Cut-Mouth John

I happened to know a Umatilla scout who bore the English name of Cut-Mouth John. The Umatilla tribe of Indians to which John belonged lived along the upper waters of the great Columbia River. This country, called the “up-river country,” is used also by the Cayuses, Walla Walla, and other Columbia River Indians. There were many of them on the lands called reservations, and many others roaming about everywhere, far and near, like herds of wild horses on the great prairies of the West where there were no fences to stop them.

I was then living in Portland, Oregon, and all the soldiers in that part of the country watered by the great western rivers, were under my command. I was to use the soldiers to keep peace all the time between the white inhabitants and the roaming red men. The whites were mostly farmers, cattle raisers, and shepherds, who had made their homes in all the rich valleys, along the streams of water, and on the beautiful hills and green slopes of the mountains. These people wanted all the good land to pasture their herds and flocks; and the red men .wanted the same land for hunting and for feeding their ponies and for gathering for themselves things which grew without sowing or planting, such as camas, the wild onions, the berries, and the fruits of trees. There for many years the red men had found acres and acres of “bunch” grass which made their ponies lively and fat. But the white men, when they came, put up fences, bars, and gates. These the red men, when they came along every spring, tore down and kept saying: “This land is ours. Our fathers had it before any white men came to this country.”

“Uncle Sam” then sent Colonel Watkins from Washington to Oregon and to the “upriver country” to talk with the red men, and to settle the troubles which everywhere had sprung up.

I went with him on a large steamer up the Columbia. The steamer could go only to the Cascades. Here we changed to a train of cars for a few miles, going past some foaming rapids as far as Celilo. There we had a smaller steamer which bore us through smooth water forty miles to the Dalles, a small village near that part of the Columbia where it tumbles foaming and roaring over more narrow rocky rapids. People say the river here is “on edge.” Colonel Watkins, Captain Wilkinson, and I crossed to the north side of the Columbia and then went by rough roads over a broad shaggy mountain. We had with us an Indian chief, Skemiah, and his son, eight years old. I had taken them from prison and set them free upon Skemiah’s promise of obedience to Uncle Sam’s laws in the future. When well over the mountain we found the rich prairie, vast in extent and covered with the pretty cabins of the red men. It was called the Simcoe Reservation, and the agent, tall as Abraham Lincoln, was called Father Wilbur. So the red men were named Simcoe Indians, the most of whom looked like our farmers dressed in clothing such as white men wear; but a few in one corner of the reservation still had on blankets and skins of animals. Father Wilbur called them Blanket Indians,–these few were the restless roamers. Skemiah was their chief, and they were happy to see him again, and seemed more pleased when the lad, his son, rode among them having on a pretty cap and a bright belt.

Colonel Watkins and Father Wilbur called in many red men far and near for a meeting, so that we had a “big pow-wow.” Smoholly, Moses, Indian Thomas, One-Eyed John, Young Chief of the Umatillas, and his friend the famous scout, named Cut-Mouth John, came together to meet us and many Simcoe Indians near Father Wilbur’s house; each chief had with him a few of his tribesmen.

It proved to be a great meeting; a council where white men and red men for two whole days spoke their minds to one another, and this gathering had the good result to keep nearly all the Indians who were north of the Columbia away from those terrible Nez Perce who were about to go on the war-path.

The next day after the council in a nice large wagon drawn by good-sized mules, Watkins, Wilkinson, and I, escorted by Chief Stwyre and several Simcoe mounted on ponies, went across the prairie, through the white settlements north of Simcoe, and then followed the sluggish Yakima River eastward for miles to its mouth, where it ran into the Columbia. Cut-Mouth John and two or three of Smoholly’s men had come on with our escort. When the others, becoming weary, left us for their homes, they stayed with us, all day. Smoholly had hastened on before us and crossed the broad Columbia in canoe before our arrival a little after sunset. Wilkinson became very ill. The mules and driver were too tired to go further. Wallula, the steamboat landing from which I must go up the Snake River to Lewiston to see the Nez Perce, was twenty miles below.

