Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 15 - The Great Bannock War

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Chapter XV.

The Great Bannock War.

The last Indian war worthy of mention broke out in the spring of 1877. It was preceded by none of the acts of outlawry which usually are a prelude to savage outbreaks. There were none of the rumblings of the coming storm which are almost invariable accompaniments of these upheavals. Indeed, it came with the suddenness of a great conflagration, and before the scattered settlers of western Idaho and eastern Oregon were aware of danger, from a thousand to twelve hundred plumed and mounted warriors were sweeping the country with the fierceness of a cyclone.

As a rule the young and impatient warriors, thirsting for blood, fame and the property of the white man, to say nothing of scalps, begin to commit acts of outlawry before the plans of older heads are ripe for execution. These acts consist of petty depredations, the stealing of horses, killing of stock, and occasional murder of white men for arms and ammunition. But in the case of the great Shoshone, or Bannock, outbreak, there were none of these signs of the coming storm. Settlers were therefore taken completely by surprise. Many were murdered, their property stolen or destroyed, while others escaped as best they could.

From observation and experience I make the assertion that nine of every ten Indian outbreaks are fomented by the "Medicine" men. These men are at the same time both priest and doctor. They not only ward off the "bad spirits," and cure the sick, but they forecast events. They deal out "good medicine," to ward off the bullets of the white man, and by jugglery and by working upon the superstitions of their followers, impress them with the belief that they possess supernatural powers.

This was especially conspicuous in the Pine Ridge outbreak. The medicine men made their deluded followers believe the white men were all to be killed, that the cattle were to be turned to buffalo and that the red man would again possess the country as their fathers had possessed it in the long ago, and that all the dead and buried warriors were to return to life. This doctrine was preached from the borders of Colorado and the Dakotas to the Pacific, and from British Columbia to the grottoes of the Gila. The doctrine probably had its origin in the ignorant preaching of the religion of the Savior by honest but ignorant Indian converts. They told their hearers of the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of Man. The medicine men seized upon the idea and preached a new religion and a new future for the red man. Missionaries were sent from tribe to tribe to preach and teach the new doctrine, and everywhere found willing converts.

The craze started in Nevada, among the Shoshones, and in a remarkably short time spread throughout the tribes on both sides of the Rocky Mountains. Lieutenant Strothers of the United States Army and I talked with Piute Indians in Modoc County, after the "ghost dance" scare had subsided, who were firm in the belief that a chief of the Piutes died and then came back. They assured us that they had talked with a man who had seen him, and that there could be no mistake. But they said: "Maybe so; he did not know. The white man medicine heap too strong for Ingin."

So it was with the Bannocks. Their medicine men taught that the white man was to be destroyed, that his horses, his cattle and his houses and land were to revert to the original owners of the country. Accordingly few houses were burned throughout the raid of several hundred miles. Even the fences around the fields were not destroyed, but were left to serve their purposes when the hated white man should be no more. The few exceptions were where white men were caught in their homes and it was necessary to burn the buildings in order to kill the owners. The home of old man Smith in Happy Valley, on the north side of Stein Mountain, the French ranch in Harney and the Cummins ranch on the John Day were exceptions. In the fights at these places some of the Indians were killed and the houses were burned out of revenge. With characteristic Indian wantonness and wastefulness hundreds of cattle were shot down, only the tongue being taken out for food. They, however, would come back as buffalo and cover the land with plenty. But horses were everywhere taken, and when that armed, mounted and tufted host debouched into Harney Valley they had a mighty herd of from seven to ten thousand horses.

The Bannocks, under their noted chief, Buffalo Horn, left their reservation in Idaho and at once began the work of murder and plunder. Buffalo Horn had served under Howard during a portion of the Nez Perce war, but left him because of his dilatory tactics and his refusal to attack when he had the enemy at his mercy. He told Col. Reddington, who was following Howard as correspondent of the Oregonian and New York Herald, that Howard did not know how to fight, that next summer he would fight and show him how to make war.

