Indwellers and Immigrants

Heroes of Battle Rock

Cover of “The Heroes of Battle Rock” narrated by J.M. Kirkpatrick and edited by Orvil Dodge, 1904. (Credit: Robert L. Ivie)

In the middle of September, Bill-the-mail-carrier delivered a package containing an old pamphlet and an accompanying note from my brother saying he thought I might find it “a fun fast read.”  The pamphlet likely belonged to our deceased mother.  She could have picked it up on a visit to the Oregon coast with her historically-minded brother and sister-in-law.  The whole family, including my brother and me, is Oregon born.

There is something atavistic about this pamphlet.  It manifests a recurring ancestral outlook, the cultural DNA of white settlers, the origin myth gone ironically nativistic in today’s battle of white indwellers against immigrants of color.

“The Heroes of Battle Rock” is what Kenneth Burke calls a representative anecdote “in a bad sense.”[1]  Its implications for human relations are anything but positive.  It is reductive in its “motivational calculus” and thus simplistic, polarizing, and combative in the attitude it conveys toward non-whites, which would not be a matter of so much concern if it were atypical and strictly historical.

The 21-page pamphlet, published in 1904 (and reprinted in 1965), tells a story of heroic adventure in 1851 by a group of nine prospectors setting out from Portland by steamship to establish a settlement on the Oregon coast “and build a road into the gold diggings in Southern Oregon.”

The party landed on the beach below what later became known as Battle Rock on the morning of June 9.  The steamer moved on to San Francisco, leaving nine white men to face the fury of three hundred “Siwash” Indians.[2]  The reader is treated to the details of an extended, back-and-forth battle, which ended temporarily after 25 Indians were killed.  The nine prospectors then executed a wily escape from their vulnerable perch on top of Battle Rock before the Indians could launch an overwhelming attack under cover of darkness.

The difficult march back toward Portland over mountains, through woods and swamps, and across rivers, with hundreds of Indians in hot pursuit, ended on July 2 when the nine prospector-pioneers were rescued by white settlers in boats at the mouth of the Umpqua River.  The Portland Oregonian, based on a hand-written note discovered by a search party at Battle Rock, had erroneously reported them massacred, but in fact the whole party returned safe and sound.

The expedition’s leader and the story’s narrator, J. M. Kirkpatrick, concluded the battle was historic: “There is no other battle in Indian warfare that I know of, that equals it, except that most glorious defense Mrs. Harris made in 1855 on Rogue River in defending her house and home containing the dead body of her husband and her living child, when for more than ten hours she, all alone, stood off at least one hundred of the bravest Indians that ever lifted a white man’s scalp, killing according to the Indians’ own statement, fifteen.”

The moral of Kirkpatrick’s story of subduing “savages” was, in his own words: “No braver, bigger-hearted, or truer set of pioneers ever blazed the way for the march of civilization.”

The rest of the pamphlet, edited by Orvil Dodge, is a sales-pitch description of the investment opportunity in the Salmon Mountain Course Gold Mining Company near Coos Bay, Oregon, of which editor Dodge happened to be a principal officer.

The story naturalizes the white settlers who built homes, roads, and towns, mined the gold, and civilized the territory as their own, making themselves into native Oregonians.  The Indians preceding them were supplanted, becoming mere savages and physical specimen sans history or civilization.

Native-born Oregonians tend to be protective of their state’s borders.  They have been known to treat outsiders (such as Californians) as interlopers, inviting them to visit but not stay.  People of color and non-Protestants were not welcomed by the Ku Klux Klan, which maintained up to 19 Klaverns in Oregon from Astoria to Pendleton, Ashland, Grants Pass, Roseburg, Eugene, and Portland in support of anti-immigrant, “100 percent Americanism.”  The state’s population in the 1920s was nearly 90% native-born, white, and Protestant.  This is not a pretty legacy for such a beautiful land, but it also is not such a unique history for the country at large, nor even a dormant saga in the present uprising against Latin American immigrants at the country’s southern border.

Our racist mythos is deeply rooted in the heroic stories of pioneers and settlers.  “The Heroes of Battle Rock” is just one iteration of the tale of civilization’s march to prosperity.  No wonder the great white outrage when a different story begins to take hold of the nation’s imagination.



[1] Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1969), 324.  See 59-61, 323-325.

[2] Siwash was a derogatory term for North American Indians, its meaning roughly equivalent to savages (wild, untamed).

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