Fort Wagner Remembered
[article featured in the Historacle –
the newsletter for Talent Historical SocietyJune 2003]
by Jan Wright
Gold discoveries in the Rogue Valley brought an influx of fortune seekers. Creek beds were panned, scraped, dug up, piled up and altered so much that the Native Americans noticed a dramatic reduction in salmon runs. The miners solution to starvation and isolation was to encourage seasonal farming during the low water months and bring in supplies with pack trains but the Native Americans had no such network of supplies and depended on gathering food rather than farming. Farmers and skilled workers followed the miners to create small business interests and grow food to fuel the mining companies. Clashes with the Indians increased with the encroachment of the whites into their territory. It was inevitable when the camas fields were plowed, the salmon and trout streams were redirected for mining and irrigation purposes and when out and out attacks on villages were made, that the Natives would fight back. Settlers built forts to band together for protection from the problems they themselves helped create. One such fort was located in what is now called Talent. The fort was on the Donation Land Claim of Jacob Wagner, one of the area’s first settlers and was named Fort Wagner in his honor. The settlement itself was often referred to as Wagner Creek and wasn’t called Talent for many years.
Jacob Wagner first settled in Wagner Creek in 1852. He planted melons, tomatoes and other crops and improved his land with a cabin and some fencing before the 1853 train of covered wagons came into the Rogue Valley. One of those pioneers, Welborn Beeson recorded in his diary that even as he arrived on Wagner Creek, there was a fort that sheltered his family and others. A number of the emigrants were attacked on their first day in the valley and had no other shelter but their worn out wagons. Martha & Mary Hill who also wrote about their settlement experiences, remembered the fort as a sturdy log structure enclosing about an acre of land surrounding Jacob’s cabin. The women and children who forted up at Ft. Wagner, were instructed to listen for the alarm and when they heard it, run for the shelter of the cabin in the middle of the fort and let the men protect them within the walls of the fort with their firearms. Gates were at each end of the “stockade” and shut tight if the Natives were thought to be nearby. A spring bubbled up on the property and was probably within the walls of the fort. People risked venturing out during the day, with their guns close by, but slept inside the fort at night. One can imagine the whispered conversations during the night, the attention to every sound and the strategies the men and women had to end the conflict and get on with their wilderness taming. The threat was very real and took courage. Without the protection of the fort, each family would have to stand alone, isolated in unfamiliar territory; outnumbered and outwitted by those who were trying to hold on to their own way of life.
According to Welborn Beeson, the fort wasn’t in every day use even at the war’s peak. Once cabins were built, Beesons and other families frequently opted to stay in their own homes rather than in the fort and they certainly felt safe enough to farm and build and hunt as Welborn records in his diaries. In 1855 when the Indian war flared up again, Beeson records that “every body is forting up but Mr. Robison’s and us. We intend to try it tonight, but the neighbors think we shall be killed. I think two or three Indians will die before I do, however there is no telling what will happen.” The next day he noted, “We did not get killed nor hurt last night. I guess every body is more scared than hurt.”
Though there were closer mills to choose from, on 12th of Oct 1855, just two days after hearing about an Indian uprising in which whites were killed and cabins burned, Welborn went to get wheat from a mill on the Rogue River ,“ the seat of war”. He and 12 other teams caravaned probably to see if they could locate the burned buildings and hear more about the killings first hand. He arrived home the next day unscathed with 26 bushels of wheat. The war devastated the Indians but pioneer life continued without much interruption.
After the treaty to end the war, the fort was not mentioned much again. Jacob Wagner went back east to Iowa to marry. In 1860 when he brought his new wife, Ellen Hendrix, to the Wagner Creek settlement she did not include the fort in her description of the Wagner home. “There we took possession and set up housekeeping … My husband made all the furniture. It seemed a little queer to me as well as his nephew. Our windows were simply spaces sawed out from the logs and muslin put in.” In 1884 a man visiting the Wagner Creek area went looking for the remains of the fort. All he could find was the “the mound where the old fire place of Jacob Wagner’s hospitable log cabin used to stand.” The fort wasn’t needed and so the very practical pioneers used the logs for other purposes until it was erased from view. It had served as a place where the settlers could forge unforgettable relationships with one another but was no longer needed.
In the 1970s, the Talent Lions Club encouraged Al Grabner to find the site of Ft. Wagner. His research led him to the site at 226 Talent Avenue. So many changes have taken place on the old Donation Land Claim that it is hard to even imagine what it once looked like. But the plaque set out will remind us that this is the very spot on which our community was founded. We can follow the spirit of our town by continuing to gather together for support, community and even protection. The community center in town follows the same sense of tradition that Wagner started so many years ago.