The Cayuse War, 1848

The Kettle Boils

Indian warfare was something based on surprise. Except in major battles it was a procedure of sneak and attack. It was a process of attrition, which followed a general pattern. Almost never did an attack occur at night, dawn being the favored time. Of course it brought tragedy in many forms, occasionally amusing incidents, and much wasted effort in futile pursuit. It was a hodge-podge of stealth, noise, disorganization and military precision.

Until 1842 the few settlers in the lower Columbia and Willamette Valleys had been spared Indian warfare. The advent of white people had not reached the point at which the native tribes feared appropriation of the lands. True, there had been incidents around the borders of the roughly defined Oregon Country resulting in the killing of white men, but these had robbery for the motive rather than that’ of excluding whites from the territory.

In 1828 a party under Jedediah Smith of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, coming up the coast from California, was attacked at a crossing of the Umpqua River near present day Scottsburg. Of the 13 men in the group nine were killed and all furs stolen. The other four eventually reached the settlements, Smith arriving at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Vancouver and wintering there. When weather permitted, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent a punitive expedition against the murderers and regained most of the furs. Another of the four was John Turner, who, upon his second entrance into Oregon, underwent a duplicate of his 1828 experience, this time when crossing the Rogue River. In that encounter four men were killed but Turner again escaped. He, with two others, George Gay and William J. Bailey, reached Fort Vancouver and the fourth found safety on Sauvie Island. Smith was killed by an Indian arrow in May 1831, on the Cimarron River in the Great Plains Country.

Also in 1837 a cattle company headed by Ewing Young went to California to bring livestock back to Oregon; Turner, Gay and Bailey were members of Young’s group. These three men longed for vengeance and upon the return journey and four days before reaching the Rogue River, Gay and Bailey shot an Indian and threatened an Indian boy. Of course that circumstance called for reprisal. In spite of a double guard the Indians attacked. Young’s horse was killed and Gay was wounded but guns were more powerful than bows and arrows and the Indians fled.

There were two reasons for the peaceful conditions among the colonists in the Columbia and Willamette Valleys. First, the Hudson’s Bay Company knew how to control Indians. The natives wanted to trade and that was possible under Company regulations only if the Indians remained at peace. True, the British at Fort Vancouver flogged natives who committed depredations and made it a point to apprehend such culprits to the degree that capture and punishment were sure. Indians had a higher regard for the British than for the Americans because the former did not work in their fields but utilized native labor, while even the American missionaries toiled hard and long at their crops. Indians looked on with contempt because with them labor was performed by their women or their slaves. Then, too, Americans often caused trouble by unprovoked attacks on the natives, which was not true of the British. That fact is amply proved by resultant wars in United States territory, whereas Western Canada never suffered from similar occurrences.

The second reason for the safety of the early settlers lay in the fact that disease had greatly weakened the tribes of the two valleys, though to the north, south, and east there were strong hostiles who usually staid in their own territories, attacking only the travelers who were passing through, if at all. Peripatetic American traders heightened the dangers by furnishing liquor to the Indians.

Gradually settlement extended to the middle reaches of the Columbia River Valley and the natives began to chafe at the intrusion of the settlers. Marcus Whitman established his mission at Waiilatpu, near Walla Walla, and Reverend Henry H. Spalding engaged in similar activity not far away at Lapwai. Travelers and prospective colonists stopped at such places and the Indians became aware of the increasing infiltration of whites. Reverend Samuel Parker, another missionary, promised the tribes that they would be paid for land settled by the “Bostons,” which was the term applied to Americans. In fact, many similar promises were made based largely upon hope that a procrastinating Federal Congress would do something about it. When payment was not forthcoming, scattered settlers were ordered off the lands. Some of them left, others staid, often to take the consequences of loss, or property damage, or worse. Occasionally someone was permitted to remain, as was the case with Reverend Spalding, for whom the Indians had some regard. But unrest was increasing and suspicion filled the air.

In 1842 Dr. Elijah White, who was Government Agent, secured the agreement of the Nez Percé Indians to a code of regulations and the following spring the Cayuses also agreed. Such accomplishments were helpful in that they postponed hostilities until the white population had increased.

