The Grave Creek Hills: The Battle took place in the mountainous and rugged area west of the original Oregon-California Trail (today’s Interstate Highway I-5), southwest of Roseburg, Oregon.
Despite being the largest battle of the Rogue River Wars and one of the largest of the Indian wars of the American West, the details of this battle have, until now, been lost to history, and the location of the fight forgotten.” – Mark Tveskov, Professor of Anthropology, Southern Oregon University
The battle was “the worst defeat, particularly in terms of the total number of casualties, suffered by the combined force of U.S. Army and Oregon Volunteers in Oregon during the Indian wars.” – COL (ret.) Daniel Edgerton, U.S. Army History Center
(Ashland, Ore) After three years of documentary and archaeological research, the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) has discovered the location of the Battle of Hungry Hill, also known as the Battle of Grave Creek Hills, in the remote mountains of southwest Oregon. A team led by Professor Mark Tveskov (SOULA) that included Colonel (Ret.) Daniel Edgerton (U.S. Army Center of Military History), Robert Kentta (historian, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians), Chelsea Rose (SOULA), and other scholars discovered the Rogue River War battlefield.
Their work included combing document archives in Washington D.C., Seattle, Wash., Berkeley, Calif., and elsewhere, as well as extensive field survey by Southern Oregon University students and community and Tribal volunteers.
According to Tveskov, “a goal of the research project is to bring the story of the Battle of Hungry Hill to the larger public, not only to learn about these often tragic events that shaped the beginnings of the Oregon Territory and our Native American and Pioneer heritage, but to honor the memory of the participants.” Support for the project came from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Southern Oregon University (SOU), the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
Although the location of the Hungry Hill fight has been established, many questions remain, and SOULA, the Medford District of the BLM, and the Cow Creek, Siletz, and Grand Ronde Tribes hope to work towards future interpretation and conservation of the battlefield. The research team hopes to return to the site at a later date to conduct a more detailed study that could further describe events of the battle.
The Hungry Hill site was discovered through a process that, more than anything else, resembled detective work to solve a 150-year old mystery. “In the pre-Civil War decade of the 1850s, the conflict over State’s Rights and federal power were already being played out on the frontier in places like southern Oregon,” says Tveskov. “Locally organized militias and federal Indian Agents and U.S.
Army officers were frequently in opposition—often violently—over the proper way to interact with the Indians who lived in lands being colonized by the United States.” As a significant defeat, the events of October 1855 exacerbated these tensions and it is possible that participants in the battle were motivated to let the details of the defeat go by the wayside. According to Tveskov, “what we know about the battle comes mostly from second hand or brief contemporary reports, later memoirs by veterans and other participants, and pioneer and Native American oral histories.
Despite concentrated efforts by historians from the 19th century through very recently, no detailed, contemporary first-hand report about the Battle of Hungry Hill by any army officer has been found. The exact location of the fight remained lost.”
The project was successful because “of the participation of several different scholars, each with different perspectives, expertises, and experiences,” says Tveskov. For example, Robert Kentta, from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, found a front-page article printed in the New York Herald dated November 12, 1855 from Crescent City, Calif. that provides heretofore-unknown and useful details about the battle. Although the article was written by an “anonymous correspondent,” its relevance was supported by Tveskov’s research that suggested that the author of the article was likely U.S. Army officer Lt. August V. Kautz.
Military documents uncovered at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. suggest not only was he in a position to witness many of the events described in the article, but also that he was in Crescent City at the time it was written, only 12 days after the battle.
