The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

Later Scholarship

About the coast reservations.

    Fort Yamhill, most important of four posts established during the spring and summer of 1856 as military supports to the Oregon Coast Indian Reservation, has during the past century acquired a patina of historical legend.1 So thickly have the fables obscured the facts that even the published location of the fort is consistently wrong. The origin of its one surviving structure, the identification of its garrison personnel, and the recital of its military annals are all encrusted by nostalgic recollections of pioneers, or the faulty enthusiasm of local historians.
    Established on March 25, 1856 by Second Lieutenant William B. Hazen, commanding a detachment of Co. B, 4th Infantry, and named in September by Captain Andrew Jackson Smith ("the post is on the south fork of Yamhill River"), Fort Yamhill was in Polk County. A plan of the fort transmitted to the Assistant Adjutant General in Benicia, California, December 5, 1856, and the only census which enumerated the garrison, 1860, support this view.
    A letter written by Captain Smith furnishes other evidence. "The Post is located," he explained in 1856, "just within the Ind. Reservation on the road from the settlements at the only point of ingress & egress on this portion of the reservation for teams & horsemen." The route of this road from the Grand Ronde Agency to Willamina has changed. It is now State Highway 22 through the gorge of Cosper Creek to the Yamhill River. When Fort Yamhill flourished, the road crossed the range of hills between the Grand Ronde and the Yamhill Valley one-half mile northeast of Valley Junction. General Oliver O. Howard traveled the road in 1876 from Willamina to the Agency. His "strong, high, two-seated wagon" reached the site of Fort Yamhill "by a mile of ascent at the close of a long and hard road," as he described his journey in the Chicago Advance. The map of the Grand Ronde Agency in the 1879 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs shows this old route. Remnants of it are preserved in the Spirit Mountain quadrangle map of 1941.
    The old route of the road logically establishes the site of Fort Yamhill. A place marker on Highway 22 was intended to achieve the same result for the benefit of modern traffic. Nothing is left of this effort by the Yamhill Chapter, D.A.R. except "Kissin' Rock," a local name attached to a seven-ton boulder half a mile north of Valley Junction. The monument once bore a bronze tablet with the inscription: "Fort Yamhill and the home of General Phil Sheridan from 1855 to 1861, 300 yards east. Erected by Yamhill Chapter, D.A.R., McMinnville, October 20, 1926." The disappearance of the tablet may be a blessing in disguise. Philip H. Sheridan did not arrive at Fort Yamhill before April 25, 1856.
    The old Fort Yamhill road enters Highway 22 twelve hundred yards north of Valley Junction. Two hundred yards east-southeast on this dry-weather road two houses and several farm buildings occupy the approximate area where the sutler's store stood. The "gentle western slope" which the fort commanded has not changed. The old road, roughly the northern boundary of the camp, is a cow path over the ridge of hills. The highest point offers a magnificent view into "a small, somewhat circular valley, called the Grand Ronde,"2 and into the Yamhill Valley toward Willamina and Sheridan. Philip Sheridan might have stood here when he went "out early in the morning to a commanding point above the post," from which he "could see a long distance down the road as it ran through the valley of the Yamhill."3
    The plan of 1856 makes possible the present identification of the various building sites. Placed in a dominant position, the officers' quarters occupied the most desirable location, far from the noise of the blacksmith shop, the smell of the stables, or the annoyance of the barracks. Hospital, guardhouse, laundress' quarters, bakery, and granary were scattered over an area of about thirteen hundred feet square. Three hundred and fifty feet below the officers' quarters the barracks of the men stood appropriately on the edge of the parade ground. This area is now a grain field. The rim above the grain field is still "thickly timbered." Maple, wild cherry, alder and white oak are "to be found at a few points."4
    Eyewitness accounts of Fort Yamhill are inadequate. Perhaps the best description combines imagination with reality. It is part of a saccharine love tale of the 'nineties by Samuel L. Simpson, and testifies to the "antebellum gaiety and folly"5 that pervaded the fort. The son of sutler Benjamin Simpson, Sam clerked in his father's store at the post. "The fort," Sam recalled, "occupied the sloping top of a great hill which, standing at the gateway of the Grand Ronde Valley, was naturally adapted for military occupation. The crest of the hill made a semicircular sweep in the east and south, the ground falling away abruptly from its clearcut rim to the winding course of the Yamhill River, far below. On the east, too, a phalanx of firs, scaling the rugged heights, waved their green plumes over the row of neat white cottages occupied by the officers, and threw their morning shadows across the smooth plateau of the parade ground. The other buildings of the post, soldiers' quarters, messroom, hospital, commissary, guardroom, etc., occupied the remaining sides of the quadrangle, all marvelously white in their constantly refreshed coats of whitewash. On the western side of the quadrangle, with fine oaks flanking it on the north, stood the regulation blockhouse, strong, dark, menacing. A stately flagstaff, supported by two gleaming field pieces, stood in the center of the parade ground."
