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Oregon Trails: Forts

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TALENT, Ore. – When you look at a map of our area, you may notice several small communities or places with the name fort in them. While there are no forts there today, the story behind those names reflects the turmoil associated with the early settlement of Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Historian Jan Wright lives just a block or two from the site of one of the first forts to be built in Southern Oregon. She says it was right here, along what is now Talent Avenue, where Jacob Wagner’s homesteader’s cabin became a refuge during the earliest days of the Rogue Indian Wars in the mid-1850′s.

“They just put up logs surrounding his cabin and it covered about an acre of ground, and had little sentinels at the corners, where the men could go up a little higher than the ground level and to lookout,” Wright explained.

Fort Wagner, as it was called, pre-dated fort lane, which was built north of central point on this homestead site in 1855 to keep miners and settlers apart from Native Americans on the Table Rock Reservation. Wright says Fort Wagner probably looked something like the stockade on the Gore Homestead a few miles away. Logs 20 and 26 feet long were stood up in the ground forming a wall around what was usually a log cabin. It was a safe haven.

“They were really happy to have this fort to come to,” Wright said. “And they lived in the fort, uh, temporarily. very temporarily. Uh, mostly in the evenings they would come and sleep here, and then in the daytime, they were out building their own cabins and working their own donation land claims and that sort of thing.”

They called it “forting up”.

“It was a community center! They met here and they talked and they made plans and made dreams about what kind of community they wanted to have. One of the first conversations was, ‘we need a school,’ and so they did build a school,” Wright described.

This wasn’t the only fort to sprout up during the turbulent 1850′s. A map points out several others, including fort hay, near Selma and Fort Briggs, near Cave Junction.

“Well, basically what they were, were basically fortified homesteads,” said Dennis Strayer at Kerbyville Museum. “A lot of them were just simply cabins that had quickly assembled stockades around them, so there was some room to maneuver around because a lot of the Native Americans that were attacking with these surrounding the fort..for lack of a better word.”

Fort Hay was one of those that was attacked in March of 1856.

“The actually was a mule pack train going through at the time and several of those people sought refuge there. So there was a total of about 30 to 40 people inside the stockade,” Strayer said.

There were several other forts in Josephine County, including Fort Lamerick on Mule Creek, and Fort Vannoy, about 5 miles downriver from where grants pass is now. This marker points to its location and then there was the Birds Eye House between Gold Hill and Rogue River.

The site near Central Point where the historic Fort Lane once stood is kind of in a horseshoe open at one end, with a flag pole at the other end of the field. It was designed to be a place to station Army troops to protect the Indians out on the Table Rock reservation. Miners and other thought that the Army here should be here to protect them, and when that didn’t happen, and the Indian wars re-flared up in the 1855-56 era, that’s when many settle had to defend themselves.

Once the Indian Wars ended in 1856, most of the stockades were taken down and the logs used to build other things and many of the forts began to fade from sight and memory. Oregon State Parks recently took control of the site of Fort Lane, north of Central Point. A few buildings remain at Fort Klamath, north of Klamath Falls and Fort Jones, California is now a rural community west of Yreka.