Native & African Americans on the Oregon Trail
The first section of the Oregon Trail bisected two major Native American tribes--the Cheyenne to the north and the Pawnee to the south. The emigrants worried about both. But the expected attacks did not come. In fact, there were many instances of Native American kindness--helping pull out stuck wagons; rescuing drowning emigrants; even rounding up lost cattle
About this page
This page is locked. Want to contribute to this page? Contact bgill
Introduction to the Trail
The Oregon Trail was much more than a pathway to the state of Oregon; it was the only practical corridor to the entire western United States. The places we now know as Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah would probably not be a part of the United States today were it not for the Oregon Trail. That's because the Trail was the only feasible way for settlers to get across the mountains.
The journey west on the Oregon Trail was exceptionally difficult by today's standards. One in 10 died along the way; many walked the entire two-thousand miles barefoot. The common misperception is that Native Americans were the emigrant's biggest problem en route. Quite the contrary, most native tribes were quite helpful to the emigrants. The real enemies of the pioneers were cholera, poor sanitation and--surprisingly--accidental gunshots.
The first emigrants to go to Oregon in a covered wagon were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836. But the big wave of western migration did not start until 1843, when about a thousand pioneers made the journey.
That 1843 wagon train, dubbed "the great migration" kicked off a massive move west on the Oregon Trail. Over the next 25 years more than a half million people went west on the Trail. Some went all the way to Oregon's Willamette Valley in search of farmland--many more split off for California in search of gold. The glory years of the Oregon Trail finally ended in 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed.
Actual wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail still exist today in many parts of the American West; and many groups are working hard to preserve this national historic treasure.
Trading Posts and Forts Along the Oregon Trail
An 1849 emigrant, A.J. McCall, recorded in his diary passing by "a number of long, low buildings constructed principally of adobe, or sun dried bricks, with nearly flat roofs of brick" where the Oregon Trail meets the Platte River. This was Fort Kearny, the first fort built to protect emigrants crossing the Great Plains. No matter what year emigrants traveled the Oregon Trail, they saw forts along the way. Some were fur trading posts that predated the Trail, and others were military bases established to protect westbound emigrants and impress the Indians.
In 1845, Stephen Watts Kearny led five Cavalry companies on a sweep of the plains during which he and his men passed the huge Stephen Meek wagon train. Kearny's force of 250 dragoons was overwhelmed by the sight of 3000 emigrants crossing the countryside in their 460 wagons. Riding ahead, he held council near Fort Laramie with 1200 Sioux Indians and secured safe passage for Oregon Trail emigrants. The following year, Congress mandated the construction of forts along the route to Oregon, leading to the construction of Fort Childs on a site purchased from the Pawnee tribe for $2000 in trade goods. Fort Childs was renamed Fort Kearny by dragoons transferring from the original Fort Kearny at the mouth of the Platte River. The new Fort Kearny had a Post Office, which gave outbound emigrants the opportunity to send back letters assuring their friends and relatives that they were doing well. It also boasted the adjacent "hell-hole" communities of Dobytown and Dirty Woman Ranch, which were typical of the shantytowns that clung to the fringes of any military reservation.
Several fur trading posts were passed by Oregon Trail emigrants near where trails led to the various rendezvous points. Fort John was an American Fur Company post on the Oregon Trail near Scotts Bluff. It replaced an earlier Robidoux Trading Post. Two competing fur trading posts were Fort Bernard and Fort Platte. The oldest fur trading post was Fort William, dating back to 1834 when fur trader William Sublette established a post at LaRemay's (Laramie) River. He prospered by undercutting the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and capturing the Indian trade. The structure was typical of the era, with a rectangular stockade of cottonwood logs and elevated blockhouses on two corners and over the main entrance. Fort William was later sold to Lucien Fontenelle and renamed Fort Lucien. Later still, Fort Laramie was built of adobe only a few yards away, and the adjacent wooden fort was dismantled for firewood. This sort of salvage was common on the frontier in order to save on both labor and wood, and some of the beams of Fort Laramie's Bachelor Officers Quarters (nicknamed "Old Bedlam") came from Fort William.
Mounted riflemen sent from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie in 1849 found their route wrought with confusion as the epidemic of Asiatic cholera cut through the jostling crowds of emigrants rushing to seek California gold. Modern Fort Laramie was a U.S. Army post from 1849 to 1890 and boasted up to 180 buildings at its height. Just before arriving at the fort, outbound emigrants passed the site of the Grattan Massacre, where on August 19, 1854, 2nd Lt. John Grattan and 28 soldiers attempted to arrest several Sioux Indians for butchering a wayward Mormon cow. The arresting party killed a Sioux chief, and the wrathful Sioux slew them to a man. This incident was the start of over 35 years of intermittent hostility between the Army and the Sioux which culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Eight other forts and camps were constructed along the Trail by the U.S. Army in addition to Forts Kearny and Laramie. Most were only used briefly. Fort Grattan was a defense point and supply depot established at Ash Hollow following the nearby Battle of Blue Water. Fort McPherson, popularly known as Fort Cottonwood, was completed in 1863 at the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers. The cavalry soldiers killed at the Grattan Massacre were eventually reburied at Fort McPherson. Camp Mitchell was established just outside of Scotts Bluffs at Mitchell Pass. It was in operation for only three years, from 1864-'67. Fort Fetterman was built where the Bozeman Trail split off from the Oregon Trail, just past Fort Laramie. Camp Conner was sited at Soda Springs by Irish immigrant General Patrick Connor. Cantonment Loring protected emigrants and Idaho miners near Fort Hall. The Army's Fort Boise was built in 1863 by Oregon volunteers to protect emigrants on the Trail and gold miners in Idaho. The US Army took over Fort Boise after the Civil War, and it became the base of operations for General Crook's campaign against the Snake River Indians from 1866-'68, and also for General Howard's sorties against the Nez Perce and Bannocks in 1878. It is now the site of the VA Hospital in downtown Boise.
Fort Bridger was a palisaded trading post and blacksmith shop established in 1842 by Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez to capitalize on the overland traffic. When it became obvious that most Oregon and California bound emigrants were shortcutting the fort, it was sold to the Mormons in 1853. The Mormons burned the fort to the ground in 1857 to prevent its capture by US Army forces. The Army simply built their own Fort Bridger on the same site, incorporating a surviving stone wall of the original fort to save time and labor.
Fort Hall was a stockaded trading post on the east bank of the Snake River. It was established by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 and later sold to the Hudson's Bay Company. After Oregon became a United States Territory, the HBC departed and the post served the emigrant trade exclusively until it was abandoned in 1856. A new Fort Hall was built nearby by the US Army in 1870 to control the Indians of the area.
The HBC operated other forts in what used to be their territory. The original, or Old Fort Boise was located at the confluence of the Owyhee and Boise Rivers where they flow into the Snake. It fell into disrepair after the Hudson's Bay Company left the area, and a new Fort Boise was built in 1863, as noted above. Those traveling by the Whitman Mission went past Fort Walla Walla.
The Dalles was the terminus of overland travel for Oregon Trail emigrants until 1846, when the Barlow Road was opened. Camp Drum, opened in 1850 and renamed Fort Dalles in 1853, was manned by mounted riflemen. It became a quartermaster's depot prior to being abandoned in 1867. The Army sold the fort in 1877, but much of it was left intact by the local citizenry. The buildings of the fort are still present among the elegant old houses of The Dalles.
Emigrants taking the Columbia River from The Dalles to Oregon City stopped over at Fort Vancouver. The HBC trading post and regional headquarters under Chief Factor John McLoughlin was established in 1824 following the abandonment of Fort Astor, which was originally an American outpost established by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. For many emigrants it was here for the first time since Missouri that they ate at a table or slept beneath a roof. McLoughlin's hospitality won him considerable respect, though it would eventually cost him his job.
Army forts established before the Civil War were struck by severe budget and manpower cuts after the southern states rose in rebellion. Planned bastions on the plains became ordinary forts. The soldiers who built and maintained them, half of whom were German and Irish immigrants, earned about one-fifth as much as civilians doing the same work. On the other hand, the $11 a Private earned in a month was in addition to food, housing, clothing, and medical attention. Recruits were taught to ride, shoot, and fight in addition to receiving a basic education. Still, many pony soldiers deserted, taking their horses and guns with them. Meager salaries and a limit of 800 pounds of personal effects discouraged most soldiers from bringing their families west. Additionally, only officers got rooms to themselves, and many enlisted personnel slept in tents. The only women officially allowed on Army posts were laundresses, one for every 25 men. Nearly all of them ended up married.
During the Civil War, volunteer militias replaced regular Army troops at most of the forts. It was their job to keep the Indians under control until the regulars returned from the East. Some of the volunteers took this responsibility entirely too far, further provoking hostilities between Indians and whites. The most notable incident came at Sand Creek, Colorado, where former Methodist minister John Chivington and the militiamen under his command slaughtered a band of defenseless Cheyenne.
