Bloody 1855

In October 1854, Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, notified the tribes with whom he had treaties, that Congress had approved them. However, there were some amendments to the Congressional legislation among which was a measure consolidating all Rogue River tribes into one, a provision which was traditionally unacceptable to the Indians. Another amendment provided that one tribe could be placed upon a reservation set aside for another. The Indians didn’t like that, either. In the early part of 1855, while Palmer was busily engaged with treaty matters in the northern and eastern sections of the territory, new troubles were brewing in southern and southwestern Oregon. About June 1, 1855, Jerome Dyar and Daniel McKaw were murdered on the road between Jacksonville and the Illinois River Valley. In the same month the Indians raided a mining camp, killing miners and made off with a large quantity of personal property.

John E. Ross was Colonel of Militia in Oregon Territory and as such recognized a newly organized company of volunteers, the Independent Rangers, formed at Wait’s Mill on the Rogue River under the captaincy of H. B. Hayes. When the Indian Agent heard of the formation of this new company of volunteers he notified Captain Smith, in command at Ft. Lane. Smith set out with his soldiers to round up stray Indians and get them back on their reservation adjacent to Table Rock where the volunteers would pursue them. Smith was only partly successful, some of the stray Indians deciding to go to the mountains, where Smith pursued. Several skirmishes occurred in which one white man and one Indian were killed.

In August an unidentified white man sold some whiskey to a group of Indians who were off reservation. They attacked a mining camp on the Klamath River killing ten miners, the Indians themselves having several of their number killed. That resulted in the immediate formation of another company of volunteers from south of the Siskiyous with William Martin in command. They marched to the Rogue River reservation and demanded the surrender of the killers. Captain Smith, of Ft. Lane, refused the demand saying that there was no authority for delivering suspects to volunteer organizations.

Later that year some arrests were made upon presentation of proper legal documents from Siskiyou County. Also in August, near the mouth of the Rogue River, an Indian wounded James Buford. The Indian was captured and turned over to Benjamin Wright, the Indian Agent, who delivered the prisoner to the Sheriff of Coos County. There was no jail in which to hold the Indian so the Sheriff turned him over to a detail of soldiers who were to take him to Ft. Orford and keep him in the guardhouse until time for trial. Buford didn’t like the way the Indian was being shunted about. The soldiers were transporting their prisoner and another Indian by canoe. Buford, enlisting the aid of two other white men, followed. They fired on the canoe killing both Indians. The soldiers returned the fire killing two of the white men instantly, and wounding the other so badly that he died. That affair caused a bitter upsurge of public opinion against the military. Technically the soldiers were within their rights in attempting to protect a prisoner in their custody, but many settlers showed a tendency to fight the soldiers as well as the Indians. The whole situation widened the breach between the regulars and the settlers.

On September 2nd several white men entered the reservation to recover stolen horses. One white man, Grenville M. Keene, was killed and two others wounded. September 24th Calvin Fields and John Cunningham were killed and two other white men wounded while crossing the Siskiyous with their ox teams. The Indians also slaughtered the oxen. Next day Samuel Warner was killed in the same locality. Captain Smith sent out a detachment to apprehend the guilty but no arrests were made.

In early October a group of reservation Indians were encamped near the point where Butte Creek empties into the Rogue River. That was off-reservation and the settlers suspected that among the group were some of the Indians who had committed several of the recent murders. A company of militia commanded by Major J. A. Lupton, decided to attack the Indian camp and did so, surprising the Indians just before daylight on October 8th. There was a very bloody fight in which the Indians lost 23 killed and many wounded. Major Lupton was killed and eleven of his men wounded. Then it was discovered that most of the Indians who had been killed were old men, women and children. The surviving natives took refuge at Ft. Lane. On that same day, and too soon for the Indians to have organized because of the slaughter on Butte Creek, Indians killed two white men and wounded another who were in charge of a pack train. That incident occurred at Jewett’s Ferry. The Indians also shot into Jewett’s house but injured no one there. A large number of Indians were congregated at that point and they were well armed and well supplied with ammunition. Under reservation regulations Indians who were off-reservation and who were armed were considered to be suspects and the group at the ferry must have had their plans laid for a long time.

