The Dead Indian Country
Of Jackson County, Oregon. Where the name came from.
It was known that there was a small band on Butte Creek, under the Chief, Jake; and a party was sent to hunt them out [in the fall of 1855]. They were found in a state of great destitution, having previously had all their winter provisions and camp utensils destroyed. They were taken prisoners; but the victors not agreeing how to dispose of them, they were allowed to go.
The same party found, in one place, evident signs of its having been the scene of an Indian battle. Among other things, they found two dead Indians, over whom was spread a wagon cover, known to have belonged to the teamsters who were killed in the fall, as has been already related. It was afterward ascertained that the tribe just liberated, hoping to conciliate the favor of the whites, had made war, and killed all who had been engaged in that affair. It was said they were actually on their way to give themselves up, when they were met by the same company of volunteers who had captured and released them a few days previous. As it had become unpopular to kill women, they ordered the females aside while they shot the men, numbering eighteen. This cruel and deliberate butchery occupied the space of two hours--a period of inconceivable horror and anguish both to the waiting victims and their friends who were kept within reach of their struggles and cries.
John Beeson, A Plea for the Indians, 1858, pages 76-77
On the morning of the 28th [of September, 1855] at 8 o'clock I was at the mountain with 30-odd men and went immediately to the soldiers' camp. They were just about ready to start. I rode up & inquired for their officer. A tall and noble-looking gentleman was pointed out to me as Major Fitzgerald. I was in his presence but a moment when my mind was made up that this time that I had a soldier and a gentleman to deal with. I saluted him, saying, "This I presume is Major Fitzgerald." He said it is. I said, "Well, Major, I suppose you are here for the purpose of subduing those hostile Indians." He said, "That is what we would like to do." "And that is what we would like to have done" was my reply. I said, "Major, I thought as all was strange to you where those Indians are located that we might be able to afford you some assistance in finding them, and if you are willing to accept, our service is at your disposal. I think we can find them, and if you are willing we are now at your service." He said, "You are acquainted with this country and know better how to proceed than we do. Lead off, and we will be at your service." I said, "Major, I have not come here to supersede you in command." He called to his Lieutenant, saying, "We go today with this man. Give him your attention and whatever orders he may give, see that they are executed." I said, "If I am to lead I will not go to where the deed was done to get their trail but will intercept it several miles from here." We found it beyond Keene Creek and were following on and discovered a fresh horse track that had been on the run. This was discouraging. I knew that we had been discovered. A half a mile further brought [us] in sight of a camp; the smoke was rising as from a lively fire. I sent some men to reconnoiter. They reported all gone. We took their trail and followed over onto Jenny Creek and up it, crossing the emigrant road and up to where the mountains set in close and were steep and rough. Here the trail left the trail and took up a steep point. They had slipped and scrambled through a reef of craggy rocks. I sent some men around to see if they had passed on. They reported they had. They were going in the direction of Butte Creek on the reservation. I said, "We will follow them till we are satisfied as to where they go." Fitzgerald said his was cavalry men and we cannot compel them go where they cannot ride. I said, "If you will have your men take our horses back where there is grass and water we will follow further." He done so, and we went on till we were satisfied that they were aiming for the reservation. We returned in the evening and camped at Jenny Creek. Fitzgerald said he was satisfied that they were Indians that should be on the reservation and that we could effect nothing by following them. We can go back to the fort, he said, and intersect them and settle with them for all this. We returned to the valley [and] Fitzgerald to the fort. About this time the Governor had got worked up; the Indians were committing depredations north as well as south. The Governor ordered the raising of volunteer companies to suppress hostilities. I raised a company of which there are still living a number of men, viz. Giles Wells, Enoch and John Walker, Daniel and Henry Chapman, Hugh F. Barron, John R. Roberts of Lake County, J. D. Smith, Isaac Woolen now of Sect. 16, Capt. J. M. McCall, [Asa] Fordyce, A. D. Helman, Wm. Chase, James Tolman, _____Corday of Sacramento mines, Walker dead, John Murphy, Saml. Clayton dead. The muster roll having being destroyed, I cannot now remember their names. There were near 50 men in the company. We were mustered into service and went in the mountains east of Ashland to ascertain if Indians were yet there. We were not long in finding sign. Following it, we found where they had killed a beef. Following on about 20 miles out after