The discovery of two leaden musket balls in a wilderness region southwest of Roseburg has filled in key gaps in the annals of the Oregon’s history about a pre-Civil War battle that has until now been shrouded in mystery.
Mark Tveskov, a Southern Oregon University anthropology professor and member of the Society for American Archaeology, is convinced that the discovery has revealed the precise location of the Battle of Hungry Hill, a clash that took place on Oct. 31, 1855 between U.S. militiamen and Native American tribes nearly 160 years ago. Lacking archaeological evidence, earlier historians have only been able to speculate at the battle’s location.
This evidence has been found now though, according to Tveskov and his team of a dozen archaeology students and history buffs.
Armed with metal detectors, Tveskov and his team scoured a 24 square mile area south of Cow Creek for artifacts. This was where the musket balls, along with military-grade gunpowder tin, were stumbled upon by the team.
These findings have brought a blurred historical picture into clearer focus, allowing a somewhat more definitive reconstruction of events, said Tveskov.
“This was a battle that involved about 500 guys on all sides. It covered three days, or at least that’s one way to look at it. Basically, a coalition force of the U.S. militia mounted a frontal assault on Indians hiding southwest of Roseburg and got pinned down.”
The importance of the finding of musket balls played a crucial role. “These are known from written historical records of nineteenth century battles to have been commonly used,” explained Tveskov.
From what few details local historians have had on the event in question, the skirmish was a major loss for the United States Army.
The soldiers were stationed on a ridge, planning to charge down the slope and up to the camp on the opposite side. Their plan was thwarted by a simple warning fire set by the Native Americans in the camp below the ridge where the attacking party was poised. The soldiers had no choice but to charge.
Scrambling down 1,500 feet of rugged terrain, the men stampeded toward the camp located on the opposite ridge. Native American fighters waited for the approaching attack force with muzzleloaders and arrows held at the ready.
Survivors of the assault reported that the Native Americans had better guns. U.S. forces were also cut off from food and other essential provisions – they were so certain of their success that these necessities were abandoned three miles behind them. The event became known as the “Battle of Hungry Hill,” because of the starvation soldiers experienced while they were pinned down by the natives for close to 36 hours.
Tveskov sees his team’s discovery as a potentially significant contribution to the history books yet to be published.
“The most comprehensive history books to date give [the Battle of Hungry Hill] only a passing mention. One of our goals is to bring this to the history of Oregon,” said Tveskov, who credits SOU archaeology students Colin Skinner and Dakota Slaton with contributing to the momentous finding.
Tveskov, who directs SOU’s Laboratory of Anthropology, has been teaching anthropology at SOU since the mid-1990s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.