Next morning, October 9th, the Indians moved down stream to Evans’ ferry where they intercepted Isaac Shelton, who was traveling to Yreka, fatally wounding him. Still farther down river lived J. K. Jones and his wife. They killed Jones and mortally wounded his wife, robbed the house and burned it. A short distance farther was the home of John Wagoner. The Indians headed for the Wagoner home but paused on the way to kill four men they met. Wagoner was away from home that day, which left his wife and four year old daughter, Mary, at home. What happened to them is not actually known. The Indians burned the house and its contents. There are various stories. Some Indians said later that Mrs. Wagoner barricaded the house and, with the child, perished in the flames. Other Indians said that she and her daughter were captured and that the child was killed because it cried too much and that Mrs. Wagoner refused to eat, dying of grief and starvation. But Captain John M. Warren said, after the battle with the Indians on Cow Creek in 1856, that among the scalps recovered were those positively identified as those of Mrs. Wagoner and her child.

From the Wagoner place the Indians went to the farm of George W. Harris who saw them coming and suspecting their intentions ran to the house, grabbing his gun, killed one Indian, wounded another, and was then himself killed. Mrs. Harris dragged her husband’s body indoors, barricaded the house, and kept the Indians at bay all day by firing at them through crevices in the walls until night came and the Indians retired. As a rule Indians did not fight at night. After dark Mrs. Harris and her young daughter stealthily left the house and hid under a pile of brush not far away, where they were found by Major Fitzgerald and his regular troops from Ft. Lane. The slaughter continued on this, the bloodiest day that Rogue River settlers would ever experience. One woman, two children, and at least nine men were the next victims. They were killed between Evans Ferry and Grave Creek. Two young women were killed between Indian Creek and Crescent City; and three men were slain on Grave Creek.

When news of the massacre reached Jacksonville a group of 20 volunteers were quickly assembled and started out to punish the killers. Major Fitzgerald with 55 mounted men from the garrison at Ft. Lane overtook the volunteers and the two forces joined. When they reached the site of the Wagoner place they found about 30 Indians there, searching the ruins and the outbuildings. The Indians at first showed fight because the volunteers put in their appearance first, but when the troopers came up the Indians fled to the mountains. The white men followed but their horses were so tired from the forced march that the Indians outdistanced the troops. So the regulars returned to Ft. Lane and the volunteers to their homes, all to prepare for a conclusive campaign.

A messenger had, in the meantime, been sent to carry word to the Governor, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and the military authorities at Vancouver Barracks. Coincidentally a messenger was on his way from Vancouver Barracks to Ft. Lane to ask help for the war developing to the north.

On October 10th, without any knowledge of the previous day’s events, Lieutenant Kautz, of Ft. Orford, had set out with a few soldiers and some civilians to investigate a proposed road to Jacksonville. On the second day they learned something of the massacre from the settlers in the lower part of the valley where they feared a continuation of the Indian attacks. Kautz turned back to Ft. Orford to more adequately equip his force and then started back to the hostile country. He was attacked and in the fight lost five men killed while there was no certainty about any Indian casualties. By rare good fortune he was able to retreat and save the rest of his command.

Let us now examine the situation, as it existed. All the tribes in southwestern and south central Oregon and in northwestern and north central California, except Chief Sam’s band, were hostile. The settlers knew from the appeal for help from the north that they could expect no assistance from that quarter, so it would be necessary for them to meet their own problems. A calculation revealed that there were probably about 400 Indians available as warriors, and that it would take 1200 whites to subdue them. That was because the hostiles knew every square foot of the country, could move about with facility, and could wear out any force, which was only equal to its own. Besides the Indians were well supplied with arms and ammunition and knew-how to use them. On the other hand there were plenty of white men available but they were short of both arms and ammunition. Not a settlement was safe from attack; every pack train ran the risk of capture, no traveler’s life was safe.

