Portland State University. Department of History
Term of Graduation
Date of Publication
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
1 online resource (iv, 114 pages)
On June 9, 1851, nine men under the direction of a steamboat captain and land speculator named William Tichenor landed on the southern coast of the Oregon Territory at present-day Port Orford with the intention of establishing a permanent settlement. Tichenor's plan was to establish a commercial port that would supply gold mining endeavors in the interior. The landing party's instructions were to survey the townsite while Tichenor traveled to San Francisco to gather more men and supplies. Before departing, he promised the group he would return in exactly two weeks. He also assured them that the local Quatomah Indians, who had lived in the area for generations, were friendly and peaceful.
When Tichenor returned to the site, two days later than he had promised, he discovered that a violent confrontation had taken place atop a large, rocky promontory on the beach. The landing party was nowhere to be found and a subsequent investigation led to the discovery of two discarded journals which provided insight into what had transpired. As a result, it was assumed that all the men in the landing party had either been killed or taken captive by the Quatomah, and a letter was quickly sent to the editor of a Portland newspaper giving a suspiciously contrived account of the grim discovery. It had been written by a San Francisco attorney named D.S. Roberts, who not only claimed that Tichenor had arrived back at Port Orford on time, but that the landing party had recklessly fled their fortified camp and were therefore ultimately at fault for whatever had befallen them.
One week after Tichenor had returned to the site, the missing landing party turned up alive and well at a settlement approximately 65 miles to the north. After reading Roberts' account of their supposed demise in the newspaper, the appointed leader of the group, J.M. Kirkpatrick, became upset by the claim that he and the others may have acted foolishly by abandoning their camp prior to Tichenor's return. Leaving the rest of the group behind, Kirkpatrick quickly traveled to Portland where he presented a letter to the editor of a local newspaper refuting Tichenor's supposed punctuality and defending the actions of him and his men.
This thesis attempts to explain what really happened at "Battle Rock," and why. Through an examination of these two letters, a picture emerges of a public relations struggle that ultimately obscured what really happened between the landing party and the Quatomah. As head of the enterprise, Tichenor attempted to get in front of the blowback that a massacre of white men in his employ might generate by utilizing Roberts as an "impartial" witness whose testimony, via the letter, exculpated him of any wrongdoing. This inadvertently placed Kirkpatrick--who was assumed dead--on the defensive, compelling him to respond with a courageous narrative justifying the actions of him and his men. Although not wanting to be alienated from the potential financial rewards of the Port Orford enterprise, Kirkpatrick fit his account within the parameters established by Roberts' letter. In this way, the aftermath helped create the event. The price for this was historical truth, particularly as it related to the Quatomah. They were not only the victims of a massacre, but were then cast as villains in a highly-consequential story outside of their control.
© 2021 Adam R. Fitzhugh
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Fitzhugh, Adam R., "Battle Rock: Anatomy of a Massacre" (2021). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5771.
Available for download on Thursday, July 14, 2022