About the same time, the Shoshones, under Egan and Otis, left their reservation and united their forces in Harney Valley, numbering at that time from a thousand to twelve hundred warriors. They were encumbered, however, by their women and children and a vast herd of stock, and as a result moved slowly. Meantime the scattered detachments of troops were being concentrated and sent in pursuit. But while this was being done the tufted host swept a belt thirty miles wide through western Idaho and eastern Oregon, spreading death and destruction in its path. At Happy Valley they killed old man Smith and his son. Both had escaped with their families to Camp Harney, but had imprudently returned to gather up their horses and bring away a few household effects. Another brother and a young man had accompanied them, but had turned aside to look for stock. The two young men arrived at the ranch after nightfall. It was very dark, and before they were aware of the fact they rode into a herd of horses. But supposing they were animals gathered by the father and brother, rode on. When near the center a mighty wail smote their ears. Some of the Indians had been killed by the Smiths, and the women were wailing a funeral dirge. One who has never heard that wail cannot imagine its rhythmic terrors.

When the appalling noise broke upon their ears the young man with Smith started to wheel his horse and flee. But Smith caught the bridle reins and whispered to him, "For God's sake don't run," and, holding to the reins, quietly rode out of the herd, the darkness of the night alone proving their salvation.

At the French ranch on Blixen River an attack was made by a detached war party, but Mr. French saved himself and men by cool daring and steady bravery. All were endeavoring to make their escape, French holding the Indians at bay while the others fled along the road. He was the only man armed in the crowd, and at turns in the road would make a stand, checking for a time the savages. The Chinese cook was killed and left where he fell, being horribly mutilated by the Indians. Most of the men with French were in wagons, and only for the bravery displayed by him would certainly have been killed.

About the same time two men were coming out with teams, and hearing of the Indian raid, left their wagons and fled to the Shirk ranch in Catlow Valley. After a few days they returned for their wagons, being accompanied by W. H. Shirk, now a banker at Lakeview, Oregon. The wagons were found as left, and after hitching up the horses, Mr. Shirk rode on ahead, imprudently leaving his rifle in one of the wagons. On the grade above the Blixen ranch Shirk looked back and saw the men coming and had little thought of danger. The men drove up to the crossing, when they were fired upon and both killed. Mr. Shirk was also fired upon, but miraculously escaped death. An Indian on a fleet horse was pursuing him, and his own horse was lagging. As he neared the sage brush toward which he had been making, Mr. Shirk looked back and to his relief saw the Indian off his horse. He thinks the horse fell with the Indian, but they pursued him no farther and he made good his escape. Many other miraculous escapes were made by both men and women, some of the latter escaping almost in their night clothes and on barebacked horses.

During all this time the scattered forces of the department were being concentrated and sent in pursuit. That indomitable old Scotch hero and Indian fighter, Bernard - who had risen from a government blacksmith to the rank of Colonel of cavalry - who believed that the best way to subdue Indians was to fight and kill them and not to run them to death - was following with four companies of cavalry, numbering 136 men. Behind him was Gen. Howard, with 400 infantry, but with his ox teams and dilatory tactics managed to herd them two days ahead. As the cavalry under Bernard drew near, the Indians called in all detached parties and concentrated their forces. On the 7th of June Pete French joined Bernard with 65 ranchers and cowboys.

Bernard had been ordered by Gen. Howard not to attack, but to wait until he came up. At old Camp Curry, on the western side of Harney Valley, or more properly speaking, on Silver Creek, on the evening of the 7th, Bernard's scouts reported the Indians encamped in the valley, at the Baker ranch, seven miles away. In spite of orders, Bernard, always spoiling for a fight, determined to make the attack at daylight. His four companies numbered 136 men, besides French's volunteers. Bernard had no confidence in the French contingent and declined to permit them to accompany his command in the attack. He directed French, however, to make a dash for the horse herd and if possible capture the animals, while with his regulars he would charge the main camp. Bernard afterwards, in explanation of his disobedience of orders, claimed that he was misled by his scouts.

