Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 3 - Indian Outbreak of 1855

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Chapter III.

The Indian Outbreak of 1855.

The years of 1853-4 were years of comparative peace, free from actual Indian wars, and afforded the pioneers an opportunity of improving their farms, building up more comfortable homes and surrounding their families with some comforts and conveniences of civilization. Yet even these years were not free from alarms and stampedes. Time and again swift riders spread the news that the redskins had dug up the tomahawk and had gone on the war path. These scares arose from isolated murders by the Indians, whose cupidity could not withstand the temptations of the white man's property. It was not, therefore, until midsummer of 1855 that hostilities began in earnest. A federation had been formed among all the tribes of Northern California, Southern and Eastern Oregon and Washington. The great leaders of this insurrection were Tyee John and his brother "Limpy," Rogue River Indians, and John was one of the greatest, bravest and most resourceful warriors this continent has produced. Another was Pe-mox-mox, who ruled over the Cayouses and the Columbias, and was killed early in the war while attempting to lead the white troops into ambush.

The outbreak was sudden and fierce, lighting up the frontier with the burning cabins of the settlers. Travelers were waylaid, prospectors murdered and in many instances entire families wiped out, their homes becoming their funeral pyres. Neither age nor sex was spared. Little children were seized by the heels and their brains dashed out against the corner of the cabin. One entire family perished amid the flames of their burning home. Women were butchered under circumstances of peculiar and diabolical atrocity. A man named Harris, attacked by Indians on the Rogue River, defended himself until killed. His wife then took up the defense of her home and little daughter, and with a heroism that has rendered her name immortal in the annals of Oregon, held the savages at bay until relief came twenty-four hours later.

Mock sentimentalists and fake humanitarians have walled their eyes to heaven in holy horror at the "barbarities" practiced by white men upon the "poor persecuted red man." Yet had they witnessed scenes like those I have so faintly portrayed, they too, would have preached a war of extermination. You and I, reader, have an exceedingly thin veneering of civilization, and in the presence of such scenes of diabolical atrocity would slip it off as a snake sheds his skin. I have seen men as kind and gentle, - as humane - as yourself transformed into almost savages in the presence of such scenes.

For a year previous to the great outbreak, the Indians would leave their reservations in squads, and after murdering and pillaging the settlements, would return with their plunder to the protection of the agencies. Demands made for their surrender by the settlers were answered by a counter demand for their authority, which required delay and generally ended with the escape of the murderers. The result was that squads of Indians off the reservations were attacked and sometimes exterminated. Thus affairs grew from bad to worse until the final great outbreak during the summer of 1855.

Geo. L. Curry, Governor of the Territory of Oregon, at once issued a call to arms and volunteers from every part of the territory instantly responded. A company of U. S. dragoons under command of Capt. A. J. Smith, who subsequently achieved fame in the war of the States, was stationed in Southern Oregon, and rendered all possible aid, but the slow tactics of the regulars was illy calculated to cope with the savages. The main reliance, therefore, must be placed in the citizen soldiery. Every county in the Territory answered the call to arms, forming one or more companies, the men, as a rule, supplying their own horses, arms, ammunition, and at the beginning of the outbreak, their own blankets and provisions. There was no question about pay. The men simply elected their own officers and without delay moved to the front.

Linn county furnished one company under Capt. Jonathan Keeny and went south to join Col. Ross' command and was joined by many of our neighbors. My two brothers also went with this command, one as teamster, the other shouldering the spare rifle. As previously remarked, age was not considered, the boy of 14 marching side by side with the gray haired man, armed with the rifles they brought from the States. The ammunition consisted of powder, caps and molded bullets, nor was the "patchen" for the bullet omitted. The powder was carried in a powder horn, the caps in a tin box, the bullets in a shot pouch and patchen for the bullets was cut out the proper size and strung on a stout leather thong attached to and supporting the shot pouch and powder horn.

In the fall after the departure of the first contingent, and at a time when families were practically defenseless, news reached us by a tired rider that 700 Indians had crossed the trail over the Cascade mountains and were burning the homes and butchering the settlers on the Calapooya, twenty miles away. The news reached us in the night, and one can easily imagine the confusion and consternation that everywhere prevailed. To realize our situation one must remember that most of the men and about all of the guns had gone south. I shall never forget the awful suspense and dread that prevailed in our home as the family sat in a group through the long weary hours of that night, anxiously awaiting the return of the day, yet dreading what the day might bring forth. Horses were gathered and securely tied about the house, and such arms as we possessed made ready for instant use. At last day broke, and searching with the eye the almost boundless prairie, no enemy was in sight.

As the sun rose above the rim of the distant mountains my father determined to disprove or verify the rumor. Neighbors sought to dissuade him, but mounting a swift horse he started for Brownsville on the Calapooya. Meantime everything was in readiness for forting up should it become necessary. The day wore on, still no news. In vain we gazed from the house top over the prairie for a sight of a horseman. Doubt and uncertainty as to the fate of my father and our own fate was almost worse than death. The day wore on. Would father never return - had he been killed? were the questions whispered one with another. My mother alone was confident, relying on father's discretion and the further fact that he was riding the swiftest horse in the Territory. At last near sunset we descried him galloping leisurely toward home. When within a short distance he settled into a walk, and we then knew that the danger, at least for the present, was not imminent. The only emotion manifested by my mother was a stray tear that coursed down her pale and trouble-worn cheek. My father reported a false alarm, originating in the overwrought imagination of settlers on the exposed margin of the valley.

