The river we now call the Rogue has been known by a variety of names over the years. Trappers called it Tutuni, with various spellings, meaning rogue or rascal Indians. For the same reason, French trappers called it La Riviere aux Coquins, the River of the Rogues, and Henry Eld of the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 wrote in his journal about the Rascally River. The river was also known for a short time as McLeod’s River, after an early explorer, and by the Territorial Legislature as Gold River.
Tribes speaking two different languages occupied the Rogue River valley and surrounding area. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The Tutuni lived along the coast, at the mouth of the river and for a distance upstream. In 1854 the Tutuni population was estimated at 1,311 people; 383 remained in 1910. The Takelma tribe lived along middle sections of the Rogue, as well as along the Illinois River, a tributary of the Rogue. (Takelma, by the way, means “those who dwell along the river”.) In 1780 the tribe’s population was estimated at 500; only one person remained in 1910.
The Tutuni lived in large permanent villages made possible by a plentiful, year-round supply of food. They relied heavily on food from the sea, including salmon, shellfish, seaweed, and occasional whale-meat. Deer and elk, as well as berries and seeds were also included in their diet.
The Takelma, on the other hand, were semi-nomadic, and moved from place to place as food supplies became scarce. They relied on deer and other game, berries and root plants for their sustenance.
The Takelma were more aggressive than the Tutuni. The Takelma raided their neighbors to the west for food, other supplies, and slaves. Slaves were, in turn, often traded to the Klamath Indians to the east.
These raids aside, until about 1850 the Rogue River country was a relatively peaceful place. The Takelma’s reputation for aggression, combined with a report by explorer McCloud that described the area as “destitute of beaver” kept the encroaching tide of outsiders at bay. But two events changed this.
One was the 1850 Land Act, which promised 320 acres to each Oregon settler over 18 years of age. (Eventually, 2.5 million acres were given away under the provision of this law.) The other event was the discovery of gold, first on Josephine Creek along the Illinois River in 1850, and then near Jacksonville in 1851.
Soon, settlers and miners were flocking to the Rogue River country. By 1853 most of the rivers and creek beds of southwestern Oregon were being prospected for gold. Signs of this busy period in the Rogue’s history remain at numerous sites along the river today.
Miners and settlers in large numbers cut trees, hunted wildlife, and took over lands that were the homes of the Tutuni and Takelma. Displaced natives resorted to harassing wagon trains and disrupting mining operations in defence. Skirmishes and counterattacks grew into a conflict that came to be known as the Rogue Indian War. This 8 month war began in October of 1855 with the Battle of Hungry Hill, near Grave Creek, and ended the following May with a battle south of Illahe at Big Bend. Most of the war was fought in the remote, winding canyons of the Rogue.
The end result of the conflict, as with similar conflicts elsewhere, was that those Indians who survived were relocated — in this case, to the Grande Ronde and Siletz reservations.
By 1857 no Indians remained in their former homeland. But although there had been a large influx of newcomers earlier in the decade, further settlement occurred slowly, due to the ruggedness of the river canyons.