Jed Smith was first white explorer

March 18, 2001 11:00 pm
Jedediah Smith ().
Jedediah Smith ().

The first ocean-going explorers Bartolome Ferrelo, Sir Francis Drake, Juan Perez, Bruno Heceta, Capt. Robert Gray had no real contact with the Curry coast.

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver sailed along the coasts of what is now Curry and Coos counties. He made contact with the Indians and named Cape Orford, site of the present city of Port Orford.

So far as is known, the first white men to explore this region overland came from California in 1828. A party of 18, led by the noted trapper Jedediah Smith of the American Fur Company, came north from San Jose to the headwaters of the Sacramento River, from there over to the coast near the mouth of the Russian River, and then up the coast through our area.

Their first camp in Oregon was made on the north bank of the Winchuck River; their second, on the south side of the Chetco River. Smith's journal entry for Camp Site:

June 23rd North West 8 miles I arrived on the shore and from thence I traveled along the shore and sometimes immediately on the beach for 5 miles and encamped after crossing a creek 20 yards wide. The hills came within 1/2 mile or a mile of the sea, and were generally bare of timber.

The low land along the shore and in the valleys covered with high breaks and has some Miry spring. Many indians visited camp in the evening bringing berries, small fish, and roots for trade. In the course of the day one Mule gave out and another ran back on trail.

It was Smith's custom, when keeping his journal, to capitalize the words he wanted to emphasize. To him, "Mule" was important, but "indian" was not.

The journal entry for Camp Site 2:

June 24. West North West 3 miles and encamped at the mouth of a river 50 yards wide rapid at the mouth but as it was high tide I could not cross.

The hills about the same distance from the coast as the day before and the low land thick covered with brakes, scotch caps and grass ... Near my camp was a village of 10 or 12 lodges but the Indians had all ran off.

The next day the party forded the Chetco at low tide and continued their way northwestward near the coast. What ensued was told in 1884 by historian Albert G. Walling. He wrote that the party was beset by Indians in the Umpqua River area and robbed of some $40,000 worth of furs, horses and equipment. All the men except Smith and two others were killed; those three escaped on foot to Fort Vancouver. The Hudson Bay Company headquartered there later sent out a party to recover the furs and equipment from the Indians. It was believed, according to Walling, that the Company took this action to maintain supremacy over the Indians rather than to help the rival American Fur Company. This party subsequently recovered 40 horse packs, worth $1,000 each.

First settlers

According to historian Stephen Dow Beckham, a California-Oregon coastal land route was established in the early 1830s. He reports that at the Chetco River:

Where Jedediah Smith had forded the stream at low tide in 1828, the Indians operated a small ferry for the miners and packers who passed along the coast. They took trinkets, beads and castoff clothing for payment. They had experienced no troubles with the white men until the fall of 1853, when A.F. Miller came to the Chetco, selected a land claim about a quarter-mile from the river mouth, and built his cabin in the midst of one of the villages.

Miller was among the first group of 12 white men who settled in the Chetco River valley. Among the others were Thomas Van Pelt, Christian Tuttle, James Jones and James W. Taggart. All, originally from the Midwest, had been in California and had come from there. No doubt they followed the coastal route that had been established by Indians and white trappers, and ferried the rivers by Indian canoes.

They decided that the land between the Winchuck and the Chetco Rivers was the best area for permanent settlement on the southern Oregon coast, and they were determined to have it for themselves.

In the present Harbor area they measured off the land into sizeable "claims," wrote claim numbers on slips of paper, and drew the slips out of a hat in lottery fashion. Each settler took the land thus determined.

Then they began to build their houses. They paid no attention to the fact that for centuries past the Chetco Indians living there had claimed all that land. Ralph Hughes, grandson of Thomas Van Pelt, has written about their coming:

In the spring of 1852 a group of white men moved in and took up donation claims. A.F. Miller settled on the north side of the river. Hiram and Christian Tuttle were located on the south side of the river. Jim Jones took up a claim two miles further south and Tom Van Pelt settled at the mouth of the Winchuck River.

Van Pelt had learned to speak the Indian language. Hughes goes on to say that:

Before moving in, he went to the head of the local Indians and told them he wanted to locate near the mouth of the river. They agreed to the arrangement as long as he would remain friendly to them. For a year or two everything between the settlers and the Indians seemed to be peaceful until early fall when a group of Indians was up the river gathering acorns and hunting. Some of the Indian houses on the north side of the river were in the way of future development of the settlers, so Miller ordered several of the houses set afire and three elderly Indians perished in the flames.