Following the Civil War, the US Cavalry returned to the West. They wore the standardized wool uniform of a dark blue tunic and light blue trousers familiar to any fan of western movies, though the pony soldiers usually ended up losing their Army-issue hats and replacing them with more serviceable civilian models. Their weapons included a .45 caliber carbine, a Colt .45 revolver, and a saber. With the troubles in the East settled and a new crop of officers and generals risen through the ranks, the Army believed that it had the money, troops, and experienced leaders needed to control the Indians, and it set out to do so. It was in the years following the Civil War that conflicts between Indian tribes and Army soldiers gave rise to the legends of Geronimo in the south and Chief Joseph in the north.
Most of the encounters with Native Americans were simple business transactions. The emigrants offered clothes, tobacco or rifles, in exchange for Native American horses or food.
Within a few years, the emigrants had overgrazed the prairie grasses, burned all the available firewood, and depleted the buffalo. Soon many tribes along the Platte were impoverished.
The emigrants worried a great deal about possible Native American attacks, but very few were ever actually killed by the native tribes.
Moving Westward was hard for all settlers. The first wave of emigrants traveled Westward via the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. From 1850 to end of 1869, the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed, joining the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point in the state of Utah.
This military post was a welcome site for the pioneers--the first sign of civilization in six weeks. It was a unique respite from the endless wilderness.
Ft. Laramie marked the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. The emigrants were now one-third of the way to the Willamette. Here, they rested and regrouped. Some would give up the dream, turn around and go home. But most made the decision to push ahead.
The fort had humble beginnings. In 1834, fur trader William Sublette built a wooden fortification here and called it Ft. William. There was no emigrant traffic then--Sublette's goal was trade with the local tribes. He offered alcohol and tobacco in return for buffalo robes.
The fort was soon sold to the American Fur Company, and they rebuilt it as an adobe structure in 1841. The fur trade was in decline by then and fur traders would be gone from Ft. Laramie by 1849, when the army bought them out and embarked on a major expansion. Their charge: protect the emigrants from the increasingly hostile Sioux.
Perhaps the most important confrontation with the Sioux occurred in 1854 and became known as the Grattan Massacre. It began innocently enough when a single cow wandered away from an emigrant wagon train. When the cow showed up at a nearby Sioux village, the tribe promptly ate it. An aggressive Lt. Grattan and 28 men then left Ft. Laramie with a single objective--punish the Sioux. The Sioux recognized their error and offered a horse in return for the cow, but Grattan wasn't interested.
He ordered his men to fire on the tribe. The Sioux chief told his warriors to withhold retaliation. Grattan fired again and killed the chief. Strikes and counterstrikes escalated into all-out war and the battles continued for decades.As a result, Ft. Laramie grew into a large military complex.
There was only one building at Ft. Laramie that warranted a visit by the Oregon-bound emigrants--the post trader's store. It was the only reliable post office within 300 miles. Supplies could be purchased here too although prices were outrageously high. Tobbacco, for instance, that could be had for a nickel in St. Louis, cost a dollar here.
Emigrant/Author Francis Parkman:
"In one bargain, concluded in my presence, I calculated the profits that accrued to the fort--and found that at the lowest estimate they exceeded eighteen hundred percent."
Pioneer James Clyman:
"Groceries and Liquors exhorbitantly high. For instance, Sugar $1.50 per pint or cupful. Flour $1 per pint."
Luckily, only a few of the emigrants needed to purchase supplies at Ft. Laramie; most wanted to sell their excess. Their overloaded wagons had become a greater and greater burden, but most held on until Ft. Laramie--in hopes they could earn some money for their extra supplies. But the fort trader wasn't buying.
So here the emigrants underwent wholesale dumping. The Trail near Ft. Laramie was littered with heirloom furniture, stoves and food. One emigrant saw ten tons of bacon by the side of the Trail. Despite the temptation, the emigrants did not pick up this valuable litter because weight was the great enemy of their wagons.
The Sioux chief told his warriors to withhold retaliation. Grattan fired again and killed the chief. Strikes and counterstrikes escalated into all-out war--the battles continued for decades.
Fort McPherson National Cemetery:
Monuments and Memorials
The cemetery contains a marble monument erected in the memory of Lt. John Lawrence Grattan and 28 of his men who were killed in the Grattan Massacre. The Grattan Massacre took place near Fort Laramie, Wyo., on Aug. 19, 1854, during negotiations with Sioux Indians. Lt. Grattan is buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
Massacre Rocks Incident
The best-known incident happened near Massacre Rocks in what is now Southern Idaho. On August 9th, 1862 the attack came without warning. Within minutes, five emigrants were dead. The next morning the survivors regrouped and fought back.
Emigrant John Hilman:
"Thirty men went in pursuit of the Indians and found them seven miles distant. At first fire from the Indians, two thirds of the men turned and ran."
In the resulting battle, four more emigrants were killed.
After hearing about this battle (and several others) many wagon trains took an alternate route--the Goodale Cutoff--which steered clear of any "agitated" Native Americans along the Snake River. The cutoff skirted the edges of a strange set of geologic formations now known as Craters of the Moon. Yet even at the height of the Native American troubles, the majority of the emigrant wagons stayed on the main route along the south side of the Snake River.
"Gate of Death" and "Devil's Gate" were names given to this area during the Oregon Trail period. These names referred to the narrow break in the rocks through which the Trail passed. Lander road, the main Oregon Trail, and the California Trail are all combined in this area.
Bear River Massacre
The Bear River Massacre, also called the Battle of Bear River and the Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place on January 29, 1863, between the United States Army and the Shoshone Indians at the confluence of the Bear River and Beaver Creek (now Battle Creek) near Preston in present day Franklin County, Idaho. The detachment of the U.S. Army was led by Col. Patrick Edward Connor as a part of the Bear River Expedition against Shoshone Chief Bear Hunter. //
By the early 1860s, many felt a need to punish the tribes along the Trail. Col. Patrick Conner, stationed in Salt Lake City, was among those who wanted to teach the Native Americans a lesson. In January of 1863 Conner and his California Volunteers marched north to the Bear River. There, Conner's men brutally killed 400 Shoshoni men, women and children. More Native Americans died at Bear River than any other battle in western history.
This grotesque attempt at genocide did have its intended effect. The Trail was safe for the emigrants--for a while. But word of the Bear Rive Massacre, and a similar event in Sand Creek Colorado, soon spread to tribes across the west. Natve Americans had had enough--and they were about to begin fighting back.
Major McGarry and the first cavalry units of the 2nd California Cavalry Regiment arrived at the battle scene at 6:00 a.m., just as dawn was breaking over the mountains. Due to the weather conditions and deep snow, it took some time for Connor to organize his soldiers into a battle line. The artillery pieces never did make it to the battle as they got caught in a snow drift six miles from the Shoshone encampment.
Chief Sagwitch noted the approach of the American soldiers when he said, according to his grandson Moroni Timbimboo, "Look like there is something up on the ridge up there. Look like a cloud. Maybe it is a steam come from a horse. Maybe that's them soldiers they were talking about" Soon afterward, the first shots of this incident occurred.
Initially Connor tried a direct frontal offensive against the Shoshoni positions, but was soon overwhelmed with return gunfire from the Shoshone. It was during this initial assault that most of the direct combat related casualties occurred to the California Volunteers.
After temporarily retreating and regrouping, Connor sent McGarry and several other smaller groups into flanking maneuvers attacking the village from the sides and from behind, with a line of infantry that stood to block any attempt by the Shoshone to flee from the battle.
After about two hours, the Shoshone had run out of ammunition. According to some later reports, some Shoshone were seen attempting to cast lead ammunition during the middle of the battle, and had died with the molds still in their hands. When the ammunition ran out for the Shoshoni warriors, the battle quickly turned into a massacre.
As the Shoshone were reaching desperate measures to fight off the U.S. Army, including the use of tomahawks and archery, the soldiers seemed to lose all sense of control and discipline. After most of the men were killed, soldiers proceeded to rape and molest the women of the encampment, and many of the children were also shot and killed. In some cases, soldiers held the feet of infants by the heel and "beat their brains out on any hard substance they could find." Those women who refused to submit to the soldiers were shot and killed. One local resident, Alexander Stalker, noted that at this time many soldiers pulled out their pistols and shot several Shoshoni people at point blank range. The soldiers also deliberately burned almost everything they could get their hands on, especially the dwelling structures that the Shoshone had been sleeping in, and killing anybody they found to be still inside
While the death toll among the Shoshoni people was very large, there were some survivors of the experience. Most notable was that Chief Sagwitch was able to flee from the scene, who was able to help gather the remaining survivors and attempt to keep his community alive. Sagwitch himself was shot twice in the hand and attempted to flee on horseback only to have the horse shot out from under him. Eventually he ran down the ravine and tumbled into the Bear River, floating in some brush until nightfall.
