The Dead Indian Country
Of Jackson County, Oregon. Where the name came from.
Ashland Mills, Jackson County, Oregon TerritoryDear Brother
Jan. the 27, 1856
I received your letter of the 28 November this day, and I cannot describe the joy which I felt on hearing that you were all well and getting on so fine. It makes me anxious to be back there with you; times with you are a good deal better than they are here. You are making more money than I am. Times never has been so dull here as they are at present; there is no money and no water to work in the mines hardly. I would like very well to come back one year from now, but I don't know if I can raise money enough or not. It is rather doubtful if I can. I think I shall try the mines this spring a little and try my luck. I have been doing little or nothing since the first of November. I prospected about 3 weeks, found nothing, and lost about 30 dollars besides my time. I was forted up about 2 weeks with the rest of the people on account of the Indians which have been playing particular smash here since I wrote my last letter. They have killed a great many people round here, men women and children, burned houses and all, but I think they are pretty well cold down by this time. A great many soldiers and volunteers are out after them just now. I have not heard from them lately I have sent you the Table Rock Sentinel for six months (that is I have paid to have it sent six months); you can get all of the Indian news in it. I was out with the volunteers 27 days hunting Indians. I shall get 4 dollars per day for that time and a land warrant of 160 acres. We did not have any fighting to do while I was out, but one day we expected to have a great fight. We were riding along in mountains one day (up a small creek, the timber was very thick on each side of the creek). All at once we came in sight of an Indian rancheria (camp) not over 300 yards ahead of us. We all stopped, and 3 men went round through the timber to see if there was any Indians there; they came back and us there was lots of Indians. We took our horses back 2 or 300 yards, tied them and left two men to guard. We went round through the timber and crept up to the Indian camp in great silence. When we got within 50 yards of the camp we discovered there was no Indians there. We went into camp and found two dead Indians laying there that had been killed about two days. By whom they were killed we never have learned, but it is supposed it was some other tribe of Indians. One of the Indians had on two shirts and the coat that Keene had on when he was killed. I think I told you in my last about Mr. Keene being killed by the Indians. They had been shot by balls and arrows both. There was more beef in their camp than you could [have] piled on a large wagon. It was all sliced up and dried nice. We started a large fire, piled the beef on it and burned the last mite of it up; it made a great fire. We found the heads of 8 cattle that they had killed. They had commenced building a fort, and were preparing for winter. So we were sadly disappointed in getting a fight that time. Mr. Miller was along with the volunteers all the time I was. There was only 26 men of us [in] all in our company. Andrew Russell joined Captain Wilkinson's company about the 20 of December/55. I have not seen him since. He volunteered for 3 months; if anything happens to him you will see an account of it. In the Sentinel is an account of all the killed & wounded in the companies that are stationed this side of the Canyon. Mr. Miller left here for Shasta City in California about the 10 of December, with 54 head of steers; I have not heard anything from him since. I expect you would like to know something about what my character has been since I came to this country. Well, I will give you a true account of all my proceedings. After I left Mr. Miller I went to work nearby to the Ashland Mills where there are a good many people and they had preaching every other [week?] as I told you. Once before singing school I had to get some clothes so I could go to preaching and the singing. I bought me a coat for 25 dollars, a pair of pants for 11 dollars, a vest for 6 dollars, 2 shirts 5 dollars, 2 handkerchiefs and fine shoes 8 dollars, hat 5 dollars, which you see cost me 60 dollars. Well there was lots of balls round here also, so to be like the rest of the boys I had to go to some of them. I was at one on the 4 of July which cost 12 dollars just for the ball, then it is fashionable to give your partner something. Some gave a white dress, and dressed their partners from top to toe. Well, I gave mine a veil, cost 5 dollars, a riding skirt cost 3 dollars, and I was out about 2 dollars for wine, lemonade and suchlike trash, 22 dollars in all. I was at 3 or 4 small parties 2 & 3 dollars apiece. Well, then we would form riding parties, ride round the country for our health and suchlike with the girls. I had one nice Indian pony which was gentle for the girls to ride, then I could borrow a horse to ride myself. Five or six couples of us would get together, and just go a-kiting, no mercy for the horses, ride all day. This was the height of folly for me to spend my money in this way. I know now it was and I give you my word for it--I never shall while I live in this country be so foolish again. I am going to save my money and come to where people can have fun a little cheaper. Why, I am pretty near to the bottom of my sheet, and will soon have to draw to a close. You said in your last letter that you told me in a former letter that you expected Jennet Baird would keep house for you and Greg. Well now, you never told me that; if you did I did not get the letter, and in this letter you told me she was, and Greg and her was about to get married. Well now, this is very strange. Where is her husband Mr. Anderson? There must be a mistake here; you must have meant Mary Beard. I am very sorry that you had so bad luck with the mare you bought of Confar, but don't be discouraged; you will all get rich before long if you all keep your health. I am afraid I shall come out in the background. My sheet is full.
John Watson to one of his brothers in Reinbeck, Iowa. Original in possession of Helen Starr Nelson, Seattle; uncorrected typescript in Dead Indian Prairie vertical file, Southern Oregon Historical Society Research Library.
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 October 5, 2019