A regiment of volunteers was authorized under John E. Ross, as Colonel. By October 20th, fifteen companies had been recruited. The organization was designated as the 9th Regiment of Oregon Militia. However, through October 11th only 150 had been mustered because no more could be properly armed by that time. Therefore nothing could be done for the next few days except to protect the settlements, which seemed to be most endangered and to keep the north and south roads open.

One of the first companies in the field was that of Captain J. S. Rinearson. His organization was divided into several small detachments, which were sent to a number of exposed or strategic points. On October 12th Colonel Ross recapitulated his prospect of the maximum number of troops he might expect for use in a major campaign. There had been two troops of dragoons at Ft. Lane under Major Fitzgerald and Captain Smith but Fitzgerald and one troop had just been ordered north thus leaving Captain Smith and one troop. There were 64 infantrymen in the Umpqua Valley under Lieutenant H. S. Gibson. They had been acting as an escort for Lieutenant Williamson who was surveying a railroad route and as soon as they learned of the massacre of the 9th of October they started for Ft. Lane. Then there was the very small garrison at Ft. Orford, which had all it could do to take care of itself. So much for the regulars. As for the volunteers, three companies were already in the field with others mustered and ready to move as soon as they could be properly armed. Other companies were rapidly whipping into shape. Thus it looked like there would be enough men. As rapidly as companies could be equipped they went into active service. Some detachments guarded the more exposed districts; others escorted pack trains; still others searched for the hostiles. It was quickly apparent that the pack trains needed major protection because the Indians would have to rely on what supplies they could capture for their subsistence.

The first clash occurred on October 17th at a place called Skull Bar in the Rogue River. Company “E” was camped just below the mouth of Galice Creek, Skull Bar being just a short distance below their camp All the miners in the neighborhood had been brought into the camp for protection. The bar was near the south side of the river and was backed by a high bluff heavily forested with underbrush and young trees. The troops, helped by the idle miners, cut away much of the brush within rifle range so that the hostiles could not use it as cover. On the day mentioned a large number of Indians were observed in the wooded section of the bluff adjacent to the cutover section. Six men under J. W. Pickett were sent to dislodge the Indians but were met by a withering fire. Pickett was killed and his men were forced back. Then Lieutenant Williamson led a detachment to a position from which he fought for four hours. He and several of his men were wounded and they, too, had to retreat. Then Captain W. B. Lewis was wounded severely. At that time the Indians attacked the left side of the camp, losing their leader. Finding themselves unable to rout the volunteers by gunfire the hostiles shot flaming arrows into the camp, which kept the soldiers, and miners busy preventing a major conflagration. Meanwhile a group of the Indians burned the mining village of Galice almost completely. By nightfall one-third of Company “E” was either dead or wounded. The campsite surely proved to be a poor one from the standpoint of defense. The wounded Captain Lewis, in his report to Colonel Ross, said that the Indians had fired 2500 rounds of rifle ammunition at the troops that day.

The Indians kept the troops guessing. Wherever the soldiers went in the expectation of finding the hostiles, disappointment resulted. For example, Colonel Ross was sure that the Indians could be located below Galice Creek at a place called The Meadows, but instead the Indians had gone to the valley of Cow Creek, some distance to the north. There, on October 23rd, they killed Holland Bailey and wounded four other white men at a ford. That same day they burned several settlers’ houses in Cow Creek Valley. For the most part the houses had been temporarily abandoned, the settlers having congregated in a few strategically located homes, which were fortified and guarded. There were just not enough troops to protect all properties, particularly since the Indians kept the soldiers jumping here and there in a futile effort to bring about a decisive engagement.