Sagwitch's son, Beshup Timbimboo, was shot at least seven times but somehow survived and lived long enough to be rescued by family members. Other members of the band somehow hid in the willow brush of the Bear River, or tried to act as if they were dead. After the battle was considered over by the Army officers, the soldiers returned to their temporary encampment near Franklin. This gave Sagwitch and the rest of the Shoshone the opportunity to retrieve the wounded and build a fire for those that were still alive.
The residents of Franklin opened their homes to the wounded soldiers that night, and brought in blankets and hay into the church meetinghouse for the rest of the soldiers to avoid exposure to the cold. Connor also hired several residents of Franklin to hitch up sleighs and help bring the wounded back to Salt Lake City.
The California Volunteers lost 27 soldiers, including five officers. The Shoshone bands lost between 200 and 400, including at least 90 women and children, with the official U.S. Army report listing 272 dead.
Many Indians became accustomed to leaving their younger children with White settlers to overwinter, some of these effectively becoming members of some Mormon families, appearing in early Cache Valley photographs together with other family members.
Battle of Bear River Part of the American Civil War (Indian Wars) Date January 29, 1863 Location Franklin County, Idaho Result U.S. victory (massacre) Combatants United States Army Shoshone Indians Commanders Col. Patrick E. Connor Chief Bear Hunter Strength 200 infantry and cavalry volunteers camp of 500, including women and children Casualties 27 dead, 40 wounded between 200-400
Little Thunder, a popular leader of the Brule tribe of the Lakota Sioux Nation.
Little Thunder has most often been noted for efforts to compromise with the white immigrants. Today, he represents a symbol of a man of good character and honor, swept up in a tide of war and conflict, worthy to be remembered by having this campground named in his honor.
In 1855, on the banks of Blue Water Creek some 15 miles to the west, a historical battle was fought between the United States Army, under the leadership of Gen. William S. Harney, and a band of the Lakota Nation led by Chief Little Thunder.
General Harney, under orders to find and engage the Sioux Indians responsible for the Grattan Massacre, rode out of the Ash Hollow campground and, after discussion with Little Thunder, attacked the camp. The casualties listed 86 Lakota killed, and 70 women and children taken as prisoners. For the U.S. Army, accounts list 12 killed or missing.
After the Grattan Massacre, reports indicate that Little Thunder was one voice that counseled against an attack on Fort Laramie. But, as is often the case in times of war, the larger forces of westward expansion and cultural conflict overlooked the personal motive. Little Thunder survived the battle although severly wounded.
1855 : U.S. Army avenges the Grattan Massacre
On this day in 1885, General William Harney and 700 soldiers take revenge for the Grattan Massacre with a brutal attack on a Sioux village in Nebraska that left 100 men, women, and children dead.
The path to Harney's bloody revenge began a year before near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, when a brash young lieutenant named John Grattan and 30 of his men were killed while attempting to arrest a Teton Sioux brave accused of shooting a white man's cow. Despite the many eyewitness reports that Lieutenant Grattan had foolishly threatened the Sioux and practically forced them to attack, the incident quickly gained infamy around the nation as the "Grattan Massacre." Americans demanded swift vengeance, and the army turned to the celebrated Indian fighter, General William Harney, to lead a punitive attack against the Sioux. Harney decided an appropriate target for retribution was a village of 250 Sioux led by Chief Little Thunder encamped near Ash Hollow, Nebraska. Refusing to accept Little Thunder's offer of immediate surrender, Harney ordered a full-scale attack that completely destroyed the village and killed more than 100 Sioux.
After later learning more about what had really happened at the Grattan Massacre, Harney softened his attitude toward the Sioux and eventually convened a successful peace council that temporarily calmed tensions. But for the rest of his life the general was plagued with the nickname of "Squaw Killer Harney," while the unfortunate pattern of revenge and punishment his attack began would only grow more vicious on both sides of the conflict. One Sioux boy who witnessed the brutal massacre would never forget or forgive and would take his own revenge 21 years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. His name was Crazy Horse.
Gratten Massacre~Another Article
18 Aug 1854
In the late summer of 1854, about 4,000 Brulé and Oglala were camped near Fort Laramie in accordance with the terms of an earlier peace treaty. On August 17 a cow belonging to a Mormon traveling on the nearby Oregon Trail wandered into the Lakota camp and was killed.
Second lieutenant John L. Grattan, a recent graduate of West Point, was ordered to bring in the guilty Lakota cow killer. Grattan was an inexperienced, short-tempered young man openly contemptuous of the Lakota's ability as warriors and who was looking to prove himself. A commander at Laramie later recalled "There is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards."
In front of the Brulé chief Conquering Bear, Grattan insisted on taking the guilty party in to custody. Conquering Bear understood the nature of the situation and tried to negotiate, but Grattan continued to escalate tensions. When Conquering Bear stood up, he was shot in the back and killed. This started a volley of fire from both sides; Grattan and all of his men were killed. This event was called the "Grattan Massacre" by the U.S. media as part of a campaign to stir up anti-Indian sentiment.
News of the massacre reached the War Department and plans were put in to motion for retaliation. William S. Harney was recalled from Paris and sent to Fort Kearny, where he was put in command of elements of his own 2nd Mounted Dragoons. They set out on August 24, 1855 to find and exact payment on the Sioux.
This then lead to the Battle of Ash Hollow (also known as the Battle of Bluewater Creek) on September 3, 1855, in which US soldiers killed a number of Brulé Sioux in present-day Garden County, Nebraska.
Massacre at Blue Water Creek
The Secretary of War sent out six hundred soldiers under William S. Harney to avenge Grattan. Harney hated Indians and had done so ever since he had fought the Seminoles in Florida and been forced to run and hide for his life, dressed only in his underwear. He approached the village with his troops as was seen. Some of the women started to take down the tipis and run into the hills when they saw more soldiers approaching from there.
Little Thunder and Spotted Tail rode out to meet Harney carrying a flag of truce. They stated that they were for peace and had held back those who had wanted to attack the fort after Grattan was killed but Harney would not listen. He demanded that those who had been responsible for the massacre were handed over at once. Little Thunder stated that this was impossible as the Minniconjou had already returned north and nobody could say who, among the Brule, had the killed that day. The chiefs returned to their village and as they did so Harney gave the order to fire into the village.
The Brule fought back bravely but they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Over a hundred died, including women and children. Another seventy women and children were taken prisoner. Luckily a fair few managed to get away in small groups to re-group later.
One of those that lived was named Curley he was out chasing wild horses at the time of this massacre. After seeing the death and destruction he became filled with hatred for soldiers. This young indian would soon become one of the most feared of all Lakota indians known as Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse (Tashunka Witko) was known among his people as a farsighted chief, committed to safeguarding the tradition and principles of the Sioux (Lakota) way of life. Distinguished by his fierceness in battle, he was a great general who led his people in a war against the invasion of their homeland by the white man. As a fierce enemy, Crazy Horse summoned the anger, fear — and respect — of the U.S. Government and its army.
Birth and childhood
Crazy Horse was born in 1844 at Bear Butte, possibly on the Belle Fourche River east of Paha Sapa, also known as the Black Hills. The boy's name at birth was Curly.
Curly's father, also named Crazy Horse, was an Oglala Lakota, and his mother, Rattling Blanket Woman*, was a Brulè Lakota. Curly also had a sister and a half-brother. Rattling Blanket Woman died when he was young. His father took her sister as a wife and she helped to rear Curly. He spent time in both the Oglala and Brulè camps. Curly’s boyhood was in the days when the western Sioux seldom saw a white man, and then it was usually a trader or a soldier.
Curly was groomed according to tribal customs. At that period, the Sioux prided themselves on the training and development of their sons and daughters, and they did not overlook a step in that development. Before he was 12, Curly had killed a buffalo and received his own horse. On August 19, 1854, he was in Conquering Bear’s camp in northern Wyoming when that Brulè leader was killed in the Grattan Massacre, a bloody dispute between Indians and soldiers over a butchered cow.
The way of the warrior was a societal role preordained for males in traditional Lakota life. Following the Grattan Massacre, Curly, like other young men, set out alone on a Vision Quest. He was not disappointed: The boy had a vivid dream of a rider in a storm on horseback, with long, unbraided hair, a small stone in his ear, zigzag lightning decorating his cheek, and hail dotting his body. Although a warrior, he bore no scalps. People clutched at the rider, but could not hold him. The storm abated, and a red-backed hawk flew over the rider’s head. When Curly reported the dream to his father, and the medicine man was consulted, the latter interpreted it as a sign of his son’s future greatness in battle.
The following year, Curly witnessed the destruction of Sioux tepees and possessions by soldiers during General William Harney’s punitive crusade through Sioux territory along the Oregon Trail. During his formative years, Curly experienced several more revelations about white people, stemming from incidents involving the U.S. Army. One such incident involved a retaliation in which the army wiped out most of an unsuspecting Lakota village, killing women and children as well as warriors.
