The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

Jackson County News: 1844

    We left the rendezvous near the Methodist Mission, on the Upper Willamette, on the 18th day of June, 1844, for Upper California. Our company consisted of thirty-seven persons; of which number, thirteen were women and children; the rest were made up of Americans, English, French, Mexicans, and Indians of four different tribes. We took our baggage entirely with pack animals, as the route will admit of being traveled in no other way. Proceeding up the Willamette River ninety miles, near to the point where it comes out of the mountains, we left it, and bearing off across the valley, at ten miles, came to the Calapooia Mountains; and passed over them, a distance of twelve miles, with ease, into the valley of the Umpqua. Passing across it by a very circuitous way, which characterizes the whole route to California, we came, at sixty miles, to the foot of the Umpqua Mountains, and encamped by a small, clear mountain stream, which ran hurriedly along, through a beautiful and extensive inclination, thickly set with a fine green sward; and over which, here and there, the dark green pines arose to the height of two hundred feet.
    Late in the evening, about twenty of the Umpqua Indians came into our camp. At night, several of them, being induced by a half-breed Frenchman of our party, who was always fond of witnessing and participating in all the games and amusements of his savage brethren, performed one of their war dances. After equipping and painting themselves in the most hideous manner which their imaginations, almost perfect in such savage arts, could possibly invent: Having their bows and arrows in their hands, with all their implements of war about them; and being arranged in a row, on one side of the camp fires; while we, who were looking on, occupied the other; they began dancing; singing, at the same time, in the wildest and most fiend-like strain; making the most hideous grimaces, and every variety of threatening gesture: sometimes throwing into their countenances a most intense gaze, and with lowering brows, and eyes directed along their arrows, as if riveted upon some fated object, upon which they were about to spring, and transfix with a deadly weapon; they would suddenly bend their bows to the very arrow's head, as if in the act of shooting a foe; then, recovering, with a dreadful smile of savage satisfaction, they would flourish their arms about their heads, and throw into their song a tone of fiendish triumph, such as would compel the stoutest nerves to cringe. During the dance, one of the number, who appeared to act the Chief, and to be bound to excel in the terrible, crouched to one half his natural stature, facing the rest, and if possible more hideously arrayed, kept moving by a short, quick, patting step, from one end of the line to the other. At intervals, when they appeared to have finished one part, they would all straighten themselves up, to their full height, and utter several loud, shrill, piercing yells, which thrilled through the forest, and was echoed back from every tree, and the distant hills, as if a host had answered; then again, they would commence the dancing and singing, as before, varying it with the same wild grimaces and gestures, and again conclude with the same loud, thrilling yells; until, after performing in this manner, several times, they would [omission] up by a sham attack. This they did, by holding the bow in their left hand, and grasping the arrow on the string with the right (as is usual with them); resting the right hand on the hip; drawing the bow with all their strength; throwing themselves forward and back, and bending their bodies, until their heads almost touched the ground; and all the time they were springing about, in every direction, as if avoiding the missiles of the foe, and yelling at the very top of their voices, with more than mortal fierceness. During this performance of the Indians, the camp fires burning bright, lighted up the surrounding forest to a considerable distance, showing the tall green pines, and leaving all beyond (though the moon was high), in deep dense darkness; giving to the wild scene so wildly acted, in those far savage solitudes, additional wildness; so far surpassing what we commonly consider to belong to nature and reality, that one seemed to dream; and standing in Tartarian shades, to gaze upon the regions of the damned.
