The Humbug War
Trouble on the Klamath and a standoff at Fort Lane in the runup to the war of 1855-56.
THE HUMBUG WAR.
The number of creeks and mining camps baptized "Humbug" by some disappointed miner, who had expected too much and realized too little, was legion in the early days of gold mining. Some of these have been rechristened, while others still bear their honors proudly, and live to prove that a homesick and disappointed miner is not always the best individual to decide on the merits of a mining camp. The one where occurred the event which, like the little cloud, grew till it covered the whole heavens and threatened to strike the United States from the map of the world, is the Humbug so well known in Siskiyou County, a few miles northwest of Yreka. In no portion of California and Oregon did the people suffer so much at the hands of hostile savages as in the region of Klamath and Rogue rivers. The mountain tribes were more fierce and warlike than were their humble and lazy brethren of the valleys and sunny slopes of the Sierras and Cascades, and from the time the miner first set his foot in the mountains that roll away in all directions from the feet of their white-haired monarch, the noble Shasta, a constant warfare marked their intercourse with the native proprietors of the soil. Scarcely a year passed by without a war of extermination being carried on with some of the many tribes, and a continual state of skirmish existed in several localities. For an Indian to appear in any mining camp immediately after an outrage had been committed was an insult to be punished with instant death. The miners were busy and could not spare the time to try an Indian. They occasionally tried a white man who had fallen under their displeasure, but time was too valuable to be wasted upon a dirty Indian, and a rope or a bullet soon settled matters. It was a favorite practice. "Good Indians" were in demand, and this was the usual method of making them. A number of natives always lived at peace with the whites, and these had frequently to suffer for the iniquities of their more turbulent relatives.
One day in the latter part of July, 1855, two Indians, under the influence of liquor, that vile product of civilization that has done more to exterminate the savage races than the bullets of their enemies, were riding along the lower Humbug, and were met by a man named Peters, who endeavored to learn from them where they had procured the whisky. One of them resented such undue familiarity by shooting Peters with a pistol, and was himself wounded in the abdomen by the dying man, who drew his revolver and fired as he fell to the ground. The two then dashed off toward the Klamath River at full speed, while the news that the Indiana had killed a man spread like wildfire along the creek. Men swarmed out of their claims, seized their weapons, and prepared for revenge. Two companies were organized, and started that night for the rancheria, on the Klamath, to capture the murderer and bring him back for punishment. The next morning they came upon the Indians on the opposite bank of the stream, a narrow but deep, rocky and turgid torrent. All overtures to the savages to send over a canoe were refused, and, finally, a noted Indian fighter, who rejoiced in the name of Greasy John, sprang into the stream and swam over, covered by the rifles of his companions. He secured the canoes, brought them back, and the men crossed over, had a talk, and took Tyee John and two young bucks prisoners, leaving the wounded one, as he was expected to die in a few hours. While going up the divide between Little and Big Humbug, the captives took off most of their clothing, innocently remarking, "Too muchee hot," an opinion perfectly in accord with that held by a majority of the party. Suddenly, at a predetermined signal, they made a leap for liberty, plunging down the mountainside with leaps and springs such as a man running down a steep declivity only can make. One of them was seized and secured before he had taken six steps, hut Tyee John and the other escaped, followed first by a few scattering shots, and then a rattling volley of harmless bullets. The remaining prisoner was taken to Humbug City, and the unusual course of a regular trial was followed. Justice McGowd discharged him and sent him back the next morning under guard.