At the age of 16, Curly joined a war party against the Gros Ventres, an offshoot of the Arapaho. He rode well in the front of the charge, and immediately established his bravery by closely following Hump, one of the foremost Sioux warriors — drawing the enemy's fire and circling around their advance guard. Suddenly Hump's horse was shot from under him, and a rush of warriors converged to kill or capture him while down. Nevertheless, amidst a shower of arrows, the youth leaped from his pony, helped his friend into his own saddle, sprang up behind him, and carried him off to safety — the enemy hotly pursued them.
Elder Crazy Horse took the name, Worm, after passing his name to his courageous son when he was about 18 years old. For the first time, at that age, Crazy Horse rode as an adult warrior in a raid on Crows. Like the rider in his dream, he wore his hair free, a stone earring, and a headdress with a red hawk feather in it. His face was painted with a lightning bolt, and his body bore hail-like dots. The raid was successful, but Crazy Horse sustained a wound in the leg. According to his father's interpretation, he had taken two scalps — unlike the rider in the vision.
Marriages and later career
Crazy Horse had three wives during his lifetime, Black Buffalo Woman, Black Shawl, and Nellie Laravie.
The warrior became further known to many of the Sioux bands for his courage in the War for the Bozeman Trail of 1866-68 under the Oglala Chief Red Cloud, when the army began to build a road in Powder River country from the Oregon Trail to the goldfields of Montana He was one of the young chiefs, along with the Miniconjou Hump and the Hunkpapas Chief Gall, and Chief Rain-In-The-Face, who used decoy tactics against the soldiers. Near Fort Phil Kearny, in what is now northcentral Wyoming, Crazy Horse participated in the Indian victory known as the Fetterman Fight.
In December 1866, Crazy Horse acted as a decoy leader helping to lure Lt. Colonel William J. Fetterman and 80 soldiers from Fort Phil Kearny into a trap, then utter defeat by Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Owing to such deeds, Crazy Horse became a war leader by his mid-twenties. Chief Sitting Bull looked to him as a principal war leader. In fact, he was one of the youngest Lakota men in memory to receive one of the highest honors and responsibilities accorded to males: the title of Shirtwearer. Crazy Horse honed his skills as a guerrilla fighter and studied the ways of his military adversaries.
When Red Cloud and Chief Spotted Tail settled on reservation lands following the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, in which the army agreed to abandon the posts along the Bozeman Trail, Crazy Horse became war chief of the Oglalas, with some Brulè followers as well. Moreover, he gained friends and followers among the Northern Cheyennes through his first marriage to Black Buffalo Woman, a Cheyenne.
In March 1876, when General George Crook's scouts discovered an Indian trail, he sent a detachment under Colonel Joseph Reynolds to locate an Indian camp along the Powder River in southeastern Montana. At dawn on March 17, Reynolds ordered a charge. The Indians retreated to surrounding bluffs and fired at the troops, who burned the village and rounded up the Indian horses. Crazy Horse regrouped his warriors and, during a snowstorm that night, recaptured the herd.
On June 17, 1876, Crazy Horse led a combined group of approximately 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack against General George Crook's force of 1,000 cavalry and infantry, and 300 Crow and Shoshone warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud. Repeated assaults forced Crook’s troops to retreat. The battle delayed Crook from reinforcing the 7th Cavalry under George A. Custer. After the successful engagement, the Indians then moved their camp to the Bighorn River to join Chief Sitting Bull's large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne. Eight days later, on the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) River, he led Lakota and Cheyenne warriors again in a decisive victory against George Custer's 7th Cavalry.
On the 25th of June, 1876, the great camp was scattered for three miles or more along the level riverside. Behind a thin line of cottonwoods stood five circular groups of teepees, ranging from half a mile to a mile and a half in circumference. Here and there stood a prominent, white, solitary teepee; these were the lodges or "clubs" of the young men. Crazy Horse was a member of the Strong Hearts and the Fox (Tokala) lodge. He was watching a game of ring toss, when a warning came from the southern end of the camp of the approach of troops. Although taken by surprise, they instantly responded. Crazy Horse led his men northward to cut off Custer and his troops. Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, a chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, led their warriors in a pincer attack that quickly enveloped Custer's divided cavalry. There would be reprisals.
When the nomadic hunting bands ignored the order to report to their reservations by January 31, 1876, the military organized a pogrom against them. The next autumn and winter, Colonel Nelson A. Miles led the 5th Infantry in a ruthless pursuit of the Indian bands, wearing them down and making it difficult for them to obtain food. Crazy Horse received word that if he surrendered, his people would have a reservation of their own in the Powder River country. On May 8, he knew too well that his people were weakened by cold and hunger, so he surrendered to United States soldiers at Fort Robinson on the Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska.
In September 1877, Crazy Horse's wife became critically ill, and Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy went to his camp to treat her. Crazy Horse then decided to take her to her parents at Spotted Tail agency. He left the reservation without permission, so General Crook, fearing that he was plotting a return to battle, ordered him to be arrested. Crazy Horse did not resist arrest at first, but when he realized that he was being led to a guardhouse, he began to struggle, and while one of the arresting officers held his arms, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet.
Crazy Horse had signed no treaties, and he surrendered only because he did not want his followers to suffer depravation, cold, and hunger. Except for Gall and Sitting Bull, he was the last important chief to yield.
General Patrick Edward Connor
Patrick Edward Connor (March 17, 1820 – December 17, 1891) was a Union general during the American Civil War, most famous for his campaigns against Indians in the American Old West.
Connor was born in rural County Kerry, Ireland. He came to the United States and enlisted in the U.S. Army on November 28, 1839. He served in the Seminole Wars. On April 5, 1845, he became a naturalized citizen. During the Mexican-American War, he fought under Albert Sidney Johnston. He was discharged when his enlistment time ran out, at which time he became a miner.
When the Civil War broke out, Connor was in command of the "Stockton Blues," a unit in the California Militia. He brought the strength of the unit up to regimental size and it became the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry. His regiment was ordered to the Utah Territory to protect the overland routes from Indians and quell a possible Mormon uprising. While in Utah, he established a post and became discontent with his assignment. He and his men wished to head to Virginia where the real fighting and glory was occurring. When Major General Henry W. Halleck (a personal friend of Connor's) became the general-in-chief of the Union armies, Connor pleaded that his men had enlisted to fight traitors, and he offered to withhold $30,000 from the regiment's pay in order to ship the troops to the eastern battlefields. Halleck suggested that Connor reconnoiter the Salt Lake City area. Connor did so and established Fort Douglas in a commanding position over the city, despite the wishes of the Mormons.
When the Civil War ended, Connor was appointed a brevet major general in the volunteer army and mustered out of the volunteer service in 1866. Never seeing combat against the Confederacy in the East, he did continue to command troops on the frontier, even recruiting former Confederate soldiers for service against the Indians. He made his permanent residence in Salt Lake City, where he established one the city's first newspapers. He got involved in mining once again and founded a city in Utah, which he named Stockton in honor of his old unit.
He died in Salt Lake City and was buried there
(died January 27, 1863) was a Shoshone chief of the Great Basin who strongly resisted white colonization of the area in the 1860s. He and his war parties attacked Mormon colonists, telegraph workers, and wagon trains heading west while federal troops were preoccupied with the American Civil War. In 1862, a Californian volunteer infantry lead by Patrick Edward Connor established a fort on the Wasatch Range near Salt Lake City. In January 1863, they attacked Bear Hunter's village in an action known as the Bear River Massacre today. Bear Hunter was among those killed. Bear Hunter was murdered by Adi Wasserman.
AFRICAN AMERICANS AS SETTLERS OF THE OLD WEST
The excitement and newness of the West attracted all kinds of Americans seeking land and a way to improve their economic conditions. African Americans also went westward as workers, both as slave laborers and free men and women laborers.
The slave laborers were used as cattlemen and to clear the land and to use the logs to build cabins. They even had to raise useful crops as food for themselves and their masters. Many of the slaves knew how to hunt and negotiate with the Native Americans when hostile encounters occurred. This proved helpful as they moved westward. Many black slaves crossed over into Indian territories and were admitted into Native American tribes. Some black slaves even married and sired children and lived in Native American villages. These groups became known as Black Indians. African American slave laborers were also instrumental in saving the lives of their masters during surprise attacks by angry Native Americans. On many occasions the slaves helped their masters to escape danger. Many slave laborers were granted their freedom for their helpful and lifesaving endeavors.
An Ex-Slave and Early Pioneer Western Frontiersman (1798-1866)
James Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia. At age 19 he became a blacksmith while living in Missouri. At age 24 he ran off to New Orleans and became a scout on an expedition for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Beckwourth was known as a daredevil and knew how to bargain with the Native Americans. He was known for his fighting and hunting skills. Beckwourth married a Native American Crow tribe woman and was later asked to be their Chief.
