• +1-971-264-0749
  • info@thatsmyoregon.com

Remembering Table Rock

Remembering Table Rock

Upper and Lower Table Rock, shown in grayscale with elevations

Have you ever had a place become so iconic in your life that it holds you mesmerized every time you see it? Table Rock is that place for me. So much so, in fact, that four decades after first discovering it for myself, it continues to draw me back and make itself known in my life in the smallest of ways. If people can be magically bound to a place, then I’m certainly bound to this monument of both natural and human history.

Table Rock is the name shared by two geological mesas which form a scenic wonder sitting on the floor of the Rogue Valley in beautiful Southern Oregon, just north of the Rogue River. These volcanic plateaus are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management.

Although technically two formations, locals refer to them both collectively as “Table Rock”. Individually, they are called the Upper and Lower Table Rocks.

Memories to Last Forever

Long one of the favored hiking spots in the Rogue Valley, the Table Rocks receive over 45,000 visitors annually. Two trails, the Upper Table Rock Trail and the Lower Table Rock Trail were dug in by members of the Youth Conservation Corps, the Boy Scouts of America, and the BLM in the early 1980s.

One of my fondest memories involves working weekends on the Lower trail with Boy Scout Troop 104, out of Central Point, Oregon in 1982. Ironically, we lived on Table Rock Road in Medford, only 7 miles from the rocks themselves. I would wake early on Saturday mornings and peddle my happy little ass out to the worksite on a busted up old ten-speed, where BLM land manager John Ifft had already laid out where the trail was to be cut. It was hard, sweaty work, but it made me feel like one of the early pioneers, blazing the first of many trails into the valley. 

Usually, one of the adult work supervisors would toss my bike in the back of a truck and give me a ride home, but there were a few times I made the ride back after a long day of labor. It was a rewarding adventure.

Oh, how I miss that youthful energy 35 years later!

Around the same time, I thought I might grow up to be a nature artist. I’d make the ride to hang out at nearby Denman Wildlife Area, observing and sketching the mule deer, muskrats, salamanders, pheasants, quail, and red-winged black birds that love the high, dense brush and marshy banks of various ponds and creeks lined with cattails which dot the site. This small wildlife management area is another little-known gem of the valley sitting just under the gaze of Upper Table Rock, on the Rogue River and Little Butte Creek, and includes Gregory Ponds.

The land was once part of Camp White, a training and ammunition storage facility during WWII. Camp White was preceded by Fort Lane, established on the same site to subjugate the Rogue Indians in the 1850s. By 1954, however, all but 7 square kilometers of the historic location remained, the rest having been sold off as real estate. Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Kenneth Denman, for whom the area was later named, it was set aside as a wildlife management area.

You can still explore a few of the partially buried ammunition buildings today if you know how to locate them.

Dwarf wooly meadowform

The Dwarf wooly meadowform grows nowhere else in the world.

Our family, like many in the valley, made regular visits to Table Rock for day hikes. Wildflowers bloom around vernal pools that fill on top of the rocks in the Spring. One of these, the Dwarf wooly meadowform (shown left) grows nowhere else in the world! Another unique species also occupies these vernal pools, a form of brine shrimp that also only lives in a few places on the planet. As a result of their unique bio-diversity, the Table Rocks have been listed by the BLM as an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” since 1984.

In February 1989, Theresa and I were married on the banks of the Rogue River at TouVelle State Park with the Table Rocks standing witness in the background. My father’s last unfinished oil painting he was working on prior to his death in 2005 hangs in my office, painted from almost the exact spot we were married. It looks out across the Rogue River to capture the western ridge of Lower Table Rock.

Table Rock seems destined to be an indelible part of my life, and represents everything I love about the Rogue Valley.

And yet the connection goes deeper…

Native History of Table Rock

The rocks played a prominent role in the lives of many others, long before my own encounters with their almost mystical attraction. In fact, the entire story of human history in the region can be told starting at the Table Rocks and working outwards.

Hoxie Simmons, Rogue Indian, 1870

Hoxie Simmons, a Rogue Indian circa 1870. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Native Americans have occupied Oregon Country for at least 15,000 years and probably much longer. The Takelma tribe, known more commonly as the Rogue Indians, were the primary tribe living here when Europeans first explored the Rogue Valley in the 1820s.

Their neighbors to the north were the Umpqua, to the south into Spanish-controlled California were the Chastas, and across the Cascades to the east the Klamath and Nez Perce. Following the Rogue River westward, the Quatomah and Tututni bands of the Rogues claimed territory all the way to the Pacific, in the areas of present day Gold Beach and Port Orford.

Most tribes encountered by whites in the Pacific Northwest were entirely different than the Eastern and Plains Indians they’d come across before. Calling them tribes to begin with is a misnomer, however. The people considered themselves more a part of their village than any tribe. The primary link between various village cultures that dominate the area is language, although most groups were multi-lingual. What truly linked them were estuary and tributary systems. These Northwest tribal designations are more of an ethnologists’ way of grouping small bands of related specialists, than political entities. They all shared certain cultural influences, yet at the same time culture practices could vary widely from one village, or “band of villages” to another.