I thought I might go down the river in a small boat. At first the brave John and two red men offered to swim a half mile across the Columbia and get a boat, but I would not allow them to risk that. Then they gave the Indian “whoop” several times and when an answer came from the other shore they cried in Indian: “Send a boat for the white chiefs.” Smoholly, across the river, had one made ready. After some delay two stalwart Indians could be heard paddling over what proved to be a long log dug-out, rather old and the worse for too much water soaking. Watkins and I ate our supper, Wilkinson being at first too ill to eat. We fixed a bed for him and placed him in the bottom of the dug-out. Cut-Mouth John took the steering paddle, and the other two crouched near the
middle of the boat, paddling skillfully when necessary in the rapid river, while Colonel Watkins and I placed ourselves in front to watch the water, the shores, and the abundant stars in a cloudless sky. Pambrun, the interpreter, enabled us to talk with the Indians, and helped when necessary to manage our strange craft. It was a very dangerous and exciting passage. We ran into many dark eddies, avoided the small islands, and coursed swiftly through the Homily Rapids, roaring frightfully,-enough to disturb our nerves.

As we passed the mouth of the Snake River we shot into smoother water with the wind the current and the Indian paddles giving us the speed of a railroad train.

About two o’clock the next morning just as the dawn was appearing we reached the steamer landing at Wallula. The deck-hands were just ready to haul in the gang-plank when our strange boatload of people called to them. We were soon in safety upon the steamer’s deck. Wilkinson had recovered from his illness, and as soon as possible ate a hearty breakfast with Watkins and myself in the steamboat galley.

Colonel J. W. Redington, who served as volunteer scout and courier for me during the Indian Wars, has told me several facts about the faithful scout, Cut-Mouth John, who brought us so skillfully to. safety in the ungainly dugout. Cut-Mouth John was with our old officers long ago, campaigning in that upper country of the Snake River in pioneer days, and Redington thinks he was at a later period with General Sheridan in an Indian War in which the Simcoe Indians were against him. In one of those early wars, when the red men were trying to keep back the white men from taking their country, Cut-Mouth John was with our soldiers, became their friend, and remained with them all the time.

Once the Indians had made a fort on the Powder River, from which they believed that they could not be driven back. The scout John was a guide to our men. When he came near the fort he saw his own brother over there inside of the trenches, and lie called to him with all his might to come out and leave those angry red men. But his brother said “No, I will shoot you, John, if you come another step my way.” John was too brave to yield to his brother, so he led the charge upon the barricade. His brother kept his word and fired at him. The bullet only cut his lip or cheek, but disfigured him badly for life. The fort was captured and our soldiers praised John for his fearless conduct, and gave him the queer name.

Cut-Mouth John was one of my scouts in the beautiful Blue Mountains during the Piute and Bannock war of 1878, and he was again with Lieutenant Farrow when he captured the red men called “Sheep Eaters,” a small tribe in the Salmon River Mountains in the year 1879. Cut-Mouth John was then an old man, but he was full of life, being the last man to roll himself up in his saddle blanket at night, and the first one, long before sun-up, to turn out in the morning.

His only reward for all his faithful service to “Uncle Sam” was to be made an Indian policeman on the Umatilla Reservation with the poor pay of five dollars a month.

Once he came down to see me in Portland a short time before he passed over to the happy hunting grounds. He came in his soldier uniform to my office. “Who is this? “I said gently, looking up. “Don’t you know me, General? I am your scout, ‘Cut-Mouth John.”

I am very, very sorry that the aged scout was neglected in his old age by the red men round about him. I am sure Uncle Sam would have done more for him had he known of his slim reward and poor, poor condition in those last days. He was a steadfast friend to the white men at all times, even to the end.


Howard, Oliver Otis Famous Indian Chiefs I have Known. University of Nebraska Press. 1908.

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