SOULA’s research into the history of the Battle of Hungry Hill began in 2009, and an archaeological survey was undertaken within a 24 square mile search area on BLM-administered lands that covered steeply mountainous and heavily timbered terrain. The battle location was finally found in September 2012. In part, the site was identified based on maps found in archives by the project researchers: one a hand-drawn map used by the military’s scouts found in the papers of pioneer Jacksonville lawyer Benjamin F. Dowell in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, Calif., and the other was a map drawn by Lt. Kautz found by COL (ret.) Edgerton in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The battlefield site was confirmed on the ground through the recovery of .69 caliber lead musketballs that were used by the U.S. Army in their model 1842 Springfield musketoons, as well as by a lead stopper to a gunpowder tin manufactured by the DuPont de Nemours & Company of Wilmington, Del., the leading supplier of gunpowder the U.S. Army in the mid-19th century. These artifacts are identical to others found during SOULA’s excavations at Fort Lane, where the U.S. Army dragoons that were participating in the battle were stationed, and also at SOULA’s earlier excavations of the Camp Castaway site on the Oregon Coast near Coos Bay, where a regiment of dragoons were marooned for several months after a shipwreck in 1852.
The Battle of Hungry Hill took place at the beginning of the Rogue River War of 1855-56, a conflict rooted in the early 1850s, when thousands of Euro-Americans flooded into southern Oregon after the discovery of gold. Despite peacekeeping attempts by diplomats on both the Indian and American sides, by the Fall of 1855, years of tension and conflict had reached a boiling point. On October 8, 1855, a party of vigilantes from the mining town of Jacksonville attacked the villages of two groups of Takelma Indians from the short-lived Table Rock Indian Reservation, murdering many of the inhabitants.
In retaliation, several Indian groups under the leadership of Chiefs John, George, and Limpy left the reservation, destroying the homesteads and killing the pioneer families they encountered along the Oregon-California Trail. Shortly after, they also attacked several American and Chinese gold mining camps on the Rogue River and pioneer settlements in the Canyonville area. On October 25, the Indian combatants, numbering upwards of 200 fighting men in addition to women and children, were discovered by Lt. Kautz in the Grave Creek Hills west of the pioneer communities located on today’s Interstate I-5 near Sunny Valley and Wolf Creek.
Under the command of Captain Andrew Jackson Smith of Fort Lane, a force of some 300 U.S. Army dragoons and volunteer militiamen converged on the Indian encampment after an all-night forced march. After a plan to flank the Indian hilltop encampment failed in the mountainous terrain and in the darkness, the combined force instead, after daylight on October 31, mounted a frontal assault.
The American forces were pinned down for most of the day by Native American riflemen, and by nightfall, the attacking force had retreated to a spring to nurse their wounds, a location the Americans named “Bloody Springs.” The next morning, the Americans retreated under fire to the settlements, leaving the Indians, in the words of Lt. George Crook, the “monarchs of the woods.” Years later, Crook would famously lead U.S. Army troops in wars against the Paiute, Lakota, and Apache as a general. He was one of several young officers stationed in southern Oregon in the 1850s who would rise to prominence in the Civil War and afterwards. The American force suffered 39 causalities, including at least ten men killed on the battlefield. It is not known how many Indian casualties there were, although later testimony suggests at least 16 men were killed. Lacking an early decisive victory, the Rogue River War would continue.
When finally defeated on the lower Rogue River the following spring, most of the Indian people of southern Oregon were removed from their ancestral homeland to the Siletz and Grand Ronde Reservations in the Coast Range of northern Oregon.
The exact location of the Battle of Hungry Hill was lost after the end of the Rogue River Wars. In 1934, newspaperman Richard I. Helms attempted to correlate historical accounts of the battle with the local topography. He decided that the conflict took place on a particularly high promontory in the Grave Creek Hills, a claim he published in the Grants Pass Courier that April. Local historians Dorothy and Jack Sutton revisited this same hill, and a photograph of it was provided in their book Indian Wars of the Rogue River, published by the Josephine County Historical Society in 1964.
The accuracy of this location, however, was challenged by local historian Larry McLane, who in his 1995 book First There Was Two Good, A Pictorial History of Northern Josephine County, cited the oral tradition of his own pioneer ancestors to place the battlefield several miles southeast of the “Hungry Hill” that remains marked on the map to the present day as a result of Helms’s research. SOULA’s research included archaeological survey of the areas described by both Helms and McLane, and neither yielded artifacts that could be associated with the battle.