Northwest Indian Wars

Oregon Superintendency of Indian Affairs Correspondence by Ben Truwe

Ben Wright Letter regarding Indian confrontations in 1852 by Ben Truwe

Tribe vs Tribe: Indian wars were commonplace between the nations. In western Oregon, these wars usually consisted of raids by the men of one village on the people of another village. Although some of the raids were to get slaves, the majority of the raids were because of petty disputes.

In eastern Oregon, warfare was more constant and more dangerous. The Paiutes and Bannocks pressed against the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatillas, Klamaths, Modocs and Warm Springs Indians. There was constant conflict in the territory as the tribes competed for hunting grounds, and additional wealth in the form of horses and slaves. The coming of the white man added to this turmoil.

During the settling of the Oregon country there occurred many confrontations between the Native Americans and the white settlers. The blame for overt acts did not rest with one side alone. In some cases they were caused by misunderstandings due to the unfamiliar customs of each side and in others they were created by hot-bloods from both sides, who were either seeking revenge for unnamed provocations or were hoping to make themselves heros. The addition of liquor aggravated the situation for both sides.

Whites vs. Tribes:
In 1828 a party under Jedediah Smith of the Rock 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 the furs stolen. The remaining four survivors reached the settlements, Smith arriving at the Hudson Bay Company post at Vancouver and wintered there. When weather permitted, the Hudson's Bay Company sent out an 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 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.

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. That, in turn, called for reprisal, and 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.

In 1846 Jesse Applegate headed a surveying party of 15 men for the purpose of determining a right-of-way for establishing a southern route to Ft. Hall. 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 Rogue tribes as well as with the Klamaths and the Modocs, who often waylaid travelers. The incident led to retaliation in which several Indians and two white men were killed.

In 1847, 5000 people crossed the plains. The wagons trampled the Cayuse grazing lands, the settlers burned the Indians' fuel, killed their game, and worst of all, brought epidemics of measles, dysentery and fever.

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 intoxicants as the cause and called for enforcement of the laws enacted preventing the sale of liquor to the Indians.

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 liquor sold to the Indians by George T. Greer, who was said to be buying quantities of salmon from the natives and plying his customers with liquor.

In the fall of 1847 measles reached epidemic proportions. Deaths among the natives were especially severe because of their use of sweat houses. which called for them to enter a small air-tight hut filled with steam. Soon, dripping with perspiration, they would rush from the hut and jump into the cold river. The result of such drastic treatment was usually death.

Joe Lewis, a half-breed who had emigrated from Maine, and another half-breed, Jacques Finley started rumors amongst the Cayuse tribe that Dr. Whitman was poisoning their tribe in the guise of medicine. With as many as five deaths a day among the natives, and adding to the fact that many of the Indians were hostile to all whites, unrest intensified.

On November 29, 1847, several of the Indians went to the Whitman dwelling under pretext of asking for medicine, and started the attack. Before all was said and done, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman lay dead, as did eleven men and two little girls who died within a few days from measles. Several managed to escape but five men, eight women and thirty-four children were held captive. Public indignation ran high and retribution became the number one topic of conversation.  Whitman Massacre

On January 2, 1848, after negotiations and trading with the Indians, Peter Skene Ogden managed to effect the release of all the captives. They were taken to Fort Vancouver by boat. Some of the captives, particularly 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 Cayuses attempted to start a regional Indian uprising but many tribes were hesitant to join them and the Nez Perce worked actively against them. Meanwhile, a call was sent out for volunteers to help round up the hostiles that were involved in the Whitman Massacre. By February 12 a total of 537 officers and men had arrived at The Dalles. Four days later, Gilliam left 20 men to guard Fort Lee and began his march.

February 24 one of many confrontations took place. The Indians had eight killed and five wounded while the army's casualties were five wounded, one of whom was Lieutenant-Colonel Waters. The Indians had long held the idea that the white men were "women" because most of the settlers had avoided conflict. As the battle started, two chiefs, Gray Eagle and Five Crows, rode up near the wagons. Gray Eagle yelled that he and Five Crows were big medicine and that he could swallow bullets, whereupon Captain Tom McKay shot him through the head. At the same moment, Lt. Charles McKay shot Five Crows, shattering his arm. It was said that Five Crows escaped only because of the fleetness of his horse.

March 11 Gilliam and his army started out again. Captain McKay and others who were ill, left for the Willamette Valley which left a force that numbered 268 officers and men. They continued on toward the Cayuse camp. It was then that they were ambushed by four hundred Palouse, allies of the Cayuse. It was a vicious fight. The troops were heavily outnumber but kept fighting as they moved backwards in an attempt to reach a strategic point at the river. Finally, Captain William Shaw with 20 picked men was ordered to attempt to reach the river and secure a vantage point. By running their horses for 3/4 of a mile they managed to outrace the hostiles to the vantage point. It made the difference between life and death for the army that day.

