Friday, January 24, 2014

Fighting Indians in the Sierras

Dear Readers,

The article below is by Col. Albert G. Brackett, USA, entitled Fighting in the Sierras, written October 1891.

In his report, he recounts the events which took place while part of the California and Nevada Volunteers fighting Indians in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1860s.

(by Col. Albert G. Brackett, 1891)

IT is proper to preface this article by saying that most of the facts have already been published in the Public Service Review by the same author.

An Indian war is always a serious matter, as it generally breaks out suddenly and there is no telling how far-reaching it may be in its effects.

The sparse settlements are overrun and many individuals killed before any relief can be afforded. The troubles in the States of Nevada and California in 1866 and 1867 have never been properly appreciated.

Bold and fearless bands of savages roamed at will over large extents of country, murdering unsuspecting and helpless people, and using the torch freely in the infant communities of the States mentioned.

Taking advantage of the disturbed condition of the Union during the Civil War, the red men thought it the proper time to avenge their fancied wrongs, and at the same time to add to their own wealth.

For years they had watched the immigrants as they slowly toiled across the continent, on their way to the new lands bordering on the Pacific Ocean, and having possessed themselves of good arms and a plentiful supply of ammunition, sought to arrest their progress, or at least to take from them what they had.

Being in no way scrupulous about the means adopted to bring about this state of affairs, they swarmed on the thoroughfares and occupied the dark defiles.

The California and Nevada Volunteers

The California and Nevada Volunteers had rendered good service in keeping back the insolent foemen, and Lieutenant-Colonel McDermit, of the Second Regiment of California Cavalry Volunteers, was killed by them in Nevada, in the summer of 1865, while out scouting and guarding the roads.

Colonel McDermit was a brave and cautious man, but while leading his horse down a mountain-side was waylaid by one of his wily foemen and shot dead at once.

This act greatly incensed the California Volunteers, who were a superior body of men, utterly fearless and untiring.

From that time forth they put forward their utmost efforts, and spared no pains to find the savages, who mainly belonged to the Piutes and Snake tribes.

Upon the death of McDermit, Lieutenant-Colonel Hooker, who was promoted to his place in the Second Regiment of California Cavalry Volunteers, took command of the District of Nevada, which he retained until mustered out of the service, and until the arrival of regular troops after the close of the Civil War.

He was a man of a good deal of energy of character, and had his head-quarters at Fort Churchill, some twenty-seven miles from Virginia City, near the banks of Carson River, a well-built post in the midst of a desolate region.

The mountains of Nevada furnished ample hiding-places, while the warm valleys were safe retreats during the cold winter season for the savages and their animals, as nearly all of them were mounted.

The care of the women and children is always a matter of great moment to the Indians while engaged on the war-path, and gives them the greatest anxiety.

An effective blow can always be administered to them by capturing their wives and little ones.

There is no better place to conceal considerable bodies of people than the rocky gorges of the mountains, many caves of considerable dimensions being found among the great lava-fields, to be met in all directions.

It must be borne in mind that these people had occupied this region for an indefinite period, and were well acquainted with all of its secret recesses and handsome valleys.

Food supplies of pine-nuts, acorns, grass-seeds, and tule, or flags, could be found easily, and tame cattle and horses made up the wealth of the red men.

They had a fair supply of clothing, but from infancy Indians are not well clad, and can endure a great degree of cold without much apparent suffering.

They wear clothing as much for ornament as for actual use, and, upon going into battle, like to strip off everything.

Their tactics in war do not differ from those of their kindred farther to the eastward, they deeming it the height of folly to expose themselves openly to the bullets of their enemies.

Every inequality of the ground is taken advantage of, as well as every root, tree, bush, rock, and shrub. They can conceal themselves behind the smallest objects.

The first action of any moment was fought by Captain George D. Conrad, with twenty-five men of Company B and twenty-five of Company I, under Lieutenant Duncan, all of the Second California Cavalry, who attacked the hostiles on the west aide of Quinn's River, near Fish Creek, on the 11th of January, 1866.

The savages fought well, but the determination of the volunteers soon caused them to give ground, though not until thirty-five of their number had been killed and nine captured.

Corporal Biswell and Privates Duffield, Riley, and Shultz were wounded, and several of the horses were killed and wounded.

This was quite a severe check upon the red men, and showed them that the time had arrived when the whites were determined to avenge the wrongs done them on so many occasions.

Their loss caused them deep grief; and there was wailing through the mountain region.

