At least four tribal groups historically lived in the Umpqua River Basin. The Southern Molalla lived in the headwaters of the South Umpqua River. On the coast from Siltcoos River south to Tenmile Creek, and up the Umpqua Estuary to just above the head of tide, and up the tributaries to the estuary including Smith River live the Lower Umpqua tribe (also known as the Kalawatset), who spoke a similar language and were related to the Coos and Siuslaw tribes. The Upper Umpqua tribe and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians lived along the Umpqua River upstream of the head of tide (present-day Scottsburg), occupying most of the basin. Although there are no speakers of their languages today, the tribes continue to be an essential force in the watershed, contributing to the local economy and caring for their people and their resources. Exactly when each of these tribes settled in the Umpqua River Basin is uncertain, but archaeological evidence indicates that Native American settlement began at least 8,000 years before the arrival of Euro-American settlers. In the 1700s, even before the first white fur trappers had explored the watershed, smallpox and other diseases were introduced to the Columbia River region during contact with Spaniards exploring the coast by ship, and may have swept as far south as the Umpqua Basin. Although the population of Native Americans prior to Euro-American contact is uncertain, estimates from around the time fur trappers entered the watershed were 3,000 to 4,000 Native Americans in the Umpqua Valley and 500 along the estuary, estuary tributaries, and coast. However, the extent to which the population had already been reduced by disease epidemics is unknown.
The Native Americans that lived along the Umpqua rivers and their tributary streams were highly dependent on the annual cycle of nature. Their cultures were rich and complex, with distinct rituals, rites and responsibilities. In winter, the people lived in cedar plank houses in permanent villages. Here they made baskets, clothing, tools, and weapons, and recounted a wide variety of stories including creation stories and tales of a magical time when animals and humans shared the same language. In the spring, summer, and fall, they went to seasonal camps to take advantage of seasonally-abundant food resources. Staple foods in the watershed included shellfish, various marine and estuarine finfish, salmon, lamprey eel, camas bulbs, myrtle nuts, acorns, berries, and deer. Throughout the year, the people gathered shellfish on the coast and in the estuary, and they caught finfish using wood stake fish weirs in the estuary. In the spring, they hunted ducks and geese along the Umpqua River, and gathered shoots and greens in the meadows. Spring runs of salmon were fished and dried over smoky fires. In the late spring and early summer they harvested camas bulbs and kitten's ears from the meadows, and picked salmonberries, thimbleberries, and strawberries. Brush fences and snares were set for deer drives. Pit traps were used to trap elk. In the late summer the inland tribes moved to high country, including Huckleberry Lake, Abbott Butte, and other places in the high Cascades, where they escaped the heat of summer, and harvested late-summer berries and hunted deer. When fall arrived the inland tribes returned to their permanent homes, well-crafted cedar plank houses in the valleys, where they harvested the fall salmon runs and completed storage of food for the upcoming winter. On the coast, the year-round villages along the estuary also caught salmon and completed storage of food gathered at seasonal camps for the coming year while continuing to thrive off of the abundant year-round estuarine and marine food resources. Harvested areas were burned, to stimulate new growth in the next season. Acorns, hazelnuts, tarweed, and dried berries were saved for the dark, gray months ahead.
The first known contact with whites was with fur trappers aboard the Columbia Redidiva at the Umpqua estuary in the late 1700s, although Spanish galleons had sailed up the Oregon coast at least a century before. In the 1820s the Hudson's Bay Company began intensive trapping of beavers and regular trade with the Native Americans in the Umpqua Basin. Initially they founded a temporary post near the mouth of Calapooia Creek. In 1836 they built Fort Umpqua at the mouth of Elk Creek. Trade with the fur trappers provided the Native Americans with brass kettles, needles and thread, colorful beads, clothing, and blankets. Relations with fur trappers were generally good, although there were occasional skirmishes. An especially notorious conflict occurred in 1828 between the Lower Umpqua Indians and a party of fur traders led by Jedediah Smith. Due perhaps to inappropriate advances of Smith's men toward Indian women, or due perhaps to the alleged theft of an ax by a young Indian, a Lower Umpqua man was killed by Smith's party, for which the Lower Umpquas retaliated and killed 15 of the 19 of Smith's men. By the mid 1850s, having virtually extirpated the beaver from the Umpqua Basin, the fur trappers pulled out and moved on to new areas. Even before white settlement began in earnest, the presence of the trappers and the removal of beavers initiated dramatic environmental and cultural change, foreshadowing events to come.