The return of Tyee John and his companion to the rancheria was the signal for a general massacre. That night they passed down the Klamath, and thirteen men met their death in the darkness and silence of night. When the men in charge of the returning prisoner reached the Klamath the next morning, and learned of the cruel work of death its banks had just witnessed, they promptly shot the young buck, threw his body into the stream and returned to Humbug with the horrible news. If the miners had been excited before, they were now doubly so. Men were sent out in all directions to warn the miners to be on their guard, as there was no telling where the blow would fall next. An Indian was captured on the creek and taken to Cody's trading post, where he was shot and tumbled into a "coyote hole." Two Shasta Indians were caught the name afternoon in Yreka, and put in jail on suspicion. The next morning Dave Colton, the sheriff, since famed in railroad circles of California, let them out into the hands of a mob, and they were quickly strung up to the limb of a convenient pine tree. This was done in a most heartless and barbarous manner. Men crawled out on the limb and raised and lowered the strangling men by the rope about their necks. The mob then made a raid on the negro quarters, claiming it was there that Indians procured whisky and ammunition. Here they were overawed by the determination of one man, and the better element of the town soon suppressed them. The same day the people of Deadwood bethought them of a friendly Indian who was working in a claim on McAdam's Creek. He did not belong to the tribe that committed the massacre, and had not even heard of it, but that made no difference--he was an Indian, and that was crime enough. They took him into custody and sent him with an escort to Yreka, where they well knew he would take his place with the others on the tree, but before going far the prisoner was shot from an ambuscade, when his escort tumbled him into a mining shaft, and returned to Deadwood to report progress.
When the news reached Scott River, the rougher element captured Rising Sun and another peaceable Indian, who were working in a claim, and took them to Scott Bar. By this time night had set in, and the crowd gathered about in the darkness to see their champion, Ferd. Patterson, a noted desperado, who finally met his death in Walla Walla, shoot the two prisoners. One of them he killed, but Rising Sun sprang through the crowd, brandishing a huge knife some friend had given him, and rushed down to the river. He ran nimbly across the footlog, and then dropped silently into the stream and lay under the log with only his nose and mouth out of the water, while his pursuers passed over his head and ranged up and down the river, firing at every stump and shadow their imagination could torture into the semblance of an Indian. When all was quiet, Rising Sun departed for happier scenes The next day alter this, a large party of half-drunken men went from Humbug City to the mouth ol Humbug Creek, where was a small rancheria of peaceable Indians, and killed two old bucks, two boys and a squaw, the others escaping across the Klamath. While these twelve innocent Indians were being killed, preparations were going on for a pursuit of the guilty ones. About the first ol August four companies, one from Scott River, under Captain John Hale, and three from Humbug, under Captains Lynch, William Martin and Daniel Ream, left the Humbug for the north side of Klamath River. They numbered, in all, one hundred and seventy men. As the volunteers approached, the Indians retreated toward Oregon, and finally scattered, so that they could not be followed. Two of these men were found to have gone to the Fort Lane reservation, on Rogue River, and proved to be members of the Rogue River tribe, living on the reservation.
Here was a difficulty. The fugitives were under the sheltering wing of the United States. The first instinct of an American citizen, when dangers threaten or calamities fall, is to meet and pass resolutions. It is the great safety valve of the nation. Having met and given vent to his feelings, the American citizen feels that his duty has been nobly done, and retires to his home with quiet satisfaction. The volunteers called a meeting and drew up resolutions, preceded by a long "whereas," which stated their grievances, and wound up with the following significant passage: "That if at the expiration of three days, the Indians and property are not delivered to us, and the permission to seek for them is not granted, then we will, on our own responsibility, go and take them wherever they can be found, at all and every hazards."
A committee of one from each company was deputed to present these resolutions to the commandant of Fort Lane. This individual was "Old Baldy," well known to the nation as Gen. A. J. Smith. To him the committee presented themselves and made known their errand, placing in his hands the formidable document that was to make the army of the United States quake with fear, and turn pale the cheek of the brave captain who received it. He read it, but his cheeks blanched not; instead, they were suffused with crimson. The paper trembled in his hand, but it was passion, and not fear, that shook his frame. He burst out with an oath, and said he had a notion to arrest them all; that the Indians were under his protection, and would be delivered up to the proper authorities when demanded in a legal manner; that the settlers of the valley were then gathering in their crops, and to excite the Indians on the reservation would bring ruin and desolation to the whole valley, a statement that bloody deeds and burning cabins but a few months later amply verified; that he understood his business, and did not propose to be dictated to by a set of irresponsible volunteers, who were determined to stir up trouble and inaugurate a devastating Indian war; that it any volunteers came near the fort with arms in their hands, he would blow them higher than Fortuna's servant blew the dragon.
