Thursday, March 1, 2012

To Buy a Cemetery

Philip Sheridan, who was to make a name for himself during the Civil War, garrisoned for a time at Fort Hoskins (which he called “Haskins”) in Kings Valley west of Salem, OR. During that time (1856) it was decided to build a block-house over on Yaquina Bay on the Coast. The site he chose was occupied by a native burial ground, necessitating its removal, which didn’t go over well with the local population; but, in the end, they weren’t given any choice. Sheridan discusses this process in his memoirs. Later he describes mourning observations of the Rogue Indians.


Not long after the arrival of the additional troops from Yamhill, it became apparent that the number of men at Yaquina Bay would have to be reduced, so in view of this necessity, it was deemed advisable to build a block-house for the better protection of the agents and I looked about for suitable ground on which to erect it. Nearly all around the bay the land rose up from the beach very abruptly, and the only good site that could be found was some level ground used as the burial-place of the Yaquina Bay Indians--a small band of fish-eating people who had lived near this point on the coast for ages.…

It was the mortuary ground of these Indians that occupied the only level spot we could get for the block-house. Their dead were buried in canoes, which rested in the crotches of forked sticks a few feet above-ground. The graveyard was not large, containing probably from forty to fifty canoes in a fair state of preservation. According to the custom of all Indian tribes on the Pacific coast, when one of their number died all his worldly effects were buried with him, so that the canoes were filled with old clothes, blankets, pieces of calico and the like, intended for the use of the departed in the happy hunting grounds.

I made known to the Indians that we would have to take this piece of ground for the blockhouse. They demurred at first, for there is nothing more painful to an Indian than disturbing his dead, but they finally consented to hold a council next day on the beach, and thus come to some definite conclusion. Next morning they all assembled, and we talked in the Chinook language all day long, until at last they gave in, consenting, probably, as much because they could not help themselves, as for any other reason. It was agreed that on the following day at 12 o'clock, when the tide was going out, I should take my men and place the canoes in the bay, and let them float out on the tide across the ocean to the happy hunting-grounds:

At that day there existed in Oregon in vast numbers a species of wood-rat, and our inspection of the graveyard showed that the canoes were thickly infested with them. They were a light gray animal, larger than the common gray squirrel, with beautiful bushy tails, which made them strikingly resemble the squirrel, but in cunning and deviltry they were much ahead of that quick-witted rodent. I have known them to empty in one night a keg of spikes in the storehouse in Yamhill, distributing them along the stringers of the building, with apparently no other purpose than amusement. We anticipated great fun watching the efforts of these rats to escape the next day when the canoes should be launched on the ocean, and I therefore forbade any of the command to visit the graveyard in the interim, lest the rats should be alarmed. I well knew that they would not be disturbed by the Indians, who held the sacred spot in awe. When the work of taking down the canoes and carrying them to the water began, expectation was on tiptoe, but, strange as it may seem, not a rat was to be seen. This unexpected development was mystifying. They had all disappeared; there was not one in any of the canoes, as investigation proved, for disappointment instigated a most thorough search. The Indians said the rats understood Chinook, and that as they had no wish to accompany the dead across the ocean to the happy hunting-grounds, they took to the woods for safety. However that may be, I have no doubt that the preceding visits to the burial-ground, and our long talk of the day before, with the unusual stir and bustle, had so alarmed the rats that, impelled, by their suspicious instincts, they fled a danger, the nature of which they could not anticipate, but which they felt to be none the less real and impending.

For some time the most disturbing and most troublesome element we had was the Rogue River band. For three or four years they had fought our troops obstinately, and surrendered at the bitter end in the belief that they were merely overpowered, not conquered. They openly boasted to the other Indians that they could whip the soldiers, and that they did not wish to follow the white man's ways, continuing consistently their wild habits, unmindful of all admonitions. Indeed, they often destroyed their household utensils, tepees and clothing, and killed their horses on the graves of the dead, in the fulfillment of a superstitious custom, which demanded that they should undergo, while mourning for their kindred, the deepest privation in a property sense. Everything the loss of which would make them poor was sacrificed on the graves of their relatives or distinguished warriors, and as melancholy because of removal from their old homes caused frequent deaths, there was no lack of occasion for the sacrifices. The widows and orphans of the dead warriors were of course the chief mourners, and exhibited their grief in many peculiar ways. I remember one in particular which was universally practiced by the near kinsfolk. They would crop their hair very close, and then cover the head with a sort of hood or plaster of black pitch, the composition being clay, pulverized charcoal, and the resinous gum which exudes from the pine-tree. The hood, nearly an inch in thickness, was worn during a period of mourning that lasted through the time it would take nature, by the growth of the hair, actually to lift from the head the heavy covering of pitch after it had become solidified and hard as stone. It must be admitted that they underwent considerable discomfort in memory of their relatives. It took all the influence we could bring to bear to break up these absurdly superstitious practices, and it looked as if no permanent improvement could be effected, for as soon as we got them to discard one, another would be invented. When not allowed to burn down their tepees or houses, those poor souls who were in a dying condition would be carried out to the neighboring hillsides just before dissolution, and there abandoned to their sufferings, with little or no attention, unless the placing under their heads of a small stick of wood--with possibly some laudable object, but doubtless great discomfort to their victim--might be considered such.