Biography of Capt. Thomas Smith

CAPTAIN. THOMAS SMITH. – Captain Smith, the intrepid Indian fighter and pioneer, has seen the beginning of every Indian disturbance in Southern Oregon; and his narratives are therefore of peculiar interest.

He was born September 14, 1809, in Campbell County, Kentucky. At the age of seventeen he removed with his recently widowed mother to Boone County, and learned the trade of a carpenter. In 1839 he went to Texas, and in 1849 formed a party designated as the Equal Rights Company, to cross the plains by the southern route via El Paso and the Gila River to California. The journey was notably difficult, chiefly from the excessive heat and lack of water. Captain Smith’s indomitable spirit had many occasions in which to be tested, as when he recovered a horse and mule from the Pima Indians on the Gila, or led his column – seventy-five men and two hundred and fifty animals – across the desert, following Colonel Crook’s trail by the animals of the government train which had died and had dried up by reason of the desert air, and finding water and grass on a sunken river and at a small lake.

Arrived in California in the autumn, Captain Smith’s experiences in the mines at Dry Creek, Oroville, and on the Feather River, were of the checkered character of the argonauts, – more of sickness and ill luck than of success. By 1851 he was at Yreka, and thence came over into Oregon; and, seeing a better prospect in raising vegetables than in digging gold, he induced three others, Patrick Dunn, Frederick Alberding and David S. Earl, to join him on a place near the present site of Ashland. That was almost the first settlement of Southern Oregon. The difficulties of that undertaking are so explicitly described by the Captain that we insert here his own account. He says” While waiting for my companions to come by my claim, I was left here about eleven days and nights, and saw not one white man, but great numbers of Indians who were anxious to know why I wanted to stop here. I had to delude them the best I could; and, when the boys came, old Tipsy the chief came to have an understanding, as he saw that all of us were still remaining. I then knew that if we were to stop here I must tell him the truth. He first inquired as to which of us was the tyee. Dunn told him that I was; and he therefore directed his talk to me; and we had a long conversation, which amounted to a treaty. We were to be good people, and not to disturb one another, not to steal, and in particular not to interfere with their women or horses. We were to be allowed to stay there one warm season and raise a crop of vegetables and trade, as they called it, for ‘chickamin,’ and then leave the country to them. They on their part were not to allow any bad Indians to come here and disturb or steal from us while he were thus engaged.

“In a very few days John Gibbs, James H. Russell, Hugh F. Bowman and Thomas Hair came over the mountains and settled on the Mountain House claim, giving us two small parties of men in this end of the valley. In the meantime N.C. Dean and Jack Kennedy settled at the Willow Springs; and E.K. Anderson, stone and Pints settled on Wagner’s creek. It was not the middle of November or later; and he were hurrying to get our logs for a cabin hauled so that Alberding could start for our supply of seed, to be obtained from the Willamette valley. Getting him off, we began putting up our house; and while at it some Indians stole from our tent all our guns, revolvers, butcher knives, powder and lead, and other things they fancied, leaving us in a serious position. Tipsy’s son passing by late in the evening, I sent by him word to his father to be at home next morning; that I was going down and tell him of the theft. In the morning early I went to see Tipsy, his camp then being where the plaza now is, and where the Ashland Flouring Mill now stands. I was soon informed by a blind Indian, who was led by a squaw, that Tipsy and all the Indians had gone to my place. So I returned and found a large body of Indians around my tent; and the chief informed me that I must talk to his interpreter, – a sign that serious business was on hand. I told him what had been stolen, and that it was done by Indians, as we knew by the tracks left in the mud, and that the goods must be returned. Tipsy declared that his Indians had not committed the theft, and that the goods could not be returned; that some bad Indians had come and done the capswallaing. This story he stuck to strictly till evening. Having thus spent a whole day in useless questioning and answers, I got out of all patience; and, having learned that it was a part of the Indian’s nature to respect a brave man, I determined to try an experiment. There were but four of us, – Gibbs, from the Mountain House, having joined our number, – and a host of them. But I instructed the interpreter to tell Tipsy that I had heard that plea long enough, and would have no more of it; that the stolen goods must be returned, or I would go to Yreka and raise a company of men and come back and mimaluse every Indian that we could find, and burn their houses and run their families out of the country, unless the missing articles were returned. As soon as it was made known, the warriors sprang to their feet and raged around terribly. Some strung their bows and took three arrows in their teeth, and were begging Tipsy to let them settle the matter. This we all could see; and one of my party left his seat and came to me, begging me to take back what I had said; and let the things go. I told him to be quite; that they had passed me for a chief, and that it was only I that could talk. He turned away reluctantly, saying, ‘Settle it, then;’ and I do not know that he could have looked any more pale and ashy had he been dead. The Indians all saw his condition. And then Tipsy spoke two or three soft words and quieted the tumult. He addressed the interpreter, who turned to me and asked what I had said I would do in case the things should not be returned; and while I was just about to answer, a tall Indian that we called Big Impudence came forward within three feet of me, and looked me steadfastly in the eye while I repeated precisely what I had said before. I also added that I knew what they were talking about; that they were taking of killing us, that there were plenty of them to do it; and I pointed at them saying; ‘You would be great cowards to do so after you have stolen our calapins, and now we have nothing to fight with. If you are going to murder us, give us our guns, and then talk about killing us; and we will fight all of you. Your tyee has told me that he was brave, and that you are all brave; but I see you are cowards.’