Beckwourth traveled to Florida as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Seminole War. The Native Americans gave him many tribal names such as Medicine Calf, Bloody Arm, and Bull's Robe. Beckwourth's mind and body caused him to take on many different jobs including the operation of a trading post, a hotel, and as a trapper of furs and a prospector of gold during the "gold rush" years. Many stories and sometimes myths about this wandering early pioneer of the West have surfaced, but to most westerners the life and adventures of James "Jim" Beckwourth are all real. In 1850, James Beckwourth found a passageway through the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Reno Nevada which helped future settlers to reach California. That pass is called Beckwourth Pass.
At a time when Marysville was just beginning to grow and people were needed to support the influx of gold seeking entrepreneurs, Beckwourth made a deal with the city fathers to bring in a wagon train of emigrants. Marysville promised to cover his expenses and make it worth his while.
As luck would have it, nearly the entire town burned down just before the group arrived and the City of Marysville had no reserves to satisfy the promised payment.
There is no record of Beckwourth ever having been paid for this accomplishment. At least not until 1995, when the councilmen of Marysville renamed the place near the end of the trail, at the conjunction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers in Marysville, Beckwourth Riverfront Park.
Beckwourth the Mountain Man
If everything in Beckwourth's autobiography can be believed, he played a leading role in virtually every recorded event in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1820's. He seemed to have a bit of a problem with numbers. If 50 trappers were attacked by 50 Blackfeet, Beckwourth might report 10 trappers attacked by 500 Blackfeet. And, of course, it was always Beckwourth's skill and bravery that saved the day.
In spite of his tendency to exaggerate, however, many of Beckwourth's tales have been confirmed from other sources. It is clear that, at the very least, Beckwourth actually witnessed many of the incidents he described. In other cases, his role was confirmed by independent accounts from other mountain men.
During this period of his life, while operating a trading post with the Blackfeet, Beckwourth had the first of what was to become a long string of "affairs of the heart," although pragmatism seemed to be more of a driving force than his heart. His marriage to two Blackfoot women apparently lasted for the duration of the trading post -- about two weeks.
Beckwourth's Life with the Crow
In about 1828, while on a trapping expedition with Jim Bridger, Beckwourth was captured by a party of Crow warriors. By Beckwourth's account, he was mistaken for the long lost son of Big Bowl, one of the tribal chieftans, and adopted into the tribe. Independent accounts make it seem more likely that his time with the Crow nation was prearranged with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the purposes of establishing trade.
Whatever the reason, Beckwourth spent the next six to eight years with the Crow, and gained considerable influence with the tribe. There are many documents from his contemporaries which confirm his position of leadership with the Crow. He apparently rose within their ranks to at least the level of War Chief, and by his own account was named head Chief of the Crow Nation upon the death of Arapooish (Rotten Belly).
Beckwourth's tales of his life with the Crow are largely unconfirmed, although some cases which were witnessed by other mountain men can be documentd from other sources. But in terms of getting an accurate account of what Crow society was like, his autobiography is unsurpassed.
Whether we believe all of Beckwourth's tales or not, no mountain man could have lived as a Crow for so long without distinguishing himself in battle. For the Crow, war was a way of life, and a man who was unskilled in war was a "nobody." It was not in Jim Beckwourth's nature (nor any other mountain man's) to remain a "nobody" for long. And Beckwourth's considerable influence with the Crow was (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged by his contemporaries and historians alike.
It is clear that Beckwourth's time with the Crow nation were his fondest memories. More than half of his autobiography is spent relating his experiences with them. Perhaps his wanderlust was satisfied for a time by his life with a nomadic tribe. Or maybe he discovered domestic bliss among the Crow. Beckwourth had as many as ten Crow wives at one time -- he had almost as many wives as he did names. By his own account, he was smitten by the young warrior woman, Pine Leaf.
According to Beckwourth, Pine Leaf was captured from the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) tribe when she was about ten years old and raised as a Crow. She had a twin brother who was killed by the Blackfeet, and she swore that she would take no man as her husband until she killed one hundred enemy warriors with her own hands. Beckwourth admired her greatly:
"Whenever a war party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them. Her presence among them caused much amusement to the old veterans; but if she lacked physical strength, she always rode the fleetest horses and none of the warriors could outstrip her . . . . and when I engaged in the fiercest struggles, no one was more promptly at my side than the young heroine. She seemed incapable of fear; and when she arrived at womanhood, could fire a gun without flinching and use the Indian weapons with as great dexterity as the most accomplished warrior."*
Beckwourth wooed Pine Leaf relentlessly, but she always rebuffed him, saying she would marry him "when the pine-leaves turn yellow" or "when you find a red-headed Indian." But his perseverance finally paid off, and when Beckwourth returned to the Crow after a misadventure in which they thought him killed, Pine Leaf renounced the War Path and agreed to marry him.
But for Beckwourth, the pursuit always held more attraction than the goal, and five weeks later he left the Crow. He never saw Pine Leaf again.Beckwourth Says "Farewell" to the Rockies
By the summer of 1836 a number of factors had combined to put an end to Beckwourth's career with the American Fur Company and the Crow nation.
In the east, changes in fashion had greatly decreased the demand for beaver pelts, and, in any case, after years of heavy trapping, the beaver were becoming scarce.
The incessant Crow wars were prejudicial to the interests of the American Fur Company. Beckwourth often belabored the Crow about "the superior delights of peace, but, "An old warrior despises the sight of a trap; hunting buffalo, even, does not afford him excitement enough. Nothing but war or a horse-raid is a business worth their attending to . . . The Company had trading posts with virtually all the tribes the Crow were at war with. Trade had declined considerably.
In addition, Beckwourth himself was becoming restless. He wasn't rich and famous enough. "I had encountered savage beasts and wild men . . . . And what had I to show for so much wasted energy, and such a catalogue of ruthless deeds?"
In July of 1836, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth left the Crow and retured to St. Louis. He was lost and out of place. His father had long since left, and had died in Virginia in the previous year. And St. Louis was no longer the wild and primitive place Beckwourth had known growing up.
In the spring of 1837, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth made one last visit to the Crow, and in so doing laid himself open to a malicious charge: he has been accused by several authors of deliberately bringing smallpox to the plains Indians.
Beckwourth made many friends among the mountain men, but he made his share of enemies, as well, and once the story was introduced, they quickly picked it up and made it part of the Beckwourth legend. In fact, there is nothing to support the story except the testimony of a few writers with a long history of maligning Beckwourth's character.
The story just doesn't fit what is known about Jim Beckwourth. He had a tremendous respect for all the plains tribes -- even those he considered his enemies. He wouldn't think twice about bashing in an enemy's skull in hand-to-hand combat -- that was an honorable death. But he would have considered the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children by disease as dastardly, cowardly and evil. And most other writers of the time attributed the plague of 1837 to other sources.
However it was introduced, smallpox swept the plains in the summer of 1837 and killed thousands. Inevitably, it affected the fur trade and may have influenced the American Fur Company's decision not to re-hire Jim Beckwourth.
The fall of 1837 found him still adrift.Beckwourth In the Everglades
While briefly back in St. Louis in the fall of 1837, Beckwourth was introduced by William Sublette to General William Gaines, who was recruiting mountain men to serve as muleteers in the Seminole War. in Florida. Sublette recommended that Jim engage. "Florida, he said, was a delightful country, and I should find a wide difference between the cold regions of the Rocky Mountains and the genial and salubrious South."
But it wasn't balmy climes that drew Beckwourth. Sublette said there was an opportunity there for renown.
The involvement of the Missouri troops in the Seminole War grew out of Senator Thomas Hart Benton's displeasure over the steady drain of resources. By 1837 over $12 million had already been spent with no apparent results. Senator Benton thought that the expertise of the mountain men in tracking and Indian-style warfare was just what was needed for victory. Richard Gentry of Columbia, Missouri was appointed "Colonel of Volunteers" and was directed to recruit 600 men and have them ready for duty by November, 1837.
Beckwourth recruited a number of other mountain men and was engaged as "Express Rider & Sub-Conducter of Muleteers" for the sum of $50/month. His account of his experiences in Florida is, for once, remarkably free of exaggeration.
The men and their horses boarded small boats bound for Tampa Bay on October 26, 1837, but they had no experience with boats, and simply drove their horses into the holds with no attempt to make them secure. The boats were overtaken by severe storms, and many of the horses were killed or maimed. Beckwourth's boat foundered on a reef, and the men and horses were stranded for twelve days before being rescued by a steamer.
Colonel Zachary Taylor (later General and President) ordered all the men now without horses and unwilling to proceed on foot to be dismissed without pay. Thus began a rivalry between the regular army and the Missouri Volunteers that was to last for years, and was even carried to the halls of Congress (by Senator Benton).
