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Battle Rock: Anatomy of a Massacre

April 21, 2020

Each year, Oregon Heritage highlights outstanding research done by students at Oregon universities through the Oregon Heritage Fellowship program. This year, three fellows were selected for their thoughtful inquiry of Oregon’s past. Enjoy a preview of original research here. Final papers will be published on the Oregon Heritage Fellowship web page in June.

By: Adam Fitzhugh, 2020 Oregon Heritage Fellow, Graduate Student in History at PSU

“Battle Rock” was an 1851 massacre of Quatomah Indians by nine Euro-American men attempting to establish a settlement at present day Port Orford, Oregon. I came across the story just prior to beginning graduate school at Portland State. My historical area of interest had been classical antiquity. However, for practical reasons, I decided that my master’s degree would be in American history, with an emphasis on the antebellum West. For me, the study of the past had always been about distant places thousands of years ago, and I wanted to explore something more tangible and immediate. The ability to walk down the street and work directly with primary sources from the Oregon Historical Society was an appealing prospect, and so I decided to write my thesis on a regional subject.  

Since my knowledge of Oregon history was limited, I thought it would be best to focus on a single event. This would not only provide my research with natural parameters, but would also allow me to write a microhistory, which is an approach I find appealing. With this in mind, I checked out a few books on the so-called “Indian Wars” that took place in the Northwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. One of these was A Chronological History of the Oregon War: 1850 to 1878 by J.L. Smith. As the title suggests, it listed all of the “battles” that had occurred between settlers and indigenous peoples in the region, and one of these was Battle Rock. As soon as I read the description, I knew this was the event I wanted to research.

The way in which the traditional accounts had painted Battle Rock in a highly-romanticized, consequential light was intriguing to me. Although a minor incident in the scope of Oregon history, it has been depicted as a larger-than-life foundational tale—a last stand of brave, white “defenders” repulsing a horde of savage “Rogue” Indians. To me, the story of the event is more interesting than the event itself. How and why history is constructed, particularly in the sense of propaganda, fascinates me. I see the story of Battle Rock as an artifact from a time when Port Orford was thought to be the next important place on the Pacific coast. With that said, it was a very real event in which twenty Quatomah Indians were brutally killed, and a central focus of my research has been an attempt to unveil what happened on that terrible June day. While the story of Battle Rock might be an artifact of unmet potential its postcolonial reality is ongoing, and to this day the Port Orford community and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz are still debating its legacy.

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