Friday, December 21, 2012

The Owens Valley Indian War

The Owens Valley is the westernmost desert basin that form the Great Basin section of the United States, it is a narrow valley that runs northwest to southeast and is bounded by the Sierra Nevadas on the West, and the White and Inyo Mountains on the East. It extends northward from the Coso Range south of Owens Lake for over 100 miles to the great bend in the Owens River north of the present-day town of Bishop, California.  Prior to 1861, the valley was home to transient prospectors aiming to strike it rich on small mining claims around the White Mountains in the eastern portion of the Owens Valley, and a native Paiute-Shoshone population, estimated at around a thousand by early settlers, which called the valley home.  The Paiute-Shoshone indians are a Shoshonian speaking people that have inhabited the Owens Valley since time immemorable.  They were primarily food gatherers and farmers, subsisting off pinyon pine nuts, tubers, and yellow nutgrass, and hunting deer, rabbits and big horn sheep.  The Paiute communities consisted of loose collections of families living in close proximity to each other, and were generally peaceful, with most disagreements caused by trespassing on hunting and pinyon nut grounds.  
Discrepancies between white settlers and Paiutes first started in 1859 with the forthcoming of stockmen looking for new markets in the gold and silver fields of the eastern sierra.  L.R. Ketcham was the first cattleman to drive cattle into the Owens Valley.  He was soon followed by Samuel Bishop and his wife, who brought 500 head of cattle and 50 horses up from Fort Tejon, and Allen Van Fleet and the McGee family who subsequently built the first permanent cabin on the Owens River near Laws, north of present day Bishop, and a stone trading post on the Lone Pine Creek, which is now the town of Independence.  According to the McGee family, they were constantly harassed by Paiute Indians during their drive, demanding tribute for every white man that goes through their valley.  The McGee party refused,  no violence was offered though the Paiutes did attempt to stampede some cattle.  
Tensions increased further in the fall of 1861, when three miners wintering at Cottonwood Creek were ordered to leave by Paiute "Chief" Joe Bowers.  Bowers warned the whites that they had better go for their safety.  
The winter of 1861-1862 proved to be the spark that ignited the tensions of the Owens Valley into armed conflict.  Probably the hardest winter ever to be seen in the Owens Valley, reports of severe weather in Inyo are corroborated by official records for other parts of California, for during that January the rainfall at Sacramento was over fifteen inches.  Barton McGee exclaimed that, "The whole country was soaked through and all the hills were deeply covered. All the streams became almost impassable, while the river was from one-fourth to one mile in width, about half ice and half water, and sweeping on to the lake, paying no respect to the crooks and curves of the old channel in its course to the lake, which it raised twelve feet."  The white settlers in the valley had nothing to subsist on except beef, and the plight of the Paiutes was exceedingly bad.  The extreme weather had driven off almost all of the game the Paiute subsisted on and made collecting and foraging for plant staples almost impossible.  Under the conditions of that winter, the herds of the white settlers provided the only means of preventing starvation.  The cattle were foraging on the Paiute's fields of wild grasses, and it seemed only natural that the cattle be killed for their own use.  Besides, the Paiute held that the white men were intruders. That the natives began to gather food from the ranges was only what might have been expected; it was what most white men would have done under the similar circumstances.  Many head of cattle were lost before white settlers began retaliation.
The first Paiute to be killed was shot by a herder, Al Thompson, who gunned down the indian after he attempted to drive away multiple heads of cattle.  Retaliatory action was later taken by the Paiutes who captured and killed a man by the name of Crossen, and left his scalp by the Big Pine creek.  As a result, both white settlers and Paiutes began to ride armed and the valley was in a state of high alert.   