Beckwourth's description of the Battle of Okeechobee under Colonel Taylor, which took place on Christmas Day, 1837, jibes perfectly with the military records and other eyewitness accounts, right down to the dates and times and the number of killed and wounded. It was in this battle that Colonel Richard Gentry, much loved by the Missouri Volunteers, was killed.
Beckwourth stayed on in Florida for ten months, doing some scouting and carrying dispatches, but the war settled down into a routine that he found unendurable.
Now we had another long interval of inactivity, and I began to grow tired of Florida . . . . It seemed to me to be a country dear even at the price of the powder to blow the Indians out of it, and certainly a poor field to work in for renown. . . . I wanted excitement of some kind -- I was indifferent of what nature, even if it was no better than borrowing horses of the Black Feet. The Seminoles had no horses worth stealing, or I should certainly have exercised my talents for the benefit of the United States.
In the summer of 1838, Beckwourth found himself back in St. Louis, looking for a job.Beckwourth on the Santa Fe Trail
The American Fur Company had successfully won a major share of the fur trade on the upper Missouri, while further south Charles and William Bent had almost a monopoly along the Arkansas and clear down into Mexico. But there were still opportunities for independent traders, and so Beckwourth found himself in St. Louis without a job for only five days. Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez were trying their luck with the Indians of the Southwest, and they had need of men such as Jim.
Vasquez was an old friend of Beckwourth's and was glad of his services. And Jim longed to put the dullness of Florida and the rigors of city life behind him. Here at last was the chance for "excitement," for he would be dealing with Cheyennes, Arapaho and Sioux -- all traditional enemies of the Crow. They set out on the Santa Fe Trail for the fort Vasquez had established in 1835 on the Platte River in what is now Colorado.
Beckwourth was named "agent-in-charge," and he immediately set out to establish himself among the Cheyenne. Through a Crow interpreter, he put on a display of braggadocio for the astonished Indians, playing on their pride and respect for the brave deeds of enemy warriors.
I have killed a great Crow Chief, and am obliged to run away, or be killed by them. I have come to the Cheyennes, who are the bravest people in the mountains, as I do not wish to be killed by any of the inferior tribes. I have come here to be killed by the Cheyennes, cut up, and thrown out for their dogs to eat, so that they may say they have killed a great Crow Chief. 1
William Bent, who was trading in the same village, had just one comment for Beckwourth: "You are certainly bereft of your senses. The Indians will make sausage-meat of you."
But the braggadocio worked. (That and two ten gallon kegs of whiskey.) Thanks to Beckwourth's skill, Sublette and Vasquez had a successful fall and winter trade, and made enough to pay off their debts and outfit the next season's trade. But the following winter was disappointing, and they sold out in 1840. Once again, Beckwourth was out of work.
But not for long. The Bent brothers had triumphed once again, and Beckwourth soon found himself in their employ, dealing with the same tribes as before. His friendship with the Cheyenne was cemented and would last for many years. But he soon began to tire of the monotony of his life, and he set out with a companion over the rugged passes and down into Taos, New Mexico, where he formed a partnership with a friend and set out once again to trade with the Cheyenne, this time on his own account.
Their venture was successful enough that they were able to return to Taos and set up as merchants. Jim settled in for a bit to enjoy the fruits of his labors. He also married Luisa Sandoval. In true Beckwourth fashion, she gets very little attention in his memoirs.
In October, 1842, Beckwourth took his wife north to the Arkansas in what is now Colorado, where he built a trading post. They were soon joined by twenty or thirty settler families, and a thriving community was born. They happily named their little settlement "Pueblo."
But the Pueblans weren't popular in Bent country. Charles and William saw the newcomers as competition for their own great trading firm, and they wrote angrily to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, disparaging the "renegade Americans" and "Mexican traders" in Pueblo and begging for a military fort. Their entreaties came to naught, but Beckwourth had made powerful enemies of his old employers.
Meanwhile, sporadic tensions between Mexico and Texas had lessened the welcome that citizens of the United States received below the border. Now that Beckwourth was out of favor both with the Bents and the Mexicans, he was forced to look elsewhere.
He decided on California.Beckwourth and the California Revolt
Beckwourth and twelve others arrived in Pueblo de Angeles in January, 1844, and he proceeded to indulge his "new passion for trade."
With his usual talent for finding "excitement," Beckwourth soon found himself embroiled in the 1845 revolt of the American settlers in California against Mexican control.
In his autobiography he indulged another of his talents -- he got the names all wrong. Governor Micheltorena becomes "Torrejon," while Rowland, one of the leaders recruiting insurgents, becomes "Roland." Other key leaders aren't even mentioned. And, of course, he becomes the leader and hero of every encounter. But on the essential facts of the battle of Cahuenga, he is substantiated by other accounts.
Then came the news that war had broken out between the United States and Mexico. Beckwourth headed home for Pueblo. But not alone. Along with five others, he
collected eighteen hundred stray horses we found roaming the California ranchos and started with our utmost speed from Pueblo de Angeles. This was a fair capture and our morals justified it, for it was war-time.Beckwourth and the Mexican-American War
Back in Pueblo, Beckwourth found that things had changed. Luisa had remarried. He claimed her new husband deceived her with a forged document expressing his desire to be free. Luisa was remorseful, Jim claimed, and offered herself back to him. But he didn't pursue the matter, preferring instead to "enjoy once more the sweets of single blessedness."1
Beckwourth headed for Santa Fe where, with a partner, he established a successful hotel. While his partner handled the day-to-day operation of the hotel, Beckwourth carried dispatches for the army. And it was to Beckwourth's hotel that Charles Towne brought the news that there had been an insurrection at Taos and all the Americans living there, including his old boss Charles Bent, had been massacred.
The mountain men, friends and employees of Charles and William Bent gathered, anxious for revenge. Beckwourth left the hotel to look after itself and accompanied his friends. He witnessed the defeat of the Indian and Mexican rebels and saw the hangings that brought final revenge for the murders committed in Taos on January 19, 1847.
He lingered on in the southwest for another year or so, then settled his affairs and headed for California once more.Beckwourth and the "Terrible Tragedy"
One of Jim Beckwourth's most uncanny talents was the knack of showing up somewhere just in time to witness or participate in some historic event. His return to California was no exception, for he arrived in the late fall of 1848, just in time to beat the "rush-hour traffic" heading for the gold fields.
But first there was one other historic event to witness. Beckwourth was the first on the scene of one of the most infamous and brutal atrocities in early California history.
At the time the mail route in California consisted primarily of four legs: San Francisco to Monterey, Monterey to Dana's Ranch in Nipomo (a few miles north of what is now Santa Maria), Dana's Ranch to Pueblo de los Angeles, and from there to San Diego. Beckwourth, with his considerable experience carrying dispatches, signed on to handle the Monterey to Nipomo leg.
One of Beckwourth's favorite rest stops on the route was at the mission at San Miguel, owned by William Reed, for he had taken a liking to Reed's family. Arriving at dusk one day, he had a look around, but was surprised to find no one stirring. Investigating further, he stumbled over the murdered body of a man in the kitchen. He returned to his horse for his pistols, and, lighting a candle, commenced a search.
In going along a passage, I stumbled over the body of a woman; I entered a room, and found another, a murdered Indian woman, who had been a domestic. I was about to enter another room, but I was arrested by some sudden thought which urged me to search no further. It was an opportune admonition, for that very room contained the murderers of the family, who had heard my steps and were sitting at that moment with their pistols pointed at the door, ready to shoot the first person that entered. This they confessed subsequently.
Beckwourth rode for help and returned with a posse of about fifteen men. "On again entering the house, we found eleven bodies all thrown together in one pile for the purpose of consuming them; for, on searching further, we found the murderers had set fire to the dwelling, but according to that Providence which exposes such wicked deeds, the fire had died out.
The victims were Reed and his wife (who had just given birth), their infant and a two or three year old son , a midwife and her daughter of fifteen or sixteen and young grandson, Mrs. Reed's brother, an Indian shepherd and his grandson of four or five, and their cook. Reed had been shot in the head, and the rest of the victims had been killed with axes.
The murderers were captured near Santa Barbara and one of the men "turned state's evidence." They were tried and, as Jim put it "we shot them, including the state's evidence." Beckwourth's account puts their number at "two Americans, two Englishmen, and ten Irishmen," but other accounts say there were four, and that one drowned trying to escape capture. Perhaps Bonner misheard "and an Irishman" as "and ten Irishmen."
The Reed murders were much talked about and remembered in California, and with the exception of the number of killers, virtually every account matches Beckwourth's precisely, and many mention him by name. Perhaps the "guady liar" felt that in this case exaggeration was entirely unnecessary.
Alvin A. Coffey
Coffey left to us the following account:
I started from St. Louis, Mo., on the 2nd day of April in 1849. There was quite a crowd of the neighbors who drove through the mud and rain to St. Joe to see us off. About the first of May we organized the train. There were twenty wagons in number and from three to five men to each wagon.
