For thousands of years the Takelma people lived in what is now called the Illinois and Rogue River valleys. Little was known about their way of life prior to European settlement. Recently, there has been a revival in the expression and study of Takelma culture.
Their villages were mostly concentrated along the Rogue River, where seasonal salmon runs, deer, and small game provided a protein-rich diet. Salmon fishing was a large-scale, coordinated effort. Men caught the fish with spears and nets, while women cleaned and dried the meat. The Takelma supplemented their diet with carbohydrates from plants. They gathered the root of the Camas plant, which is in the asparagus family, as well as acorns from native oaks. The Takelma are known to have cultivated a native tobacco plant, but otherwise relied on the fruits of the wilderness for their survival.
Traditional human populations in what is now known as Josephine County, where Oregon Caves is located, were much lower than those in the neighboring Jackson County area. Also, traditional populations of southern Oregon in general were lower than those of northern California and the Oregon coast. More is known about the language and culture of native peoples in areas where their populations were higher.
As with many Native American societies, the Takelma first encountered European settlers indirectly through outbreaks of smallpox. There were two major epidemics, the first coming south from the Columbia River during the 1780s. A second epidemic of shorter duration swept north from the California coast during 1837-38. The specific effect of the epidemic on these populations is unknown, but estimates of smallpox mortality rates among other Native American populations were as high as ninety percent.
The Hudson's Bay Company first encountered the Takelma around 1829, and they tried unsuccessfully to establish a fur trade in the region. The expedition did, however, reveal the existence of the valley to Europeans. Settlement of the Illinois Valley began in the 1830's, as farmers and cattlemen began moving north from California towards fertile land in the Williamette valley. Gold was discovered near Jacksonville, Oregon in the Rogue valley in 1850. In 1851, the precious metal was found near Waldo in the Illinois valley. These discoveries encouraged more European settlers to enter the area, some by way of the Oregon Trail. More settlers increased pressure on Native Americans in the area. The first five years of contact between incoming miners and previous residents quickly degenerated into chaos and open war.
By the end of 1856, the traditional residents of the Rogue and Illinois River valleys were forcibly removed and relocated to the Siletz Reservation on the central Oregon coast. The Takelma were joined on the reservations by their neighbors, the Athapaskans and the Shasta, as well as tribes from even farther away, such as the Coos and Tillamook.
The lower numbers of Takelma people relative to other Native American groups, exacerbated by smallpox epidemics, warfare, and relocation, is a major contributing factor to a traditionally limited knowledge of their culture. It is reported that by 1906 less than ten Takelma were alive and able to speak their native language.
The European settlers soon abandoned their initial mining claims, most of which were not as viable as they had originally thought. Many stayed in the area. Because of a large demand for timber back east, logging became the predominant economic force in the area by the turn of the century. Besides logging, many of the descendants of European settlers made their living as farmers and hunters. One such hunter, Elijah Davidson, stumbled upon the Oregon Caves in 1874.
Although the Takelma and other Native American groups were in the area for thousands of years, there is at this time no concrete evidence that they entered or used the cave.
In the 1970's, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians began to reorganize. The confederation arose out of the tribes that had been relocated to the Siletz reservation as one, larger, intertribal group. Their first elected chief was George Harney, a full-blooded Takelma. George Harney's granddaughter, Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, continues to educate others about her heritage.
In 1994, for the first time in over 140 years, an ancient ceremony took place to welcome and give thanks for the returning salmon, on the Kanaka Flats of the Applegate River. People of all heritages were welcomed at the annual Salmon Gathering on the Applegate River until 2006. In 2007, the ceremony was moved to the place where it was held for thousands of years: the Tilomikh (Powerhouse Falls), on the Rogue River near Gold Hill, Oregon. Since then, the ceremony has taken place annually in its traditional location, demonstrating that the Takelma culture is alive and will continue into the future.