Pilot story and photos by Bill Lundquist
GOLD BEACH Nearly 150 years ago, besieged by hostile Indians, miners and settlers from Gold Beach retreated from their indefensible positions to a hastily constructed driftwood fort just north of the mouth of the Rogue River.
Members of the Curry Historical Society and their guests made the same short journey in reverse Sunday.
They'd planned to hold their Founders Picnic in the pasture where Miner's Fort once stood, but rain forced a retreat to the relative comfort of the Horse Arena at the Event Center on the Beach.
There were other parallels between the 1856 battle and the picnic intended to commemorate it.
About the same number of people, 80 to 100, squeezed into the 85-foot by 125-foot fort as did those in the much roomier Horse Arena.
The same man was even present at both events, at least in the imagination of historian Walt Schroeder.
Schroeder attended the picnic dressed in the uniform of a Union private from the Civil War.
To tell the story of the establishment and defense of Miner's Fort, he switched to his alter ego: a young frontier soldier from Harrisburg, Pa., named Ike.
As "Ike" told it, his company had sailed north to Crescent City when word of an Indian uprising reached San Francisco.
Trouble had been brewing for some time as miners polluted the Indians' streams and farmers pushed them from their land. Miners also molested Indian women.
Still, the settlers believed the Indians were too cowardly to attack. With modern rifles, they felt secure.
They couldn't have been more wrong. The Indians had rifles, too, and were fighting for their land and families.
They lacked only leadership, but that was provided by the arrival of Enos, a half-breed from a Canadian tribe.
A wily commander, Enos planned his attack for Feb. 22, 1856, when the settlers would be groggy from drinking and dancing at a Washington's birthday ball.
The Indians first attacked the post of the hated militia and shot about eight men. One man escaped and made it to Port Orford.
From there, Capt. William Tichenor, goods supplier for the miners, sailed down the coast and confirmed reports of burning cabins.
One of those was the Geisel family settlement north of Gold Beach, which included a home, store and hotel.
The Geisel males were killed and the females taken captive. Settler Charlie Foster and his Indian wife managed to bargain the release of the women with blankets, clothing, and one hat fancied by an Indian leader.
Meanwhile, 80 to 100 miners and settlers holed up in the driftwood fort in two small buildings.
They were lucky to have it. They started out with a couple of unfinished forts on the south side of the river that were so close to the hills the Indians could have fired into them.
Fortunately, Michael Riley and R.S. Holden were able to convince the settlers that the site north of the river was far more defensible.
They dragged driftwood up from the beach through a notch in the cliffs now called Miner's Fort Road. The back wall of the fort was made of clay.
The fort may not have looked like much, but it was strong enough so the settlers were able to repulse one Indian attack. The Indians weren't suicidal enough to try a frontal attack again.
Some men drowned, however, when they tried to escape in a boat. Eight others were killed in an ambush when they tried to retrieve potatoes from a cache.
In all, 37 settlers died before Ike's company marched to the rescue. Even that didn't go well when some of the soldiers got too far ahead of the main company and were ambushed.
After the soldiers arrived and took control, the settlers' women and children were sent by boat to safety in Port Orford.
Some of the settlers were living with Indian women, who were not allowed on the boat until the men married them on the spot.
Then the soldiers set out to win the war.
"It will be a long campaign," said Ike. He said his foes were tough and smart, and admitted, "I'm not looking forward to fighting them."
The army finally starved the Indians to the point of surrender by burning their villages and crops.
The Indians gathered at Oak Flat on the Rogue River in May and agreed to surrender, but there was to be one more battle neither side expected.
Indians fleeing down the Rogue River to the coast brought word that groups of volunteers called "Exterminators" were massacring Indians and heading toward Oak Flat.
Believing they had fallen into a trap, the Indians attacked the troops gathered at Big Bend to accept their surrender.
Capt. Andrew Smith led his badly outnumbered troops uphill and dug in for a last stand at the edge of a cliff.
For 30 hours, both sides fought for their lives, the army with muskets and a deadly howitzer, the Indians with more modern rifles and expert marksmanship.
Once more Charlie Foster played the hero, slipping out to bring back reinforcements. As new troops arrived, they threatened the Indian women and children, who fled in boats.
Caught between two forces, with their families gone, the Indians finally surrendered. The remnants of the tribes were exiled north to the Siletz Reservation. The war was over. Riley and Foster live on in local geographic names.
Costumes, models, flags, artifacts, and books helped bring the early history of Curry County alive Sunday, but the worst danger people had to face was getting wet.
Shortly before the clouds cleared, the decision had to be made to move everything to the Event Center.
That led to a delay of a couple of hours in getting the steaks and chicken barbecued, and the heavy wooden dance platform had to be left at the Miner's Fort site.
The last-minute switch in locations also threw off all but three members of the Oregon Old Time Fiddlers.
The group, dedicated to preserving old musical styles, has more than a thousand members.
About eight from District Five were scheduled to play at the picnic, but the crowd enjoyed the music provided by the three that made it.
The audience also applauded the Beach Belles from the Shore Pines assisted living home. The group sang a musical reminder: "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think."
They were right. Schroeder looked for his wristwatch to check the time, then realized "Ike" wasn't wearing one because they hadn't been invented yet.
The picnic concluded with cake topped by a replica of Miner's Fort, complete with a gingerbread stockade.
Schroeder then led a small contingent of people out to the Miner's Fort site, where he lapsed into his "Ike" character again to tell of the rousing greeting the arriving soldiers received.
As Schroeder, he told how the actual corners of the fort were rediscovered and marked, and talked about some of the artifacts found there.
The Curry Historical Society is planning a September tour to the Big Bend battle site, plus a stop at a 1740 colonial house that was moved to Curry County.