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The 1855 Rogue River Wars of Oregon

and the story of Isaac Shelton's unfinished breakfast

The amount of history that has taken place within the Riverpass Retreat in southern Oregon, should arouse suspicion of simply being fabricated. It is an ironic blessing that we, in wanting to create a special place to raise a family, chose a place that was unknowingly already very special.

The Riverpass Retreat sits on a knoll, in a valley that is only a half-mile wide, it is a geographic bottleneck that everything and everybody must pass through to get to the other side. An interstate, a highway, a boulevard, a railroad, river and the famed Siskiyou trail, all pass within a stone's throw, shedding light on how such a potent concentration of events could have transpired in such a small area.

When the proposed 'sportsball' court was being surveyed, it became very evident that this had been the site of decades of past human activity. The area is quite flat and clear of large trees. Which is why it was picked for the court site in the first place.

Hundreds of tin cans that had been only opened by knife, ceramic and glass shards, as well as a 1936 license plate, were all found along what turned out to be an old trail cutting right through the Southwest of the Riverpass.

At the edge of the clearing, near a few ancient pines, was a single boulder roughly the size of a dishwasher. Under a small overhang, old campfire smoke stains are easily seen. These finds led us to research what we could about this spot in the Rogue Valley. This is where the story begins.

La Riviere aux Coquins (River of the Rogues)

The Rogue River was so named by European trappers, because the native inhabitants of the Rogue River valley. They were more merciless and quicker to commit atrocities than what was considered 'normal'. The general unwillingness to assimilate into the new culture, respect property rights, and obey civil laws made them generally unwelcome within developing communities. These communities depended on merchants, families and farmers to grow and prosper. A strong Christian faith linked all these communities in common concern for one another lending men and supplies to neighboring towns as needed whenever the occasion arose.

Contrarily, slavery, murder, cannibalism, and far more treacherous deeds of all sorts, were commonly practiced by one native tribe against another, all long before the white man arrived. This primitive culture of might makes right, kept the native tribes from trusting and/or working with each other. The individual native cultures ultimately proved to be no match for the homogenous 'WASP' culture. Yet, in the early days these Rogues made the already tough job of being the outnumbered homesteading settler much more dangerous.

The Rogue River Valley, was known to be a dangerous place for any non-natives, yet this river-pass through the mountains was logistically critical for pioneers and the like, moving their families and their businesses into Oregon from California or visa-versa. A clash of cultures was sure to ensue, but it would take years for the tensions to reach a breaking point.

Along the Rogue River there were few places to get across safely, strong currents and rapids still make it very dangerous to enter the water, with or without, supplies and pack animals. The riverbanks are also steep in many places, making it hard just to get in or out of the water. Miners and trappers had to carefully find their way across, sometimes they traversed miles around just to get to the opposite side of where they had started. In the 1850’s there were too few permanent settlers to construct a real bridge in the Rogue River Valley, the natives here, were just too hostile.

In 1851 an entrepreneurial man named Davis Evans constructed not a bridge, but instead stretched a cable, then built a ferry to cross the Rogue river. He built it adjacent to the little town of Woodville that had previously been called Tailholt, known as such because the safest way to cross the river was to hold your horse's tail while it swam across with you in tow. The ferry was replaced by a bridge in 1909, and the town is now the City of Rogue River. The Jewitt's ferry location is well known and officially marked by the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

When Davis Evans built this first ferry, he called it Jewett's ferry, since it was situated near the Jewett family home. Soon after, he realized the fortunes to be made not in gold mining, but in conveying gold miners back and forth across the river. He built another Ferry a few miles downriver, this one he named after himself calling it Evan’s ferry.

So in simple explanation, Jewett's ferry was in fact owned by Davis Evans, but ‘Evan's ferry’ was 3 miles downstream. This is an important distinction because the two ferries are often mistaken as being the same. With the real Evan’s ferry receiving little attention until now.

The definitive location of Evan’s ferry (historian Frank Walsh has published this as being 3 miles downstream from Jewett's ferry) was unknown, yet with a little topographic knowledge, construction concepts, and archeological aptitude, one can surmise the red 'X' in this photo is the best place for a river ferry landing in this vicinity, this is also where the Riverpass Retreat is located. A flat clearing, sitting above the highwater mark, on a calm portion of the waterway, where the riverbanks are not too steep or too flat is ideal.

These ferry sites became a hotspot for travelers to exchange information about the growing hostilities and rumors of a coming war concerning the natives of the area. On October 9th, 1855 just before dawn, the natives known as the Rogues began a vengeance filled murder spree, thus igniting the Rogue River Indian wars that lasted for more than a year.

Starting at Jewett's ferry on the North side of the river they shot and killed some folks. They then proceeded to murder every man, woman, and child they came across at homesteads along the river. For several miles, stealing horses or anything else they liked, then they would burn down all cabins and outbuildings.

When the Rogues reached Evans ferry around 6AM they found 25 year old Isaac Shelton, camped with some companions. The men took cover, but Isaac was too busy cooking breakfast in his skillet over a small fire. In a flurry of gunshots, Isaac was shot four times, he had no chance to eat that final meal, he died in writhing agony 20 hours later.

The most likely location of the historic North landing for Evan’s ferry is in the Southwest corner of the Riverpass Retreat, and by default, where Isaac may have met his fate more than 150 years earlier.

The sports court will be built, but a commemorative marker will be placed on the big boulder, stating,

"At or near this site in 1855, was the North bank landing for Evan's ferry, where a 25 year old Willamette valley man named Isaac Shelton, was shot and killed by rogues while cooking his breakfast, before his planned trip to Yreka."

To keep it light, we'll engrave it onto an old iron skillet.


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