Bernard broke camp two hours before daylight, or about two o'clock in the morning. He reached the camp just at break of day. Evidently the Indians were not prepared for him, and "Little Bearskin Dick," one of the chiefs, rode out with a white flag in his hand. Bernard had already made a talk to his men, especially to the recruits, telling them they might as well be killed by the Indians as by him, as he would kill the first man that flinched. As Dick rode up, Bernard spoke to a sargeant and asked him if he was going to "let the black rascal ride over him." Instantly several carbines rang out and "Little Bearskin Dick" for the first time in his life was a "good Indian."

At the same instant the bugle sounded the charge, and the troops bore down upon the encampment, firing their rifles first and then drawing their revolvers and firing as they swept through the great camp. But Bernard had not been fully informed regarding the lay of the camp. After sweeping through he discovered to his dismay that the Indians were encamped on the margin of an impenetrable swamp - in a semi-circle, as it were, and he could go no farther. Nothing dismayed, the column wheeled and rode helter-skelter back the road they had come, this time his men using their sabres. When clear of the camp Bernard turned his attention to the men under Pete French. The latter had gotten into a "hot box," two of his men had been killed and one or two wounded and required help. Bernard was not slow in giving it, and when all were safely joined, Bernard dismounted his men and fought the Indians for several hours with his carbines.

The loss sustained by Bernard in the charge and subsequent engagement was four men killed and several wounded, not counting the loss sustained by French. Bernard continued to hover near the Indians throughout the day. He had taught them a lesson they would not forget. Those terrible troopers on open ground, they discovered, could go where they liked, and that nothing could stop them. Accordingly toward night they withdrew to a rim rock, protected on three sides by high perpendicular walls. The neck of their fort was then fortified and the savages felt they could bid defiance to the fierce troopers. In this fight the Indians lost heavily, forty-two bodies being pulled out of a crevice in the rim rock where they had been concealed. Among this number was Buffalo Horn, the greatest leader of the hostiles.

Toward evening Gen. Howard arrived within seven miles of the hostiles. Bernard sent a courier telling of the position of the Indians and that with reinforcements and howitzers under Howard the surrender could be forced in a few hours, or days at most. They had entrapped themselves, and without water must surrender at the discretion of the soldiers. Gen. Howard, however, complained that his troops were worn out, that he could not come up until the following day, and ended by ordering the command under Bernard to return to his camp. This was Gen. Howard's first fatal blunder, to be followed by others equally as serious. The Indians remained in their position until the next day, when they moved out towards the head of the South Fork of the John Day River. They camped on Buck Mountain three days while Howard was resting his troops. They then moved out leisurely to the north, keeping in the rough mountains to be out of the reach of Bernard's terrible cavalry.

Meanwhile Gen. Howard followed, keeping pace with the Indians. His men were mostly employed in grading roads through the rough, broken country to enable his ox teams to follow. Some have questioned this statement. But I saw with my own eyes the road down Swamp Creek and the mountain road leading down to the South John Day River, seven miles south of the mouth of Murderer's Creek. At the South John Day crossing he again laid over three days while the Indians were resting at the Stewart ranch, seven miles away. Think of an army following a horde of Indians through one of the roughest countries imaginable! No wonder that the fiery Bernard hovered close up to them, ready to strike when opportunity and an excuse for disobeying orders was presented.

Rumors of the coming of the Indians had reached John Day Valley, and my old friend Jim Clark gathered a force of 26 men and started out to discover, if possible, which way the Indians were heading. At Murderer's Creek he ran into them almost before he knew it. They were not the skulking Indians of former years, armed with bows and arrows, but fierce, wild horsemen, armed with modern weapons. In a running fight that followed, a young man named Aldrige was killed and Jim Clark's horse shot from, under him. He escaped into the brush and defended himself so successfully, more than one of the redskins biting the dust, that when night closed in he made his way on foot through the brush to the river and followed the stream all night, wading and swimming it twenty-six times. The balance of his command escaped by outrunning their pursuers and all reached the valley in safety.