Chief Cockstock was head of a Wascopum or Dalles Indian tribe. He was a trouble rouser, quarrelsome and arrogant. In 1844 he staged a series of depredations at Oregon City and its surrounding, localities which caused Government Agent White to offer a reward of $100 for the Chiefs, capture. Part of the offer included a provision that when captured he would be tried by either the Cayuses or the Nez Percé according to Indian law. However, in attempting the capture Chief Cockstock was killed and two white men died of wounds from poisoned arrows. The Indians had several ways for poisoning their arrows but the general practice was as follows: A rattlesnake would be captured and tethered to a stake; then the liver of a deer or a bison would be fastened to a stick and the liver thrust toward the snake; the rattler would sink his fangs into the liver impregnating it with its venom. This process would be repeated two or three times until the supply of venom was exhausted; then the arrowheads would be stuck into the liver and the moist film on them permitted to dry. Thus when a person was wounded the wound would be infected by the arrow.

All Indian troubles were not generated by Indians. Often white men were over willing to take advantage of the natives. Such a policy was short sighted for retaliation was the inevitable result.

A band of Indians living on the Tualatin Plains killed an old ox for food. White men in the neighborhood compelled them to give eight horses and a rifle as compensation.

A group of Indians from the country near Whitman’s Mission formed an expedition to California for the purpose of buying cattle. Enroute they were stopped by a gang of California bandits. A fight ensued at the end of which the Indians had captured 22 horses from the highwaymen. When the Indians reached the settlements, the horses were claimed by white men who alleged that the horses had been stolen from them. The Indians argued their right of ownership under the circumstances; the whites used poor judgment, and in the end a young chief was killed. Many Americans considered the Indians legitimate targets for superior arms or numbers, and that attitude was eventually to cost dearly. In 1846 Jesse Applegate headed a surveying party of 15 men for the purpose of determining the probability of a good right-of-way for building a road to serve Southwestern Oregon and the entire Willamette Valley, and culminating at Ft. Hall in what is now Idaho. In the course of their survey they met a large party which two weeks earlier had suffered the loss of their horses to thieving Indians at the Rogue River. That was a common practice of the Rogues as well as with the Klamaths and the Modocs, who often waylaid travelers. This incident led to retaliation in the course of which several Indians and two white men were killed.

The Spectator, published at Oregon City, in its issue of November 26, 1846, recited the story of an attack by Klamath Indians on an emigrant train northbound from California, in which two white men were killed and another wounded.

The pyramiding of incidents, provoked and unprovoked, throughout the Oregon Country, advanced the day when formal armed conflict ensued. To these episodes must be added a second reference to the sale of hard liquor to Indians. For some pathological reason Indians could not absorb alcohol. Temperance societies were formed and laws were passed prohibiting the sale of liquor to the natives.

In 1846 the boundary between British territory and the United States was fixed but that circumstance had no influence on the natives except for the remote effect of Indian preference for the British. However, the United States Government had done nothing to aid or protect its settlers. Assistance had long been sought and it might be well, perhaps, to review that situation in the light of its impact on both natives and settlers.

In 1820 Congressman John Buchanan Floyd had presented a bill in Congress calling for the occupation of the Columbia River country. His bill was promptly and ably sponsored in the Senate by Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who was always the unwavering advocate of the needs and rights of Oregon. But Southern Congressmen ridiculed the bill, and knowing nothing about the Oregon country, minimized its importance by saying that the only section fit for Occupancy was a narrow strip along the seacoast; that all the rest was either mountain or desert. The bill passed.

In 1823 Senator Baylies of Massachusetts announced as his conviction that the natural boundary of the United States was the Pacific Ocean. That same year a group of 80 farmers and crafts men of Maryland sent a petition to Congress asking it to pass legislation causing the occupation of the Oregon Country so that they might migrate. The Maryland petitioners were followed by a group of 3000 from Massachusetts who likewise memorialized Congress. Another petition came from Louisiana, those people asking for a grant of forty square miles in Oregon where they might settle. But Kentucky’s Breckenridge laid down the dictum that migration should be suppressed.

Two more years passed, then the ubiquitous subject came up again. This time Senator Dickerson of New Jersey said that the United States had never adopted a system of colonization and that he hoped it never would. He then followed that statement with another reciting that Oregon could never become one of the United States.

Many, many other Congressmen had their respective turns either for or against acquisition. The years dragged on. Missionaries came to Oregon expecting United States occupation. Settlers began trekking the long trail firm in their belief that it would not be a great while until their new homes would be a part of the United States. Even the Indians learned of the probability and expected that result.

