The Leaven Begins to Work

The first affirmative action was the formation of a company of about fifty officers and men under the captaincy of Henry A. G. Lee. It was to proceed at once to the mission station at The Dalles, to hold that place in case of trouble, and to await reinforcements. In less than twenty-four hours the company was enroute. On December 10 the Spectator at Oregon City reported editorially that publication of the issue had been delayed until the last possible moment in order that it might lay before its readers tie most recent news about “the recent melancholy intelligence and the consequences thereof.”

A news item in the same edition told of the formation of the rifle company under H. A. G. Lee and said that Editor George L. Curry had accompanied Lee so that the Spectator could be furnished with messenger service bringing news from the front. Thus Curry became the first war correspondent in the Pacific Northwest.

The same issue contained two letters to Governor Abernethy. One was from William McBean, the Hudson’s Bay official at Fort Nez Percé; the other from James Douglas, one of the Chief Factors of Fort Vancouver: These letters acquainted the Provisional Legislature with the first details of the Whitman massacre. The paper also printed the resolution of J. W. Nesmith calling for military action.

Such was the condition of the territorial finances that the colony was in the paradoxical position of being willing to organize a punitive expedition but wholly without funds to finance it. Actually, the Territorial Government, under the several legislative bills pertinent to the situation, wanted nothing but to bring the murderers and their accomplices to justice.

Had their early capture or surrender occurred, there would have been no war as such.

Under one of the legislative bills, Commissioners were appointed to raise funds for financing the war and included an instruction that they try to borrow from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The officials of that Company, anticipating such a request were in a quandary. They sensed that if they assisted the Americans that the wrath of their British superiors might come down on their heads. Then, too, such assistance might wreck the Company’s fur trade with the Indians generally, and the fur trade was the reason for the Company’s presence in the Northwest. On the other hand, failure to assist would incur the ill will of the Americans, who might be inspired thereby to make war on the British themselves. In that case opinion would favor the Americans, since the Hudson’s Bay Company would be choosing between dollars and the lives of American settlers. The matter was resolved in two phases.

First, the Commissioners were denied supplies for the troops on the credit of the Territorial Government, but the personal credit of the Commissioners was good and it was pledged to the Hudson’s Bay Company for necessities to supply Lee’s rifle company.

The Commissioners also prepared a circular which was distributed to all merchants and many other citizens, asking for financial assistance toward the war, and they sent a letter in the same tenor to Reverend William Roberts, Superintendent of the Methodist Mission in ‘Oregon.

On December 11th, Governor Abernethy issued an order to Lee including the statement that the Indians at The Dalles were friendly and that nothing was to be done which would disturb that friendship.

On December 14 the Commissioners made a progress report to the Legislative Assembly, announcing their personal pledge of $999 to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the loan of $1600 from Oregon City merchants, and the probability of a loan of $1000 from Reverend Roberts. Feeling that their work had been accomplished, the Commissioners resigned. In a few days, December 20, 1847, a new Board of Commissioners was appointed which served until the end of the war. These men were A. L. Lovejoy, Hugh Burns, and W. H. Willson.

Here we have a lesson in financing which might well be used as an example to many governments of today. With about $4000, only a few dollars of which was in actual cash, a regiment of over 500 men was equipped and put into service. The period of enlistment was to be for ten months, unless the war ended sooner. The settlers pledged their wheat, which was the real currency of the territory, furnished provisions, arms, ammunition, clothing, horses anything, which the troops could use. Yet there was never enough. And all the time everyone was awaiting the arrival of United States troops to take over the war troops which had instead gone to Mexico.

While these matters were transpiring, Jesse Applegate had sent a communication to the Legislature urging that a messenger be sent to Washington, D. C. to acquaint the Federal Government with territorial conditions, as they existed and to solicit aid. It then became known that Governor Abernethy had, in October, sent J. Quinn Thornton as a personal emissary to Washington in the interest of the Governor’s party, styled the Missionary Party. Acting upon Applegate’s suggestion, namely that any messenger sent to the national capital should be limited to the purpose of securing help and should not involve party politics, J. W. Nesmith presented a resolution to the Legislative Assembly and followed it with a bill providing for the messenger. The bill was passed December 15. A committee was appointed to write the message and Joseph L. Meek was agreed upon as the messenger.

Meek did not like some of the provisions of the bill because it required him to go east by way of California, and because it required him to borrow $500 on the credit of the Oregon Territorial Government for the purpose of financing the trip. Meek had seen how little that credit was worth in the effort to furnish Captain Lee’s company with supplies. Meek had no better luck.

Governor Abernethy’s reason for wanting the messenger routed through California was so that he might seek aid from Governor Mason there. Meek, for his part, wanted to accompany the rifle regiment as far as they were going and from that point to backtrack the immigrant trail east. So he was delayed, and while cooling his heels other events of importance were happening.

On December 14 the Legislature had presented a resolution to the Governor asking that he “appoint three persons to proceed immediately to Walla Walla and hold a council with the chiefs and principal men of the various tribes on the Columbia to prevent, if possible, the coalition with the Cayuse tribe in the present difficulties,” the selection of the men to be left to the Governor.

It is interesting here to record the unanimity of opinion regarding the proper course to be taken. In spite of the universal demand for punishment of the Whitman murderers, the settlers did not want a general Indian war and there were, of course, many good reasons for that attitude. Such a conflict would mean widespread killings and horrors, a halt to colonization, inability to fully harvest the next season’s crops, a war debt with but little means for meeting it, and general economic disturbance. Bishop Blanchet of the Catholic Mission had dispatched a letter to Governor Abernethy recommending the same course as that proposed by the Legislature, although the letter did not reach Oregon City until after the legislative resolution. Moreover, the Bishop’s recommendation had been suggested to him by the Nez Percés.

