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ALBERT G. BRACKETT
United Service, n.s., 6, no. 5 (October 1891): 321-28
An Indian War is always a serious matter, as it generally breaks out suddenly and there is no telling how far reaching it may be in its effects. The sparse settlements are overrun and many individuals killed before any relief can be afforded.
The troubles in the states of Nevada and California in 1866 and 1867 have never been properly appreciated. Bold and fearless bands of savages roamed at will over large extents of country, murdering unsuspecting and helpless people and using the torch freely in the infant communities of the states mentioned. Taking advantage of the disturbed condition of the Union during the Civil War, the red men thought it the proper time to avenge their fancied wrongs and at the same time to add to their own wealth. For years they had watched the immigrants as they slowly toiled across the continent on their way to the new lands bordering on the Pacific Ocean and, having possessed themselves of good arms and a plentiful supply of ammunition, sought to arrest their progress, or at least to take from them what they had. Being in no way scrupulous about the means adopted to bring about this state of affairs, they swarmed on the thoroughfares and occupied the dark defiles.
The California and Nevada volunteers had rendered good service in keeping back the insolent foemen, and Lieutenant Colonel McDermit of the 2nd Regiment of California Cavalry Volunteers was killed by them in the summer of 1865 while out scouting and guarding the roads. Colonel McDermit was a brave and cautious man, but while leading his horse down a mountainside was waylaid by one of his wily foemen and shot dead at once. This act greatly incensed the California Volunteers, who were a superior body of men, utterly fearless and untiring. From that time forth they put forward their utmost efforts and spared no pains to find the savages, who mainly belonged to the Paiute and Snake tribes.
Upon the death of McDermit, Lt. Col. [Ambrose E.] Hooker, who was promoted to his place in the 2nd Regiment of California Cavalry Volunteers, took command of the District of Nevada, which be retained until mustered out of the service and until the arrival of regular troops after the close of the Civil War. He was a man of a good deal of energy of character and had his headquarters at Fort Churchill, some twenty-seven miles from Virginia City, near the banks of Carson River, a well-built post in the midst of a desolate region. The mountains of Nevada furnished ample hiding places, while the warm valleys were safe retreats during the cold winter season for the savages and their animals, as nearly all of them were mounted.
The care of the women and children is always a matter of great moment to the Indians while engaged on the warpath and gives them the greatest anxiety. An effective blow can always be administered to them by capturing their wives and little ones. There is no better place to conceal considerable bodies of people than the rocky gorges of the mountains, many caves of considerable dimensions being found among the great lava fields to be met in all directions. It must be borne in mind that these people had occupied this region for an indefinite period and were well acquainted with all of its secret recesses and handsome valleys. Food supplies of pine nuts, acorns, grass, seeds, and tule could be found easily, and tame cattle and horses made up the wealth of the red men. They had a fair supply of clothing, but from infancy Indians are not well clad and can endure a great degree of cold without much apparent suffering. They wear clothing as much for ornament as for actual use and upon going into battle like to strip off everything. Their tactics in war do not differ from those of their kindred farther to the eastward, they deeming it the height of folly to expose themselves openly to the bullets of their enemies. Every inequality of the ground is taken advantage of, as well as every root, tree, bush, rock, and shrub. They can conceal themselves behind the smallest objects.
The first action of any moment was fought by Capt. George D. Conrad with twenty-five men of Company B and twenty-five of Company I under Lieutenant Duncan-all of the 2nd California Cavalry, who attacked the hostiles on the west side of Quinn's River, near Fish Creek, on January 11, 1866. The savages fought well, but the determination of the volunteers soon caused them to ground, though not until thirty-five of their number had been killed and nine captured. Corporal Biswell and Privates Duffield, Riley, and Shultz were wounded and several of the horses were killed and wounded. This was quite a severe check upon the red men and showed them that the time had arrived when the whites were determined to avenge the wrongs done them on so many occasions.
Their loss caused them deep grief, and there was wailing through the mountain region. For the first time they began to realize the danger they were in, although none of them yet thought of coming in and giving themselves up and suing for peace. They possessed great resolution, and having retained the advantage in numerous small encounters with the settlers, thought this was but a temporary disadvantage and that in the next affair they would retrieve their fallen fortunes and times would continue as they had been before. In this they were mistaken and were obliged to receive still greater chastisement.