However, on October 28 an Indian camp was discovered on Grave Creek by Major Fitzgerald and his company. They were on their way to Vancouver Barracks in response to the recent order transferring them north. Fitzgerald sent a request for help. Five companies were immediately ordered to Fitzgerald’s location, two other companies adding to the reinforcement a few hours later, which made a total of about 250 men concentrated in the locality by October 30th. Colonel Ross arrived that evening and placed Captain Smith of the Ft. Lane dragoons in overall command. They marched at 11 P. M., being joined by two more companies from a battalion called out by Governor Curry and which had just arrived at the scene. The plan for the attack had been well laid but the rugged terrain and the underbrush defeated their primary purpose.

The next day was three-fourths spent in a futile search for the hostiles when contact was suddenly made about mid-afternoon. Captain Smith made an assault with part of his dragoons. They were driven back losing several men, killed and wounded. Night came and the exhausted men hit their blankets without supper. At daybreak the Indians attacked. The fight raged for several hours, ending in the repulse of the hostiles. The volunteers then went back to a camp on Grave Creek having lost 26 men killed, wounded, or missing. The regulars lost four killed and seven wounded. As usual the losses of the Indians were concealed but since they had the advantage of position it is probable that their losses were less than those of the troops.

During this episode Joel Palmer issued an order to all Indians, Indian Agents, and citizens defining and creating regulations for the conduct, supervision, discipline and care of Indians. Governor Curry made a proclamation on October 15th calling for the formation of two battalions of volunteers for service in the Rogue country. Each battalion was to consist of five companies of 60 men and eleven officers, commissioned and noncommissioned. One of the battalions was to be known as the Southern Battalion and was to be recruited in Jackson County. The other was to be known as the Northern Battalion, to be recruited from Lane, Linn, Douglas, and Umpqua counties. The Southern Battalion was to congregate at Jacksonville, the northern at Roseburg. It will be observed that the term “northern” was used in its relation to the Rogue River Valley and was not applicable to the geographical limits of Oregon Territory.

Five days later Governor Curry disbanded Colonel Ross’ regiment. The Governor had learned of the attack of October 8th on the Indian camp by Major Lupton’s company. Whether his information was inaccurate, causing him to think that Lupton’s force was a part of Colonel Ross’ regiment, or, whether he had reached the conclusion that all organized troops in the Rogue River Valley were oppressors of the natives is not known, but the 9th Regiment of Oregon Militia was ordered disbanded. Equally inexplicable was the invitation extended to the members of the 9th Regiment to join the two newly created battalions. There was a bad odor to the whole circumstance since, by the disbanding order and the invitation to the men to join the new outfits, the leading officers of the 9th were left to bear whatever criticism existed. Those officers, for the most part, belonged to the political party opposing Curry and there were some people who felt that it was a method of administering a political spanking to the Governor’s opponents. At any rate, the order put a stop to enlistments for three weeks. Then” on November 7th, Colonel Ross mustered his regiment at a place called Ft. Vannoy on the Illinois River to give the men an opportunity to re-enlist in the new battalions, each of which was to be commanded by an elected major. James Bruce, who had been a captain in the 9th was elected major of the Southern Battalion. He seems to have acquired quickly the viewpoint of the Governor, for Bruce, on November 11, issued an order which recited that his battalion would enforce the disbanding of all military units not affiliated with the two battalions authorized by the Governor’s proclamation.

In spite of the invitation to the old 9th only four companies were recruited for the Southern Battalion, so the Governor and Adjutant-General E. M. Barnum decided to inspect the new force in the south. The result of that inspection was to consolidate the two battalions into a regiment to be known as the 2nd Regiment of Oregon Mounted Volunteers. Then, to confuse matters, Captain Robert L. Williams of the Northern Battalion was elected Colonel and Major William J. Martin, who had been in command of the Northern Battalion, was elected Lieutenant-Colonel.

