Harvey Robbins and the Rogue River Indian War

A recent trip to southern Oregon got me thinking about cousin Harvey Robbins and his experiences in the 1855-56 Rogue River Indian War.  The route I traveled, along Interstate 5, is pretty much the same rugged route that Harvey traveled with his state militia company in rain and snow.  Today the freeway climbs and descends four passes between Grants Pass and Canyonville.  In Harvey’s time each of the intervening valleys had a fort that played a part in the war.

By 1855 the Takelma Indians were living on their treaty-established Table Rock Reservation in southern Oregon.  After a massacre by miners that year the Indians began taking revenge against miners and settlers in the area, which led the tribe to flee west down the Rogue River Valley and into the Coast Range.  Other related tribes to the north attacked isolated cabins in the valleys of Jump Off Joe Creek, Graves Creek, Wolf Creek, and Cow Creek.  The fear of Indians moved north into the Umpqua country and ultimately the Willamette Valley.  Governor Curry called up several companies of volunteers from the upper Willamette and Umpqua area counties.

Brothers Levi and Harvey Robbins (1850s)

Harvey Robbins, born in Decatur County, Indiana, in 1833, came across the Oregon Trail at the age of 19, with his parents Jacob and Sarah (Spilman) Robbins, all his siblings, as well as his cousin Nathaniel Robbins and his large family.  The family settled initially in Marion County, with some later moving on to Molalla, in Clackamas county.  Harvey, however, took out a donation land claim in Linn County, near Harrisburg.

As Harvey described the situation in the fall of 1855:

“By this time I had become of age and had taken up a parcel of land in Linn county.  When the call reached Linn County the news spread rapidly, runners going in all directions.  One came to me where I was plowing on the prairie and informed me of the urgent need for haste.  I at once unhitched my team from the plow and turned them loose to find their way home while I went to the claim of a young friend a couple of miles away.  He had two excellent saddle horses and I secured one of them and we rode hastily to the nearest assembly point.  We then met a number of other young fellows and all of us at once signed the necessary papers.  We were then ready to fall into line when called out.”  (Pioneer Reminiscences by Harvey Robbins).

We are lucky that Harvey Robbins kept a journal which survived and which was published in 1933 in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, as well as having written up his reminiscences.  In the journal Harvey describes the events of October 1855 to January 1856.

After marching south to Roseburg, Harvey described the “lack of respect” that the local residents affording the volunteers.  “The citizens of this place seem to treat the volunteers with but little respect.  One man has even forbade our cutting wood on his claim.  We just went to his wood that was already chopped and helped ourselves.”  The following day he reported: “Rained all night.  We have no tents yet.  The citizens will not even let us sleep in their barns.  A person may very easily imagine what kind of respect the volunteers begin to have for Umpquaians.”  (Oct. 29-30, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

The various companies elected a battalion officer and then they were on their way south, marching to Fort Bailey (now the location of the historic Wolf Creek Tavern).  There Harvey and his fellow soldiers learned of the army’s defeat at the hands of the Indians at the Battle of Hungry Hill.

Oregon vigilantes

Harvey’s company left Fort Bailey for Fort Leland (today situated next to Interstate 5 in the Sunny Valley) and then they were marched west down Grave Creek to the Rogue River, and then down the rugged Rogue, where the river plunges into canyons inaccessible to anyone but foot soldiers.

“The spy of yesterday morning arrived at camp, reported that the Indians were, he thought from all appearances, preparing to fight.  Capt. Keeney’s company was ordered to cross the river with [the] Southern battalion.  While preparing rafts to cross the river we were attacked by the Indians from the opposite side of the river.  Killed one man, wounded 22 more, Capt. Keeney’s company.  The river runs here in a deep canyon.  The side on which the Indians were is covered with fir timber and brush so thick that we could not see them.  The side on which we were was open with the exception of a few scattering trees.  As soon as the firing commenced Capt. Keeney ordered his men, every one to choose a position behind something to shelter us from their sight.  10 minutes before he advised us, all that were not at work, to get behind something and keep a close lookout for Indians, but the boys disposed to laugh at him.  The firing commenced at about 1 o’clock, continued till 8 o’clock at night, when seeing it was impossible to accomplish our object or even do any good in any way, we left the field, carrying our killed and wounded with us to our camp.”  (Nov. 26, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

The soldiers stayed where they were, firing back and forth with the Indians for several days, but after a storm left 10 inches of snow, and with provisions running low, the officers decided to return to the safety of the forts.  Once there the soldiers proceeded to vote for a Colonel and Lieutenant-colonel, Harvey writing: “The candidates have been shouting here today, telling us their views and what they would do if elected.  If they make their words good, woe unto the Indians.”  (Dec. 5, 1855, in Journal of Rogue River War, 1855)

Rugged Rogue River country near Indian battle sites

On December 16, Harvey reported that provisions were again running low.  “This morning we are out of meat, and having made several applications to the quartermaster for meat, and could not get it, Captain had discovered in the quartermasters house a keg of syrup which he called for, and the quartermaster swore that he should not have it.  Captain swore that he would.  He came to camp and took a few boys with him and just walked in, carried it out, and said “Here boys, take it,” and Mr. Quartermaster took care not to cheep.”

As the month wore on, and the weather worsened, and the supplies were running out, Harvey reported on Christmas Eve “Today there is considerable of murmuring in camp about the way we are getting treated here.  We are very poorly clad, and in fact we have no suitable equipment for a winter campaign and it seems there is no exertion used for our relief with the exception of Captain.”  On Christmas the soldiers received “a bucket full of brandy” from the quartermaster.  Captain Keeney asked for a furlough for his men, was denied, and he marched them anyway to Roseburg, for which he was temporarily suspended from command by the Governor.

So ends Harvey Robbins’ involvement in the Rogue River Indian War.  But we’ll be hearing more from Harvey later – he also participated in the Yakima Indiana War, ran a freighting service in eastern Oregon, mined and ranched in Oregon and Washington, and late in life returned to Decatur County, Indiana, to attend the 1922 Robbins Family Reunion.

(Jacob Robbins-Jacob Robbins II-Jacob Robbins III-Harvey Robbins)

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