History and Historiography

Massacre at the Chetko Villages, 1853

By David G. Lewis, Journal of Critical Indigenous Anthropology

The following is a direct transcription of a report from Joel Palmer of the Chetco Massacre of 1853. This is a well-known massacre on the southern Oregon Coast, and referenced in many of the ethnographies and Native histories of the area. In the account Palmer describes a grisly scene of a successful attack on two Chetko villages, burning the men in their houses, shooting many, and completely destroying both villages over a period of two days. Some people survive this account but life for them will never be the same.

Palmer references an attack and massacre of the Tolowa villages at Smith River, California. These are well known massacres that obliterated hundreds of Tolowa Deeni people over many years, beginning in 1853. They are somewhat referenced in my Tolowa historic timeline. This fact once again points out the need to ignore the state lines when we do ethnohistoric research, because there were not distinct and separate massacres, like a California Massacre, and a Southwest Oregon Massacre, in reality it was a single racial and colonial movement by White Americans to exterminate all Indian people.

The Tolowa consider the Chetco their direct relations. The Tolowa Deeni region was politically divided as a series of Yetlien (political area of land and resources), that extended from north of the Klamath River estuary to the Chetco River, and the two Chetco villages were the principal villages of the northern Yetlien.

The notion that these vigilantes were never held accountable for either massacre is horrible to imagine. At some point it would be a good idea to identify the individuals as they may have contributed to many more such massacres. They would be considered serial mass murderers today. As well, were these men supported in some fashion by funding from Oregon or California? Because there were laws at this time that allowed Americans to claim depredations by tribes and we can assume that some of these depredations were actually caused by the Whites themselves. This situation was in fact more common that anyone imagines.

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