Back went the committee to their anxious comrades, and detailed the reception they had met with at the hands of Captain Smith. It was then unanimously agreed to attack the fort on the third day if their demands were not complied with by that time. Plans of attack were suggested and rejected; observations were made of the surroundings. Finally, a most strategic scheme was evolved, such as has no equal in the most brilliant idea of Caesar or Napoleon. If there was any one weapon the miner understood as well as, or better than, he did the revolver, it was whisky. Just what could be done with whisky they all knew. They had seen its effect upon others, and had tested it upon themselves. They resolved to entice the private soldiers away from the reservation, get them all drunk, and then march in and occupy the premises. The whole thing was so easy it made them laugh to think of it; in imagination they could see themselves marching boldly up, while the valiant captain shrieked and howled for his blue-coated minions to repel the attack, and silence alone gave answer. It was funny. They met around the camp fire to talk it over and poke each other in the ribs. The United States seemed about to be plunged into a war, in which the first victory would perch upon the banner of armed rebellion. The West Point hirelings were to be utterly routed and demolished before the forty-rod tarantula juice that flowed from the sutler's teat. Alas, for the schemes of the brave volunteers! Captain Smith planted the two cannons at the fort in a commanding position [there were no cannon at Fort Lane], put the whole camp in a state of defense and sat down with impatience to await the coming of the volunteers who proposed to whip the United States army. They came not. They saw the preparations made to receive them, and were satisfied that an advance on headquarters would be no picnic excursion. This of itself was enough to discourage them, but what finally broke the back of their plans was the utter failure of the liquor scheme. Not that the liquor was not strong enough, but the soldiers could not be inveigled from the reservation. The strategists learned that the fatal defect in their plan was their ignorance of the usages of the army. They then discovered that, in times of peace, leave of absence is granted to but few at a time, and in times of war to none. This was an occasion demanding the presence of every member of the garrison, and the whisky lay in the sutler's tent with no one to drink it.
The volunteers lay in their camp on Sterling Creek on the night of the third day, preparing for the work of the morrow. Captain Martin sat beside his camp fire absorbed in thought. The whole United States rose and passed in procession before his mind, and at last the little mining camp of Humbug and the few volunteers on Sterling Creek, who proposed to inaugurate a war against this mighty power. He laughed. He sauntered over to the headquarters of Lynch's company, where the men were busily getting ready for what was before them.
"Well, boys, getting ready, are you?"
"Bet your life."
"Well, I am not."
"What's the matter?"
"I've been thinking this thing all over, and have come to the conclusion not to
let my men go into it."
"Well, we take a pretty big contract when we undertake to whip the United States government, and those of us who don't get killed will most probably spend the remainder of our days in Alcatraz. The view from there is lovely, I know, but I am inclined to the opinion that it would soon become monotonous--too much of the same thing, you understand."
It was wonderful how quickly the opinion gained favor among the others. The belligerent volunteers became as harmless as doves. They were at once reminded that their claims were lying idle, and that they had started without a supply of provisions or sufficient clothing, and that the nights on the mountains were cold. Back they hastened to the familiar haunts of Humbug, to delve again for the shining ore, and tell what they would have done to the army if the whisky had not gone back on them. California and Oregon are full of men sitting around and telling what they would have done, or how rich they might have been, if something had not happened, while their meat and grocery bills steadily increase.
In the following September was commenced that great Indian war that devastated Southern Oregon from the head of Rogue River Valley to the ocean, and from Port Orford to Crescent City in California. Scores of whites and Indians were killed, and the smoke of burning cabins filled the air. When this was over and peace was restored, the two Indians implicated in the Klamath massacre were surrendered by Captain Smith to the sheriff of Siskiyou County, and lodged in jail in Yreka. The grand jury met, but failed to find evidence sufficient to bring an indictment against them. This made no difference, for their death was as certain as if the sheriff had the warrant for their execution. Friends of the murdered men were about town awaiting developments. Sheriff Colton released the prisoners, but he had taken pains to let these men know when it would be done. The irons were stricken from the Indians’ limbs, the door was opened, and they were told to go, that they were free. They went, but some men walked up, locked arms with them, and led them just south of town, where they were shot and thrown into an old mining shaft, where their bones lie to the present day. One of the most absurd features of this whole affair in that the volunteer companies which besieged Fort Lane have actually been paid for their services by the government.
West Shore, September 1887, page 666-670
Last revised January 21, 2018