Biography of Major James Bruce

MAJOR JAMES BRUCE. – Major Bruce is one of our citizens who needs no introduction to the people of the Northwest; since he is known personally, not only to all the old pioneers, but to most of the second generation of the toilers of Oregon. He was born November 3, 1827, in Harrison county, Indiana, and at the age of ten moved with his parents to Quincy, Illinois. At twenty he began a border career, going to Texas, making many excursions in that then unsettled region, and at Cross Timbers joined Major Johnson’s rangers. He accompanied these troopers upon their expeditions to punish marauders, or to recover the stock which were perpetually stampeded and run off by the Indians. In one of these ventures he was engaged with his company in a fight with three hundred of the savages, whose rapid movements, impetuous charges, and ability to suddenly concentrate, or to miraculously disappear and reappear, seemed to multiply their number to about one thousand. Here the Major first saw their maneuvers and astonishing feats, such as riding concealed on one side of their horses.

In 1849 he returned to his home in Illinois, and in the spring of 1850 was ready to go to the mines of California, – a trip even more eventful than that to Texas. He performed the long journey in the summer, using ox-teams as the means of travel, and having as his companion George Collins. Making but a short stoppage in the old mines of California, he urged his way to the northern part of that state to the Shasta or Redding diggings, where he mined with the best of them for a year, numbering among his companions Honorable John Kelly, Thomas Brown and John Milligan. With these as company he went to the famous Scott’s bar, furnishing his ox-team for the enterprise, but being much distressed with ague was obliged to accept many favors and kindly offices from the “boys.” Arriving at the bar, he found that provisions were less plentiful than gold, and sought to supply the demand by going back and driving in a band of cattle, which he sold for beef at fifty-five cents a pound. With Doctor Robertson he established there the Lone Star ranch. In 1852 he disposed of his interests in this ephemeral field, and going with a party of some fifteen sought a location on the coast for a seaport, establishing the present Crescent City. He also in those times conducted a party across the mountains to Port Orford, meeting with various hindrances from the Indians, who were now becoming fractious and restive, among things delaying them in crossing the Rogue river.

As the war of 1853 was coming on, he offered his services to Captain Goodall, and bore his part in the marching, skirmishing, hungering and hardships of that desultory campaign. At the close of hostilities, he discovered the peril of entering with but one companion into an armed and excited Indian camp. He performed this intrepid feat at the request of General Lane, who had given the Indians a three days’ armistice to come in and conclude a peace, but was annoyed and even perplexed by their failure to do so, and indeed by their entire disappearance. Bruce and R.B. Metcalf were directed to scout the mountains for the camp of Chief Joseph. After three days’ investigation they found him with all his tribe encamped as if for war in a natural fortress. To enter this stronghold and deliver their errand to bring in the Indians was a matter of great delicacy. But descrying the tent of Chief Joseph, which was distinguished by a blue cloth, the spies determined to go to his lodge, relying for safety upon his well-known desire for peace. Before attracting his attention, however, they were seen by the young braves, who assembled in great numbers, running and hooting, and manifestly bent upon spilling the blood of the intruders. Bruce and Metcalf saw in a moment that their death was imminent; and the Major believes that they must have been slaughtered had not an Indian boy named Sambo suddenly appeared, shouting and averring at the top of his voice that this white man was not to be killed, – that he had saved his life and must now be saved. Major Bruce was only too glad to recognize in this youth his Sambo, the Indian formerly the rider of the bell-horse on his pack train, whom he had actually saved sometime before at Jacksonville from the hands of the infuriated miners, who were indiscriminately hanging the Indian bell-boys then in town. By the shouts and exertions of this faithful Sambo, a diversion was created; and Joseph appeared, by whom the scouts were severely censured for their temerity. Nevertheless they gained time and explained their mission, and at length accomplished their purpose, bringing the chief to General Lane. The Major, however, always thinks with tenderness of the boy Sambo, whose fidelity saved him from a dreadful death.