    Simpson's "regulation blockhouse," now an ornament in the Dayton city park, is the only survivor of the buildings that comprised Fort Yamhill. Barnacled with legend, it possesses all the requisites of a historic relic. Its structure is unusual among the blockhouses of the Pacific Coast. "The upper block is of the same size as the lower, but turned on a true diagonal," Jamieson Parker of the historic buildings survey explained, "with small hipped roofs on three corners of the lower part and the entrance platform ... on the fourth."6
    "Little Phil" Sheridan once received exclusive credit for construction of the blockhouse. He lost ground subsequently to pioneers and settlers who supposedly built "Fort Hill" as protection against the Tillamook Indians in the winter of 1855. Both versions of the story are suggestive, but not persuasive.
    There is no evidence to support the old view; Sheridan himself never claimed any credit for a blockhouse at Grand Ronde. There is no evidence to support the new view; settlers built blockhouses in 1855, but hardly at Grand Ronde. The Agency employees at Grand Ronde in 1855-56 do not refer to a blockhouse in their reports, and the settlers of Yamhill County mentioned no blockhouse when they protested against the location of Indians at Grand Ronde. When the government property at Fort Yamhill was auctioned, the blockhouse was sold with it. Thrifty settlers would have recalled that once it might have belonged to them.
    Lieutenant Hazen and his detachment probably erected the structure. "I shall proceed at once to built [sic] a blockhouse," he informed the Adjutant General in Washington on March 31, 1856, six days after establishing camp at Grand Ronde, "as cases are now of frequent occasion showing the treachery of the Indian character and the necessity of such works of defense." Hazen had observed the advantages of blockhouses at Star Gulch on Applegate Creek in Southern Oregon when a mountain howitzer failed to subdue "three heavy log houses" defended by Indians.
    The accounts of Fort Yamhill in the recollections of Sheridan and Rodney Glisan ignore the blockhouse. Had its origins been unusual the officers would have commented on the fact. Even Sam Simpson with his vested interest in the pioneer saw no historic relic in the blockhouse. A place name, Fort Hill Junction, remains on the map less than a mile east of Valley Junction, but it seems to direct the traveler to the hill leading to Fort Yamhill rather than to the site of a "Fort Hill" blockhouse.
    For ten years the dark, hand-hewn logs of the bulwark presented a striking contrast to the whitewashed cottages of the army post. At noon, August 20, 1866, seven weeks after the last man of Captain Charles LaFollett's company of First Oregon Infantry had left Fort Yamhill, Gilbert Litchfield, the last post sutler, auctioned the government property, netting $1,260 in greenbacks. He personally "bid in the old blockhouse, paying $2.50 for it."7 A few years later he "passed the
building on" to the Indian agency at Grand Ronde. The blockhouse was taken apart, transported in pieces to the Agency, and assembled there. It was first used as a jail for unruly Indians, and later as a storage house. It was occasionally mentioned in the reports of the agent. Carpenters replaced rotten logs, and over the years this propugnaculum acquired its patina.