For the first time they began to realize the danger they were in, although none of them yet thought of coming in and giving themselves up and suing for peace.

They possessed great resolution, and having retained the advantage in numerous small encounters with the settlers, thought this was but a temporary disadvantage, and that in the next affair they would retrieve their fallen fortunes, and times would continue as they had been before.

In this they were mistaken, and were obliged to receive still greater chastisement.

On the 15th of February, 1866, Major Samuel P. Smith, of the Second California Cavalry, with a body of troops made up of volunteers and citizens, numbering in all eighty-one, encountered the savages near Rock CaƱon in Nevada.

A severe fight ensued, in which one hundred and fifteen Indians were killed and nineteen captured.

Private Austin, of Company D, was killed. Major Smith and Privates Resler, Grimshaw, Baits, and Rhuman, of Company D, and Privates Mills and Smith, of Company F, were wounded.

Major Mellen, Captain Starr, and Lieutenant Robinson, of the Second California Cavalry, were with the detachment.

Sixty horses which had been stolen from the settlers were recovered, and a large amount of Indian property was destroyed.

On account of the good conduct of Majors Smith and Mellen they were subsequently appointed officers in the regular army, the former a captain in the Eighth, and the latter a lieutenant in the Sixth Cavalry.

This was a very important affair, and reflected great credit upon the troops engaged.

At one time it was feared that the whole detachment would be cut off, but a vigorous onslaught, led by Major Smith in person, gave the whites possession of the strong grounds occupied by the enemy, who were soon put to flight with the losses above mentioned.

The foemen were considerably disheartened by this defeat, which was a severe one.

Sergeant James T. Edwards, while out with eight men of the Second California Cavalry, had an encounter with a war party in Paradise Valley, on the 7th of March, 1866, in which six Indians were killed.

The skirmish was conducted with great energy and skill, showing that the sergeant understood his profession well, and was prepared to make the best of the occasion.

By this time the Indians had been taught some lessons of prudence, and their head men no longer thought they could overthrow the whites so easily.

Their arms were of an excellent quality, having been purchased for them by unscrupulous white men who lived, in some instances, on terms of perfect equality with them.

At that day there was an abundance of money in Nevada, the silver mines turning out large quantities of bullion, and each of the Indians as chose to labor earned good wages.

The Washoe Indians, especially, were industrious and careful, and consequently had more of the comforts of life than they had ever before known.

These Indians were by no means friendly to the Piutes, and were glad to see them overthrown by the soldiers.

There was a good deal of bitterness of feeling, as the Washoes had been overpowered once by their enemies, when the best-looking women were taken away from them, and they were allowed to keep only a few horses.

Their task-masters had been very hard on them, and oppressed them in various ways, until they became little better than slaves of their conquerors, and it was at this time that they learned to work.

In April, 1866, Brevet-Colonel A. G. Brackett, major First Cavalry, took command of Fort Churchill, being in charge of the first regular cavalry sent to the Pacific coast after the close of the Civil War.

On the 18th of May one hundred and twenty Indian prisoners were brought in and delivered to him.

He placed them in camp on the banks of Carson River, where they constructed shades and shelters for themselves, being supplied with rations from the Subsistence Department.

On the 1st of June, Colonel Brackett assumed command of the District of Nevada. Shortly afterwards, Major-General Halleck, commanding the Military Division of the Pacific, visited the fort, on which occasion there was a brave array of friendly Pirate Indians, under Young Winnemucca, from the Truckee and Walker River Reservations.

These savages wished to do honor to the general, and were indeed a grim collection, all wishing to shake hands with him.

After this ceremony was finished the general expressed a desire to see some of their war-like exercises.

They retired a short distance, and, having mounted their horses, commenced moving off in front of him, Winnemucca, with his war-drum, being in front, mounted on a fine pony, without a saddle, and only a rope bridle; he was bareheaded, his long hair sweeping in the breeze.

The Indians followed in wild, irregular order, chanting their war-songs, and keeping time to the dull thumping of the war-drums.

Many of them were well dressed, a decided partiality for tall white hats and red shirts being perceptible among them.

Still their costumes varied from the buckskin shirt and moccasins of the wild tribes to the common clothing of the white men; but all of them were profusely ornamented with beads, feathers, and bright-colored blankets.

It is doubtful whether there has ever been a finer display of savage life within the limits of the State of Nevada.

After continuing this for some time, and having shown themselves to the best advantage, they suddenly halted in front of the general and commenced making speeches, through their interpreter, an Indian who had been educated in the Eastern States.