After the war he located his Donation claim near Table Rick, and in 1854 purchased of the Indians the privilege of cutting hay on the reservation in Sam’s valley, having a contract to supply the government post, Fort Lane. Desiring to please his old friend Joseph, he gave this chief a horse, but soon learned that he had thereby excited the jealousy of the war chief Zach, who assembled the tribe and in council after the war dance advocated the killing of the offensive horse, the burning of the hay, and the expulsion of the white men. Bruce was immediately sought by the friendly Indians, and against his first inclination was prevailed upon to visit and to placate Zach, who was still sitting in the council. Reaching the scene of deliberations, which was in the midst of a thicket, Bruce seated himself in the circle of the council, and listened to the speeches of Joseph and Sam, who urged the tribe to desist from all thought of war, as there was no occasion, and as there would be none to help them. After these harangues he was expected to make a reply; and almost spontaneously, without premeditation, and indeed thinking of no argument to advance spoke out what are at bottom very much the natural sentiments of the cultivated white man. He said, “I have come to talk to you because I love you.” Tis statement fell upon the Indians, producing a sort of astonishment; and a dozen voices cried out, “What! why do you love us?” The Major, still following the promptings of his white man’s nature, and remembering the civilized theory of life, replied that it was because they all had one father, and explained the theory of human brotherhood as taught in Genesis. In a short time he had them listening with all eagerness, and heard them here and there in the assembly uttering grunts of approval. To their curious questionings why, if all men had one father, some were red, others black, and still others white, he entertained them with many equally curious replies, telling how one of the sons of this man went off into the woods and lived in the open air, dispensing with all superfluous clothing, thereby, acquiring a dark complexion; while another built houses and acquired cattle and horses, and constructed great edifices and ships, and retained his fair skin; but, nevertheless, he held their minds to the thought of the natural love between human beings which he himself exercised. Their minds were so much softened thereby, that they were ready at the close of the speech to accept an invitation to return with him to his camp and have a feast; and Zach and all his tribe with the greatest amity sat down to a barbecue of roast beef thus provided. By this kindly and reasonable method of dealing, he saved all difficulty to himself, was left to harvest his hay, and postponed the war for at least one year.

When, however, in 1855, the outbreak actually occurred, and Fields and Cunningham were killed on the Siskiyou Mountains, Major Bruce went with the rest to punish the murderers, and with Captain Williams, Chiles, Wells, Patrick Dunn, Major Lupton, John F. Miller and others closed upon the hostiles. He was present but declined to enter the willows where Lupton was riddled with arrows a few moments afterwards, – knowing the danger of the place. After this first brush he raised a company of his own and was elected captain of Company B, and afterwards major of the Southern Battalion.

Since these early disturbances, in which the land was conquered from the savages, the major has been engaged in developing the state, in showing what Oregon land can be made to produce, and in improving the herds of the valley by importation of fine cattle. His place near Corvallis is one of the most productive and valuable in the Northwest, and as handsome as an English baronial estate. In public life he has taken an active part, having served both Washington and Benton counties in the state legislature. He was elector on the Douglas ticket in 1860. He was one of the judges in agricultural implements at the Centennial in Philadelphia, and has been an active and prominent member of the Oregon grange.

He was married in 1857 to Miss Margaret, the daughter of colonel Kinney of Benton county. She died in 1884; and he was married secondly in 1886 to Miss Elizabeth Mark, with whom he shares his elegant home.



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

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4 thoughts on “Biography of Major James Bruce”

  1. Thank you so much Dennis. I would like to know more about the Bruce born in 1840. Do you have any more info, or references? I am preparing an archaeological study and would like to clarify the local folklore about a log cabin at Tecnor Springs. Thanks!

    1. The biography was penned in 1889 while Major Bruce was still alive, and the information likely came directly from him. It is all the information we have.

  2. Is this the same person as “Major Bruce” who established a wagon stop at Tecnor Springs, near Tecnor in Red Rock Valley, Siskiyou County, California about 1899?

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