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Chapter VII

  • Learning the Chinook language
  • -- strange Indian customs -- their doctors -- Sam Patch -- the murder of a woman -- in a tight place -- surprising the Indians -- conflicting reports of the battle of Bull Run -- secession question in California -- appointed a Captain -- transferred to the East.

The troubles at the Siletz and Yaquina Bay were settled without further excitement by the arrival in due time of plenty of food, and as the buildings at Fort Haskins were so near completion that my services as quartermaster were no longer needed, I was ordered to join my own company at Fort Yamhill, where Captain Russell was still in command. I returned to that place in May, 1857, and at a period a little later, in consequence of the close of hostilities in southern Oregon, the Klamaths and Modocs were sent back to their own country, to that section in which occurred, in 1873, the disastrous war with the latter tribe. This reduced considerably the number of Indians at the Grande Ronde, but as those remaining were still somewhat unruly, from the fact that many questions requiring adjustment were constantly arising between the different bands, the agent and the officers at the post were kept pretty well occupied. Captain Russell assigned to me the special work of keeping up the police control, and as I had learned at an early day to speak Chinook (the “court language” among the coast tribes) almost as well as the Indians themselves, I was thereby enabled to steer my way successfully on many critical occasions.

For some time the most disturbing and most troublesome element we had was the Rogue River band. For three or four years they had fought our troops obstinately, and surrendered at the bitter end in the belief that they were merely overpowered, not conquered. They openly boasted to the other Indians that they could whip the soldiers, and that they did not wish to follow the white man's ways, continuing consistently [58] their wild habits, unmindful of all admonitions. Indeed, they often destroyed their household utensils, tepees and clothing, and killed their horses on the graves of the dead, in the fulfillment of a superstitious custom, which demanded that they should undergo, while mourning for their kindred, the deepest privation in a property sense. Everything the loss of which would make them poor was sacrificed on the graves of their relatives or distinguished warriors, and as melancholy because of removal from their old homes caused frequent deaths, there was no lack of occasion for the sacrifices. The widows and orphans of the dead warriors were of course the chief mourners, and exhibited their grief in many peculiar ways. I remember one in particular which was universally practiced by the near kinsfolk. They would crop their hair very close, and then cover the head with a sort of hood or plaster of black pitch, the composition being clay, pulverized charcoal, and the resinous gum which exudes from the pine-tree. The hood, nearly an inch in thickness, was worn during a period of mourning that lasted through the time it would take nature, by the growth of the hair, actually to lift from the head the heavy covering of pitch after it had become solidified and hard as stone. It must be admitted that they underwent considerable discomfort in memory of their relatives. It took all the influence we could bring to bear to break up these absurdly superstitious practices, and it looked as if no permanent improvement could be effected, for as soon as we got them to discard one, another would be invented. When not allowed to burn down their tepees or houses, those poor souls who were in a dying condition would be carried out to the neighboring hillsides just before dissolution, and there abandoned to their sufferings, with little or no attention, unless the placing under their heads of a small stick of wood -with possibly some laudable object, but doubtless great discomfort to their victim — might be considered such.

To uproot these senseless and monstrous practices was indeed most difficult. The most pernicious of all was one which was likely to bring about tragic results. They believed firmly in a class of doctors among their people who professed that they could procure the illness of an individual at will, and that by certain incantations they could kill or cure the sick person. Their faith in this superstition was so steadfast that there was no doubting its sincerity, many indulging at times in the most trying privations, that their relatives might be saved from death at the hands of the doctors. I often talked with them on the subject, and tried to reason them out of the superstitious belief, defying the doctors to kill me, or even make me ill; but my talks were unavailing, and they always met my arguments with the remark that I was a white [59] man, of a race wholly different from the red man, and that that was the reason the medicine of the doctors would not affect me. These villainous doctors might be either men or women, and any one of them finding an Indian ill, at once averred that his influence was the cause, offering at the same time to cure the invalid for a fee, which generally amounted to about all the ponies his family possessed. If the proposition was accepted and the fee paid over, the family, in case the man died, was to have indemnity through the death of the doctor, who freely promised that they might take his life in such event, relying on his chances of getting protection from the furious relatives by fleeing to the military post till time had so assuaged their grief that matters could be compromised or settled by a restoration of a part of the property, when the rascally leeches could again resume their practice. Of course the services of a doctor were always accepted when an Indian fell ill; otherwise the invalid's death would surely ensue, brought about by the evil influence that was unpropitiated. Latterly it had become quite the thing, when a patient died, for the doctor to flee to our camp — it was so convenient and so much safer than elsewhere — and my cellar was a favorite place of refuge from the infuriated friends of the deceased.