The Oregon Territory was established in 1848 through the Organic Act. The territorial government was quickly established, including a branch of the Office of Indian Affairs [later renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).] The same year gold was discovered in California igniting the feverish migration of tens of thousands of fortune seekers to the West. In order to promote settlement of the Oregon Territory, congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which granted one square mile of land (640 acres) to each married couple during the period from 1850 to 1855. In 1852 gold was discovered in Oregon on Jackson Creek, and within months several thousand miners came into the Rogue, Illinois and South Umpqua watersheds. The "gold rush" brought in a rough, lawless element, and conflicts with the Native Americans increased, prompting Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer to begin negotiation of a treaty with the Indians. The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe, together with the Takelma of the Rogue Valley, were the first tribes in the Oregon Territory to sign a treaty with the US government. On September 19, 1853 Superintendent Palmer finalized a treaty with Chief Miwaleta and other leaders of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians in which they ceded their entire homeland, approximately 720 square miles, for 2.3 cents per acre, and a few houses and goods. A separate treaty was signed in August, 1855 with the coastal tribes including the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. However, this treaty was never ratified by the US Senate, leaving the issue of compensation to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians for ceded lands unresolved. Less than four months later, on December 1, 1855 the Donation Land Claim Act expired, and the US government began to offer land to white settlers at a flat rate of $1.25 per acre.
Throughout the Umpqua Basin, as was the case throughout the Oregon Territory, donation land claims were filed on the meadows where the Native Americans gathered seeds and camas bulbs, along marshes and lowlands fringing the estuaries, and in other locations that had been critical to their subsistence lifestyle for centuries. Villages sites located in the most advantageous locations in the rugged terrain of the watershed were claimed by the military and settlers. Acorns once gathered by the Native Americans were now eaten by the new settlers' hogs, camas fields were trampled by horses and cattle, and settlers forbade field-burning, fearing their homesteads would be burned up. The white settlers sedentary lifestyle, rooted in ideas of individual land ownership foreign to the Indians, was at odds with the requirements of the Native Americans' seasonally-based subsistence lifestyle. The population of America was increasing dramatically due to the high birth rate and immigration. Many settlers were the sons and daughters of disenfranchised farmers from the eastern US and Europe, themselves struggling to survive. Prompted onward by "manifest destiny", the idea that westward expansion bringing civilization, Christianity, and democracy to the "wilderness" was an inevitable good, many settlers felt righteous in their endeavor. Some were friendly toward the Native Americans, even marrying members of the tribes, but others were interested only in securing land for themselves, and sought to eradicate the Native Americans. The new settlers competed with the Native Americans for the resources necessary for their livelihood. Tensions increased and feuds festered. The miners and settlers organized groups of "volunteers" that chased down and killed Native Americans in retribution for alleged wrongs. The combination of disease, disruption of subsistence patterns, and violent conflict took a heavy toll on the tribes. Eventually, many were reduced to starvation. When Superintendent Palmer visited the Cow Creeks in 1854 at the end a difficult winter, he said, "I found many of them wretched, sickly, and almost starving… They said, truly, they were once numerous and powerful, but now few and weak; that they had always been friendly to the non-Indians, and desired them to occupy their lands; that they wanted but a small spot on which they might live in quiet. Many of their number they said had been killed by the non-Indians, in retaliation for wrongs committed by Indians of other tribes, but they had never offered violence in return." Epidemics and the stress of economic and cultural dislocation had also taken its toll on the tribes. From a population estimate recorded by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition around 1806 of approximately 500 Lower Umpqua and 1500 Coos, only approximately 444 survived in 1856 at the US Army's Fort Umpqua.
In the Rogue River Basin, south of the Umpqua River Basin, violent conflict was intense and widespread. In the winter of 1855-1856 a renewed outbreak of the Rogue River Indian War spread northward into the Umpqua Basin. Following an unsuccessful conference between the white settlers and the Native Americans, Cow Creek Tom, a tribal leader, declared that they had decided to fight, and led his people into the hills, beginning a long period of hiding out in the mountains, punctuated by occasional raids of the settlements for food and supplies. Eventually, the US Army was brought in to end the conflicts in the upper Umpqua Basin, as well as throughout western Oregon, and over 2,000 surviving Native Americans were captured and moved to the Coast and Grand Ronde reservations. Subsequently, the Office of Indian Affairs hired contractors to hunt down the few remaining Native Americans who had eluded capture. Nonetheless, scattered individuals and families remained in the remote outlying regions of the watershed, and others returned from the reservations. Many lived in cabins above Tiller on the South Fork, near Drew on Elk Creek, and in the headwaters of Cow Creek, and some intermarried with French-Canadian fur trappers. They hunted, and sold leather products in towns around the region such as Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, and Roseburg. Eventually, the violent conflict ebbed, and gradually the surviving Native Americans found new means of survival, establishing homesteads, working seasonally picking prunes, hops, and working as farm laborers, miners, and trappers.
The Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw, and Coos tribes were not participants in the "Rogue River Indian War" or in any other organized hostilities, but these tribes were swept up in the fear and anti-Indian hysteria surrounding this conflict. From 1856 to 1859, most of the Lower Umpqua Tribe along with the Coos Tribe were imprisoned at the US Army's Fort Umpqua on the sandy North Spit of the Umpqua Estuary. From 1859 until 1875, many of these people along with the Siuslaw Tribe were then held at the Alsea Sub-Agency at Yachats. When the Alsea Sub-Agency was opened to Euro-American settlement in 1875, and the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw were told to move to the Siletz Agency, many refused and instead settled at the Siuslaw Village of Ka'aich at the confluence of the North Fork and Mainstem Siuslaw River, or settled near the community of Gardner along the Umpqua Estuary, or settled wherever they could be left in peace. Speaking in 1875 in opposition to his dispossession form his land, Lower Umpqua Headman Sopenny said "We will not give up our land. I know the whites have much money, but I want none of it, though I am poor." With the closing of the Alsea Sub-Agency, the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw received neither money nor the reservation which they were promised in the 1855 Coast Treaty.
In less than a half-century, the Native Americans' traditional way of life that had persisted for thousands of years was brought to an abrupt end. The few that survived found themselves refugees in their own homeland. These survivors began the process of reconstructing their tribes.
In the early 1900s the Cow Creek and the Lower Umpqua (with the Coos and Siuslaw) tribes began separate efforts to reconstitute tribal governments to receive federal services and restitution from the US government. Five times the Cow Creeks managed to introduce bills to Congress to address the taking of their lands in the 1850s, but each time the bill was defeated. The Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw were granted a land claims hearing in 1931, but their claims were denied. Then in 1954, with the passage of the Western Oregon Termination Act, the federal government ceased to recognize or provide federal services to Native American tribes in western Oregon. Nonetheless, they maintained their tribal identities and continued their pursuit to litigate over the taking of their lands, and to be federally recognized once again as tribes. In 1984, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw were once gain recognized by the federal government as a tribe. However, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw have not received land nor a financial settlement from the federal government to date. Their efforts for restitution are ongoing. However, through their own private efforts they succeeded in raising the funds to purchase a small amount of land and open an Indian Gaming facility at the site of the village Ka'aich. The tribal government is based in Coos Bay, and provides a variety of services to it members, including education, healthy care, and support for the elderly.
In 1980 the Cow Creeks were finally successful in their effort to pass a bill through Congress allowing them to make their case in the claims court in Washington, D.C., and then in 1982, a bill was passed restoring their tribal status. In 1984, the Cow Creeks agreed to a settlement of $1.25 per acre for their lands as of 1855, for a total of $1.5 million. With the passage of the Cow Creek Umpqua Distribution Fund Act in 1987, Congress permitted the Cow Creeks to establish an endowment, which now provides assistance for economic development, education, housing, and the elderly. The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua opened an Indian Gaming facility in 1992 to provide jobs and a steady source of revenues for the tribe. In 2004 the tribe donated over $1.6 million to more than 250 recipients, including Douglas County schools. Direct benefits of the tribe to the economy of Douglas County include the provision of 5,328 jobs related to the casino and other tribal activities, which generated $192.4 million in wages and benefits in 2004; indirectly, the tribe is associated with an additional 5,640 jobs that account for $156.5 million in revenues in other sectors of the economy. The tribe is also actively engaged in the Partnership for Umpqua Rivers (PUR), a watershed council working to enhance and restore of water quality and fish habitat conditions in the Umpqua River Basin. Currently, the tribe and PUR are restoring anadromous fish populations in streams near Canyonville. The tribal government of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua is located in the city of Roseburg.
Today, the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians are successful tribes that both honor their past and traditions and look optimistically to the future. Through persistence, determination, and a long-term wholistic view, these tribes have once again become major contributors to the culture, natural resources, and economy of the Umpqua River Basin.
Beckham, Steven Dow and Sherri Shaffer, 1991. Patience and Persistence: The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians. In: C.M. Buan and R. Lewis, eds., The First Oregonians. Oregon Council for the Humanities, Portland, Oregon.
Beckham, Stephen Dow. 1997. The Indians of Western Oregon: This Land Was Theirs. Arago Books, Coos Bay, Oregon. 236 pp.
Beckham, Stephen Dow, 1969. Lonely Outpost: the Army's Fort Umpqua. Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon. 24 pp.
Douthit, Nathan, 2002. Uncertain Encounters: Indians and Whites at Peace and War in Southern Oregon. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon. 248 pp.
Personal Communication: The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
Personal Communication: The Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw.