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The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised


Before the White Man


    The Indians had a big feather dance at the Metcalfe Hall Saturday. Although it was a stormy night, a good crowd was present. This dance was gotten up by the Indians to celebrate the Dawes Act giving the Indians their liberty and also a deed to their land in fee simple after the expiration of twenty-five years. The Indians call this celebration their Fourth of July. Much interest was taken by Indian women in preparing their costumes for this event. It was something out of the ordinary. Their wampum belts and feather headdresses were more gaudy and beautiful than usual. In the dance they seemed to have lost some of their ancient and most beautiful songs. A Rogue River chief was asked to start one of their ancient songs. He stepped forward in front of the gay dancers and said in jargon, "My friends, how can I sing? My people are nearly all dead. I am alone, my heart is sad. I cannot sing. But if you people will help I'll start some of the old songs." And they did help. It was sad and pathetic. The chief continued: "Years ago before we saw the white man we had big dances; our wigwams would not hold the people. We were happy then; our children played upon the green and around our tepees, and all were happy and full of life. The timid deer played upon the hills; the coyotes' bark we heard in the distance. We worshiped God in nature and every thing around. In the fall of the year when the berries began to get ripe, when the camas was ready to dig and the acorns to be gathered, and the rivers were full of fish, the mountains with game, then we would come together and have a big dance and big feed, and thank the Great Spirit for his goodness. But these happy days have passed away; my eyes are full of tears and my heart is sick. The feather dance which the old folks so much enjoyed will soon pass away. Our children will read of it only in the white man's books." Such was the lamentation of Chief John when called upon to reproduce some of the ancient songs of the Rogue Rivers.
"Siletz," Lincoln County Leader, Toledo, Oregon, February 14, 1919, page 1


An Indian Recalls
    To the Editor: In scanning over the editorials, I ran across "Coquille's Own Problem." Now, being an Indian of the Chetco River, of some three-score and 12, I am supposed to know our language, with its names so far back as my great-grandfather. The old-timers (white men) tried to carry out names of the various tribes (P.O.) along the coast from Crescent City, Cal. to about 15 miles above or rather north of the mouth of the Coquille River. In this length of territory along the coast was one nation. Since the origination of the Curry County Indian Heir Association we have designated this as the "Te-to-tin Nation."
    The natives in this territory spoke the same language. Natives north, east and south of us spoke a different language. So the name of the Coquille related to the Indians of the district. At the mouth of the Coquille River was Nah-so-met, where there was quite a settlement, killed off by the so-called pioneers.
    Where Myrtle Point is now was called Choc-re-laton. Now this does not quite spell the name or names, as I am limited in my use of English letters to get the correct sound. Our language is about the hardest to interpret so as to make sense.
    "Coquilth." This is as near as I can get to the original name as used by my people. Now I don't know of any of our places named from the French language. Flores Creek, Sixes River, Elk River, Port Orford, all south of the mouth of the Coquille River, have been named by the whites, with the exception of U-ka-chee, for Eu-ka-chee Creek. Chetco is an Indian name. Windchuck is an Indian name. Since the government established lines between Oregon and California, we do not go any farther south than this line now, so California cut off some of our people on the south.
    There are only about three of the originals of my people now living, that I know if, who knew when the first white man came to our beautiful Chetco country, where we hunted the elk deer and the seal, so we were always contented and lived at our ease. We though that the so-called pioneers were pretty bad, but the New Deal has just about finished us up.
SAM VAN PELT,
Brookings.
Oregonian, Portland, October 25, 1938, page 10


Before the White Man: An Indian's Story
"The Pioneers Were Pretty Bad, but the New Deal Has Just About Finished Us Up,"
Says Sam Pelt
    Several weeks ago, following a discussion on The Oregonian's editorial page over the source of the name "Coquille," Sam Van Pelt, designating himself as "an Indian of the Chetco River, of some three score and 12," wrote from Brookings an interesting letter to the editor in which he expressed the belief that the name was of Indian derivation, originally "Coquilth."
    Concluding his letter, he remarked: "There are only about three of the originals of my people living, that I know of, who knew when the first white man came to our beautiful Chetco country, where we hunted elk, deer and seal, so we were always contented and lived at our ease. We thought that the so-called pioneers were pretty bad, but the New Deal has just about finished us up."
    Sensing the possibility of an unusual story,
The Oregonian asked Sam Van Pelt to prepare for this section material encompassing: First, how the Indians lived before the white man came; second, why the pioneers were "pretty bad," and third, how the New Deal "has just about finished us up."
    The accompanying article is Mr. Van Pelt's own story.
    Sam Van Pelt was born December 31, 1861, at Smith River. His father, Thomas Van Pelt, had settled along the Chetco River, taking an Indian wife, and for many years had wielded large influence among the Indians of the area.
Thomas Van Pelt
    The son followed in his father's footsteps as counselor and champion of his mother's people, and devoted much of his life to their cause. Lacking formal education, he acquired through native intelligence a wide knowledge of many things and a shrewd understanding of politics. So that he might better wage his fight to secure recompense to the Indians for lands taken by white settlers, he spent considerable time studying law.
    Most of his earnings at his trades of boatbuilding and blacksmithing during his younger years were poured into the cause he espoused. Now, at 72
[sic], the sight of one eye gone and that of the other rapidly failing, Sam Van Pelt still hopes to secure for his people and their descendants the justice he feels they never received.
    Lucy Dick, mentioned in the Van Pelt story, is the writer's mother-in-law, a little wisp of a woman, uncertain of step and totally blind, but still enjoying life in her warm seat behind the Van Pelt stove.
Sam Van Pelt, circa 1939By Sam Van Pelt
    TO THE EDITOR: In early days around the Chetco River, before the white man appeared. Chetco is about 4½ miles on the north of the Winchuck River ("win-chuck" is an Indian name for woman in the Klamath language; in our language woman is "compson-ton"), and Nol-ton-a-ton is some 6 miles on the north, with a population of about 1200 to 1500, while Winchuck has about 300 and Chetco about 2100.
    This covers both sides of the river, at its mouth. Village on the north side comprised of about 40 houses and on the south side about the same number.
    Houses were built of split puncheon (of redwood mostly) by excavating from two to four feet in the earth, then standing puncheons on end seven or eight feet high. Then a saddle comb roof was put on of the same stuff with the exception of a hole 3x6 feet in the middle of the comb. This is where the smoke escaped.
Meat: Elk and Deer Were Plentiful
    There was a strip of territory of about a mile wide by ten miles long skirting the ocean where all kinds of game could be seen all day long. We had the grey wolf, panther, bear and wildcat by untold numbers.
    Elk and deer meat were the principal meats used. In getting this meat the men would dig pits ten or 12 feet deep in the soft clay, five to ten feet in diameter. Then all of the young hunters would make drives across these pits. When the pits were full hunters would let the game go. Then they would kill and butcher what they would have and this was all divided with the old first, then the rest would take their share. These drives would take place about two times a year or as was necessary.
    The hunters then would turn to the ocean for the various kinds of fish and seal. Seal and sea lion was used for oil. This oil was rendered out and put in dried sea calf skins to keep sweet until used up.
    Seal and sea lion were easy game as the hunters caught them asleep on the beaches and rocks close in. Now we have no sea lion or seal and our salmon are gone.
    In the fall of the year around about after the first frosts they would take their canoes and go up the river for the son-chon; this was the staff of life, made from the nut of the acorn. This was hulled and dried so it would keep without mildewing for winter use.
    There was plenty of time for pleasure--dancing and all kinds of games. The only thing that was cultivated was tobacco, and that was sown in the shade of the myrtle bottoms along the rivers. The reason for planting in the shade was so it would be mild and pleasant to inhale.
    There was another grand time they had, when in September the tun-ka-loo-ka (Chinook salmon) ran in the river. They would take their canoes and a boat puller and just throw their spears at random and soon have all they wanted for the day. This was all dried and put away for future use in large baskets called met-ton, which would hold about 500 pounds. That was used in winter months.
    Now you see there were no depressions? Or overproductions. Our money was not bankable, hence we had prosperity all of the time.
Teeth: Retained into Advanced Age
    Our old people lived to a great old age. I can't recall of hearing my ancestors having to pull any teeth, for those that were 80 or 90 years old would have every tooth, although some were worn very close to their gums. There were no diseases of any kind among my people before the white people came to our beautiful hunting and fishing land.
Lucy Dick, circa 1939
    Here at this place I am giving you a little history of the only one that is alive today, lives here at Chetco--"Lucy Dick," who is in her later 90s. She gets a pension of $15 per month (New Deal). At first she received only $5 per month. She is about blind now, and it was for a long time she had to be waited upon, for she is past doing anything for herself.
    She tells of her early girlhood days, when girls would help gather the young sprouts of the sulth (wild parsley), also tender sprouts of the salmon brush. (This was good for the system in the spring of the year.)
    Now going back to where nature had provided for the ones who were supposed to live close to nature and as nature provided. There were no taxes or interest to pay, hence we people had all kinds of time for every kind of pleasure, as dances of various kinds. Shell dresses of various hues and styles were made for our dusky maids, who figured largely in all dances, with the exception of war, deer and religious dance. Some of these dances was carried on for days.
    Mussels, clams and various other shellfish were gathered mostly from early fall to late spring. During the months of July and August the mussels were poor and not fit to eat; the Indians were some time poisoned, and sometimes fatally. There were few doctors who could rassle this poison. So in all we had all of the food we wanted to keep one strong and fit to combat the wild life.
    Clothing, of course, was made from skins of different animals. Fur was had of the sea otter (no-gothl-hae-nee), which were seen by the acre afloat on the ocean amongst the sea kelp. The cha-yohst-shun (fisher) also used for clot-honeey (arrow pouch) but only by the better class. Also the torsion-met-ta (pine martin) was used for decorative purposes as head gear. A-chon-seet (weasel skin) was used as tobacco (saylth-ute) pouch by the sports.
Whites: Their Coming Brought Change
    There are so many things I have left out. I have just hit here and there upon a few things. Of course by making notes when things come to me I then could recall things about my people's early government, religion and the various remedies used and their methods of cures. They believed in a spiritual world. Their god was spirits and he was all over.
    Now, just a little about my people after the white man came to Chetco to view things. This was in the spring of 1852. There were Hiram Tuttle, Cris Tuttle, Jim Jones, A. F. Miller and my father, Thomas Van Pelt.
    These were the first whites that came to stay. The two Tuttles located on the south side of the river and each took a donation claim. This location took in all of the houses of my people, on the south side.
    A. F. Miller located on the north side of the river, which covered all of the buildings owned by my people there. Jim Jones settled about two miles south of the south side of the Chetco River. My father settled at the mouth of the Win-chuck River. Now all of these men took donation land claims with the exception of my father, who went to the head man of the compsontons and asked to build a house there. They agreed that he could stay as long as he was friendly to them.
    The rest of the whites made no agreement whatsoever, but were friendly, until along in the fall of 1853 (I am not exact on this date, but very near). The hunters and nut gatherers took their canoes and went up the river for about a two weeks' stay. The old people and most of the young children who were too young to work stayed at home.
    Now about this time the Indians had a little confidence in the whites and did not dream anything would happen. But before a week or ten days passed the Indians were told that the white man had burned about 40 houses and the old people in them. So the Indians called a meeting with my father and the two Tuttles and learned who and why the homes were destroyed. So my father with the two Tuttles were notified to leave there and then. Two Tuttles with Jones and my father left for Crescent City, Cal. Now I am leaving out here just what took place during the next few months, nor how it was settled the next spring.
    As to the New Deal, we have not seen that prosperity corner, hence a starveout. The old Indian said: "Heap wind, no rain." So we will have to look over our ballot a little better. Goodbye.
Sunday Oregonian magazine, Portland, February 5, 1939


Last revised April 14, 2017