Winnemucca's speech was of considerable length, and gave great satisfaction to all concerned.

When he had finished, Big George, the peace chief, spoke, and then the general left them.

The Indians were very much pleased with their visit, and when General Halleck departed he directed a supply of rations to be issued to them, which gladdened their hearts.

A few days afterwards Winnemucca's Indians started for the Truckee Reservation, taking with them all of the Indian prisoners which had been brought in, the little ones being carried along in army wagons, much to their delight.

All went along pleasantly except one surly and insolent fellow, who was put in the guard-house for his bad behavior. His squaw sat down on the ground, utterly disconsolate, and had to be put in one of the wagons, and was trundled off with the rest.

They reached the reservation in safety, and there found peace and quietness.

A dreadful slaughter of a large party of Chinese occurred in the spring of 1866, near the line between Nevada and Idaho.

The party started from Virginia City, intending to go to the silver mines of Idaho. They had with them a four-horse wagon and an American driver, the men walking along the road as innocent and incapable of defense as so many school children.

They carried sluice-forks, umbrellas, and bamboo poles, and seemed utterly unconscious that there was any kind of danger. A few of the men had pistols, but even these they may not have known how to use.

However this might have been, they journeyed along until they came near a deep ravine leading into the Owyhee River, when they were suddenly assailed by a large band of Indians, who shot down those in front, who made no effort to defend themselves; in fact, those having pistols surrendered them to the savages, thinking in this way to conciliate them ; but the slaughter went on, until the whole of them, some fifty in number, were killed.

Never was there a more inhuman massacre.

The Chinese were willing to give up all they had on earth, but this would not satisfy the devilish spirit of the red men, who thirsted for blood.

The bodies of these poor creatures were left on the ground as food for the wolves and ravens swarming in that region.

After mustering out the volunteers, the troops in the district consisted of portions of the First United States Cavalry and Ninth United States Infantry.

On the 1st of June an Indian named Captain George was killed, near Camp McDermit, by a soldier of Company I, First Cavalry, and, on the 16th of the same month, an Indian murderer was killed near Fort Churchill, while endeavoring to escape, by Private John Gould, of Company F, Ninth Infantry.

In August the head-quarters of the district were moved from Fort Churchill to Camp McGarry, near Summit Lake, on the road leading to Idaho.

The Indians had been quite bold on this road, and attacked a train from Susanville, California, severely wounding one of the teamsters, who, returning the fire, left one savage dead on the ground.

The autumn passed away in comparative quiet, the Indians having concealed themselves in the mountains.

A small number spent the winter near Camp McGarry, coming in to the post occasionally at night and robbing the blacksmith's shop, and, though strict search was made, nothing of them could be found.

A long torch, made of the inner fibres of the sage-brush, by which fire could be preserved and carried for a long time, was discovered.

With snow covering the country for many miles around, it was a mystery how these people eked out a living.

About the 1st of January, 1887, Mr. Westover, the mail-carrier between Camp McGarry and Trout Creek, was captured and killed by the Indians.

Upon its being reported to the commanding officer, he sent out a detachment of twenty men, of the First Cavalry, under Lieutenant George F. Foote, of the Ninth Infantry.

This detachment was attacked by the savages on the night of the 7th of February, above the Vicksburg mines, near a cave, which was evidently their home and stronghold.

The Indians were driven off and followed until their trail was lost. Upon their return the soldiers burnt the huts of the savages.

Private William Hill was very severely wounded by the enemy, and Private Samuel Hollister was dangerously wounded by accident.

The following autumn the district commander was sent to Camp Bidwell, in California, with his head-quarters, and had been there but a short time when he was ordered to Camp McDermit in Nevada.

On the 25th of November, 1867, Captain James N. McElroy, who was out scouting with a part of his company of the Eighth Cavalry, a portion of which had been sent to the district upon its organization, discovered a party of Indians near the base of some hills, who retreated to the banks of Quinn's River, which they attempted to cross.

In so doing the soldiers attacked them, and two warriors were left dead on the field.

Lieutenant Aaron B. Jerome accompanied Captain McElroy on this scout, and in personal conflict killed an Indian who was pressing him too closely.

Nearly all of the troops were sent out from Camp McDermit for the purpose of engaging the Indians.

Captain John P. Baker, of the First Cavalry, succeeded in capturing quite a number, at the same time leaving three dead on the field.

In another scout, Lieutenant John Lafferty, of the Eighth Cavalry, killed two warriors with his own hands.