    In the morning, we commenced the ascent of the Umpqua Mountains, which, being covered with thick timber and brush, was considered as a place favorable to the Indians for an attack; and as we were approaching the territory of the hostile Rascals (a tribe of Indians frequently so called), who previously never allowed a favorable opportunity for an attack to pass unimproved, there was much uneasiness in camp, and preparations were made to prevent a surprise. Front, flank, and rear guards were kept out, while the party were moving, and some of the braves put on their defensive armor, in the shape of extra shirts, pants, vests, coats, and over coats, to ward off the arrows of the ambushed Rascals. We, however, passed over the mountain, a distance of fourteen miles, without seeing or hearing from the Indians, and came into the valley of Rogue's River. At the crossing of the river, thirty of the Rascals came into the camp, for the purpose of opening a trade. They were, at first, very shy in approaching us. When within two hundred yards, they halted; and waited some time, regarding us closely, in order to ascertain, from our movements, whether we were disposed to be friends or foes. After repeatedly assuring them of our friendship, and persuading them a long time, they at length came very slowly and cautiously within twenty yards of us, and took their seats in a row, on the ground. In all their movements, and in every expression of their countenances, nothing could be detected that indicated fear, although it was certain that they were far from being destitute of such sensations; they held such complete command over their nerves, and knew so well how to dissemble that all appeared to be nothing more than caution. Having prepared a pipe and tobacco, several of our party arranged themselves in a circle with the Indians, and smoked, passing the pipe around to the left, from one to another. This is a mark of friendship, and amounts to a treaty of peace. After smoking and asking our permission to depart, which is a custom among the Indians, in the place of our "Good night," they retired, promising to return. In the morning, they came again to our encampment, bringing with them quite a number of beaver skins; which they exchanged with different individuals of our company for such trifling articles as they pleased to give them.
    Having passed across the valley of Rogue's River, a distance of fifty miles, we came to the Shasta [Siskiyou] Mountains. Here, the trail, taking a narrow spur of the mountain, on either side of which there was a small ravine full of thick brush, gave the Indians a favorable opportunity for making an attack; and, as we knew of their having before attacked companies at this place, and doing considerable damage; here again, we used the previous precaution, of putting out the necessary guards; and the braves again put on their armor, and again we passed in safety the dangerous mountain, and crossed over into the valley beyond, a distance of only six miles, without encountering any difficulty. Having crossed the northern side of the valley, and also the Klamath River, we encamped early in the evening, at a small spring, three miles beyond the river, and thirteen from the foot of the Shasta Mountain. Here an Iroquois Indian of our company, having returned from a hunting excursion, reported that, while hunting, he came suddenly upon a small Indian camp; and being perceived by the Indians, he went boldly in, as if his coming had been intentional. This scheme, of course, gave the Indians to believe that he considered, from some cause, perhaps the vicinity of a strong party, that he had no reason to be afraid. It worked well, and he returned without being molested, having noticed, as he said, several horses in the Indian camp. Upon hearing this last part of the story, three of our party, an American, a Frenchman, and a half-breed, named Petitoo, set out, against the protest of the whole camp, declaring that they would have the horses. Night came on, and all had retired to bed, when the Indian yell was raised within a few hundred yards; and everyone supposing that the party had been killed by the Indians, and that they were coming upon the camp, sprang to their arms, and hastened to meet what they supposed to be an enemy. It proved, however, to be the three themselves, who in their wild and unwarrantable glee, breaking over all custom and acknowledged laws of order and propriety, wished, for mere sport, to put the camp in a panic. They came charging up at full speed, and Petitoo, who was the ringleader in the affair, to make a sort of "grand flourish," put whip and spur to his jaded horse, already scarcely able to proceed, and coming into the staking ground at a rapid rate was about to rein up before the crowd, who had rushed out to meet "the Indians," and was just crying out, with a swaggering air, "Carajo pendejo!" a favorite Spanish exclamation, when his horse, tangled in one of the staking ropes, fell; and, turning a complete somersault, went tumbling after his rider, who was hastening, in spite of himself, by several successive and astonishing feats of "grand and lofty tumbling," to the bottom of the hill, amid the peals of laughter and cursings that burst from the still half-terrified camp. After having received a severe reprimand, and a promise of something severer if they ever dared to alarm the company again, the frolicking party sneaked off to bed, crestfallen and disappointed.
Overton Johnson and William H. Winter, Route Across the Rocky Mountains, Lafayette, Indiana, 1846, pages 73-77

Last revised January 28, 2021