Oregon and Washington Volunteers/26

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[Letter of Joel Palmer, late superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon, relative to the service of Captain Jesse Walker’s company of mounted volunteers, dated December 17, 1857.][edit]

Dayton, O. T., December 17, 1857.

Dear Sir: I acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 8th instant, upon the subject of the expedition sent out in 1854 to protect the emigrants coming to Oregon by the southern route. You request me to give you a brief history of the lawless bands of Indians that have infested that road since I have been acquainted with them. It is, perhaps, enough for me to say, in reply to this, that that portion of the southern emigrant road between the head waters of Humboldt river, to the crossing of the Siskiyon [sic] mountains, has ever been infested by Indians who seldom allow an opportunity to pass without stealing, plundering, and killing emigrants, if they had the power to do so, and perhaps I cannot give you a more general idea of the estimation in which I hold those Indians than by taking a few extracts of my official letters and reports to the Indian department at Washington city.

In my report under date of 11th September, 1854, in speaking of the Indians who inhabit the eastern portion of Mr. Thompson’s district, along Lewis’ Fork of the Columbia, on Snake river and its tributaries, and urging the necessity of establishing military stations in the interior, I use the following language, which is equally applicable to the country and Indians along the southern emigrant road:

“So long as these Indians remain occupants of that district, unrestrained by the military arm, we may expect robbery and bloodshed, as they increase yearly in skill and boldness, and are more abundantly supplied with arms and ammunition by improvident emigrants and reckless traders. Should it, nevertheless, be considered unadvisable to establish permanent posts so far inland, it would appear absolutely necessary to detail a company of mounted men each year to scour the country between Grand Ronde and Fort Hall, during the transit of the emigration.”

“East of the Cascade mountains, and south of the 44th parallel, is a country not attached particularly to any agency. That portion at the eastern base of this range, extending twenty-five or thirty miles east, and south on the California line, is the country of the Klamath Indians. East of this tribe, along our southern boundary, and extending some distance into California, is the tribe known as the Modocs. They speak the same language as the Klamaths. East of these again, but extending further south, are the Mo-e-twas, (sometimes called Piutes.) These two last named tribes have always evinced a deadly hostility to the whites, and have probably committed more outrages than any other interior tribe. The Modocs boast, the Klamaths told me, of having, within the last four years, murdered thirty-six whites.

“East of these tribes, and extending to our eastern limits, are the Sho-sho-nes, Snakes or Diggers. Little is known of their number or history. They are cowardly, but often attack weaker parties, and never fail to avail themselves of a favorable opportunity to plunder. Their country is a desert, with an occasional spot of verdure on the margin of lakes, or in deep ravines or chasms.”

In August, 1854, I visited the Indians inhabiting the country about Klamath lake. That visit and the presents distributed, the sending messengers to the Modocs, Mo-e-twas, and Sho-sho-nes, together with the presence of a mounted and well-armed volunteer force in their country, contributed to restrain those lawless bands from committing their usual depredations.

It was in 1846, that the first emigrating party came into Oregon, by the southern road. And as far as I have been able to ascertain, but one person was murdered that year by the Indians. But in 1852, their depredations had become unendurable. A party was fitted out by the citizens of Yreka, under the command of Capt. Benjamin Wright, and sent to the relief of the emigrants. Another party, under the command of Captain Ross, was fitted out and despatched for the same object, by the citizens of Jackson county, southern Oregon; but before these parties could reach the emigrants, many of them had been murdered and robbed by these Indians. The company under Captain Wright, found and buried eighteen or twenty bodies, men, women, and children, who were generally horribly mutilated. The company under Captain Ross found and buried some dozen bodies in like condition, and it is presumed many others were murdered, whose remains were left to bleach upon the plains.

La Lakes, the head chief of the Klamaths, as indicated in the extract, stated that the Modocs boasted of having killed, in the last four years, thirty-six persons. The Mo-e-twas, or Pi-utes, are equally numerous and hostile, and the Sho-sho-nes are known to have murdered several persons.

I have never visited these tribes officially, as until recently it was supposed the country occupied by the Modocs and Mo-e-twas was wholly within the limits of California.

In the year 1853, the Indians along this route were kept in check by the presence of a detachment of United States dragoons from Fort Jones, and a volunteer force under Captain Miller, who was detailed for that service by General Lane at the close of the Rogue river war.

Previous to my expedition to the Klamath country, I had expected that a detachment of United States dragoons would be directed to scour the country between Fort Lane and Fort Boisé, on Snake river, crossing the mountains on the emigrant road, and passing through the country of the Modocs and Sho-sho-nes; but from some cause this was not done, and I presume the main one was the limited number of troops in that country, and the frequent difficulties occurring between the miners and numerous Indians, requiring the presence of their entire force.

There can be no doubt but that the presence of the volunteer force under Captain Walker, referred to in your letter, tended materially to render a safe conduct of the emigrants through the country occupied by these lawless tribes in 1854.

If what I have said will be of any advantage to you, I shall be more than gratified.

I am, sir, very respectfully yours,


B. F. Dowell, Esq.,
Salem, Oregon Territory.

Territory of Oregon:

I, B. F. Harding, secretary of the Territory of Oregon, do hereby certify that the foregoing are true and perfect copies of the originals now on file in my office.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto signed my name and affixed the seal of the Territory this 30th day of March, A. D. 1858.

Secretary of Oregon.