general kearney

Indian Hostilities in California and New Mexico – Indian Wars

The Indian tribes of California are in a degraded and miserable condition. The most numerous are the Shoshonee, the Blackfeet, and the Crows. Many of them have been brought to a half civilized state, and are employed at the different ranches. But those in the neighborhood of the Sierra Nevada are untamable, treacherous, and ferocious. They wander about, for the most part going entirely naked, and subsisting upon roots, acorns, and pine cones. Since the discovery of the gold, they have acquired some knowledge of its usefulness, but no clear conception of its value, and they part with their gatherings for whatever strikes their fancy, without much hesitation in bargaining with dealers. They are generally of medium stature, dark skin and hair, (which grow low down over their foreheads,) with ugly countenances, devoid of any intellectual expression, and are immeasurably inferior to the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains, and those of the Atlantic States.

Soon after the discovery of the placers, the Indians displayed their hostility by attacking straggling miners, and, growing bolder, committed serious depredations in the neighborhood of the mines furthest advanced towards the Sierra Nevada; at length, the murder of a number of Oregonians led to a destructive warfare between the whites and Indians.

It happened that six men of a clan were out “prospecting,” (exploring,) on the Middle Fork, and when they had penetrated a deep canon, (gulf,) a party of some forty Indians attacked them from the heights above. Unsuspicious of an ambuscade, the explorers had left their arms at some distance, and a flight of arrows among them was the first intimation of the proximity of their enemies. In their effort to reach the tent, in which their rifles were deposited, all but one were killed, and he had great difficulty in making his escape.

Many depredations upon the property of the diggers had before been perpetrated by the Indians. Horses and cattle had been carried away, and much damage had been done by the marauders. It needed but this outrage to exasperate the miners to the highest pitch, especially the friends and countrymen of the sufferers. A war of extermination was, therefore, declared, and carried on by well armed and well mounted parties, determined on revenge. Eight Indians, with a number of squaws and papooses, were captured and brought into Culloma (Coloma). These clearly came within the jurisdiction of the respectable “bencher,” Judge Lynch, and they were condemned to be shot. While one after another were thus being disposed of, some broke away, and took to the river, but soon the unerring marksmen dispatched them with their rifles, and not one escaped.

The squaws and papooses were liberated, but the bloody contest was still carried on; and after more than a hundred had been sacrificed to appease the manes of the slaughtered Oregonians, the Indians were driven into the snows of Sierra Nevada, the only place of refuge which could afford them safety from the hot pursuit which was kept up by their enemies.

With a view to giving an idea of the mode of attack practiced by the California Indians, we extract the following account from the journal of a tourist, who visited the country soon after the discovery of the gold mines:

We were just on the point of returning to the camp to dinner, when Dowling, who was standing near some sage bushes at the upper part of the ravine, heard a rustling among them, and on moving in the direction of the noise, saw an Indian stealthily creeping along, who, as soon as he perceived he was discovered, discharged an arrow, which just missed its mark, but lacerated, and that rather severely, Dowling‘s ear. The Indian set up a most terrific whoop, and ran off, but tumbled before he could draw another arrow from his quiver, while Dowling, rushing forward, buried his mattock in the head of his fallen foe, killing him instantaneously.

At this moment we heard the crack of a rifle in the direction of the camp, which, with the Indian’s whoop at the same moment, completely bewildered us. Every man, however, seized his rifle, and Dowling, hastening towards us, told us of what had just occurred. All was still for the next few moments, and I mounted a little hill to reconnoiter. Suddenly I saw a troop of Indians, the foremost of them on horseback, approaching at full speed. I hastily returned to my companions, and we sought shelter in a little dell, determined to wait there, and resist the attack, for it was evident that the Indians’ intentions were anything but pacific.

It was a moment of breathless excitement. We heard the tramp, tramp, of the horses coming on towards us, but as yet they and their riders were concealed from our view. I confess I trembled violently, not exactly with fear, although I expected that a few moments would see us all scalped by our Indian assailants. It was the suddenness of the danger which startled me, and made my heart throb violently; but at that moment, just as I was reproaching myself with the want of courage, a terrific yell rung through the air at a short distance from us, and forty or fifty warlike Indians appeared in sight. My whole frame was nerved in an instant, and when a shower of arrows flew amongst us, I was the first man- to answer it with a rifle shot, which brought one of the foremost Indians off his horse to the ground. I instantly reloaded, but in the meanwhile the rifles of my companions had been doing good service. We had taken up our position behind a row of willow trees which skirted the banks of a narrow stream, and here we were protected in a great measure from the arrows of our assailants, which were in most cases turned aside by the branches. A second volley of rifle shots soon followed the first; and while we were reloading, and the smoke had slightly cleared away, I could see that we had spread consternation in the ranks of the Indian warriors, and that they were gathering up their wounded preparatory to retiring. I had my eye on an old man, who had just leaped from his horse. My finger was on the trigger, when I saw him coolly advance, and taking one of his wounded companions, who had been shot through his leg, in his arms, place him on a horse, then mounting his own, and catching hold of the other animal’s bridle, lop off at full speed. Although I knew full well that if the fortune of the day had gone against us, these Indians would not have spared a single man of our party, still I could not find it in my heart to fire on the old chief, and he carried off his wounded comrade in safety. In a few minutes the hill sides were clear, and when we emerged from our shelter, all that was visible of the troop of warriors was three of them weltering in their blood, a bow or two, and some empty quivers, and a few scattered feathers and tomahawks, lying on the ground.”