Among the most notable of these doctors was an Indian named Sam Patch, who several times sought asylum in my cellar, and being a most profound diplomat, managed on each occasion and with little delay to negotiate a peaceful settlement and go forth in safety to resume the practice of his nefarious profession. I often hoped he would be caught before reaching the post, but he seemed to know intuitively when the time had come to take leg-bail, for his advent at the garrison generally preceded by but a few hours the death of some poor dupe.

Finally these peculiar customs brought about the punishment of a noted doctress of the Rogue River tribe, a woman who was constantly working in this professional way, and who had found a victim of such prominence among the Rogue Rivers that his unlooked for death brought down on her the wrath of all. She had made him so ill, they believed, as to bring him to death's door notwithstanding the many ponies that had been given her to cease the incantations, and it was the conviction of all that she had finally caused the man's death from some ulterior and indiscernible motive. His relatives and friends then immediately set about requiting her with the just penalties of a perfidious breach of contract. Their threats induced her instant flight toward my house for the usual protection, but the enraged friends of the dead man gave hot chase, and overtook the witch just inside the limits of the garrison, where, on the parade-ground, in sight of the officers' quarters, [60] and before any one could interfere, they killed her. There were sixteen men in pursuit of the doctress, and sixteen gun-shot wounds were found in her body when examined by the surgeon of the post. The killing of the woman was a flagrant and defiant outrage committed in the teeth of the military authority, yet done so quickly that we could not prevent it. This necessitated severe measures, both to allay the prevailing excitement and to preclude the recurrence of such acts. The body was cared for, and delivered to the relatives the next day for burial, after which Captain Russell directed me to take such steps as would put a stop to the fanatical usages that had brought about this murderous occurrence, for it was now seen that if timely measures were not taken to repress them, similar tragedies would surely follow.

Knowing all the men of the Rogue River tribe, and speaking fluently the Chinook tongue, which they all understood, I went down to their village the following day, after having sent word to the tribe that I wished to have a council with them. The Indians all met me in council, as I had desired, and I then told them that the men who had taken part in shooting the woman would have to be delivered up for punishment. They were very stiff with me at the interview, and with all that talent for circumlocution and diplomacy with which the Indian is gifted, endeavored to evade my demands and delay any conclusion. But I was very positive, would hear of no compromise whatever, and demanded that my terms be at once complied with. No one was with me but a sergeant of my company, named Miller, who held my horse, and as the chances of an agreement began to grow remote, I became anxious for our safety. The conversation waxing hot and the Indians gathering close in around me, I unbuttoned the flap of my pistol holster, to be ready for any emergency. When the altercation became most bitter I put my hand to my hip to draw my pistol, but discovered it was gone — stolen by one of the rascals surrounding me. Finding myself unarmed, I modified my tone and manner to correspond with my helpless condition, thus myself assuming the diplomatic side in the parley, in order to gain time. As soon as an opportunity offered, and I could, without too much loss of self-respect, and without damaging my reputation among the Indians, I moved out to where the sergeant held my horse, mounted, and crossing the Yamhill River close by, called back in Chinook from the farther bank that “the sixteen men who killed the woman must be delivered up, and my six-shooter also.” This was responded to by contemptuous laughter, so I went back to the military post somewhat crest-fallen, and made my report of the turn affairs had taken, inwardly longing for another chance to bring the rascally Rogue Rivers to terms. [61]