“While this speech was taking effect, Tipsy’s squaw came to the front and made a speech in her native language, which I judged from her gestures was very eloquent. Thereupon, leaving us, they had a big talk among themselves; and as a result the interpreter was directed to tell me that they would settle the trouble by sending for the things. It was now late in the evening; and I was informed that they had determined to start early in the morning and get our property; but the chief wanted to know how many suns I would allow them to go and return in. He held up three fingers to denote the number of days. After a little further delay, five days were agreed upon; and the next morning early two Indians called at our tent well mounted and said they were going after our ictas, and wanted their breakfast; and as soon as that was over they mounted and left in the direction of Yreka, saying it was the Shastas that had stolen our things; and I found this to be true. The third day, late in the evening, they returned with two rifles, and said that the other things had been traded off to Indians who would kill them if they went among them; should they tell Tipsy that we were satisfied and would be friendly? I answered, no; that we were not satisfied as long as any of our things remained stolen.

“Tipsy came around early the next morning, and declared that he had done all that could be done without risking the lives of his Indians; and he wanted to be friendly. Would I not be satisfied and be friends? I told him it could not be as long as anything was stolen and not returned. At this his patience gave way; and he stormed and stamped upon the ground, and declared that this was his illihee. ‘This is my ground. You have never given me anything for it. It don’t belong to you.’ I replied to him that we did not claim the ground; but that he had agreed to let us stay here one warm season and plant and raise hieu wappatoes and ictas; and we were not to be disturbed; and bad Indians were not be allowed to come here and steal. At this he said ‘close,’ and then asked if he gave me a certain boundary of country, whether I would say no more about our stolen goods and be friendly, I told him I would. He said ‘close,’ or all right, and with great kindness and dignity came up and took me by the hand, saying, ‘This land is yours. My people will not claim it any more; and we will be friends.’

“A few days afterwards he was at my place; and I was reading a medical work. Tipsy expressed a great desire to see the sketches, and asked me if it were all Boston waw-waw (language), and desired to know if I understood it. I told him that I did.”

A few days afterwards Tipsy was wounded in a fight with the Shastas, and sent his sons for Smith to come and see him. Says the Captain: “In the morning I went down; and, entering his wigwam, I could not see Tipsy, and when I inquired for him was pointed to some blankets at one side, where they had him in a pit that had been well heated with hot rocks, and was reeking with steam by water having been poured upon them. I had him taken out and cooled off, and found that he was about gone. After getting him so that he could breath and talk again, I examined his wounds, one of which had been made with a pistol shot in the chin, and the other by a knife in the small of the back; and still a third was a long gash from an arrow down the right should blade. I shortly had him revived; and he feebly asked me if I thought he would get well. I told him that, if his people had not made matters bad by heating him so hot, he certainly could. but now I could not tell. I had, however, with me some material to make poultices, and had had some practice in treating wounded men on the frontier. After poulticing him with some wild wormwood, dampened with whiskey, he said he felt so much better that he would try to get well, and asked me, if the Siwash doctoring had not mimalused him, how long I thought it would be until he could walk again. I told him that, if it all came out right, he might walk again in ten or twelve suns; and at the expiration of that time he walked all the way up to my place to show me that I had saved his life, and to thank me for it. he said that the Indians would surely have killed him; that he was nearly dead; that a little while and Tipsy would have been no more; and he told me that he would always be my friend, and that he never would fight me nor my friends, and that his men must never shoot at me; for I was a good medicine man and must not be killed.