Several engagements have taken place between parties of Indians and the small body of United States troops in California, in all of which the Indians have suffered greatly. But they continue as fierce and revengeful as ever, and murder and plunder whenever and wherever they find an opportunity.

New Mexico Hostilities

In New Mexico, which became a part of the United States territory at the same time as California, the Indians are numerous and far more formidable than those farther west. The Apache Indians and Navajo Indians are the most powerful tribes west of the Mississippi. Being strong, active, and skillful, war is their delight, and they were the terror of the New Mexicans before the territory was occupied by the United States troops. The Pueblo Indians are among the best and most peaceable citizens of New Mexico. They, early after the Spanish conquest, embraced the forms of religion and the manners and customs of their then more civilized masters. The Pimos and Maricopos are peaceable tribes who cultivate the ground and endeavor to become good citizens. They are much exposed to the irresistible attacks of the Apache Indians and Navajo Indians, and, very often, the fruits of their honest toil become the plunder of those fierce wanderers.

General Kearney
General Kearney

In 1846, an American army, under General Kearney, marched into New Mexico and received the submission of the authorities at Santa Fe. After Kearney’s departure from that city, the inhabitants conspired against the American government; but their object was discovered, and its execution prevented. Although thus discovered, the Indians did not abandon the hope of being able to execute their plan at a favorable opportunity.

On the 19th of January, 1847, a considerable number of them collected in the village of Taos to obtain the release of two companions whom the authorities had imprisoned. So singular a demand was, of course, refused: when, without repeating it, the Indians murdered the sheriff and the Mexican prefect, broke into the prison, and released the prisoners. Instead of retiring, they then rushed through the village, and forced their way into a house where Governor Bent had but a short time previously taken up a temporary residence. In this extremity, the unfortunate man appears to have lost his presence of mind, neither fighting nor retreating until it was too late to do either. As the Indians approached his room, he decided upon retreating; but, being wounded in attempting to jump from the window, he returned, and was shot through the body by the Indians. Then followed a scene sickening to everyone but an Indian. The dying man was shot in the face with his own pistol, then scalped, and, lastly, nailed to a board. A Mr. Leal, acting at that time as district attorney, was killed by slow torture, after having been scalped alive. Some others were killed in another part of the village; and the Indians afterwards formed in procession, parading the bodies of the governor and attorney through the village. The object of the Indians was undoubtedly to excite an insurrection; but in this they were again disappointed.

Some severe battles with the Indians occurred during the Mexican war. One of the most spirited of these encounters was an attack by a detachment of Colonel Doniphan‘s men, upon a party of Lipan warriors, near El Paso. The colonel was marching from Chihuahua to Saltillo, (May 13, 1847,) and had detached Captain Reid, with thirty men to El Paso, as an advance guard. About nine o’clock in the morning, the captain observed a party of Indians emerging from a gap in the mountains, five miles distant, and advancing toward the rancho. They numbered about sixty, and were returning from an attack upon a neighboring Mexican town, where they had secured many prisoners and more than a thousand horses and mules. Although in arms against the Mexicans, Reid lost no time in deciding upon his course. The number of Indians was double his own; they had the advantage of ground; they could, if it were needful, retreat at once, and either escape or perhaps draw him into an ambush; but he determined upon rescuing the prisoners. At the word of command, each American was in the saddle, and the whole party bore down at full speed upon the Indians. The latter coolly awaited the charge, and opened the skirmish by a partial discharge of arrows. The Americans answered by an entire volley from their rifles. Immediately the Indians, raising a yell, rushed forward and discharged their arrows with astonishing rapidity. After fighting for some time, the Americans were driven back, but having reloaded, they again charged and drove the Indians before them. The superior horsemanship of the latter afforded them great advantages. They waved their bodies in the saddles, galloped swiftly up and down, and by other methods known only to Indians, contrived to elude the American balls. The battle continued nearly two hours, each party charging and retreating alternately, and keeping up a continual fire. At length the captain’s men began to gain ground, inch by inch, as the Indians becoming discouraged, fought with less obstinacy and less skill. In the final retreat, the latter suffered severely, leaving fifteen dead on the field and carrying away a still larger number, together with all their wounded. Nine Mexican prisoners were recovered and restored to liberty, and a herd of one thousand horses and mules, were appropriated, as far as practicable, to their original owners.