When I had explained the situation to Captain Russell, he thought that we could not, under any circumstances, overlook this defiant conduct of the Indians, since, unless summarily punished, it would lead to even more serious trouble in the future. I heartily seconded this proposition, and gladly embracing the opportunity it offered, suggested that if he would give me another chance, and let me have the effective force of the garrison, consisting of about fifty men, I would chastise the Rogue Rivers without fail, and that the next day was all the time I required to complete arrangements. He gave me the necessary authority, and I at once set to work to bring about a better state of discipline on the reservation, and to put an end to the practices of the medicine men (having also in view the recovery of my six-shooter and self-respect), by marching to the village and taking the rebellious Indians by force.

In the tribe there was an excellent woman called Tighee Mary (Tighee in Chinook means chief), who by right of inheritance was a kind of queen of the Rogue Rivers. Fearing that the insubordinate conduct of the Indians would precipitate further trouble, she came early the following morning to see me and tell me of the situation, Mary informed me that she had done all in her power to bring the Indians to reason, but without avail, and that they were determined to fight rather than deliver up the sixteen men who had engaged in the shooting. She also apprised me of the fact that they had taken up a position on the Yamhill River, on the direct road between the post and village, where, painted and armed for war, they were awaiting attack.

On this information I concluded it would be best to march to the village by a circuitous route instead of directly, as at first intended, so I had the ferryboat belonging to the post floated about a mile and a half down the Yamhill River and there anchored. At 11 o'clock that night I marched my fifty men out of the garrison, in a direction opposite to that of the point held by the Indians, and soon reached the river at the ferryboat. Here I ferried the party over with little delay, and marched them along the side of the mountain, through underbrush and fallen timber, until, just before daylight, I found that we were immediately in rear of the village, and hence in rear, also, of the line occupied by the refractory Indians, who were expecting to meet me on the direct road from the post. Just at break of day we made a sudden descent upon the village and took its occupants completely by surprise, even capturing the chief of the tribe, “Sam,” who was dressed in all his war toggery, fully armed and equipped, in anticipation of a fight on the road where his comrades were in position. I at once put Sam under guard, giving orders to kill him instantly if the Indians fired a shot; then forming my line on the road beyond the edge of the village, in rear of the force [62] lying in wait for a front attack, we moved forward. When the hostile party realized that they were completely cut off from the village, they came out from .their stronghold on the river and took up a line in my front, distant about sixty yards with the apparent intention of resisting to the last.

As is usual with Indians when expecting a fight, they were nearly naked, fantastically painted with blue clay, and hideously arrayed in was bonnets. They seemed very belligerent, brandishing their muskets in the air, dancing on one foot, calling us ugly names, and making such other demonstrations of hostility, that it seemed at first that nothing short of the total destruction of the party could bring about the definite settlement that we were bent on. Still, as it was my desire to bring them under subjection without loss of life, if possible, I determined to see what result would follow when they learned that their chief was at our mercy. So, sending Sam under guard to the front, where we could be seen, informing them that he would be immediately shot if they fired upon us, and aided by the cries and lamentations of the women of the village, who deprecated any hostile action by either party, I soon procured a parley.