The Governor appointed Joel Palmer, Robert Newell, and H. A. G. Lee as the three commissioners.

Governor Abernethy still believed that he could secure help from California and he was most critical of Meek for the latter’s reluctance to go to Washington, D. C. by way of California. The Governor decided to send a message to Governor Mason and also a letter to the American consul at Honolulu, and the Legislature adopted resolutions to those ends.

Christmas Day, 1847, was a memorable one for the settlers. The Legislature held a secret session with the Governor on that day, the result being a proclamation appointing enlistment officers at various centers in the territory and designating the rendezvous for the troops. The Spectator in its issue of that day said editorially that there were nothing but conflicting rumors about the details of the Whitman Massacre and announced that it had decided to await more reliable information before publishing the conflicting reports, but expressed the opinion that the tribes on the upper Columbia had allied themselves to oppose the whites. The paper also reported that Lee and his company had safely made the portage at the Cascades but thought that Lee would find The Dalles abandoned by its settlers in view of the hostilities of the neighboring Indians.

There was another editorial alluding to a second proclamation by the Governor calling for an additional one hundred men for the Cayuse War. Still other space was devoted to the difficulties of the financial position and the suggestion that each county furnish and equip a company of at least sixty men and carry the expense. Recruiting and the accumulation of munitions and supplies started. All phases of preparation were under the direction of A. L. Lovejoy, as Adjutant-General, Joel Palmer as Commissary-General, and Colonel Cornelius Gilliam, Lieutenant-Colonel James Waters, and Major H. A. G. Lee; the latter three as the ranking officers of the rifle regiment.

On December 27 the Governor wrote a letter to Jesse Applegate asking him to head an overland mission to California in the interest of Oregon, and further suggesting that if Applegate himself could not go that he recommend someone else. Applegate was really the best qualified man in the territory for the task and accepted. He selected fifteen men to accompany him.

Consider that it was midwinter and the doubtful prospect of any group being able to surmount the cold and the snows of the Siskiyous, and it is not surprising that the effort was destined to fail, in spite of valiant determination. They had to turn back and were fortunate to come through the experience without loss of life.

No American ship was due to be in the Columbia River until March, so an appeal to California could not go by sea. The letter to Honolulu did go because the British bark Janet stopped in the Columbia enroute to the Sandwich Islands.

So come what might, it was apparent that for the next few months at least, the colonists were to be left to rely on their own resources.

The Commissioners planned to assure the native tribes that the only purpose of military action was to punish the guilty among the Cayuses; to offset the story being circulated by the Cayuses that the settlers planned a war against all Indians; and to hold the situation in status quo until spring when the rifle regiment could arrive in the Cayuse country to begin operations. The Legislature passed a law (subsequently repealed in 1849) prohibiting the sale of arms and ammunition to Indians, a measure which was ill-received because even the friendly tribes needed powder and shot to supply themselves with food.

The second phase of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dilemma in regard to their position with respect to the American military expedition resulted in an idea on the part of the Company’s officials. They reasoned that Peter Skene Ogden was the man to ransom the captives held by the Cayuse after the Whitman Massacre. Ogden was then one of the Chief Factors, following long years as a Chief Trader, for the Company and was respected by all Indians. Accordingly another Chief Factor, James Douglas, 1 talked with the Commissioners Jesse Applegate, A. L. Lovejoy, and George L. Curry, all of whom understood what would next occur. In order to formalize the transaction, the Commissioners, on December 11, 1847, while in conference with Douglas, addressed their written request to him. Douglas replied in writing the same day, explaining the Company’s position and announcing that Ogden was heading an expedition, fitted out at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s expense, for the purpose of rescuing the Whitman captives. It was at once a way to solve the Company’s problem, and seemed to offer the best chance for effecting the rescue.

No one anywhere was as well qualified by experience and temperament as Ogden to fulfill the difficult task at hand. None had his rare insight into Indian character. He proceeded without delay and upon reaching the Cayuse country let the Indians know that he was displeased with them and that he was there for the purpose of ransoming all of the captives. He told the Indians the terms of his offer and the Cayuses accepted. Payment was made in trade goods and the prisoners were delivered to Ogden on January 2, 1848. They were taken to Fort Vancouver by boat. Some of the captives, particularly most of the young women, had been grossly mistreated, and all were in a state of terror and nervous collapse. In fact, the complete story of the massacre was never fully learned, because even some time later when their testimony was taken at Oregon City, they were in such a mental state that a coherent story could not be told.

The Protestants blamed the Catholics for encouraging the Cayuses’ dislike for Whitman, but there has never been the least substantiation of such charges.

Reverend Spalding and his family had been spirited away from Lapwai and the Indians awaited the next move by the whites.

The New Year of 1848 had arrived, and with it the actual beginning of the war.Citations:

  1. There is no confusion here relating to Chief Factors. The following quotation is from page 262 of The Peter Skene Ogden Journals as edited by T. C. Elliott: “From 1845 to the time of his death Mr. Ogden made Fort Vancouver his headquarters, and with the retirement of Mr. McLoughlin became the ranking Chief Factor on the Columbia. He shared the management with James Douglas until 1849 when that gentleman removed to Victoria, after which he was the only Chief Factor on the Columbia until 1852 when Mr. Dougal MacTavish was transferred from the Islands to assist him.”[]

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

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