The Comanche are a powerful tribe, inhabiting the country on the northeastern frontier of New Mexico. Their frequent attacks upon the Santa Fe traders have made their daring activity and cruelty familiar to the people of the western country, and especially of the borders of Texas. Their incursions are still a source of terror to the Mexicans; but having experienced the power of the United States troops and the vengeance of the Texans, they hesitate to attack the frontier settlements of our territory. They are brave, hardy, and skillful horsemen, which adds greatly to rendering their attacks formidable. A severe battle was fought with them, by a party of Americans, commanded by Lieutenant Love, June 26th, 1847. The particulars of this affair are so well described by an officer who shared its dangers, that we give them in his own words:

“On the 23d, we arrived at the Pawnee Fork, and there met two government trains of provision wagons destined for Santa Fe, and learned from them that the day previous the Indians charged on them as their cattle were grazing, wounding three men one severely and driving off from traders and a return train of government wagons under Mr. Bell, some seventy yoke of oxen, leaving seventy wagons and a considerable quantity of provisions and other property without the means of transportation. The wagons and property were burned to prevent their falling into the hands of the Indians. Next day, (the 24th,) we travelled up to the Fork and encamped, and on the 25th to this place, on which day I was in charge of the guard and the night passed over without any alarm, although every vigilance and precaution was used. Next morning, the 26th, immediately after reveille, Hayden‘s train, which was encamped about five hundred yards due west from the guard tent, drove their oxen from the coral to graze. All were scarcely out, when a large band of Comanche and Mexicans emerged from a ravine called Coon creek, about two hundred yards west, and charged furiously on the teamsters and herdsmen, wounding three and driving off one hundred and thirty yoke of government oxen, and thirty yoke belonging to a trader who was accompanying them. One conspicuous Indian rode within carbine range. I fired and killed the horse from under him, and, as far as could be ascertained, wounded himself; however, he was soon behind another Indian. In the meantime the camp was armed, and some eighteen or nineteen mounted dragoons were ordered out under my command, for the purpose of retaking the cattle. When my command reached within one hundred and fifty yards of the enemy, I halted, and formed in an extended line, expecting to rally on a body of teamsters who were out as footmen; then charged on the Indians, and forced them to retreat. As they were retreating, a large body of well mounted Indians crossed the river between me and the camp on my left, and charged us in the rear with great fury, preventing us from rallying, and obliging us to cut our way through them. About this time I was shot, and charged on by several Indians. I made my saber, however, drink blood, having killed one and wounded another. Every man in my little command fought bravely and manfully, and five of my poor fellows were killed, defending themselves to the last, and selling their lives at a dear rate, and six wounded three more besides myself severely wounded. The killed were Arlidge, Deckhart, Short, Gaskill, and Blake. The wounded, myself, Vancaster, Lovelace, and Ward, severely, and Burk and Wilson slightly. The severe loss I met with, I attribute to the almost unmanageable state of the horses, all being new in the service, and to the Indians being permitted to charge on us from behind. The enemy took off the cattle, scalped three men, and took off the horses, equipments, arms, and ammunition, and the clothes of the dead. The Indians, when in a body, numbered about five hundred. I make no comments; I merely give you the facts as they occurred before me.

“The Indians were all armed with lances measuring from twelve to fifteen feet in length, bows and arrows, and a great many with rifles and muskets. There were some white men among them. Several of our men saw them as well as myself. The air was actually as dark as if a flight of birds were hovering over us, from the balls, lances, and arrows that were flying through the air. Twelve or fifteen of the enemy are known to have fallen perhaps more but were immediately carried off. Four of their horses were left dead on the ground. Since then, we remain here, merely changing positions for the purpose of pastime. Tomorrow, I understand, we will proceed again on our route, arrangements being made to take all the trains along, with somewhat less team, however. The Indians have attacked every train that has gone out or come in this year, and are bound to attack every train that will follow. These Comanche, Pawnees, and Arapaho deserve a castigation that would ever after keep them quiet, and which they are sure some day to receive.

“Lieutenant Love was in a most distressing situation. Never has man suffered, I believe, more in one day than he has suffered. Here were twelve wagons, with six mules to each provisions, and all the specie, that he could not by any possible means abandon, as another large force were ready to attack the camp if he were to go out with a large force; and yet he saw the awful situation in which we were placed, and could not give us the slightest aid or assistance. I am convinced that he acted prudently and wisely; for it has been his special care to take all the precautions that an experienced officer could take to save his men and animals ever since he commenced his march.”

Such was the character of the Indian aggression on the route to New Mexico. The violence was, however, confined to the Comanche, and to a small portion of the Arapaho, and the band of Pawnees south of the Platte. This violence the United States government took effectual measures to quell, by placing a competent force under command of Colonel Gilpin, who had signally distinguished himself with Doniphan, in Chihuahua.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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