It will be remembered that with the departure of Major Fitzgerald, only one troop under Captain Smith was left at Ft. Lane. Smith agreed with officers of the volunteers to meet them at the fortified house on Grave Creek, which had been dubbed Ft. Bailey, where, about November 9, they would join in running down the hostiles. But again the facility of Indian movements was demonstrated by the return of the hostiles to the reservation long enough to burn all the properties there, including that of Chief Sam, and to kill all the cattle on the reservation.

The Indians departed, burning a number of houses on a nearby creek. The troops, with a few regulars newly arrived from Ft. Jones, took the field, caught up with some of the Indians of whom they killed eight.

Then a concentrated effort was made to find and engage the main body of hostiles. The Indians, in strength, were discovered on a river bar. On November 26 a company of regulars under Captain H. M. Judah marched to a point opposite the Indian camp where it was planned that they would be joined by Major Bruce and about 300 volunteers. The plan also provided that the volunteers would cross the river on a raft and when in position would give a signal whereupon the regulars would open fire on the camp with a howitzer. But the Indians were alert and at the moment when the raft was first placed in the water the Indians opened fire and Bruce had to retire. That night a conference of officers was held which decided to send for additional supplies and some reinforcements after the arrival of which a real effort was to be made to dislodge the Indians.

On December 1, 1855, Captain Smith sent a messenger to Captain Judah saying that he was twelve miles down-stream from Ft. Bailey and could get no farther because of rain and snow. Major Bruce returned to Ft. Vannoy headquarters and on December 7 the several companies were ordered to various points in the valley for two reasons, first, to afford protection to the settlers, and, second, to provide adequate grass for the horses.

That arrangement did not remain stable for long. Early in . December roving Indians destroyed 15 houses on the west side of the South Fork of the Umpqua. The owners of the houses were absent, having fled to the protection of the forts and other fortified places. On December 25th Captain Miles T. Alcorn and his company, which was a part of the Southern Battalion, as originally constructed, discovered an Indian camp on the North Branch of Little Butte Creek. He attacked, killing eight Indians and capturing some horses. At the same time Captain E. A. Rice and his company, also of the same battalion as Alcorn, discovered an Indian camp on the north side of the Rogue River. Rice’s company numbered only 30 men at the time but he attacked and after several hours of fighting had killed all the warriors and captured the women and children who were sent to Ft. Lane. It was winter weather and some of the captives suffered frozen feet. This caused General Wool to voice his anti- volunteer sentiments again in an official report in which he expressed pity for the captives and characterized much of the recent military action as murder.

Late in December Major Bruce received word that a band of Indians had occupied some deserted cabins on the Applegate River and had fortified them. Bruce ordered Captains Alcorn and Rice to get ready for a winter campaign while Bruce, himself, went to Ft. Lane to ask Captain Smith to provide a howitzer. Captain Smith agreed. Bruce then, with Captain Rice and his company, started for the Applegate on January 1, 1856. Continuing his march on January 2nd he met a company of Independent Volunteers who had surrounded the cabins. There the combined force waited for the howitzer to arrive. The weather was severe, the snow a foot deep. There was sporadic shooting in the course of which the Indians lost three killed and several wounded, while Captain Rice lost one man killed and the volunteer company had three men wounded. Late on January 4th Lieutenant Underwood with 40 men and the howitzer arrived from Ft. Lane. The first howitzer shot hit one of the cabins wounding one warrior and two Indian children. The occupants fled to another cabin and a few more shells were fired without appreciable effect before dark. The several companies took up positions intended to halt any effort by the Indians to escape. Nevertheless about 11 P. M. the Indians tried to get away. They crept close to the sentry lines, then with a yell and many gunshots some of the hostiles managed to dash through the troops. After the first effect of surprise passed the regulars drove part of the Indians back towards the creek where the densely wooded banks made it possible for more hostiles to escape.