In his 1884 History of Southern Oregon, Walling gives us a different version:

The report of the commissioner of Indian affairs for 1854 states that ... one Miller, with several accomplices from Smith River, killed 15 Chetcos residing at the mouth of the river ... because these Indians interfered with the profits of a ferry he was running. They transferred white passengers in their canoes, thus competing in a manner unacceptable to Miller. By another source we are told that Miller was subsequently indicted for the killing and sentenced to two years in the penitentiary. But this assertion is too wildly improbably for belief.

Writing 14 years later, Orvil Dodge tells us that during the summer and fall of 1853 the settlers busied themselves in building their houses and fencing their land. He says that during the winter of 1853-54 A.F. Miller, who located near the mouth on the right bank of the river, kept a ferry and a public house. Most of the Indians had left their camps near the mouth of the river and moved upstream, following the salmon and gathering acorns. On Miller's side of the river there were only a few old men and women left. Miller had several tough men stopping at his house, who proposed burning down the Indian houses and driving them from the north side of the river. Miller did this without giving the other settlers any warning, and in so doing killed three of the Indians.

Which figure shall we accept -- 15 killings or 3? Did the Commissioner pad the number for his own purposes, or did Dodge minimize them for his? Doubtless we shall never know the truth.

Soon afterward, Joel Palmer, superintendent of the Indian Affairs, Oregon Territory, visited the Chetco Indian villages. most of his attempts to meet the Indians were unsuccessful. They were too afraid to confer with any white man. Largely through Palmer's insistence, Miller was arrested and brought to Fort Orford, where he was held for six weeks for his crimes. When examined by a justice of the peace, however, he was, according to the agent, "set at large on the ground of justification and want of sufficient evidence to commit."

Miller's unprovoked attack and murders led to a short and bloody war. Ralph Hughes highlights its development:

Jim Jones and Evan Fielding were staying at the Tom Van Pelt cabin on the Winchuck when they were attacked by a large group of Indians. Van Pelt and Jones were on the beach and Fielding was cleaning up the dishes after the evening meal when the Indians made their appearance. Fielding rushed out the door and ran for his life, joining the other two men on the beach. Van Pelt thought they should defend the cabin as long as possible. They made a dash for the door of the cabin and surprised the Indians who were plundering the house for anything they could find. Hand to hand combat took place with the Indians coming out second best.

Several of their number were put out of commission and the rest fled and rejoined the larger group of attackers.

After three unsuccessful attempts to burn the cabin, the Indians took off for the upper valley, burning settlers' houses as they went. The attackers left several of their number in the cabin that were on the casualty list. The defenders too had a rough time of it. Jones was wounded on the neck. Van Pelt was hit on the shoulder and cut on the head with a knife, while the Van Pelt dog was struck with an arrow. The cabin was a mess, scorched and battered on the outside and in a shambled inside with blood spattered all over the place and three dead Indians on the floor.

After dragging the casualties outside and then eating breakfast, they started for Crescent City but were met by some of the settlers who were just returning from that place and were on their way home only to find their houses had been burned while they were away.

Hostilities didn't last very long, peace was made and the settlers came back to rebuild their homes. Before Van Pelt rebuilt his house he went to the Chief, Ne-et-cas, and told him that he wanted to rebuild his house and was willing to pay something for the privilege. The Chief agreed as long as he was friendly to the Indians and would protect them from the rough element of the white settlers.

It was an uneasy peace that followed. The Indians realized that they were being forced out of their homes by the white settlers who came into the area and when hostilities between the whites and the Indians on the Rogue River developed, the unrest spread to the natives in the Chetco area.

When Tom Van Pelt came home one night after a visit to his friend, Chris Tuttle, he found an Indian lock on his door. This lock is a twig or a small piece of brush that is placed on the door and this sign is a safeguard for the property where it is found and the lock is honored by all Indians. Placing the Indian lock on the door was Chief Ne-et-cas' way of telling Tom Van Pelt that the hostilities were about to break out and that the Chetcos were about to join the Rogue River Indians in their war against the whites.

Van Pelt got the message and immediately made the rounds, warning the settlers of the threatened uprising. He went up the Chetco River and notified some 15 packers who were unaware of the outbreak of hostilities. For three months all the settlers' homes from the Rogue to the California border were burned with the exception of the home of Van Pelt. Then a Capt. Jones with some volunteers spent the night in the Van Pelt home while on the way to Crescent City. In leaving the house, the troops failed to replace the branch on the front door and Indians following the troops burned the house to the ground.