More long years passed until, in 1839, Senator Lewis F. Linn, junior senator from Missouri, introduced a bill calling for the occupation of the Columbia River territory, coupled with a plea for grants of land to settlers as suggested by the missionary Jason Lee. Immediately half the members of Congress presented objections. Many wanted to know what the United States wanted with a territory so far away. But Ben ton was there to aid his younger colleague and with his traditional eloquence said “Is it demanded what do we want with this country so far from us? I answer by asking in my turn “What do the British want with it, who are so much farther off?” They want it for the fur trade; for a colony; for an outlet to the sea; for communication across the continent; for a road to Asia.” He continued with the defense of Oregon and ended his speech with further reference to Britain, saying, “to command the commerce of the North Pacific Ocean and open new channels of trade with China, Japan, and Polynesia, and with the great East. They want it for these reasons and we want it for the same; because it adjoins us, belongs to us, and should be possessed by our descendants.” The argument continued without decision. American newspapers ridiculed the idea of colonizing Oregon, one of them calling it “the maddest enterprise that has ever deluded foolish man.” But when the British press said it could not and would never be done, the American public and its Congress bristled with the old “show me” attitude.

In the midst of all this debate Senator Linn died, but his effort had already produced its first fruits. The good fight had been won whether Oregon’s opponents knew it or not. As a corollary, the boundary question became a major issue and President James K. Polk was elected on the campaign slogan of “54-40 or fight,” by which he demanded all of Oregon northward to latitude 54 degrees 40 minutes. Then, in 1846 as stated, the boundary was fixed by treaty at the 49th parallel. But that year and the next were to pass without the advent of United States troops or the building of forts to protect the territory and its increasing immigration. Of course the Mexican War was in progress and while troops had been recruited for service in the Oregon Country, they were sent instead to Mexico. The fact that war had been declared against Mexico was unknown to the officials of the provisional government in Oregon for a long time after the event; else there might have been less disquietude in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1847, 5000 people crossed the plains from Missouri to the Oregon Country, which under the Provisional Government, included present day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, with an indefinite overlap into Western Montana. These immigrants brought their flocks and herds; they crossed rivers on rafts made from the beds of their wagons. Where important cities stand today, herds of buffalo made the earth tremble. The settlers brought Durham cattle, Saxony sheep, and Kentucky horses; merchandise for the first store at Salem, Oregon, and several stocks of goods for Oregon City merchants. They brought peach pits, originating the Cox cling peach, first produced in Oregon, then in California; seed potatoes for the famous Dimick potato. Henderson Luelling brought 700 fruit tree sprouts planted in soil carried in the beds of his covered wagons. There was a bushel of apple seed and a half-bushel of pear seed. The wagon trains trampled the Cayuse grazing lands, burned the Indians’ fuel, killed their game, and worst of all, brought epidemics of measles, dysentery, and fever. Yes, the Indians were disturbed and grew increasingly nervous.

There were many American hot-bloods who were unnecessarily cruel to natives. They failed to keep promises made to the Indians, engaged in unprovoked killings, and meted out self determined punishments of various kinds. It was likewise true of the Indians that some of them a few who were in authority but mostly young braves who wanted to make heroes of themselves were ruthless in their treatment of immigrants and settlers. The blame for overt acts did not rest with one side alone. Of course, it was a fact that some Indians were thieves by nature. But there were also numerous exceptions among individuals, and an occasional tribe, such as the Flatheads or Nez Percé, were both honest and brave. Many chiefs wanted peace and fairness, as did most of the territorial leaders.

George Abernethy, Governor of the Provisional Territory, on December 10, 1846, sent a message to the legislative assembly, suggesting, among other things, that consideration be given to surveying the boundaries of Indian villages for the purpose of preventing white men from encroaching. He pointed out that “the Indians inhabited these villages previous to our arrival, and should be protected by us.”

In its issue of March 4, 1847, the Spectator reported the killing of a Mr. Newton by Indians in the Umpqua country and several instances of horse stealing by the natives. On May 27, the same newspaper in an editorial by George L. Curry, then editor, blamed “ardent spirits” as the chief cause of some Indian disturbances “near the mouth of the Luckiamute River” (the Luckiamute, north of Albany, Oregon). Curry said “they have been destroying cattle on Tualatin Plains, they are in trouble with the settlers, and here in our midst we are incommoded by them, indeed recently at the Clackamas a citizen was fired upon by one of these people.” His editorial went on to blame liquor and called for the enforcement of the laws enacted to prevent the sale of intoxicants to Indians.