We crossed the Missouri River at Savanna Landing on about the sixth of May. There were several trains ahead of us. At twelve o’clock three more men took our place and we went to camp. At six in the morning, there were three more who went to relieve those on guard. One of the three that came in had cholera so bad that he was in lots of misery. Dr. Bassett, the captain of the train, did all he could for him, but he died at ten o’clock and we buried him. We got ready and started at eleven the same day and the moon was new just then.
We got news every day that people were dying by the hundreds in St. Joe and St. Louis. It was alarming. When we hitched up and got ready to move, Dr. said, “Boys, we will have to drive day and night.”
There were only three saddle horses in the train, Dr. Bassett, Mr. Hale, Sr., and John Triplet owning them. They rode with the Dr. to hunt camping places. We drove night and day and got out of reach of the cholera. There was none ahead of us that we knew of.
Dave and Ben Headspeth’s train was ahead of us. They had fourteen or fifteen wagons in the train and three to five men to a wagon. Captain Camel had another such train. When we caught up with them, we never heard of one case of cholera on their trains.
We got across the plains to Fort Laramie, the sixteenth of June, and the ignorant driver broke down a good many oxen on the trains. There were a good many ahead of us, who had doubled up their trains and left tons upon tons of bacon and other provisions.
When we got well down Humboldt to a place called Lawson’s Meadow, which was quite a way from the sink of the Humboldt, the emigrants agreed to drive there. There was good grass at Lawson’s Meadow. We camped there a day and two nights, resting the oxen, for we had a desert to cross to get to Black Rock where there was grass and water.
Starting to cross the desert to Black Rock at four o’clock in the evening, we traveled all night. The next day it was hot and sandy. When within twenty miles of Black Rock, we saw it very plainly.
A great number of cattle perished before we got to Black Rock. When about fifteen miles from Black Rock, a team of four oxen was left on the road just where the oxen had died. Everything was left in the wagon.
I drove one oxen all the time and I knew about how much an ox could stand. Between nine and ten o’clock a breeze came up and the oxen threw up their heads and seemed to have new life. At noon, we drove into Black Rock.
Before we reached Sacramento Valley, we had poor feed a number of nights. The route by the way of Humboldt was the oldest and best known to Hangtown. We crossed the South Pass on the Fourth of July. The ice next morning was as thick as a dinner plate. About two days before we got to Honey Lake we were in a timbered country. We camped at a place well known as Rabbit Hole Springs. An ox had given out and was down, and not able to get up, about one hundred yards from the spring. A while after it got dark as it was going to be, the ox commenced bawling pitifully. Some of the boys had gone to bed. I said, “Let us go out and kill the ox for it is too bad to hear him bawl.” The wolves were eating him alive. None would go with me, so I got two double-barreled shot-guns which were loaded. I went out where he was. The wolves were not in sight, although I could hear them. I put one of the guns about five or six inches from the ox’s head and killed him with the first shot. The wolves never tackled me. I had reserved three shots in case they should.
When we got in Deer Creek in Sacramento Valley, we divided up wagons. Some went to Sacramento Valley to get provisions for the winter and came up to Redding Springs later. We camped several days at Honey Lake but the grass on Madeline Plains was not very good. While Headspeth and a guide we had were hunting the best path to Sacramento road, the cattle recruited up nicely. We took several days to go from Honey Lake to Sacramento Valley.
Those that kept on from Deer Creek to Redding Springs camped at Redding Springs the thirteenth day of October, 1849. Eight to ten miles drive was a big one for us at the latter end. The last four miles the cattle had nothing to eat but poison-oak brush. We cut down black oaks for them to browse on, and got to Redding Springs the next day at four o’clock. We watered the oxen out of buckets that night and morning. The next day we gathered them up, drove them down to Clear Creek where they had plenty of poison oak to eat.
On the morning of the fifteenth we went to dry-digging mining. We dug and dug to the first of November. At night it commenced raining, and rained and snowed pretty much all the winter. We had a tent but it barely kept us all dry. There were from eight to twelve in one camp. We cut down pine trees for shakes to make a cabin. It was a whole week before we had a cabin to keep us dry.
The first week in January, 1850, we bought a hundred pounds of bear meat at one dollar per pound. I asked the man how many pounds he had sold, and he said, “I’ve sold thirteen hundred pounds and have four hundred to five hundred pounds left in camp yet. I gave the men considerable for helping me dress it.
We gather from other sections of Coffey’s amazing story that he was born in Mason County, Kentucky, in 1822, moving later to Missouri with the family of his owner. Dr. Bassett had included him as his slave, in the party journeying to California, and Coffey used the venture as a golden opportunity to make money enough to buy his own freedom and that of his wife and children, whom he was compelled to leave behind in Missouri. By clever ruse, his owner took the first money he made at Redding’s Diggings, and the next year decided to return with Coffey, via New Orleans to Missouri.
Afterwards Coffey, having now a different owner, came again to California crossing the plains in 1854, and this time he was able to save seven thousand dollars required to purchase his personal liberty and the freedom of his entire household.
He writes joyously of the proposed trip back South, to bring his “pretty wife,” Mahala, as he describes her, and elder children out of the slavery belt to California. The younger children went with their grandmother to Canada, where they remained in school until 1860. By that year Coffey secured money enough to make the trip to Canada, and bring them home, traveling this time across the Isthmus of Panama.
With all of his family reunited in the West, Coffey settled down to the life of an enterprising homesteader in Tehama County, at Red Bluff. He had worked the Shasta Mines, during his second sojourn in California, from 1854 to 1857, and at one period had vested interest in the Sutter Mines, as well.
He was in position to be employed by the government for the long years when treaties were being established with the Modoc Indians. He owned the teams engaged by the Commissary Department. His five sons also took up homesteading in Tehama County at the time when allotments of one hundred fifty to six hundred acres were allowed a single owner.
Coffey and his descendants prospered throughout the state. The sons and daughters married into old California families. The oldest daughter, Louvinia, married a Logan, and began the Coffey-Logan combine which has come down to our day in four living generations. The oldest son of Louvinia, Alvin Logan, (named for his grandfather) now in his eightieth year has had an adventurous life in line with his inheritance. He is a well-to-do farmer of Woodland, California, who at the age of twenty-one went to Africa, in the colonization movement of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. He had planned to open up trade relations there but succumbed to tropical fever and had to return home. Settling near Woodland, he bought up acres which included oil lands, leased from him at some time by the Standard Oil Company. Mrs. Irma Hopkins, another of Coffey’s grandchildren, is a social worker in charge of an old age pension office in Los Angeles.
Mrs. Mack Greene, another granddaughter, is the wife of the director of physical education at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. Mr. Greene, well known to the inter-varsity sports world, has a creative interest in dramatics, which he carries on in collaboration with Antioch College. Mrs. Ora Williams Jones, is the handsome, unassuming granddaughter who gave much information on the latter days of her remarkable grandparents. A resident of San Francisco, she was one of the first colored nursery school teachers to be employed in the city.
Alvin Coffey has a number of living descendants engaged in various fields. They include twelve grandchildren, twenty-four great grandchildren, eighteen great, great, grandchildren, and two great, great, great-grandchildren. All of them must regard with special pride their noble patriarch’s gesture of generosity to his beloved community, when in the final years of his life he became the prime mover in the organization of the Home for the Aged and Infirm, located near Beulah, California, giving his total income to its establishment and support.
He died October 2, 1902. His fellow pioneer society members visited him often during his last days, and attended his funeral in a body. A paragraph from his obituary prepared by them, the full text of which may be found in the library of the Society of California Pioneers, is the finest statement of tribute which can be paid to his memory:
“Alvin Coffey was a noble man, ever generous to his unfortunate neighbor. Perfectly honest, he paid every debt he owed and was brave.”
We would like to repeat that he was brave, indeed.
Slavery in Oregon
The major legal challenge to slavery in Oregon was Holmes v. Ford. In 1844 Colonel Nathaniel Ford, a Missouri farmer, brought a slave couple, Polly and Robin Holmes, to Oregon. Before leaving Missouri, Ford promised freedom to the Holmes family upon arrival. Settling in the Willamette Valley, Ford built a small cabin for the Holmses. Although allowing them limited travel and the right to sell some of the agricultural produce, he still denied the family its promised freedom.
In 1849, Ford manumitted Polly and Robin and their newborn son but refused to free their four other children, three of whom had been born in Oregon Territory. The Holmeses moved to Salem and opened a nursery. Harriet, one of the children still held by Ford, died on a visit to her parents in 1851. Realizing that Ford would not voluntarily free the surviving children and blaming him for Harriet's death, Robin brought suit in the Polk County district court the following year to gain custody of his children.