The insubordinate Indians were under command of “Joe,” Sam's brother, who at last sent me word that he wanted to see me, and we met between our respective lines. I talked kindly to him, but was firm in my demand that the men who killed the woman must be given up and my six-shooter returned. His reply was he did not think it could be done, but he would consult his people. After the consultation, he returned and notified me that fifteen would surrender and the sixshooter would be restored, and further, that we could kill the sixteenth man, since the tribe wished to get rid of him anyhow, adding that he was a bad Indian, whose bullet no doubt had given the woman her death wound. He said that if I assented to this arrangement, he would require all of his people except the objectionable man to run to the right of his line at a preconcerted signal. The bad Indian would be ordered to stand fast on the extreme left, and we could open fire on him as his comrades fell away to the right. I agreed to the proposition, and gave Joe fifteen minutes to execute his part of it. We then returned to our respective forces, and a few minutes later the fifteen ran to the right flank as agreed upon, and we opened fire on the one Indian left standing alone, bringing him down in his tracks severely wounded by a shot through the shoulder.

While all this was going on, the other bands of the reservation, several thousand strong, had occupied the surrounding hills for the purpose of witnessing the fight, for as the Rogue Rivers had been bragging [63]

General A. T. A. Torbert.

[64] for some time that they could whip the soldiers, these other Indians had come out to see it done. The result, however, disappointed the spectators, and the Rogue Rivers naturally lost caste. The fifteen men now came in and laid down their arms (including my six-shooter) in front of us as agreed, but I compelled them to take the surrendered guns up again and carry them to the post, where they were deposited in the block-house for future security. The prisoners were ironed with ball and chain, and made to work at the post until their rebellious spirit was broken; and the wounded man was correspondingly punished after he had fully recovered. An investigation as to why this man had been selected as the offering by which Joe and his companions expected to gain immunity, showed that the fellow was really a most worthless character, whose death even would have been a benefit to the tribe. Thus it seemed that they had two purposes in view — the one to propitiate me and get good terms, the other to rid themselves of a vagabond member of the tribe.

The punishment of these sixteen Indians by ball and chain ended all trouble with the Rogue River tribe. The disturbances arising from the incantations of the doctors and doctresses, and the practice of killing horses and burning all worldly property on the graves of those who died, were completely suppressed, and we made with little effort a great stride toward the civilization of these crude and superstitious people, for they now began to recognize the power of the Government. In their management afterward a course of justice and mild force was adopted, and unvaryingly applied. They were compelled to cultivate their land, to attend church, and to send their children to school. When I saw them, fifteen years later, transformed into industrious and substantial farmers, with neat houses, fine cattle, wagons and horses, carrying their grain, eggs, and butter to market and bringing home flour, coffee, sugar, and calico in return, I found abundant confirmation of my early opinion that the most effectual measures for lifting them from a state of barbarism would be a practical supervision at the outset, coupled with a firm control and mild discipline.

In all that was done for these Indians Captain Russell's judgment and sound, practical ideas were the inspiration. His true manliness, honest and just methods, together with the warm-hearted interest he took in all that pertained to matters of duty to his Government, could not have produced other than the best results, in what position soever he might have been placed. As all the lovable traits of his character were constantly manifested, I became most deeply attached to him, and until the day of his death in 1864, on the battle-field of Opequan, in front of Winchester, while gallantly leading his division under my command, [65] my esteem and affection were sustained and intensified by the same strong bonds that drew me to him in these early days in Oregon.

After the events Just narrated I continued on duty at the post of Yamhill, experiencing the usual routine of garrison life without any incidents of much interest, down to the breaking out of the war of the rebellion in April, 1861. The news of the firing on Fort Sumter brought us an excitement which overshadowed all else, and though we had no officers at the post who sympathized with the rebellion, there were several in our regiment — the Fourth Infantry--who did, and we were considerably exercised as to the course they might pursue, but naturally far more so concerning the disposition that would be made of the regiment during the conflict.

In due time orders came for the regiment to go East, and my company went off, leaving me, however-a Second lieutenant — in command of the post until I should be relieved by Captain James J. Archer, of the Ninth Infantry, whose company was to take the place of the old garrison. Captain Archer, with his company of the Ninth, arrived shortly after, but I had been notified that he intended to go South, and his conduct was such after reaching the post that I would not turn over the command to him for fear he might commit some rebellious act. Thus a more prolonged detention occurred than I had at first anticipated. Finally the news came that he had tendered his resignation and been granted a leave of absence for sixty days. On July 17 he took his departure, but I continued in command till September 1, when Captain Philip A. Owen, of the Ninth Infantry, arrived and, taking charge, gave me my release.