    In December 1910 the Secretary of the Interior disposed of the property to the city of Dayton, whose nostalgic interest in it was supported by the influence of Senator George E. Chamberlain. Once the residual was awarded to Dayton, the townsfolk of Willamina and Sheridan and the Indians at Grand Ronde became concerned about the "treasure." They were too late. A procession of teamsters carried the dismantled relic into Dayton on June 9, 1911, unmolested even by that portion of Sheridan's citizens who a few weeks earlier was determined to prevent the disgrace.8
    The mythology of the Fort Yamhill garrison is dominated by Philip Sheridan. His brilliant military career serves as the impulse to connect the post almost exclusively with his name. Ellen J. Chamberlin, who as a young girl lived near the fort, had a "picture in her mind" fifty years later, a picture delineated for the McMinnville Telephone Register June 12, 1914. She remembered Sheridan riding from Yamhill to the Civil War at the head of a column of soldiers: "flags were flying, drums beating, bands playing." Sheridan's Memoirs (1888), hardly diffident, tell another story, though his Coast Range reminiscences sound modest when compared with Joseph Faulkner's Life of Philip Henry Sheridan (1888). This eulogy suggests that while in Oregon Sheridan fitted himself for later cavalry raids by "living on grasshoppers for days together," a species of training unique in military annals.
    Sheridan is the most illustrious of a group of "shavetails" who through their service at the Polk County post nurtured the gestation of the Yamhill County slogan, "Where all great men get their start." As Jacob Calvin Cooper in his Military History [of] Yamhill County (1899) boasted, "The saying that Yamhill County is the place 'where all great men get their start' is of more than ordinary significance. Gens. Phil H. Sheridan, David A. Russell, A. J. Smith, Fighting Joe Hooker, Wm. B. Hazen, Joe Wheeler ... make it very plain that the fighting fame of the heroes of the county also justifies the common saying, 'Yamhill against the world.'"
    Cooper's list of heroes includes a pair who never served at Fort Yamhill, the two "Fighting Joes," Hooker and Wheeler. Hooker resigned his commission on February 21, 1853, and did not return to the army until May 17, 1861. Joseph Hooker was superintendent of military roads in Oregon from 1858 to 1859, but Joseph Wheeler certainly never saw Fort Yamhill. He is evidently a replacement in the Yamhill pantheon for Lt. James Wheeler, Co. C, First Dragoons, who served from August 1856 to June 1857, the last three months as Yamhill post adjutant. He is not heroic material, having been cashiered May 20, 1862.
    The military annals of Fort Yamhill's heroes, based on official records, are largely a recital of familiar soldiers' gripes, drills, and an occasional chase after truant Indians. During the Civil War the post was garrisoned by California volunteers. Among them was Corporal Royal A. Bensell, whose diary, now in the University of Oregon library, provides a contemporary account unembellished by hindsight or nostalgia. Edited and annotated, the diary is to be published by the University of Oregon Press.
1. The legend has been embraced most recently in Howard M. Corning's Dictionary of Oregon History (Portland, Ore., 1956). The present article is based on official records, including the Fort Yamhill Letter Book, 1856-1865 (University of Oregon Library), and correspondence in the National Archives. The other three forts were Hoskins, Umpqua, and Siletz Blockhouse.
2. Rodney Glisan, Journal of Army Life (San Francisco, 1874), 371.
3. Philip H. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs (New York, 1888), I, 123.
4. Glisan, Journal of Army Life, 371.
5. Samuel L. Simpson, "Maya, the Medicine Girl," Pacific Monthly, II, 248-252, III, 14-18, 63-64.
6. Jamieson Parker, "Historic American Buildings Survey," Oregon Historical Quarterly, XXXV, 38.
7. Oregon Statesman (Salem), Aug. 13, 27, 1866. Oregon Journal (Portland), Aug. 22, 1922.
8. For the inception of the blockhouse legend, see the Oregonian (Portland), Feb. 5, May 26, 1911, and Aug. 29, 1915, and John G. Lewis, History of the Grand Ronde Military Blockhouse (Dayton, Ore., 1911).
Gunter Barth, The Call Number, published by the Library of the University of Oregon, Spring 1958, pages 18-23

Last revised February 29, 2020