 The principal Indian settlement of the northern part of the valley was on Bishop Creek. Indians from all parts of the valley, and beyond, gathered there, in the winter of 1861, and held a big fandango. Among those who were mixing war medicine were the sorcerers, who claimed that their magic would make the white men's guns so they could not be fired. The anxious stockmen kept their weakness concealed as well as they could, until reinforcements happened to arrive. A storm had wet the guns in camp, and to insure their reliability when needed they were taken outside and fired. This, disclosing to the Paiutes that the sorcerers' guarantees were not wholly dependable, helped to prevent the threatened assault, and the gathered Indians moved away.  
Although tensions soared, neither side actually wanted a war and a peace convention was decided upon and held at Bishop's San Francis Ranch on January 31, 1862.  A Paiute the settlers identified as Chief George defined the indian viewpoint by marking two lines in the ground to show that the score was even, referring to the killing of Crossen and the indian killed by Thompson.  A treaty was drawn up and read as follows:
"We the undersigned, citizens of Owens Valley, with Indian chiefs representing the different tribes and rancherias of said valley, having met together at San Francis ranch, and after talking over all past grievances, have agreed to let what is past be buried in oblivion; and as evidence of all things that have transpired having been amicably settled between both Indians and whites, each one of the chiefs and whites present have voluntarily signed their names to this instrument of writing.  And it is further agreed that the Indians are not to be molested in their daily avocations by which they gain an honest living.And it is further agreed upon the part of the Indians that they are not to molest the property of the whites, nor to drive off or kill cattle that are running in the valley, and for both parties to live in peace and strive to promote amicably the general interests of both whites and Indians."
Everyone agreed to the treaty except one Indian leader, Joaquin Jim, the leader of the Southern Mono Paiutes. He and his warriors began raiding ranches and the peace treaty faded away within two months.  
In February 1862, Joaquin Jim raided and made off with 200 head of cattle the McGee's were driving up north.  A few days later, Alan Van Fleet opened fire on several Paiutes stealing cattle and killed a popular Paiute leader, Chief Shondow.  Shondow's death was critical to the conflict because it influenced other indians who had previously decided to stay out of the conflict to join in.  Panamint, Tubatulabal, Serrano and various other Paiute-Shoshone bands joined the conflict, thus prolonging the war and intensifying the hostilities.
Now fully alarmed, the Owens Valley ranchers gathered at Putnam's Trading Post for mutual protection. Their fears were justified when a band of Paiutes attacked a cabin near where Benton Hot Springs is now located. E. S. Taylor, a local prospector occupied the cabin and defended it for two days, killing ten Indians, until the Paiutes set the cabin on fire and forced Taylor out into the open where he was killed.
On March 20, 1862 the settlers in the Owens Valley decided to raid an Indian camp in the Alabama Hills, just north of Owens Lake. The attack was a success because the Paiutes had.few firearms. Eleven Indians were killed and much of the indians dried meat was destroyed. Only three settlers were wounded.
Federal troops were requested to be sent into the Owens Valley when the firm of Wingate and Chon in Aurora, Nevada agreed to sell arms and ammunition to the Paiutes since they believed, that they had been cheated in previous cattle buying transactions with the settlers in the Owens Valley. A settler from Owens Valley travelled all the way to Aurora to buy ammunition but was refused by the merchants, because they felt that all the whites in the Owens River Valley should be killed.
Lieutenant Colonel Evans and his detachment of cavalry arrived at Owens Lake on April 2, 1862 and at Putnam's Trading Post on April 4th. Putnam's was under attack by approximately thirty Indians who retreated with the arrival of the cavalry. Colonel Evans for the first time learned something of the real conditions in the valley. And started north to the indians.

