneer correspondence of the time, they didn’t like the Army officers, because they didn’t play into this, ‘Let’s go kill the Indians’ game,” Tveskov said.
Indian leaders tired of fighting signed a treaty in 1853 that created the Table Rocks Indian Reservation, the first in the Northwest, said Tveskov. It stretched from the Rogue River through what is still called Sams Valley after one of the chiefs to the Rogue-Umpqua Divide in the Cascade Range.
Fort Lane, named for Joseph Lane, Oregon’s first territorial governor, was built in the same year on a bench overlooking the reservation. There was no stockade, just a dozen log cabins arranged in a U shape. It did not stop pioneers from raiding the reservation in 1855, killing some 20 Indians. The leader, James Lupton, was killed by an Indian arrow.
“The pioneers were basically clamoring to kill off the Indians or have them moved out of here,” Tveskov said.
Some Indians chose to fight, and headed down the rugged Rogue River Canyon, burning pioneer cabins as they went. Following a series of battles with militia, they surrendered in 1856. Both those who fought and those who stayed on the reservation were herded to Indian agencies in the Coast Range, where their descendants now run two of the most successful casinos in Oregon.