As it turned out only the warriors had tried to get away. They had left their women and children. It was very cold and. the men relaxed their vigilance to come into camp to get warm when the Indian women and children also made good their escape to the hills. The troops then searched the cabins and found that the Indians had, according to their custom, burned their dead, and had left a wounded Indian boy behind. He said that his band belonged to that headed by Chief Jo. These Indians had done a job of fortifying worthy of the best military science. They had evidently spent a lot of time in the preparation of their stronghold, for a tunnel led from the cabins to an outlet some distance away. Deep pits had been dug in each corner of every cabin. The pits were so deep that loopholes were provided under the bottom logs through which rifle fire could be directed without much danger to the Indians.

The trail was easily followed because of blood on the snow and Major Bruce wanted to take up the pursuit, but Lieutenant Underwood and the volunteers were not prepared for the rigorous service demanded by the winter weather, so the regulars went back to Ft. Lane and the volunteers to their homes. Major Bruce and his men made camp on the lower Applegate. Both the men and the horses needed rest so they remained in camp until January 18th when they were joined by Captain Alcorn with part of his company and Captain O’Neal, who had succeeded to the command of Captain, now Colonel, Williams’ company, with part of his men. In grand total there were now available 73 officers and men.

A pursuit plan was laid. Captain Alcorn with 88 men went up the Applegate. Major Bruce, with Captain O’Neal and the rest of the men, went up Williams Creek. Nothing happened for five days at the end of which Bruce ran across two Indians who fled and were chased for 12 miles to their camp. Bruce and O’Neal had separated for their scouting activities and as soon as the Indian camp was located Bruce sent a messenger to O’Neal to come up as quickly as possible because it was apparent that there were five or six dozen Warriors. Firing started at once, in the course of which one of Bruce’s men was killed and another severely wounded. Though greatly outnumbered Bruce succeeded in driving the Indians out of their position and improving his own. Night came and with it Captain O’Neal, who said that he had sent Lieutenant Armstrong with 28 men to attack the Indians on their right. Bruce and O’Neal then withdrew for the night making camp about five miles away but Armstrong did not join them. Instead he staid in position and next morning attacked the hostiles who retreated. They had, as usual, burned their dead so their casualties were not known. That day, January 24th, Colonel R. L. Williams arrived and assumed command.

While the companies of the former Southern Battalion were thus engaged, those of the former Northern Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel W. J. Martin, were busy scouting, guarding settlers, escorting pack trains and casual travelers. Stations were manned at Camas Valley, southwest of Roseburg; at the headwaters of the Coquille River; at Ft. Smith, which was the fortified house of William H. Smith on Cow Creek; Camp Eliff, at the south end of the Umpqua canyon; Ft. Bailey, five miles south of the ford on Cow Creek; Camp Gordon, eight miles above the mouth of Cow Creek; at the reservation limits near the mouth of the Umpqua; and on Ten-Mile Prairie.

Lieutenant-Colonel Martin had issued orders to take no prisoners but many Indian women and ‘children were captured. About the first of the year 1856 Martin ordered these captives taken to the Grand Ronde reservation in Yamhill County but the Indian Agent, Robert B. Metcalf, refused permission because of relationships among the captives and the Indians already on the reservation.

The type of duty which the 2nd Regiment of Oregon Mounted Volunteers was called upon to fulfill was, except in the actual fighting, unspectacular and irksome. The weather was miserable, accommodations in camp were seldom comfortable, and the problem of supplies was always present. Pay, if any, was little and delayed. Many of the men of the regiment applied for discharge in January 1856. They pointed out that their term of enlistment had expired when their service with the northern and southern battalions was considered and, besides, their horses were jaded. So the Adjutant-General authorized their discharge and issued an order for replacement recruiting. As recruits replaced those eligible for discharge, the latter left for their homes but the work of escorting and guarding was uninterrupted because the Indian chiefs steadfastly refused to listen to peace on any terms.

Glassley, Ray Hoard. Pacific Northwest Indian Wars. Binfords & Mort, Publishers, Portland, Oregon. 1953.

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