NORTH SPIT — Coos Bay's first white settlement has, for nearly two centuries, been lost and buried somewhere on the North Spit's sandy dunes.
In 1852, a small crew of soldiers -- stranded and presumed dead after their ship wrecked -- weathered a winter there. Settlers who came to rescue the crew stayed in the area, building the first white towns. As years passed, sand slowly buried the little camp where it all started.
Within a generation, locals forgot the camp's location — and legend.
But not any more.
This week, a crew of archaeologists from Southern Oregon University, the Bureau of Land Management and Jordan Cove Energy Partners are excavating the sight of an ancient shipwreck on the North Spit. They can't say definitively if the new discovery is indeed the remains of Camp Castaway until the excavation is complete, but early signs show promise. The timeworn ruins could be the site of Coos Bay's first — and most fragile —settlement.
Three years ago: 2009,
'As it turns out, there have been many visitors to Camp Castaway over the years," Scott Byram, the archaeologist who discovered the site, wrote in an article outlining the discovery.
'Most just didn't know that these broad, grassy dunes held the remains of the remarkable event in Oregon Coast history."
In 2009, while doing archaeological work for Jordan Cove Energy Partners, Byram came across an 1861 survey of the coast that identified the location of a shipwreck. Camp Castaway was the result of the only recorded shipwreck in that period, although shipwrecks were common in the mid-1800s, and not well documented.
Byram studied the surveys and found the location. A test excavation quickly yielded percussion caps used in pre-Civil War firearms.
The site merited further investigation.
Camp Castaway was temporarily home to a crew of about 35 dragoon soldiers after their ship wrecked on the North Spit. Dragoons were heavily armed mounted soldiers that pre-dated the cavalry. The government shipped dragoon units up and down the West Coast to fight Indians and protect white settlers. They were well trained, well armed, and well supplied.
Without the actual campsite to study, all that is known about Camp Castaway comes from firsthand accounts written by the dragoon survivors, which were compiled in 1898 by a historian named Orvil Dodge.
161 years ago: 1851-52
In December 1851, 35 dragoons boarded the schooner Captain Lincoln in San Francisco with a load of supplies to reinforce a group of settlers fighting Indians at Battle Rock near Port Orford.
Almost immediately, the ship began taking on water as it beat its way through fierce winter storms.
The Captain Lincoln reached Port Orford on Jan. 1, 1852. The ship's captain, Henry Stanton, tried in vain to get into port. But the breakers were strong, and the leak worsened. Stanton finally allowed the storm to blow the ship north as he looked for a place to beach.
'It was during my watch that (Captain Stanton) gave the order to 'Hard a-lee,' while we were endeavoring to put further to sea," wrote Philip Brack, one of the Dragoons aboard the Captain Lincoln.
'The command was obeyed, and with full canvas unfurled, we were carried toward the beach."
In the dark, the crew had no way to know whether the fast-approaching land was sand or deadly rocks.
Waves ceaselessly pounded the deck. The ship struck a bar about 200 yards from land. Then another wave sent it lurching forward.
'A breaker swept the deck and set me adrift," Brack wrote. 'The next one brought me back again and grasping some rigging I managed to save my life."
The ship flipped sideways and, finally, struck land.
Shaken, the crew huddled below deck waiting for the tide to recede. As the sun rose, the storm retreated with the ocean. The dragoons emerged, bruised, soaked and elated.
On the horizon the endless sand dunes swarmed with Indians.
Thursday morning Agnes Castronuevo, an archaeologist for the Confederated Tribes, sat perched over one of the four holes at the excavation site.
'I'm waiting for a rock with a hole in it," she said, laughing.
Several of the archaeologists and archaeology students manning the dig gathered round to watch the rock's unearthing. At best, the rock could be something Native Americans used for food preparation or a tribal ritual.
'It could just be a rock with a hole in it," she said.
Castronuevo said she is representing the tribe at the dig, watching for signs of Native American life. She hopes to find evidence of interaction between Coos Bay's first white settlers and the existing Indians.
As is common, the initial days of excavation have unearthed little, she said.
The archaeology student in the pit took out a brush to remove sand carefully from around the rock. As he swept sand away, a white shell appeared, then another and another. More archaeologists gathered round to see the small mountain of unearthed shells.
Most likely, the shells naturally washed on shore and gathered around that rock, said Mark Tveskov, a professor at Southern Oregon University who is leading the dig. Still, the discovery was worth documenting. Such small clues are all the scientists are likely to find.
Back to 1852
'The old chief, named Hanness, with a few others who were brought to camp, informed us that they were Cowan Indians, and resided where Empire now stands," soldier Henry Baldwin wrote.
The Indians turned out to be exceedingly friendly. The day after the wreck, a group brought the dragoons piles of fish and elk meat that they traded for hardtack and extra dragoon uniforms.
The day after that, more returned -- dressed in their new attire -- to help the crew salvage the ship's cargo.
The dragoons removed the ship's galley and cut down its masts and sails to build a camp.
'In a few days quite a large, neat and handsome sail-cloth village had raised its head and graced the sands of that then wild beach, the terra incognita of the Far West," Baldwin wrote.
Today, very little of the camp remains.
'They basically built a tent city out of the remains of the ship," Tveskov said. 'A lot of the material has rotted away."
Finding anything significant at the site requires the scientists to sift layer by layer through the sand, recording each item's precise location. So far, the team has uncovered small metal objects: percussion caps and musket balls, nails from the ship, shells and bones.
If they are lucky, the scientists will find a smoking gun -- a button with dragoon insignia.
They hope to find clues of the camp's layout: where the men slept, where they dumped garbage, where they cooked food.
Tveskov, who is excavating the site with his SOU summer field school, recently excavated another dragoon camp on the Rogue River. In fact, after the marooned dragoons left Coos Bay, many of them went to the Rogue River camp to battle in the Rogue River Indian Wars. The archaeologists are hoping the research from that site will complement what they discover on the North Spit.
'After our camp was completed, I was detailed to convey mail out to Gardener (sic)," Brack, one of the shipwrecked dragoons, wrote.
'We made the trip up the beach to the Umpqua, and then in a canoe to Gardener, returning to our Camp Cast-a-Way, as we had named our canvas city."
The dragoons could have walked to nearby settlements for rescue, but as a military unit their orders were to deliver the shipload of supplies to Port Orford. So, the crew settled in for the winter, waiting for new orders or rescue.
Local Indians spread word of the stranded crew, and several white settlers visited the camp, including Patrick and James Flanagan, who would later found the city of Empire.
The army delivered the marooned dragoons several donkeys to haul small supplies and sent another schooner in May to pick up the larger items.
The camp was packed up, its remnants looted, and the 35 dragoons walked to Port Orford.
There our 'comrades gave us a fine reception, and by order of the commanding officer we were given 'freedom of the city,'" Brack wrote.
'The reader must remember that we were supposed to be drowned, and our appearance gave joy and comfort to our comrades in arms."