Some groups, such as the Chinook, Bannock, and Molalla, were more passive and had a less nomadic lifestyle centered primarily on fishing and trading. They occupied the coastal region and well into the Columbian and Willamette tributaries. Their populations had been all but wiped out by smallpox, influenza, and malaria outbreaks in the late 1780’s and again in the 1820’s. In some areas, entire villages died from these outbreaks, leaving their lands ripe for reclamation by the newly arriving white settlers. In fact, few realize that many of the earliest white settlements in the Willamette Valley in the 1820s and 1830s were established at such abandoned, native ghost towns.

The impact of disease cannot be understated. By most estimates Pacific Coast tribes lost well over 97% of their prior populations even before the first settlers’ wagons arrived in Oregon Country. By the time American settlers began streaming into the area, the British Hudson’s Bay Company had already established half a century of trade and political control over the Pacific tribes, due in large part to their relatively passive demeanor and disease-ravaged populations.

Not so, the Rogues.

Secluded in the hard to access Rogue and Illinois valleys, they were less impacted by many of these early disease outbreaks. They were more aggressive – far more ready to defend and fight for their ancestral territories. Settlers reported the Rogues were not nearly as amenable as their Willamette neighbors to the north, and considered them rascals and thieves. They had slight physical differences, tending to be leaner and more fit than their coastal cousins, and they were quick to adopt more effective guerilla-like tactics against the encroaching whites, thanks to the long-standing tradition of near-constant raids between the Rogues and Chastas.

While salmon were still an integral food source for the Rogues, they spent up to half the year away from their fishing villages to follow deer, foul, and other game. They were inland river valley specialists, living in small bands – the average village having between 30 and 150 people. Linguistically, the Rogues share no common roots with the Chinook and Athapascan speaking tribes that surrounded them, excepting some small shared dialect with their bitter enemies, the Chastas of northern California.

Their neighbors were quick to take advantage. They repeated stories of the Rogue’s rascally behavior to white wagon trains as they passed through the area, so it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the Takelma people picked up the more ominous name that stuck, the “Rogue Indians.” 

The period of 1820-1850 saw more and more of the southwestern region of the state explored, with missionaries and settlers following shortly behind fur trappers and traders, each time bringing more disease and conflict to displace the natives. But the discovery of gold in southern Oregon rivers and creeks in 1850 quickly escalated the conflict as thousands of wealth-seeking speculators began pouring into the area, most following the Applegate Trail south from settlements on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

Plaque commemorating the signing of treaty with Rogue River Indians near Fort Lane, present day Camp White, Jackson County.

Plaque commemorating the signing of treaty with Rogue River Indians near Fort Lane, present day Camp White, Jackson County.

By 1853, after two years of near constant violence by both whites and Indians, the situation had reached a tipping point. On September 10th, 1853, former territorial governor Joseph Lane and Joe Palmer, the Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs, negotiated the Table Rock Treaty with the five main Rogue chiefs, reducing their lands to the Table Rocks and a portion of the Rogue River watershed (including Evans Creek watershed, where we now live). This created the Table Rock Reservation – the first of many reservations to be established in the Pacific Northwest. 

The Americans quickly erected Fort Lane on the south bank of the Rogue River to keep oversight of the natives. Two companies from the newly formed U.S. Army 1st Dragoons were stationed there under the command of Captain Andrew J. Smith to keep the peace. But the Table Rock Reservation was to be short-lived.

Fort Lane Plans

Fort Lane Plans. U.S. National Archives

As with most native experiences, the whites weren’t pleased to leave these rich, agricultural reservation lands and gold-bearing creeks in the hands of “simple, uncivilized people”. Neither were the Rogues content to remain complacent while even these reservation lands were quickly being invaded by miners and settlers.

In 1855 and 1856 southern Oregon tribes revolted in several violent uprisings known as the Rogue Indian Wars. As many as 700 Rogue, Umpqua, Chasta, and Modoc warriors at a time reportedly raged up and down the Rogue River and its tributaries, killing, burning down buildings, and looting anything they could. I’ll save the details of these conflicts for a future post, as the Rogue Indian Wars warrant much discussion on their own. 

It is enough to say for now that, as with so many tribal stories told over and over across North America, it didn’t end well for the Rogues.

Table Rock and the Other “Trails of Tears”

Most historians mark the Table Rock Treaty and the Rogue Indian Wars that followed as the end of the Indian era in the Rogue Valley, yet there was a final, sad  chapter yet to be written at Table Rock.

No doubt you’ve heard of the famous Cherokee Indian “Trail of Tears”, but did you know that there were many such deadly forced marches in American tribal history?

This was no unique event at all, and most tribes that survived also refer to their own experience as the “Trail of Tears.” In Oregon alone, there were five such events which marked the permanent end of life as it had been previously known to the Rogue River Indians.