On April 5th Colonel Mayfield's position was becoming critical. The Indians had showed themselves in force of about five hundred. The whites decided to attack and pushed forth in two groups.  The indians soon followed suit and forced the soldiers to seek shelter in an irrigation ditch.  The soldiers escaped by nightfall, and in all only three men were killed, but more importantly they lost all their horses and supplies.  
On April 9th, Colonel Evans sent a patrol of nine men  to investigate a canyon where campfires had been seen the previous night. The patrol moved three hundred yards up the canyon before coming under fire. Private C. Gillespie was immediately killed and Corporal J. Harris wounded. Colonel Evans moved the men up to about four hundred yards from the mouth of the canyon. The troops dismounted and prepared to fight on foot. Lieutenants Noble and Oliver took forty men to the left side of the canyon and Colonel Evans and Lieutenant French took forty men to the right, Colonel Mayfield took four of his men with Lieutenant Noble, with the balance of Mayfield's men remaining at the mouth of the canyon. Lieutenant Noble's column succeeded in getting into position to recover Private Gillespie's body, but was drawing fire from both sides of the canyon. Private Gillespie's body was recovered but in the process Colonel Mayfield was killed. Lieutenant Noble found that it was impossible to maintain his position due to the heavy fire from his concealed foes and therefore had to retreat. Colonel Evans, because of the rugged nature of the terrain decided to retreat dlown the valley to a better position.  
By April 10th, Colonel Evans command were entirely out of provisions after feeding his troops and the citizens of Owens Valley.  He decided to pack up and leave back to Los Angeles, and in turn most of the settlers drove their stock out of the valley for safety.  After the departure of Evans and his men, the Paiute found themselves in complete control of the Owens Valley.  They attacked isolated parties of stockmen and miners throughout the valley into the summer months.  
Colonel Evans and his command returned to the Owens Valley in late June of 1862, and after five days of chasing the indians through the mountains, concluded that a permanent base would be needed in order to chastise the indians.  Thus on July 4, 1862, a fort was found near Putnam's trading post and aptly named Fort Independence.
On July 7th. Captain Rowe, Company A, 2nd Cavalry, California volunteers despatched a note to Colonel Evans at Camp Independence. Captain Rowe stated that he and Mr. Wasson, the Indian Agent had talked to the Indian Chiefs in the area and made a treaty with them. Orders to Captain Rowe and Colonel Evans were conflicting. Captain Rowe was on a peace seeking mission while Colonel Evans was under instructions to chastise the Indians. A meeting was arranged between Colonel Evans, Captain Rowe, Colonel Wasson and Captain George, a big war chief of the Paiutes. Captain George stated that he didn't want to fight anymore and wanted to become a friend of the white man. Colonel Evans reported that if the troops were withdrawn, the attacks would start all over again. 
Peace remained until March 1,1863 when Captain George disappeared and several miners and ranchers were killed within the next few days.On March 19th, a citizen brought information that thirty to forty Indians were killing livestock south of Camp Independence in the Alabama Hills. The Indians were dislodged and chased in a running battle down into Owens Lake Thirty five Indians died. in the battle and the Army had only one man wounded.  
In late April, Captain Moses A. McLaughlin arrived at Camp Independence as the new Camp Commander with members from Company D. 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers. The situation for the Indians became desperate. The soldiers were constantly seeking out the Indian food stores and destroying them. Also the Indians had never been instructed in the care and maintenance of their guns. As a result, their guns had become rusted and encrusted in dirt. Numerous weapons became unserviceable and could not be used.
On May 22nd, Captain George came to Camp Independence to talk peace. He indicated that he no longer wanted war. As a result of his surrender, more than four hundred Indians came in to lay down their arms.
On July 22, 1863 some nine hundred Indians were escorted to Fort Tejon to the San Sebastian Indian Reservation.

This ended the Owens Valley Indian War except for several attacks by Joaquin Jim in 1864 until he and his band, were pursued with most of the marauders being killed.  Several small skirmished ensued up to 1867, and mostly isolated to the desert regions of the southern part of Owens Valley.  Fort Independence was garrisoned until 1877, when troops were no longer needed in the valley.
     Residents of the Owens Valley estimated the total death list of the war, so far as they knew it, to be 60 whites and about 250 Indians.

Philip J. Wilek and Harry W. Lawton (editors), The Expedition of Captain J. W. Davidson from Fort Tejon to Owens Valley in 1859. Ballena Press, Socorro, MN. 1976.

 Ella M. Cain, The Story of Early Mono County: Its Settlers, Gold Rushes, Indians, and Ghost Towns. Fearon Publishers Inc., San Francisco, CA. 1961. p. 27, 88-90.

W. A. Chalfant, The Owens River Indian Wars, from The Story of Inyo (1922)

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