March 20 Gilliam camped on the Umatilla River. There, while pulling a halter-rope from a wagon-bed, the rope caught on a gun trigger, resulting in Gilliam's instant death. The Colonel's remains were taken to the Willamette Valley for burial.

May 17 more than 400 soldiers set out on a march toward the Clearwater River. Lee, with Captain Thompson and 121 men, was detached under orders to proceed to the camp of Chief Red Wolf at the Snake River crossing to try to cut off the fugitives from the mountains. The remainder of the force was to continue to the junction of the Palouse River with the Snake, thus cutting off the Indians from escaping down the Columbia. As the Indians began to see the strength of the army, events began to transpire that helped to effect an end to the conflict. Many of the tribes that had been sympathetic to the Cayuse chose, instead, to distance themselves from any association with them. Chief Tiloukaikt was convinced that the troops would continue to hunt him down and would never permit him to remain long in one place; the Walla Wallas, to show their changed attitude, caught and hanged one of the murderers and sent word that they were on the trail of another. Although the murderers had not yet been caught the hostilities had died down. Colonel Waters held a council of his officers wherein it was decided to abandon the campaign for the season.

While the Cayuse War was in progress some tribes nearer the Willamette Valley took advantage of the absence of the many men at the front. Both the Klamaths and Molallas conducted raids. There was an attack in Lane county; cattle were stolen in Benton county; a farmhouse was attacked in Champoeg county. The Calapooias and the Tillamooks also went on a rampage. They murdered an old man and stole cattle. And hardly had the Cayuse war ended than the Paiutes began to attack wagon trains, killing dozens of immigrants and taking thousands of dollars worth of property. The territory was in turmoil.

In 1851 gold was discovered in southern Oregon. Not only were settlers moving into Indian lands from the north, but mining prospectors were moving in from the south. The Indians began to retaliate and attacked settlers and miners. They looted and burned cabins and killed or drove away the settlers' livestock.

In August 1851, a group of twenty-three men under the leadership of W.G. T'Vault set out on an exploring trip. By August 22nd, 13 of the men gave up on the enterprise and turned back. T'Vault and nine others proceeded on. Because the horses could not negotiate the tangle of underbrush, the party hired some local Indians to take them downstream by canoe. A few days later they were surrounded they this same tribe and fighting broke out. Five of the party were massacred. The remaining members, although in some cases severly wounded, escaped.

Upon hearing of the Coquille River massacre, troops were sent out to punish the Coquilles. In November a battle occurred that resulted in the death of 15 Indians as well as the wounding of many others. The remaining hostiles fled and a restless peace was once again in effect.

In the spring of 1852 a series of outrages occurred in Southwestern Oregon which escalated into a second Rogue River war. At each sign of hostility the settlers retaliated. Many on both sides were killed.

At the same time the Rogue River War was underway, a savage conflict was going on with the Modocs in south-central Oregon and northern California. Modocs began attacking wagon trains on the Southern Route the year after it was established. Many were savagely massacred.

Over the years there were many confrontations, whereupon peace treaties were established and then broken, creating a cycle of unrest in the Oregon territory well into the 1870s.

Fort Miners 1855-56 by Ben Truwe

Port Orford 1856 by Ben Truwe

Rogue River Indian Wars by Ben Truwe

The Modocs had a history of major troubles with emigrants and settlers for 20 years prior to their final war. The Modocs were insulted because they felt that the white emigrants were blaming them for possessing horses that the Snakes had stolen and sold to them. All the emigrants knew was that they had what appeared to be stolen horses, never mind where they got them.

At any rate, in September 1852, a wagon train with 65 men, women and children was brutally attacked by the Modocs. It was the beginning of hostilities that continued well into the late 1870s.

In 1873 during a conference of various chief and government representatives, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce refused to leave his Wallowa Valley homeland. It was decided that he would be temporarily allowed to remain with his tribe in this valley but in 1875, under increasing pressure from settlers, the President determined to negotiation with Joseph and his people.

Early in May of 1877, Joseph was urged to move to a permanent home to be set aside on the Clearwater. When he refused, soldier were sent to his village to force the move. Wishing to avoid battle, Joseph and his people moved to the northern reaches of the Clearwater River where council was held. Thus began a series of events that resulted in the beginning of the Nez Perce war. It went on until October of the same year when Joseph surrendered. Even today it remains one of the most historic flights for freedom recorded.

On May 27, 1878 a herder's camp in the Camas Valley was raided by Bannock Indians. It was the beginning of a path of destruction and raids that resulted in countless deathes on both sides.

In the Oregon counties of Harney, Malheur, Grant, Baker, Union, Umatilla and Morrow, isolated ranchers and their families were murdered, their houses burned and their livestock slaughtered. This uprising continued on until the end of summer of the same year when the bloody Bannock War passed into history.

NOTE: For an in depth account of each of the above wars, refer to: Indian Wars of the Pacific Northwest by Ray H. Glassley.

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