“While I was getting him recruited, there were about fifty Indians in the wigwam; and when I told him he might get well they began all talking in turn. They would jabber as fast as they could speak; and those not engaged in the talk would come in like a Methodist with their amen. I asked the interpreter what they were talking about. He replied that they were wawa-wawing – pointing his finger upward – to the Socalee Tyee (the Great Spirit) to help me to make Tipsy skookum (strong); and always afterwards, when I would see Tipsy, he would talk to me of our old trouble, and how well we had settled it, and how he liked a good, brave man; and said that, if my tum tum (heart) had been little and weak like the man’s who came to me when I was talking skookum, his men would have killed us all; that he told his men that I had a big heart and must not be killed.”

Captain Smith thus related the last he saw of Tipsy: “As the Whites began to encroach, Tipsy often called upon me to talk about the way the settlers were treating him about his land. He said that, when he asked them to pay him for it, they would curse him and tell him to clatawa; and in the spring of 1853 he came by one day to bid me a final farewell, saying that he was going away, and that he would not come back to this valley any more. He said he had agreed with me that he would not kill any Boston men. They kept coming and taking his land; and when he asked them for pay they cursed him and made him go away. He declared that he did not claim my land any more, – that we were friends, and that that was all right. He first went to Applegate creek, and then over to the cave of the Klamath, where his old enemies, the Shastas, met and killed him. In justice to his memory I have to say that ever after our first troubles he was honorable with me.”

The war of 1853 was provoked by the secret murder of a white man, Edward Edwards, who was found shot dead with arrows. Some eleven men collected with Isaac Hill as captain; and Smith, with three other men were detailed to enter the camp of Sambo, chief of a neighboring tribe, and learn the cause of the murder. The Captain thus relates what there occurred: “Getting to their camp, we found them all lying about in the shade; and I began talking to the interpreter, whom we called Jim, and said that we had come to have a talk with them; and I wanted him to tell all his people that they must all be there to meet the Bostons, who were coming to have a friendly counsel. He said all right, and was just in the act of speaking to his people, when I observed a large, strange, wild-looking Indian just in the act of getting up and throwing his quiver over his shoulder, and picking up his bow, when Carter (one of the white men’s party), who was a little to my right, shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Stop, stop, I’ll shoot you;’ and before I had time to speak he fired an old single-barreled pistol, the only firearm he had wit him. It bounded back and cut his forehead; and I saw the pistol bury itself in the sand thirty feet away. by this very foolish maneuver we were thrown into a very ugly little fight. On our side Carter and Dunn were wounded. In the evening we had about twenty Indian women and children and seven men and found one dead warrior at the edge of the brush, the others having gone to the woods.”

The settlers made a fort, to which five men with their families and seven single men repaired. Smith stayed on his place. Sambo, with ten Indians, surrendered, gave up his arms and wanted to stop at the fort. Smith was anxious to get them away; but neither Ross nor the captain at Fort Hoxie would take them. Apprehensive of an attack by outside Indians to relive the captives. Smith kept a lookout, and thus relates what happened.