much difficulty we discovered a camp. It was at the head of one of the branches of Butte Creek at [the] edge of the timber [along] a long strip of prairie. Their fires were in good trim and burning lively under a ton and a half or more of beef, which they were drying. This was about in line from Jenny to Butte Creek. We approached their camp carefully but found it vacant, but there were 2 dead Indians covered with a wagon sheet, from which fact that locality has inherited the title of the Dead Indian country. And here I may revert back to the Keene Creek affair to identify them with that affair. John Taylor borrowed a coat of Wm. Taylor the night we went out to the Green Springs. It was a new coat and nappy, and in his fright at the stampede he threw it away. One of those dead Indians had it on. What the cause of their demise was we never knew, but I conjecture that those were the fellows that stole the horse, thereby bringing on the trouble, that we had routed them from their serviceberry harvest on Keene Creek and now from their huckleberry fields and would be apt to entirely rout them from that country that next day, and they [the Indians] shot and killed them while they were asleep, for the muzzle of the gun had been so near as to burn the napping of [the coat] off for 3 inches in diameter. He lay there with his eyes wide open, looking as wicked as though he was in a fight. They had killed and was drying the meat of 7 beeves that they had drove from near Ashland, and that was what gave us so much trouble in trailing, it being so scattered & and running in all directions. The cattle killed belonged [to] Enoch Walker. We followed on their retreating down Butte Creek for a considerable distance away
Thomas Smith, "Biography and Brief Sketches of Early Incidents and Beginning of the Wars of 1853 and 1855 with the Rogue River Indians," Bancroft Library MS P-A 94. Dated 1885. Punctuation added. Smith's manuscript is completely innocent of any punctuation.
ORIGIN OF DEAD INDIAN PRAIRIE.[After the 1853 encounter that resulted in the death of Keene,] A company was raised to scour the country and find those same Indians. Finally a detour was made by them into a high plateau, dividing the waters of Little Butte and Bear creeks, tributaries of the Klamath and Rogue rivers, when, at the head of a narrow, long glade, the volunteers discovered an Indian camp. There was something peculiar in the fact that carrion crows, or buzzards, were seen in the air, circling above the village, and occasionally one would swoop down as if seizing prey. But, making all proper arrangements, they charged upon the camp. They found there only dead Indians. The carrion birds held no false carnival, but rioted in a camp of the dead. Since that time, and no doubt to all coming time as well, that mountain glade has borne, and will forever bear, the name of "Dead Indian Prairie." How to account for this holocaust of death was a strange question! Who were those Indians who lay there so still in death? Who were the slayers? Inspection showed they were the same Indians that Fred Alberding's volunteers had encountered on Keene Creek, for they found with them articles they had lost in their hasty retreat. One, who had a bad wound in the side that was partially healed, was evidently the leader Dennison had wounded while covering the retreat.
SOLVING A STRANGE MYSTERY.This mystery was finally solved by the statement made by a band of Rogue River Indians, who camped at the mouth of Little Butte, on Rogue River, to Dr. Ambrose. It seems that, fearing they might be some way blamed for the [illegible--a line of type obscured by a fold] up on the mountain in force and slew the last one of the band they found there. Keene Creek is not on the Rogue River side of the mountain, and those were not Rogue Rivers. They were peaceably picking berries for winter use. They naturally resisted the volunteers' [sic] attack. They must have been unsuspicious when the Little Butte Indians attacked and slew them all. We have said they were to be the greatest sufferers, and now we find them all defunct.
S. A. Clarke, "Pioneer Days," Oregonian, Portland, March 28, 1886, page 2 His informant is James C. Tolman.
The narrowest escape that [express rider Cornelius C. Beekman] had from the Indians was on September 25, 1855. At the summit of the Siskiyous he met 14 or 15 Indians, who allowed him to pass unmolested in order to surprise the drivers of three wagons loaded with flour from Waits Mill at Phoenix, which were within sound of a crack of a whip behind him. One of the three drivers, Calvin M. Fields, and an 18-year-old youth named Cunningham, who was passing with an empty wagon, were killed by the Indians. The youth, however, was only slaughtered by the Indians after a chase, his body being found next day in a hollow tree where he had vainly tried to hide. John Walker, who led a company of men after the Indians, found in Klamath County the body of a buck clothed with the hickory shirt which young Cunningham had worn at the time of his death. The redskin had been killed by his fellow tribesmen as the result of a quarrel. Ever since this particular region has been known as the Dead Indian Country.
"Banker, Pony Express Rider in Early Days," Oregonian, Portland, February 4, 1911, page 16
Last revised September 15, 2019