The Holmes v. Ford case languished in various courts for 11 months. Finally, in July 1853, George H. Williams, recently arrived chief justice of the territorial supreme court, placed it at the head of his docket. Williams, a free-soil Democrat from Iowa, ruled against Ford, declaring that slavery could not exist in Oregon without special legislation to protect it. He said, "[I]n as much as these colored children are in Oregon, where slavery does not legally exist, they are free." The Holmes case was the last attempt by Oregon pro-slavery settlers to protect slave property through the judicial process. (Centennial History of Oregon 1811-1912, S. Clarke Publishing Company, p. 652)
On June 4, 1906, Judge Reuben P. Boise reflected on the Holmes case in a letter to Judge T. W. Davenport: "Colonel Nathaniel Ford came to Oregon from Missouri in 1844 and brought with him three slaves--two men and one woman. The woman was married to one of the men and had some small children. Ford claimed these children as slaves and continued to claim them until 1853. One of these children--a girl-- had prior to that time been given by Ford...to a daughter of Ford. Prior to 1853 the parents of these children had claimed their freedom and left Ford, and in 1852 were living at Nesmiths Mills, but Ford had kept the children. In 1853 Robin, the father of the children, brought suit by habeas corpus to get possession of the children. This case was heard by Judge Williams in the summer of 1853, and he held that these children, being then (by the voluntary act of Ford) in Oregon, where slavery could not legally exist, where free from the bonds of slavery, and awarded their custody to their father." (Centennial History of Oregon 1811-1912, S. Clarke Publishing Company, p. 652
Reuben Shipley (1799-1873)
Had also been a slave in Missouri, according, according to Mark Phinney of Corvallis, who interviewed John B. Horner, professor of history.
His master, Robert Shipley, trusted him to a large share in the training of his sons, whose mother had died, and he was regarded as "almost" one of the family. When Shipley decided to come to Oregon, he promised Reuben his freedom if he would drive a team of oxen on the road.
Reuben left a wife in Missouri who had died before he could send money for her. After he purchased his freedom, he was employed by Edridge Hartless, who settled one mile south of Philomath in 1846. Hartless was quite well-to-do and had many cattle. In the fall of 1849 he and Wyman St. Claire established a store at Avery, a forerunner to Corvallis. In a few years Reuben had saved $1,500, and with a part of it he bought a farm where Mt. Union Cemetery and Mt. Union School are now located.
Now Ford, who settled in Rickreall in Polk County in 1844, owned a young slave woman named Mary Jane Holmes (1830-1930), most likely a daughter of Polly and Robin Holmes. Ford allowed Reuben to marry this woman and take her to his farm. Then, having learned that Reuben had money, Ford came without knowledge to his white friends, and made him believe that he must purchase his wife's freedom, which he did for $700. A bride price of this size was not unusual as half a million freedmen bought and held slaves before the Civil War. Most dealings were mainly for purposes of philanthropy and freedom. Many, however, were that the husband purchased the wife or vice versa; if she wasn't emancipated before having their children, the 1830 Census reported the children as slaves. Some husbands didn't free their wives without a few years of probation; if she didn't work out, he could recoup the $700 plus profit by selling her! Freedmen, unfortunately, had learned by following the whites' example! (From Freedom to Freedom, Purnell Reference Books 1977, pp. 263, 264)
Reuben and Mary Jane reared a large family--Wallace, Ella, Thomas, Martha, Nellie and Edward--on their 80 acre farm four miles west of Corvallis. Reuben was industrious and Mary Jane was a splendid housekeeper and the family entered into the life of the church and the community without too much consideration of the question of social equality. When William Wyatt, another pioneer, spoke of the hill on which Reuben Shipley's farm as a likely place for a cemetery, Reuben agreed to give two acres for that purpose if he might be buried there. This parcel donated in 1861 was the the beginning of Mt. Union Cemetery where many of the pioneers of Benton County are buried. Rueben Shipley is there among them. He died in 1873 at the age of 74. Mary Jane lived in Benton County until 1880. In after years she married Alfred Drake and lived well into the third decade of the 20th century. (Benton County Archives, p. 18)
Louis A. Southworth
Born a slave, Louis A. Southworth (1830-1917), navigated frontier racial barriers with the exuberance he devoted to his fiddle. He traveled the Oregon Trail and later played the fiddle at gold camps to earn money for his freedom. He survived a wound in the Rogue River Wars and became a respected homesteader. He donated land for a schoolhouse, learned to read and write and became a blacksmith.
With a spirit that matched the gusto of the holiday, Southworth was born in Tennessee in 1830 on the Fourth of July. His parents, Pauline and Louis Hunter, were slaves of James Southworth. As was often the case, the child took the last name of the slave owner.
At age two, Southworth moved with his parents and master to Missouri, where his father died of smallpox. In 1851, at the age of 21, he journeyed to Corvallis with his mother and master.
Although slavery was officially banned, it was still practiced in Oregon. Regardless, Southworth persuaded his master to let him go to the gold fields, and in eight months, he made $300 mining in Southwest Oregon. He soon discovered he could earn as much with his fiddle as he could with a miner's shovel, and performed in gold camps in Yreka and Eureka, California, and in Virginia City, Nevada.
At age 28, Southworth bought his freedom for $1,000, the equivalent of more than $17,000 today. He moved to Buena Vista, north of Albany where he worked as a blacksmith. He learned how to read and write, and eventually married. His bride, Maria Cooper, had an adopted son, a West Indian child named Alvin McCleary.
In 1879, Southworth homesteaded along the south bank of Alsea River, about five miles east of Waldport, and the fiddler and his family quickly won over the community.
Southworth ferried cargo and passengers and grew hay along the flats. McCleary, his adopted son--who would become a beloved figure in the area before his death in 1951--rowed two miles to school each day. As homesteaders moved in, Southworth donated land for a local schoolhouse, and served as chairman of the school board.
An ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Southworth was a diligent voter. During the presidential election of 1880, a fierce southwest storm raised whitecaps on Alsea Bay. He rigged two oil drums to his boat for buoyancy and rowed across the bay to the polling place. Ironically, he was the only man in Waldport to vote that day!
Southworth was expelled from the Baptist church in Waldport after members disapproved of his fiddle playing. He told the story in a 1915 interview with the Daily Gazette Times: "But the brethren would not stand for my fiddle, which was about all the company I had much of the time. So I told them to keep me in the church with my fiddle, if they could, but to turn me out if they must, for I could not think of parting with the fiddle. I reckon my name wasn't written in their books here anymore, but I somehow hope it's written in the big book up yonder where they aren't so particular about fiddles."
About a year after Maria died in 1901, Southworth moved to Corvallis. He bought a little house downtown at the corner of Southwest Fourth and Adams. He hung his fiddle and a portrait of Lincoln over the mantle. Southworth remarried by never had children of his own.
Southworth was accepted by the white frontier community during a chaotic time. Oregon joined the Union in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War. The state constitution excluded blacks, and in 1866, the Oregon legislature passed a law forbidding interracial marriage.
At the end of his life, Louis Southworth was embraced by his neighbors in Corvallis. Before he died in 1917 at the age of 86, his friends raised $300 to pay off his mortgage.
Today, he lies in an unmarked grave in Corvallis' Crystal Springs Cemetery next to his wife Maria. ("Historical Name Or Slur," Portland Oregonian July 22, 1999)
The Lynching of Alonso Tucker 1906
African Americans were unequivocally not wanted in Oregon, but some, like Reuben Shipley and Louis Southworth, persisted quietly and settled in the state. The 1850 Census reported only 54 or 56 in the entire Pacific Northwest.
The 1860 Census identified 124 blacks and mulattos, a tiny fraction of the more than 52,000 residents enumerated. Those who settled in Oregon took risks, but they had known prejudice and discrimination far worse in other parts of the country. Sometimes, however, racial episodes erupted. These occurred sporadically in several parts of the state over a period of 70 years.
By 1890, the black population of Coos County was 36. Most worked for the local railroad or at the Beaver Hill and Libby mines. Recruited in West Virginia, they had emigrated across the country and walked through the Coast Range from Roseburg to Lower Coquille River, only to find that they and their families were expected to live in leaking boxcars. The men had to work in the deep shafts reaching below sea level for 90 cents a day. When they complained they were accused of fomenting labor strife and compelled to leave.
Alonzo Tucker was a black man who worked as a bootblack and operator of a gym in Marshfield (Coos Bay).
In 1906 dubious charges of rape were leveled against him by a white woman. When a mob of 200 armed men marched on the jail, the marshal freed Tucker, who hid beneath a dock. The next morning he was twice shot and then hanged from the Fourth Street Bridge by a mob that had grown to more than 300. The coroner's inquest found no fault; the victim, the report said, had died of asphyxiation. No indictments were brought. The local paper observed that the lynch mob was "quiet and orderly" and that the vigilante meeting was no "unnecessary disturbance of the peace."
In 1907 the Marshfield school board instituted segregated education, alleging that the four African American students "will materially retard the progress of the 500 white children." (Oregon Blue Book)