“On my return from Fort Hoxie in the evening, when within six hundred yards of our fort I saw an impress made by an Indian’s heel in the dust where he had jumped across the road. I got down and on examination found quite a number of tracks; and when reaching the fort I called Gibbs and told him of the discovery I had made. I said these were Indians that had come to release the prisoners, and that they surely would do it if he were not well on his guard. I declared that, if the attack were made, the Indians would massacre every one in the fort and burn all the property. I advised him to arrange, without alarming the women, to have all the men on guard, and if he got through the night I would take some men and scour the woods in the morning. But he had great confidence in Sambo, and said if there were Indians about Sambo would have told him. He even called Sambo and said that I could satisfy myself; and to my questioning he denied all knowledge of any Indians in the region. Gibbs then said to me that I could see he knew nothing of it. I persisted, however, that Sambo could not be believed, and reluctantly rode away to my cabin. So deeply was I impressed with the presence of danger, that I did not remove my clothes, and even had my mule saddled, and tied him in the chimney corner, while I took what rest I could. At early twilight in the morning, I was already moving, when I heard a gun fired at a distance of about half a mile; and as quickly as could be done, I was on my mule and galloping down. When within eighty yards of the fort, the firing ceased; and I saw the flames rising from the grain stacks. I rushed into the fort without injury; but in what a condition I found my companions! They had put but one man on guard; and he had come to the conclusion that he would rather sleep, and had lain down on a bench at the back of the house with a lady’s work-basket as a pillow, and was roused from his slumber by an Indian ball tearing through the basket. I found Hugh Smith killed. Gibbs, Fordyce, Hodgins, Whitmore, Morris, Howell, and I think one other, were wounded. Hodgins, Whitmore and Gibbs died soon after. I found that when the firing began Gibbs and Howell were lying together on the porch with Sambo near by; and, as Gibbs rose with his gun in his hand, this treacherous savage seized and wrenched the piece from him, and stepping back shot him down.”

The war of 1855 began with horse-stealing by the Indians. Smith lost a fine span in 1854; and a band of hunters at Green Spring in 1855 lost a horse. Returning to the settlements, these hunters made up a party of fifteen, including Smith, that went to the mountains in August to recover the property. the Captain thus describes the first encounter of that war. “When we arrived at the place where the Indians were camped when the horse was stolen, we found that they had gone; so we passed on through the clump of timber to open ground, and happened to be talking about the way that the Indians were doing business, when I saw an Indian’s head protrude from the brush above, and said to the boys, ‘I better call to him.” But just at that moment he ducked his head and fired off a gun, evidently a signal; and, supposing, it was intended to harm us, I said to the boys, ‘Curse them, if they are for fighting, draw your revolvers and we will go into them.’ Advancing, we found several camp fires, and plenty of women and children all going in the opposite direction; and up the hill getting to the edge of the brush, I saw two bucks eighty or ninety yards ahead, and hailed them in jargon to come back, as I wanted to talk. One of them hallooed back in the same language, that he did not want to talk to Bostons. I then gave orders to shoot. Two shots were fired; and we charged up in the direction the Indians were running. But upon reaching the spot where the first two had disappeared in the brush, I saw that we were getting into a trap, and hallooed back to the boys, warning them of the situation, and telling them to get behind something immediately. Very quickly the Indians opened on us with their guns. But all of our party had started to retreat, some running directly from their fire; and some few were more lucky in going a little farther so as to cross their fire. I selected a far-off tree as a good place for safety. In approaching it I clutched the bark with my left hand to give a quick lodgment and stop myself in time, and in doing so came up against my comrade, A. Hedden.”

From this unlucky beginning the little company did its best to get back safely to the settlement. Two men, Tabor and Alberding, were wounded and at great risk carried out; and one Keene was killed; but his body was recovered. During the war that followed, Captain Smith took an active part with a company of thirty men, and later with a company of thirty-five. Lieutenant Switzler, to whom he tendered his first company, he found indisposed to fight; while Major Fitzgerald, who was sent up from Fort Lane with forty men to avenge the death of Fields and Cunningham, who were shot from an ambuscade on the Siskiyou Mountain, to whom Smith offered thirty-five men, was ready to chastise the savages. The volunteers followed the Indians to the agency, and there occurred the fight which has been called the massacre, a full account of which is found in the history of the war in Southern Oregon, in the first volume of this work.

After these troublous times, in which the country was conquered from its original possessors, captain Smith returned to his home, but was soon elected to the legislature, and has been re-elected a number of terms, 1880, being the date of his last election. He was married in 1867 at Salem to Miss Margaret P., daughter of William Harrison of Missouri, and a member of the Tippecanoe family of presidential fame. In the white winter of his age, at four-score years, Captain Smith is still an active man, and greatly respected by all his neighbors, and honored in history.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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