Also in the same issue, there was a significant announcement in the editorial columns which read, “Exploring Company. We are requested to state that the company to explore the Clamet and Rogue River valleys will rendezvous at the Jefferson Institute, on the Rickreall, and positively start the 10th of June next, provided twenty men can be raised for the expedition. We are informed that General Gilliam, Colonel Ford, Major Thorpe, and W. G. T’Vault, Esq. are using their exertions to raise the company and will accompany it should it start.”

On July 22, 1847, the Spectator published a letter from David Ingalls, dated June 18th, from Clatsop Plains, telling of the killing of one Ramsey by Indians and their threats to kill two or three others. According to the letter the cause of this crime was superinduced by liquor, sold to the Indians by George T. Greer, who was said to be buying quantities of salmon from the natives and furthering his success by plying his customers with liquor, and daring anyone to do anything about it. A sheriff’s posse was formed to arrest Greer, which was only accomplished after pursuit in canoes and a tilt on the water during which Greer tried to dump his would be captors into the water.

Editor Curry wrote an open letter to his paper, which was published in the edition of September 2nd. The missive told of a fight between immigrants and Shutes Indians. These were Wascopams, sometimes called DesChutes Indians. According to Curry, one white man was killed and one wounded, the Indians losing a chief killed and several warriors wounded, whereupon the whites ignominiously fled. Curry blamed the immigrants for starting the trouble.

The seeds of war were germinating.

Then occurred the Whitman Massacre at Waiilatpu Mission near modern Walla Walla, on November 29 and 30, 1847. It was the last straw, and precipitated immediate preparations for war.

Marcus Whitman had known of his danger but had relied upon the ultimate arrival of Federal troops.

Whitman, then 45 years of age, was not a minister of the gospel, though a deeply religious man. He was a doctor of medicine with several years of practice when his interest in the Oregon Country was first aroused. He was a rugged man. In later years he was characterized by Elizabeth Sager, who, with the other Sager children had been adopted by the Whitman’s, in these words: “Father Whitman was a very determined man.” It may be said without discredit to him that this trait of determination amounted to stubbornness.

He had first been excited by the account of the arrival in St. Louis of four Nez Percé Indians in search of the “white man’s book of heaven.” He pondered that news as he rode at night about the countryside in response to his medical calls. He was stirred by talk of the strange frontiers of the Far West and impelled by the good he might do.

Early in 1835 he joined with Reverend Samuel L. Parker, a missionary-money-raiser, in a journey to the Pacific Northwest. Whitman was gone for ten months, returning in December by way of St. Louis. Parker, who was aging, remained with the Nez Percé. With Whitman on his return journey were two sons of Nez Percé chiefs, given the paleface names of Richard and John.

Whitman always walked at an easy gait with his shoulders slumped, and ever gave the appearance of restlessness which was probably due to his boundless energy.

His wife, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, six years younger than himself, had been a schoolteacher. She was tall and broad-shouldered. Her eyes were deep blue, her hair midway between blonde and brown, her mouth was wide and full.

The Whitmans, with Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding and his wife Eliza Hart Spalding, came to the Oregon Country late in 1836. Reverend Spalding was a rejected suitor of Narcissa Whitman. He was engaged to her just prior to his westward journey with Reverend Parker. Parker had been the emissary of Cupid in the romance. Their engagement was motivated by the refusal of the American Board of Missions to accredit an unmarried woman to the mission field in the Far West. That refusal resulted in her ready acceptance of Marcus, aided and abetted by Reverend Parker. While the mutual agreement to wed was prosaic, their companionship in marriage resulted in one of deepest love.

Both the Nez Percé and the Cayuse tribes wanted the Whitmans to settle among them. It had been planned originally that both the Whitmans and the Spaldings would establish the same mission but differences in temperament made that arrangement undesirable. So Whitman built the mission among the Cayuses, leaving the Nez Percés to Spalding. Spalding declared the solution to be eminently satisfactory. At the time, however, a Nez Percé chief told Whitman that the choice would turn out to be bad for the Whitmans.

At Waiilatpu the Whitmans began their work of medical service to the Indians and religious and academic instruction in their school. The mission soon became an important stopping point for the caravans of covered wagons headed for the Willamette Valley.

In March 1837, a daughter, Alice Clarissa, was born to the Whitmans. The little girl was drowned in the Walla Walla River in June 1839.

For several years the mission prospered. Crops were good and the mission work made a favorable impression on the Indians. The population at the mission gradually increased, among them seven orphaned Sager children ranging in age from fourteen down to five months. Their father had died from fever after the Green River crossing and their mother three weeks later. Other members of the caravan cared for the children until they reached Waiilatpu where the Whitmans adopted all seven.