From the day we received the news of the firing on Sumter until I started East, about the first of September, 1861, I was deeply solicitous as to the course of events, and though I felt confident that in the end the just cause of the Government must triumph, yet the thoroughly crystallized organization which the Southern Confederacy quickly exhibited disquieted me very much, for it alone was evidence that the Southern leaders had long anticipated the struggle and prepared for it. It was very difficult to obtain direct intelligence of the progress of the war. Most of the time we were in the depths of ignorance as to the true condition of affairs, and this tended to increase our anxiety. Then, too, the accounts of the conflicts that had taken place were greatly exaggerated by the Eastern papers, and lost nothing in transition. The news came by the pony express across the Plains to San Francisco, where it was still further magnified in republishing, and gained somewhat in Southern bias. I remember well that when the first reports reached us [66] of the battle of Bull Run--that sanguinary engagement — it was stated that each side had lostforty thousand men in killed and wounded, and none were reported missing nor as having run away. Week by week these losses grew less, until they finally shrunk into the hundreds, but the vivid descriptions of the gory conflict were not toned down during the whole summer.

We received our mail at Yamhill only once a week, and then had to bring it from Portland, Oregon, by express. On the day of the week that our courier, or messenger, was expected back from Portland, I would go out early in the morning to a commanding point above the post, from which I could see a long distance down the road as it ran through the valley of the Yamhill, and there I would watch with anxiety for his coming, longing for good news; for, isolated as I had been through years spent in the wilderness, my patriotism was untainted by politics, nor had it been disturbed by any discussion of the questions out of which the war grew, and I hoped for the success of the Government above all other considerations. I believe I was also uninfluenced by any thoughts of the promotion that might result to me from the conflict, but, out of a sincere desire to contribute as much as I could to the preservation of the Union, I earnestly wished to be at the seat of war, and feared it might end before I could get East. In no sense did I anticipate what was to happen to me afterward, nor that I was to gain any distinction from it, I was ready to do my duty to the best of my ability wherever I might be called, and I was young, healthy, insensible to fatigue, and desired opportunity, but high rank was so distant in our service that not a dream of its attainment had flitted through my brain.

During the period running from January to September, 1861, in consequence of resignations and the addition of some new regiments to the regular army, I had passed through the grade of first lieutenant and reached that of captain in the Thirteenth United States Infantry, of which General W. T. Sherman had recently been made the colonel. When relieved from further duty at Yamhill by Captain Owen, I left for the Atlantic coast to join my new regiment. A two days ride brought me down to Portland, whence I sailed to San Franciso, and at that city took passage by steamer for New York via the Isthmus of Panama, in company with a number of officers who were coming East under circumstances like my own.

At this time California was much agitated on the question of secession, and the secession element was so strong that considerable apprehension was felt by the Union people lest the State might be carried into the Confederacy. As a consequence great distrust existed in all quarters, and the loyal passengers on the steamer, not knowing what might [67] occur during our voyage, prepared to meet emergencies by thoroughly organizing to frustrate any attempt that might possibly be made to carry us into some Southern port after we should leave Aspinwall. However, our fears proved groundless; at all events, no such attempt was made, and we reached New York in safety in November, 1861. A day or two in New York sufficed to replenish a most meagre wardrobe, and I then started West to join my new regiment, stopping a day and a night at the home of my parents in Ohio, where I had not been since I journeyed from Texas for the Pacific coast. The headquarters of my regiment were at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, to which point I proceeded with no further delay except a stay in the city of St. Louis long enough to pay my respects to General H. W. Halleck. [68]

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