While the troops were absent, Colonel Brackett learned there was a large party in the vicinity of Eight-Mile Creek, and sending out Lieutenant Frank K. Upham, who was his acting assistant adjutant-general, with a party of soldiers, received the surrender of the whole band. This was on the 20th of November, 1867.

The savages had become disheartened by their several defeats, and were only too glad to lay down their arms.

In addition to the officers named, Captains Charles O. Wood and Frederick Mears, of the Ninth Infantry, and Captain James A. Hall, of the First Cavalry, had rendered excellent service in bringing about this desirable state of affairs.

About guarding the roads leading to Idaho, the editor of a Susanville, California, paper said,

"As many of our citizens are engaged in freighting goods to Idaho, and are constantly passing and repassing over this dangerous road, we have frequent opportunities of hearing their views with regard to the manner in which the route is protected. All with whom we have conversed on the subject are unanimous in the opinion that no officer could have done more, and few as much, as Colonel Brackett has done with the limited force at his disposal to make the route safe. All speak in the highest terms of the promptitude with which assistance has been rendered when needed, and are loud in their praise of the kindness and courtesy extended to them by Colonel Brackett and the officers and men under his command."

So far as Nevada was concerned, the war was ended, but certain bands in California continued to give some trouble.

A small remnant of the Nevada Indians went north, and was met by a force under command of Captain Samuel Munson, of the Ninth Infantry, in Warner Valley, Oregon, on the 1st of May, 1868.

In this fight the guide, Mr. Hoag, was killed, and Lieutenant Hayden De Lany was wounded, the latter receiving a brevet for gallant and meritorious service on that occasion.

In the affair the Indians evinced unwonted bravery, and, being well fortified behind rocks, a good deal of work was necessary to dislodge them, but the soldiers accomplished it.

Thus ended a serious Indian outbreak in Nevada, and peace was restored to the miners and settlers.

Old Winnemucca, who was the leading man among the Piute Indians, had, during most of these disturbances, been near Steen's Mountain, in Oregon, not caring to take part in the war.

He was a man of great power, and possessed of a far-reaching mind.

No one could concentrate the strength of the savages as he could, as was well shown at the battle of Pyramid Lake, in the month of July, 1860.

Young Winnemucca was not related to the old chief in any way, though he had the same name.

He, too, was a man of strong mind, who sought to elevate his people as much as was in his power.

Though a war chief he believed in peace, and thought cultivated farms, and the means of cultivation, excellent things, and things to be worked for.

He wished to strengthen his band, and was much pleased when the whole of the prisoners were turned over to him, as with their assistance he could open new farms and till more ground.

He was thoroughly reliable and trustworthy, and not addicted to gambling like many of his race.

He loved power, but did not wish to obtain it by questionable ways.

While all this was true with regard to this man, the same could not be said of many other members of his tribe, as it contained some skillful sharpers, who thought deception and dishonesty extremely praiseworthy.

The peace following the events here recorded was lasting, and of the utmost benefit to the white people. Never since has there been any serious outbreak.

The Indians have remained quietly on their reservations, or when off have been assisting the white men in their labors.

They work in nearly every department of labor, making efforts to secure good homes for themselves.

Quite a number are fair workmen, as carpenters, blacksmiths, horseshoers, ditchers, and gardeners. Half the men can talk enough English to make themselves understood about ordinary work.

They have done a great deal of farm labor, and are constantly adding to their stock of knowledge, so that they will soon be a desirable class of laborers.

Besides farming, their fisheries are valuable, the trout from the Truckee and Walker Rivers finding ready sale.

Their old feuds and misunderstandings have pretty much passed out of their minds, and all things have improved so far as they are concerned.

Having no incentive to go to war, they are rapidly learning the arts of peace, forming thrifty communities, and adding to the wealth and material prosperity of the States in which they dwell, forming a striking contrast to their condition twenty-five years ago.

During the disturbances in Nevada, there was a peddler passing through the Northern portion of the State, who had a two-horse wagonload of groceries, especially fine preserves. He was waylaid, in a lonely portion of the road, and killed.

The Indians then killed the horses and prepared for a great feast.

They encamped near the road, and, breaking open the cans and jars of preserves, poured the contents on the ground. What they could not use they were determined to destroy.

They remained until they ate up the two horses, having a notable feast, and all around they poured the preserves in great circles, out of mere wantonness.

They seemed to have a great partiality for horse-meat, and fairly gorged themselves.


Colonel U.S.A. (retired)
October, 1891

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure if I would wanna fight actual Indians, but I will always love the game of Cowboy & Indians.


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