The Abiqua River rises in the Cascade Mountains and flows almost due west, until it merges with the Pudding River, a tributary of the Willamette River.
On the north of the river stands a 3000 foot high butte, known to the Cayuse and Molalla tribes as “Topalamahoh”, meaning ‘place of communion‘. It was a sacred shrine and drew pilgrims along the mountain path known as the Abiqua Trail. As the settlers arrived, they also saw spiritual significance in the Butte and founded Mount Angel, a town which still exists in its shadow today.
As the Abiqua Trail emerges from the rocky canyons of the mountains, and approaches the warm, fertile lands of the Willamette Valley, it is crossed by the Klamath Trail. This trail, from the south, was used by the Klamath tribe to escape the harsh mountain winters, to spend the cold months in the milder, fertile valley. It was also a trade route.
As the white settlers began to stake claims to land, the Klickitat Indians ventured south from present-day Washington, claiming their rights to land and livestock predated the pioneers. They would take whatever they wanted from the white settlers, cooking and eating their animals as they chose. They incited the otherwise peaceful local tribes and there was much unrest. They were upset about the white man taking their food supplies and introducing diseases to which they had no immunity.
Murder and revenge
In 1847, the situation rapidly deteriorated, with the murder of a white doctor, Dr. Marcus Whitman, who ran a mission on the Oregon Trail in eastern Oregon. When word reached the settlers in the Abiqua Valley, all able-bodied men took up arms against the Cayuse and left their women, children and homesteads unprotected.
A rogue Klamath named Crooked Finger ruled with an iron fist. He would order his brigands to take anything – food, blankets, livestock, from the unprotected homes. They would demand the women left behind to cook for them and provide them with other favors, at any time of day or night. Most were too scared not to comply.
The Miller family
Richard Miller had brought his wife and ten children from Missouri in 1846 and staked a claim for 64,000 acres. He soon became a leading citizen in the area and it can be imagined that he hardly hesitated when the call to arms came. His wife Sarah, at home with the children, was terrorized by the invading Klamaths and cooked for them. However, when they celebrated the feast by dancing on the table, it was too much. It was realized that they would stop at nothing.
On his return from the battle with the Cayuse, Richard Miller decided to form some kind of ‘home guard,’ by recruiting as many of the settlers as he could muster. They wanted to be ready at a moment’s notice while the Cayuse war continued and the Molalla and Klamath tribes were talking of joining them to wipe out the white settlers. Meanwhile, the local thefts continued but the tribesmen were denying participation in any of the atrocities and pointing fingers at each other. There was nothing anyone could do, so the crimes went unpunished, leaving the homesteaders unsettled and uneasy.
A meeting with Coosta
In March 1848, in a effort to pre-empt any attack, a group of settlers led by Miller determined to have a meeting with the Molalla chief, Coosta. However, en route, they encountered two Klamath spies, who refused to say what they were doing in the forest. They were tied to a tree high above the raging Abiqua River, which was at flood stage. Two guards were left with them, while the remainder of the party continued to their meeting with Coosta, who refused to talk, apart to say that, as his kinsmen, the Klamaths were entitled to be in the area.
A daring escape
As the party returned home, they heard a volley of shots, and the guards had an exciting tale to tell. Apparently, the prisoners had leapt fifty feet into the river to escape. Despite the guards’ shots, they managed to swim away.
On the morning of March 4th, Coosta led a procession of braves along the trail to the Miller residence. They were spotted from afar, and the alarm went up, with emissaries sent to muster the settlers. Despite their angry appearance, Coosta’s warriors were not immediately intent on attack. Instead, Coosta claimed that the two spieshad been killed by the guards, and demanded five horses in compensation. However, the man chosen as interpreter, John Warnock, knew that the spies had, in fact, escaped. He pulled out a knife and threatened Coosta with his life unless he retreated. The Molallas did, in fact, withdraw, but not before threatening the families of all those present.
Send the Klamaths home!
At last, the reinforcements arrived after word of an impending war had reached them. The pioneers held a council and it was decided to send the Klamaths home. It was the only way they could feel safe. The plan was for two delegations to approach their camp and send them on the trail, without bloodshed. However, the Indians heard their approach and began to retreat in terror. Before long, the settlers’ delegation was assailed by a hail of arrows. Some tried to retaliate, but the drizzle and damp underbrush hindered their efforts. There was some panic and those who could got a shot off. Two Klamaths were killed and Captain Ralph Geer ordered the shooting to cease. It did until the aging Klamath chief Katka turned and let loose a volley of arrows. Every man pointed a rifle at him and he was killed immediately.
Day two of the war
The militia returned to the Miller house, but on consideration, it was decided that those whose homes were along the Klamath trail should return to protect their families and property. It was believed that the marauders would plunder and rape as before.
That night, it snowed and it was easy to find the tracks leading to the Klamath camp, just a few miles away. They had chosen their spot well, and it should have been easy to defend. As the settlers approached, the warriors let loose their arrows, but the militiamen returned fire with deadly accuracy. The battle was brief. The death toll was thirteen, with one wounded on each side. One of the dead was Red Blanket, the new leader. With his loss, the war was over. The Klamath were given three days to bury their dead, and then told to leave. In addition, Crooked Finger was admonished to never enter a white man’s home unless the man was present.
Richard Miller donated a parcel of land to build a cemetery for the small settlement of Abiqua. Some years later, he raised the money to build a ‘burial church’ on the site. This is still standing.
Three days later, the Molallas returned to their camp and the Klamaths could be heard wailing their mourning chants as they passed along the trail southwards. They never returned to the Abiqua Valley, but many may have been involved in the Rogue River Wars a few years later.