At other times the alarm came from the west side of the river. Fears were entertained that the savages from the south would cross over the Calapooya mountains and attack the settlements in Lane county. One settler had a large bass drum, and the beating of this, which could be heard for miles, was the signal of danger. More than once the deep roll of the drum roused the country, only to discover that it was a false alarm. But these constant alarms were trying indeed, especially on the timid and nervous, and women became almost hysterical on the most trivial occasions.

Time wore on, and at length the news came of the defeat of Col. Ross' volunteers and Capt. Smith's dragoons. Many were killed with no compensating advantage to the whites. Among the number killed was one of our neighbor boys, John Gillispie, son of a minister, and my father and mother went over to their home to convey the sad news and to render such poor consolation to the parents as was possible. Every family in the land had one or more of its members with the troops, and any day might bring tidings of death or even worse. Hence there was a close bond of sympathy between all. Happily, the death of young Gillispie was to be the only one to visit our neighborhood.

The stay-at-homes, those gallant (?) soldiers who fight their battles with their mouths, were loud in fault finding and severe in censure of those in command, and would tell how the battle should have been fought and how not. This was especially true of the one-horse politicians, too cowardly to go to the front, and of disgruntled politicians. To the shame of our common humanity be it said, there were not wanting those who sought to coin the very blood of the brave men at the front, and these ghouls and vampires talked loudest when the war was at length brought to a close, to be quoted in after years as history by Bancroft and others.

Chief John adopted a Fabian policy from the first. He would disappear with his warriors, hiding away in the deep recesses of the mountains only to appear again when and where least expected, but towards the close of 1856 his people grew tired of war. They said the more men they killed the more came and took their places, and in spite of John and Limpy they determined to sue for peace. The terms were finally agreed upon, and John and Limpy, deserted but not conquered, at last surrendered.

After the surrender, John and son, a lad of 16, were placed on board a steamer and started to a reservation up the coast. When off the mouth of Rogue river and beholding the hunting grounds of his people and the familiar scenes of his youth, he made a desperate attempt to capture the ship. It was a "Call of the Wild," and snatching a sabre from his guard he succeeded in driving them below and for a time had possession of the ship's deck. But firearms were brought into play, one leg of the boy was shot off and John, badly wounded, was placed in irons. He told his captors that it was his purpose to capture the ship, run her ashore and escape into the mountains. On a reservation, John spent the remainder of his days, - a captive yet unconquered save by death. As previously stated, in point of courage, cunning, savage ferocity and soldierly ability and generalship, Tyee John has had few equals and no superiors on the North American continent.

It was not my purpose to attempt a detailed history of the Rogue River war as that task were better left to the historian with leisure to delve into the musty records of the past, but I sincerely hope that when the true story of that bloody time is written the kernel of truth will be sifted from the mass of chaff by which it has thus far been obscured. My purpose is merely to give the facts in a general way as I received them, and the conditions surrounding the pioneers of which I was one. The true story of the Rogue River war is but a duplicate of many other Indian wars. It is a story of incompetent, bigoted, self-opinionated, Indian agents, wedded to form and red tape, without any of common sense or "horse sense," required in dealing with conditions such as existed prior to the breaking out of he war.

The early immigrants to the Oregon, and indeed, to the Pacific coast, merely sought to better their conditions. They came with their flocks and herds, their wives and their children, their school books and their Bibles, seeking not to dispossess or rob the occupants of the land. They found a vast empire, of which the natives were utilizing but a small portion. There was room for all and to spare. The natives at first received the white strangers with kindness and hospitality. There were exceptions even to this rule, but it was the exception. The white man's property soon excited the cupidity of the Indian, and knowing no law but the law of might, he sought to possess himself of the same. And right here I want to say, that from an experience covering more than half a century, the only thing an Indian respects on earth, is Power. Courage he respects for the simple reason that courage is power. And I might further add, that this rule applies with equal force to the white as well as to the copper-colored savage.

Treaties had been made with the Rogue Rivers and the Umpquas but in a true sense were not treaties, but, on the part of the Government, merely bribes to be good. They moved to reservations, enjoyed the blankets and other good things provided by the Government so long as it suited them. Then they would steal out of the reservations, rob, murder and plunder the settlers, and return to the protection of the agents. Tracked to the reservations, the agents refused to surrender them. The red tape here interposed and red handed murderers were saved, that more murders might be committed. Instead of the Government and the agents being a protection to the settlers, they were the protectors of the Indians, and as sometimes happened, troops were called upon to lend a helping hand. Such conditions could not last - such outrages could not be endured. Hence when bands were caught off the reservations they were destroyed like dangerous, noxious beasts.