However, the white man’s caravans brought diseases strange to the red men. Measles was particularly bad, probably due to the Indian use of sweathouses. These mud and wattle huts were almost airtight. An Indian would enter after filling the hut with steam manufactured by placing heated stones in water. Soon, dripping with perspiration, he would rush from the hut and jump into the river. The result of such drastic treatment was that; the mortality from measles was very high.

In the fall of 1847 a caravan infested with measles stopped at the mission. Most of the immediate population contracted the disease, as did the Indians living nearby. Among the people was one Joe Lewis, a half-breed who had emigrated from Maine, and another half-breed, Jacques Finley. Lewis told the Cayuses that Dr. Whitman was shrewdly exterminating them by giving them poison in the guise of medicine. With as many as five deaths a day among the natives, added to the fact that many of the Indians were unfriendly to all whites, a plot for a massacre took shape.

Tiloukait (or Tiloukaike), war chief of the Cayuses, had always been able to hold his braves in check but he had once been offended by Narcissa Whitman. When Alice Clarissa was born the Chief brought two coyote paws as a present to the little girl, saying that the paws had been good medicine for him and would be for the baby because the child was a white papoose born in Indian country. Narcissa refused the gift and the Chief left in great anger.

His sons, called Clark and Edward, favored the Catholic missionaries on the Umatilla River. Five Crows, titular chief of the Cayuses, spent his winters at Lapwai attending Reverend Spalding’s school, and wanted very much to be like the white men. However, he had a half-brother named Young Chief who was a Catholic. There is no evidence that this religious preference had any part in the events soon to follow. Clark, Edward, Young Chief, and two sub-chiefs, Tamayhas and Tamsucky, together with a dozen or so hot-blooded young braves, decided to rely upon Joe Lewis’ accusations against Dr. Whitman and put an end to the mission.

Marcus had been warned of danger by Reverend Spalding who had heard rumors of Indian treachery from Indians whom he had befriended. Marcus had heard the same news from Indians friendly to him. Marcus told Narcissa and philosophized that if anyone was in peril it was he, alone. He promised, however, that if the feeling had not subsided by April, they would abandon the mission and move to the Willamette Valley.

On November 29, 1847, several of the Indians, including Tamayhas, went to the Whitman dwelling under pretext of asking for medicine, and started the attack. Tamayhas struck Dr. Whitman twice with a tomahawk and gunfire started. Narcissa dragged her husband into the dining room and placed a pillow under his head. She then asked if he knew her. He replied “Yes.” Then she asked if there was anything she could do to stop the bleeding. He said “No.” That was his last word before expiring.

Narcissa went to a window. A bullet struck her in the breast. She lived until the next day. Besides Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, eleven men were killed on November 29 and 30, and two little girls afflicted with measles, died within a few days. Several of the residents managed to escape in the confusion, but five men, eight women, and thirty-four children were held as captives. Of course Joe Lewis was not molested. Neither was Jacques Finlay.

Lorinda Bewley, whose parents had yielded to her request and that of Narcissa Whitman to spend the winter at the mission, was taken to the lodge of Five Crows. This chieftain was deeply incensed at the massacre and also much enamored of Miss Bewley. He treated her with utmost respect and offered every inducement and concession, even to living among the white people, if she would marry him. She refused and was among those ultimately rescued. This incident has been interestingly fictionized in the novel, Shadow on the Plains, by Alice Greve.

The tragic circumstances caused public indignation to run high. The massacre was the chief topic of conversation and provided a real opportunity for the settlers to review their isolation and the failure of the Federal Government to take notice of them. They recalled that, as yet, their national government had passed no laws protecting the residents of the Oregon Country; that not one gun nor one soldier had been furnished. They reminded themselves of the long, vain effort to secure recognition and aid. They told each other of the unending flow of petitions, resolutions, bills, and memorials submitted to Congress year after year. They hotly debated the rivalries between the missions Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic. The settlers knew they would have to work out their own destiny in the crisis. The situation has never been better summarized than by Eva Emery Dye when she said, “The United States owes much to its pioneer Indian fighters. They held Oregon Territory in escrow for years.”

On December 8, 1847, Governor George Abernethy told the Legislative Assembly of the imminence of Indian war. Decision to punish the Whitman murderers was quickly reached. Next day the first steps were taken to organize a regiment of volunteer riflemen to move against the Cayuse. It was also agreed to appoint commissioners to treat for peace, contingent upon the surrender of the Waiilatpu criminals.

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

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