Remembering early Oregon civil rights advocate John Beeson

BY VANESSA HOUK

 

It’s the sort of place where the wind whispers secrets and birds come to rest in the trees before a long flight. It’s a place where lives are put to rest, but stories lay waiting to be re-told. It’s a place where elderly Pacific Madrones and mature Pines lean in together as if they are comfortable neighbors. The Stearns Cemetery in Talent is a place where several notable southern Oregon pioneers are buried, including John Beeson who is remembered as southern Oregon’s first civil rights advocate.

   

photo via Oregon Encyclopedia

 

Beeson hailed from England and emigrated to the United States in 1832 where he became an Illinois farmer. At a time when slavery divided hearts and minds, Beeson quietly took a stand and his farm became a station for the Underground Railroad. By the early 1850’s he was ready for new adventures and in 1853 he took his family west to Oregon and became a southern Oregon pioneer.

 

The mid 1850’s were rife with conflict between those pioneering settlers and the Native People whose lands were occupied in the name of progress. As popular opinion grew heavy with the desire for war against the Indians, Beeson became a consistent vocal advocate for peace.

 

In a letter to the New York Tribune, Beeson wrote, “I belong to the small minority in Oregon who believe with General Wools and Palmer, that the late war was unnecessary and cruel in the extreme, and that all the burning of property, the destruction of life and expenditure of public treasure would have been saved if the civil authorities had administered equal justice instead of calling people to arms,” he said.

 

“I have lived since the fall of 1853 in Rogue River Valley, Southern Oregon, situated between the headwaters of the Sacramento and the Willamette Valleys and have had an opportunity of knowing much of the Indian tribes, both on the plains as well as on the Pacific Coast. Notwithstanding the heart rendering statements of savage barbarity which the Oregon papers have constantly spread before the public, it is a fact that there are more murdered Indians than Indian murders; and when the whole truth is known, I believe it will appear that Indians are less savage then some who appear to be civilized.”

 

His defense of native people was met with threat of physical harm and in May of 1856, Beeson was chased out of Oregon. He spent almost a decade traveling the East Coast giving lectures about Native American rights and in 1857 he authored, A Plea for the Indians which pointed out the discrepancies between the Government’s treaties and the actions of their parties.

 

In A Plea for the Indians he wrote, “It has already been brought before the public; but as it illustrates how difficulties generally occur between the races, and, at the same time, how easily they might be avoided, if our people, especially Government Agents, were more fully imbued with the spirit of justice and magnanimity, I will, in this connection, repeat the account.

 

A company of emigrants having a sick cow, which was unable to travel further, abandoned the poor animal, and left her by the way-side. The Indians, seeing she was given up, killed her for their own use. The emigrants, hearing of this, reported at Fort Laramie that the Indians had stolen and killed some of their cattle, upon which, an officer, with a detachment of thirty men, was sent to demand the thief. The Indians knowing-the certainty and severity of impending punishment, for there was the hide, and even the beef, in visible possession refused, or hesitated to give up any of their number as the criminal ; for they well knew that nothing which they could plead would have the least weight with their accusers.

 

The military order was peremptorily insisted on; and to enforce obedience, a volley was fired over their camp; and, either by design or accident, the chief fell dead in their midst. Nothing was more natural than that the Indians should, in their turn, attack the assailants. Every principle of right or honor recognized among them demanded this; and twenty-eight of the white men fell dead beneath the force of their justly-excited resentment.”

 

Beeson went on to describe what happened next. “In consequence of this the Indians were charged with massacre, as well as robbery. “War was declared, or supposed to exist; and the following year hundreds of thousands were expended in a campaign against them, although they had, in the interim, done all they could to express their desire for peace and friendship. General Harney, with a glittering array of armed men; both horse and foot, marched on to the Plains, and were met by the Chief, who nobly came forward in advance, and plead with the officer for peace and justice, in behalf of his people.”

 

Bodies turn to bones and dust, but words live on.

 

Beeson returned to Oregon where he was reunited with his wife, Ann who is buried next to him and their son, Welborn.

 

His grave reads,

 

John Beeson

Born in England Sept. 15, 1803

Died Apr. 21, 1889

A Pioneer and man of Peace

 

Directions to Stearns Cemetery from Highway 99

From Highway 99, turn onto Rapp Road. Go over the train tracks and at the stop sign, go straight. You are now on Wagner Creek Road. Stay on Wagner Creek Road until you come to Anderson Creek Road. Turn right. Just past Allen Lane, the cemetery is on the left.