Apologists of murder and rapine have held up their hands in holy horror at such acts on the part of the settlers. The "poor, persecuted people," according to them, were foully wronged, massacred and exterminated. They saw but one side, and that was the side of the savages. With the close of the Rogue River war, the Indian question west of the Cascade mountains was settled forever. John and Limpy had made a heroic struggle for the hunting grounds of their fathers and incidentally for the goods and chattels, and the scalps of the white invaders. But, moralize as you may, the fiat of God had gone forth; the red man and the white man could not live peaceably together; one or the other must go. And in obedience to the law of the survival of the fittest, it was the red man that must disappear. It was, in my opinion, merely a continuation of the struggle for existence - a struggle as old as man, which began when "first the morning stars sang together," and will continue till the end of time. That law applies to all creatures. Take for instance, the lower order of animals. In the tropics the deer is small, not much larger than a coyote. The weakling as well as the strong and vigorous can survive. Further north, where conditions are harder, the deer is larger. Continuing on north, where only the strong and vigorous can survive the rigors of winter, we find the caribou.

It may be pointed out that the largest animals of earth are found in the tropics, where the struggle for existence is least severe. Yet in the frozen mud of Siberia and Alaska we find the remains of animals the elephant and the mastodon - compared to which old Jumbo was but a baby. And imbedded in the asphalt of Southern California is found the remains of the sabre toothed, tiger, by the side of which the royal Bengal is but a tabby cat. But I am getting into deep water, and will leave this question for the naturalist, the geologist and the theorist. And the passing of the "noble red man" to the gentleman in silk gown and slippers - and to the sentimental novelist.

Oregon settlers now had leisure time for building up their homes, so better houses were erected, fields were fenced and plowed, school houses and churches built, scythes and axes were wielded in place of the rifle that now rested in idleness above the cabin door. A new era had dawned on the Oregon, and gentle peace like a brooding spirit hovered above the erstwhile desolate land.

During the succeeding years, up to 1861, there was little to distract the attention of the pioneers. My time was occupied during that period in assisting on the farm during summer and attending the district school during the winter. The loop holes in the wall of the old school house for the rifles had been boarded up, and the larger boys no longer "toted" their guns, and stacked them in the corner.

On the east side of the Cascade mountains, however, the gentle savage was lord of all the lands over which he roamed. Here he was yet master, and thereby hangs a tale. In 1845 an immigrant train attempted to enter the Oregon by way of the "Meeks cut off." With them were the Durbins, Simmons, Tetherows, Herrins and many others I cannot now recall. The history of that journey is one of hardship, starvation, and death. After enduring sufferings such as sicken one in the bare recital the remnant staggered into the settlements, more dead than alive. They crossed the Cascade mountains, coming down the Middle Fork of the Willamette river, and somewhere west of Harney Valley they stopped on a small stream. An old Indian trail crossed at that point, and the oxen in sliding down the bank to water uncovered a bright piece of metal. It was picked up and taken to camp, where a man who had been in the mines in Georgia pronounced it gold. He flattened it out with a wagon hammer, and was quite positive it was the precious metal. But men, women and children subsisting on grasshoppers and crickets and fighting Indians most of the day, had something else to think about.

The incident, therefore, was soon forgotten amid the dire stress of their surroundings. But when gold was discovered at Sutter's Fort in California, Sol Tetherow called to mind the finding of the piece of metal on the banks of the stream not far from Harney Valley. He told about it - told and retold the story, and as the stories from California grew, so grew the story of the old man, until finally he declared he could have "picked up a blue bucket full in the bed of the creek." Hence originated the name, the "Blue Bucket Diggins."

During the years of 1857-58-59-60 and 61, companies were formed in the valley counties to search for the "Blue Bucket Diggins." The companies were loosely formed, with little or no discipline, and were, therefore, predestined to end in disaster. After crossing the mountains and seeing no sign of Indians, the officers had no power and less inclination to enforce discipline. There being no signs of Indians, it was useless to maintain guards; they could whip all the Indians east of the mountains, and why attempt to put on "military airs?" They were destined to a rude awakening. Some morning about daylight, twenty or thirty red blanketed men, with hideous yells would charge the horse herds, while a hundred or more with equally hideous yells would attack the sleeping men. Then would result a stampede, those who had talked loudest and talked most about cowards, being first to lose their heads. The few cool heads would make a stand, while the savages after getting away with the horses, would beat a retreat, leaving the gold hunters to straggle afoot back across the mountains to the settlements.

These expeditions served to work off the surplus energy of the adventurous and restless, until the news arrived in the spring of 1861 of the discovery of gold in the Nez Perce mountains. The reports, as in most similar cases, were greatly exaggerated, but it served to create a genuine stampede, and while yet a boy of 14, I was drawn into that torrent rushing to the new El Dorado. In justice to the good sound sense and mature judgment of my parents, I am compelIed to say that it was not with their consent that I was drawn into this wild whirlpool, but, I argued, was I not a man? Could I not ride and shoot with the best of them? And, perforce, why should I not go to the mines and make my fortune?

I went. But by way of parenthesis, will say to my young readers - Don't.

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