Tobacco pipe

A student holds a fragment of a tobacco pipe found at the Southern Oregon University excavation of Miners' Fort near Gold Beach. 

Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon University

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University and the SOU Laboratory of Anthropology are conducting an archaeological field school in July, 2016 on the Oregon coast as part of their long-term research into the Rogue River Indian Wars of 1853-1856. This project is funded in part by the Oregon State Parks and Recreational Department. The project includes geophysical survey, extensive documentary research, large-scale excavation, and a public archaeology program at the Geisel Monument State Heritage Site and at Miner’s Fort in Curry County.

In the winter of 1856, the Tututni Native American people of the southern Oregon coast joined the rebellion against the American settlement of southern Oregon that had begun in the interior Rogue River valley the previous fall. On Febr. 22, the pioneer settlements between Port Orford and the California border were assaulted in a coordinated attack. Dozens were killed that night, including John Geisel and his two sons, who were murdered in their home in front of John’s wife, Christina, and their two daughters. The three women were taken captive and held for several weeks until ransomed by the surviving pioneers who, at that time, were besieged within the walls of Miner’s Fort at the mouth of Rogue River. A Native American woman named Betsey and her pioneer husband, Charles Brown, served as intermediaries and translators in the negotiations that secured the release of the Geisel women.

Later that year, after war was over, the Geisel homestead saw additional violence: While being escorted by government agents to the newly established Coast Indian Reservation, nineteen Native American people were murdered near the burned-down Geisel homestead, apparently as an act of revenge.

The Miner’s Fort site today lies on private property adjacent to Highway 101 north of Gold Beach and the Rogue River. The earthen walls of the fort are clearly visible in aerial photographs taken of the area in mid-twentieth century, and the site was often visited by local residents to commemorate the Rogue River War. The Geisel Homestead was preserved by Oregon State Parks as a memorial, and remains open to the public to this day. SOULA archaeologists and students will be conducting archaeological excavations at both sites to recover artifacts to compliment the rich historical record of the events of the 1850s.

SOULA researchers, working with the OPRD, the Bureau of Land Management, and western Oregon’s Native American Tribes, have investigated a number of Rogue River War sites in recent years, including the 1852 wreck of the schooner Captain Lincoln on Coos Bay, the remains of the U.S. Army’s Fort Lane near Central Point, and the site of the Battle of Hungry Hill that took place in late October, 1855. This summer’s Curry County research will benefit from the partnerships developed during these earlier projects, as well as spectacular results of magnetometer, electrical resistivity, and ground penetrating radar surveys conducted this past March at the two sites.

“The architectural remains of the walls and interior cabins at Miner’s Fort remain largely intact,” said Dr. Mark Tveskov, director of SOULA. “The site’s integrity and the artifacts it contains, coupled with the documentary record of the Rogue River War, and the oral tradition of western Oregon Native people, will allow a more complete story to be told of events that led to the settlement of southern Oregon, and the daily lives of the people swept up in that conflict.”

OPRD archaeologist Nancy Nelson says of the project, “Oregon State Parks’ partnership with Southern Oregon University’s archaeological field school and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz is an excellent opportunity to provide our visitors with an outstanding educational experience this summer. We are committed to the best research of our shared history and the archaeology at the Geisel Monument State Heritage Site will help improve our understanding of the Rogue River Indian War.”

Events for the public

SOU researchers would like to share their project with the community and interested public, and are hosting “open site” public days and a free lecture series during their stay in Gold Beach.

At the remaining open site day, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. July 24 at the Geisel Monument State Heritage Site at 32448 U.S. Hwy. 101. The public is welcome to visit the field school excavations, get tours of the sites, learn about archaeology and local history, and see some of the latest finds from the project. More information will be available at the Gold Beach Visitor’s Center.

The remaining public lectures will be held at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday in July at the Curry County Fairgrounds in the Docia Sweet Hall, as follows:

July 20: Robert Kentta, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians: "Siletz Tribal History."

July 27: Patricia Whereat Phillips, linguist and researcher for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. “Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians.”

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