As soon as the news spread, the women and children were sent to Canyon City and something over a hundred men gathered at the ranch of a man named Cummins. The latter had seen some service and was elected captain. Some were horseback and others had come in wagons. While the men were making final preparations for starting out in search of Jim Clark, a horseman was seen riding along the side of the mountain to the east of the Cummins ranch. Warren Cassner pointed to the horseman and asked Cummins what it meant. "Oh, I guess it is a sheep herder," replied the old man. "A queer looking sheep herder," replied Cassner, and mounting his horse started out to make an investigation. West of the Cummins house the river was lined with tall cottonwoods which obscured a view of the bald mountain side beyond. As Cassner raised the side of the mountain, enabling him to look over and beyond the cottonwoods, he discovered that the whole mountain side was covered with Indians. Twelve hundred Indians and eight thousand head of horses blackened the side of the slope. He called to the men below to get out. At the same time he saw a party of Indians cutting him off from his men.

Then began a race seldom witnessed in Indian or any other kind of warfare. Men on horseback fled for dear life, while others piled into wagons and followed as fast as teams could travel. But Cummins was a brave man and had a cool head. He succeeded in rallying a half dozen horsemen and at points on the road made such a determined stand that the wagons were enabled to escape. At one point Emil Scheutz was standing by the side of Cummins, when some Indians that had worked around to the side fired a volley, one of the bullets ripping a trench in Scheutz's breast that one could lay his arm into. Scheutz staggered and told Cummins he was shot. The latter helped him to mount his horse and amid a rain of bullets fled for life. That was the last stand. But only for the fact that Bernard had followed the Indians closely, preventing them from scattering, all would have been massacreed. As it was most of the men kept running until Canyon City was reached, each imagining the fellow behind an Indian.

At the Cassner ranch many halted and were that evening joined by Col. Bernard with his cavalry. Bernard was told that there were six hundred Umatilla Indians at Fox Valley only a few miles from the John Day River, and knowing that they were only waiting to be joined by the Bannocks, determined to attack the latter before reaching them. He was told that the Bannock's must pass through a canyon to reach Fox Valley. That was his opportunity, and he had sounded "boots and saddles" when Gen. Howard, surrounded by a strong body guard, rode up and ordered him to remain where he was. This was an awful blunder, and cost the lives of a number of settlers in Fox Valley. They, all unconscious of danger, were resting in fancied security when the Bannocks arrived, fraternized with the Umatillas and butchered them in cold blood.

But Gen. Howard had made a still more serious blunder. Gen. Grover was coming into John Day Valley with 400 troops and had reached Prairie City, south of Canyon City, and about 45 miles from the Cummins Ranch. He was coming in ahead of the Indians and would have been in a position, with the troops under Howard, to surround and destroy the savages. He was, however, halted by orders from Howard and turned back to the Malheur Reservation. In justice to Gen. Howard it should be said that he claimed his aide misunderstood the orders, and caused the fatal blunder. But be that as it may, it saved the savages from annihilation or surrender and cost the lives of a large number of citizens throughout eastern Oregon.

From John Day Valley, Gen. Howard continued to herd the savages, following with his ox teams and his army of road makers, while the enemy were sweeping a belt thirty miles in width through the State and spreading death and desolation in their path. Many skirmishes took place before the Indians reached the Umatilla Reservation. Here Gen. Miles encountered them and in the battle that followed completely routed them. Disheartened and losing confidence in the good medicine of their medicine men, the savages split up, a portion going on to Snake River and the Columbia, while the Stein's mountain and Nevada Piutes doubled on their tracks and started back, for a greater portion of the way over the road they had come. This again left the settlers exposed to butchery and plunder. The military had followed the main bands towards the Columbia and Snake Rivers. One band attempted to cross the Columbia by swimming their stock. A steamer had been despatched up the river armed with gattling guns and protected by a force of soldiers. While the vast herd of horses and Indians were struggling in the water the boat came in sight and opened with the gatlings. Some of the Indians succeeded in crossing, but most of them were driven back, and the carcasses of Indians and horses floated down the river.

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