First, in January 1856, 480 members of the Cow Creek, Umpqua, Molalla, and Kalapuya tribes were marched to the Grand Ronde Military Reservation on the Salmon River between Salem and the coast, the reservation’s first new residents.

Then, in February 1856, the U.S. Army gathered up the Takelma people and several other tribal groups from the Table Rock Reservation at the base of Table Rock, near Fort Lane. Numbering 400, and led by Chief Toquahear, they were forced to start marching with only what they could carry. They too, were to be sent to the Grand Ronde reservation, some 200 miles to the northwest.

For thirty days, and through a winter harsh enough to freeze the fast-moving waters of the Rogue River, they walked north over the Oregon-California Trail. Eight people died along the way. As happenstance would have it, exactly eight babies were also born in route. Their Army escorts reported no deaths during the trip, however, simply because the headcount at the finish line matched that of the start, as if to say 

“400 Indians is 400 Indians, aint it?”

On June 21, 1856, six hundred or more people, many of whom were the survivors of the Battle of Hungry Hill, were placed aboard the steamer Columbia in Port Orford. From there they were shipped to Portland, offloaded, and then marched to the Grand Ronde and Siletz military reservations.

Two more forced marches brought still more tribes from throughout Oregon to the Siltez and Grand Ronde reservations in 1856, and effectively ended the Rogue River Indians as a sovereign people. 

Many tribes throughout the region were delivered to reservations in the late 1850s. Some of those tribes were bitter enemies prior to be lumped together on the reservation. But the necessity of survival made them all family – one tribe, so to speak. It was a hard life, and slowly the original, individual tribes of Oregon were either dying off or becoming absorbed into the larger populace. 

After a hundred years, by 1954, so many of the Oregon Cascade mountain tribes had lost population numbers that the Federal government enacted the “Western Oregon Indian Termination Act“, which ended their status as Federally recognized tribes, including all the tribes of the Grand Ronde community. For over 30 years, tribe members from the Grand Ronde reservation fought one fierce legal battle after another to restore their native status. Finally, in 1983, the remnants of these proud people regained their federal recognition, now collectively referred to as the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community Oregon (CTGR).

The Legacy of Table Rock Continues

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

My life crossed paths even with this native aspect of Table Rocks’ history again in 2001. After leaving the Army, I was hired by the CTGR to work at their newly opened Spirit Mountain Casino on the Grand Ronde Reservation as a software developer. That relationship became one of the most important and rewarding of my life.

For almost 16 years I worked numerous positions at Spirit Mountain, developed lifelong friendships with CTGR tribemembers, assisted the tribal government’s Economic Development department with business expansion projects, and even had the opportunity to participate as honored guest at two of their First Fish ceremonies which take place once a year coinciding with the start of local salmon runs.

“Native Blues”, 2004 Nammy nominated album.

In 2003, I was honored even further by being invited to play guitar as a session musician for tribal member Jan Michael “Looking Wolf” Reibach’s “Native Blues” album, on his Cedarfeather label. I wrote and played all the guitar parts for “Spirit Brothers” and “Dimensions” on that CD, both fusion jazz pieces mixed with native flute played by Looking Wolf, and Moroccan congo percussion provided by Joseph Baidou. The album was later nominated in 2004 at the First Annual Indian Summer Music Festival for “Best Blues” album of the year, and received a nomination for the Native American Music Awards (the Nammys) “Best Blues Recording”.

In all those busy years working with and supporting the tribe, I sort of lost sight of the fact that these were the descendants of the very same people whose land I had grown up exploring almost 300 miles to the south. In fact, it wasn’t until I started writing this piece that I realized the full orbit of Table Rock my own life has taken.

Here and now, as 2017 comes to a close, we are preparing to return to the Rock. In just a few short weeks we are finally beginning our move back to southern Oregon and to our newly leased MyOregon Farms property, just minutes north of Table Rock. The stream that run through the farm was one of those defined in the Table Rock Treaty as part of the original Table Rock Reservation.

The Rock obviously isn’t through with me yet. I’m excited at the prospect of once again returning to the top of Upper Table Rock. I’m thrilled at the idea of looking out again over the Rogue Valley’s lush vineyards and orchards, eastward toward snowcapped Mt. McLaughlin, and down across the Rogue River’s mighty waters as they rush towards the Pacific.

Table Rock is truly one of the most unique places on Earth. I cannot wait to see what other natural wonders and mysterious stories it has yet to reveal. But for today, it is enough to simply say,

Table Rock, I’m coming home!

Related Online Reading

Fort Lane @ OregonEncyclopedia.Org

Table Rock @ Wikipedia

Amanda’s Trail @ Sierra Club.Org, yet another obscure tale of the treatment of Oregon natives as they were forced onto reservations.

150 Years since Western Oregon’s Trails of Tears @ AgnesBakerPilgrim.Org, Taowhywee, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, Takelma Indian Elder, Confederated Tribes of Siletz

People of the CTGR @ Grand Ronde.Org, a teacher’s lesson plan on Oregon tribal history.

SOU Investigates Battle Sites @ Southern Oregon University


Related Images:

MyOregon Editor