Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Yuma & California's Gila Expedition

Dear Friends,

After writing about the Wiyot Indian Massacre that took place in February of 1860, I soon found out that some of my readers were surprised that California had Indian massacres that were in many ways worse than those that took place in other places around the nation. Many of my readers also wrote to say they were very surprised to find out that California had so many Native American Indian tribes.

The Gila Expedition, which is also known as the Morehead War, was an 1850 California militia attack on the Quechan Indians. It was a military operation set into motion in retaliation for what was called the Glanton Massacre near the Gila River and Colorado River in Arizona. 

The Quechan, also known as the Yuma, are a Native American tribe and today live on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation on the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California just north of the Mexican border. They are federally recognized, and it's tribal members mostly live on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation. Though the Quechan tribe's main office is located in Fort Yuma, Arizona, its operations and the majority of its reservation land are located in California.

The historic Yuman-speaking people in this region were skilled warriors and active traders, maintaining exchange networks with the Pima in southern Arizona and others.

The first contact of the Quechan with Europeans was with the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and his party in the winter of 1774. Relations are said to have been friendly. In fact, it is reported that they were so friendly that on de Anza's return in 1776 from his second trip to Alta California (Upper California), that Quechan Chief Palma and three of his men traveled with de Anza to Mexico City. This was to show others that it would be fine with the Indians there to establish missions.

The story also goes that the Quechan chief Palma and his three men were baptized as Catholics in Mexico City on February 13th, 1777. Chief Palma was given the Spanish baptismal name Salvador Carlos Antonio. And though that sounds wonderful, fact is that Spanish settlements among the Quechan did not go smoothly. 

In fact, in July of 1781, the Quechan tribe attacked and killed 4 priests and 30 Spanish soldiers. They also attacked and killed many more at the Spanish missions of San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner and Puerto de Purísima Concepcion. The following year, the Spanish retaliated with military action against the tribe. 

Of course, after winning the Mexican-American War, the United States annexed the territories and the Yuma War took place. That war lasted from 1850 to 1853. 

The Yuman (Quechan) tribe was small compared to many other North American tribes. It's said that on average a Yuman village had anywhere from 80 to 250 men and women. They were spread out along the far western Gila and southern Colorado Rivers. 

Following the Mexican Cession and the California Gold Rush, American settlers headed west and many crossed the southern portion of the Colorado River through Yuman territory. Believe it or not, the Yuma Indians saw this as a money making opportunity and established a ferry near the confluence of the Gila and the Colorado Rivers to transport American settlers from Arizona to California. Imagine that.

Upriver from where the Quechan set up a ferry business to transport people, animals and goods across the Colorado River on their way to the California Gold Rush, a ferry was established by A.L. Lincoln, 

Then in early 1850, a Texas scalphunter by the name of John Joel Glanton and his gang of twelve killers attacked their Yuma ferry. They killed the Yuma Indians there and actually occupied the area for a time. The Glanton gang was not above killing and robbing both Americans and Yuma Indians in the area. In fact, they were known to murder those traveling across the river and throwing their bodies into the river. 

Finally, in response a Yuma Indian war party attacked the Glanton's gang. Sadly the Yuma only killed nine while four escaped. While it is said that those of the Glanton gang who were killed were also scalped and burned in a large bonfire, instead of giving the Yuma medals and money for killing a bunch of no good outlaws and murderers, Californians called it the "Glanton Massacre" and wanted revenge even though the Yuma Indians did everyone a favor by killing them. 

Californians responded with the Gila Expedition. Immediately a militia of 142 men was raised. Why only 142, you ask? Well, I believe it was because they were paid six dollars a day. Yes, $6 a day to fight the Yuma instead of panning gold when it was still plenty to be had.

On April 16th, 1850, the the Gila Expedition entered what is today Arizona only to be defeated time and time again in a series of skirmishes. Then on September 16th, the Gila Expedition officially ended and the troops went back to mining their claims.

The Gila Expedition was a failure because of what it did for what it cost. It didn't do very much in that it was defeated tactically over and over again. As for what it cost, because of the inflated prices of supplies caused by the California gold rush, the cost to the newly formed State of California $113,000. Yes, as its first military operations against California Indian tribes, the Gila Expedition nearly bankrupted the state of California.

The Gila Expedition lead to the Yuma War.

Yes, believe it or not, even though the California militia was routed, for the next few years from 1850 to 1853, the Yuma War took place. That was when the U.S. Army got involved with conducting military operations in southern California and what is today southwestern Arizona. Primarily they fought the Yuma and other tribes which were drawn into the conflict.

While the Yuma Indians were the primary target of the U.S. Army, there were small engagements fought between American troops and other tribes in the region. But in general, the actual conflict took the form of guerrilla warfare and over the course of three years. As for a base of operation, during the conflict, the historic Fort Yuma was constructed and became a strategic military outpost on the American frontier.

During that time, the U.S. Army engaged in pursuing the enemy, protected American settlers crossing the Colorado River, and supposedly prevented the conflict from spreading further to include a broader war between the United States and other tribes.

But in the end, the war was a failure and it sparked a war between the Yuma and the Cocopah Indians. As for the United States, in the summer of 1853, a peace treaty was signed ending hostilities with the Yuma. All in all, they were a much tougher foe than initially thought.

Tom Correa

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