This poem appears in Counterbound, Issue 1 (June, 2020).

To read all essays and poetry, purchase the print edition.

The Table Rock Treaty Peace Pipe: Challenging Traditional Historical Narratives

by Keoni Diacamos

A large burlwood pipe sits in the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s historical artifact collection, a staple of Rogue Valley cultural memory.

Local history associates the “Table Rock Treaty Peace Pipe” with the Rogue River Indian Wars, when indigenous peoples of Southern Oregon resisted an unending stream Euro-American miners and settlers. The American ideology of manifest destiny resulted in the rapid expansion of mining and agricultural endeavors, inversely impacting the cultural ecology of the indigenous population. Reactionary violence between settler driven capitalist expansion versus native cultural survival escalated to the point that the United States Army was mobilized in an effort to re-establish “peace”.

By September of 1853, a truce was called between Takelma people and the United States Army on behalf of the Rogue Valley settlers. On top of Lower Table Rock, overlooking the Rogue River, representatives from all sides allegedly smoked from the pipe to finalize a treaty establishing the Table Rock Reservation. Unfortunately, this did little in the way of ending further violence. Begrudged settlers and native Americans who refused to recognize the authority of the ratified treaty continued to engage in violence.

Tensions burst in 1855, when a group of white settler vigilantes razed a village of peaceful Takelma residing at the mouth of Little Butte Creek, eventually called the “Lupton Massacre.”, Unified Native American retaliation erupted until the Army led a scorched earth campaign that eventually overwhelmed the resistance.

Seventy-seven years later, on the 75th anniversary of Oregon statehood, the Table Rock Peace Pipe took center stage, despite its role in an ineffective and short-lived treaty. Crowds gathered to witness one of the last surviving Oregon pioneers puff smoke through the burlwood in commemoration of the early settlers. The pipe’s original owner John England Ross was the focus of this tribute.

“… Col. John E. Ross, chiefs Sam, and John, and Gen. Joe Lane were among those in the parley. At the end of the meeting the myrtle roo[t] peace pipe was handed with ceremony to General Lane, Lane took the pipe but did not lift it to his lips. “The pipe of peace must be given to someone more worthy than I,” he said, and passed it to Col. Ross…”

John England Ross was an early Oregon pioneer who, like other militiamen who settled the west, made a career fighting indigenous people for their land. In local lore, the Rogue Valley’s settlers colonized southern Oregon through sheer determination and providence. John Ross himself touted his own responsibility in negotiating the treaty.

He was known to portray himself akin to the frontiersman protagonist of the popular 19th century series Leatherstocking Tales. He wore a fringed buckskin suit and “war bonnet” at community celebrations.

Recently, however, it is through historical analysis that we can learn about the bluster of the early settlers, determined to write their own parts in history. Numerous first-hand accounts and primary documents accredit US Army Officer James Nesmith as interpreter of the Table Rock Peace treaty proceedings.

The narrative of John Ross as the treaty interpreter is a myth. A story perpetuated by himself and other early pioneers of the Rogue Valley in the years after the war, elevating their role in the “conquering” of the wilderness and removal of its native inhabitants.

Freedom, individualism, self-reliance is common in rural far-right rhetoric: the settled west, a land of plenty, destined to white settlers by a protestant God. In Jackson County, local militia groups, some aligned with the ideology of revolutionary soldiers of the 18th century, still prowl protests, armed to the teeth, to assert power over the land.

“It is the responsibility of the individual to protect themselves.” An attendee of recent anti Covid-19 protests proclaimed to that evening's cable news broadcast team.

Such displays are reinforced by the tradition and historical narrative of white Euro-American settlers. To question these ideals is an outright betrayal to a core tenet of western cultural memory, that settlers, seeking free and prosperous lives, shucked the tyranny and responsibility of the federal government. The sanitization of Nesmith from the local history of early settlement is an example of federal distrust and the promotion of the individualism of rural communities.

By the early 20th century, the Rogue Valley was colonized, the pioneering settlers aged. The Takelma and other native tribes of southern Oregon were forcibly removed to the Shasta reservation, even if they did not partake in the fighting.

Many of the Army Officers who fought in the conflict (of whom some were critical of the settler’s actions in provoking violence) had either passed or had moved on in their careers. This left the duty of recounting southern Oregon history to the Pioneer Society, and they decided to embellish a fabricated story.

There is a double standard concerning far-right relationships towards big government. Descendants of settlers rely upon and take credit for government actions that have reinforced identity and power. The most prominent example is the stolen land of indigenous people, and the subsequent historical erasure.

Instead of being a totem of early settlers, the peace pipe is now a lesson on the nuances of American settler colonialism. It is a warning of the dangers of how triumphant individualism is an old tool in manipulating complex historical narratives.

Keoni Diacamos is a museum collections assistant for the Southern Oregon Historical Society and an Archaeologist working throughout the Southern Oregon region

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