On February 15, 1866, Maj. Samuel P. Smith of the 2nd California Cavalry, with a body of troops made up of volunteer citizens, numbering in all eighty-one, encountered the savages near Rock Canyon in Nevada. A severe fight ensued in which 115 Indians were killed and nineteen captured. Private Austin of Company D was killed. Major Smith and Privates Resler, Grimshaw, Balta, and Rhuman of Company D, and Privates Mills and Smith of Company F were wounded. Maj. Henry B. J. Mellen, Captain Start, and Lieutenant Robinson of the 2nd California Cavalry were with the detachment. Sixty horses which had been stolen from the settlers were recovered, and a large amount of Indian property was destroyed.
On account of the good conduct of Majors Smith and Mellen, they were subsequently appointed officers in the Regular Army, the former a captain in the 8th, and the latter a lieutenant in the 6th Cavalry. This was a very important affair and reflected great credit upon the troops engaged. At one time it was feared that the whole detachment would be cut off, but a vigorous onslaught led by Major Smith in person gave the whites possession of the strong grounds occupied by the enemy, who were soon put to flight with the losses above mentioned. The foemen were considerably disheartened by this defeat, which was a severe one.
Sgt. James T. Edwards, while out with eight men of the 2nd California Cavalry, had an encounter with a war party in Paradise Valley on March 7, 1866, in which six Indians were killed. The skirmish was conducted with great energy and skill, showing that the sergeant understood his profession well and was prepared to make the best of the occasion.
By this time the Indians had been taught some lessons of prudence, and their headmen no longer thought they could overthrow the whites so easily. Their arms were of an excellent quality, having been purchased for them by unscrupulous white men who lived, in some instances, on terms of perfect equality with them. At that day there was an abundance of money in Nevada, the silver mines turning out large quantities of bullion, and each of the Indians as chose to labor earned good wages. The Washo Indians especially were industrious and careful and consequently had more of the comforts of life than they had ever before known. These Indians were by no means friendly to the Paiutes and were glad to see them overthrown by the soldiers. There was a good deal of bitterness of feeling, as the Washo had been overpowered once by their enemies, when the best-looking women were taken away from them and they were allowed to keep only a few horses. Their taskmasters had been very hard on them and oppressed them in various ways until they became little better than slaves of their conquerors, and it was at this time that they learned to work.
In April 1866 Bvt. Col. A. G. Brackett, major, 1st Cavalry, took command of Fort Churchill, being in charge of the first regular cavalry sent to the Pacific Coast after the close of the Civil War. On May 18 one hundred twenty Indian prisoners were brought in and delivered to him. He placed them in camp on the banks of Carson River, where they constructed shades and shelters for themselves, being supplied with rations from the Subsistence Department.
On June 1 Colonel Brackett assumed command of the District of Nevada. Shortly afterwards Major General Halleck, commanding the Military Division of the Pacific, visited the fort, on which occasion there was a brave array of friendly Paiute Indians under Young Winnemucca from the Truckee and Walker River reservations. These savages wished to do honor to the general and were indeed a grim collection, all wishing to shake hands with him. After this ceremony was finished the general expressed a desire to see some of their warlike exercises. They retired a short distance and, having mounted their horses, commenced moving off in front of him, Winnemucca with his war drum being in front, mounted on a fine pony without a saddle and only a rope bridle; he was bareheaded, his long hair sweeping in the breeze. Indians followed in wild, irregular order, chanting their songs and keeping time to the dull thumping of the war drums. Many of them were well dressed, a decided partiality for tall white hats and red shirts being perceptible among them. Still, their costumes varied from the buckskin shirt and moccasins of the wild tribes to the common clothing of the white men, but all of them were profusely ornamented with beads, feathers, and bright-colored blankets. It is doubtful whether there has ever been a finer display of savage life within the limits of the state of Nevada.
After continuing this for some time, and having shown themselves to the best advantage, they suddenly halted in front of the general and commenced making speeches through their interpreter, an Indian who had been educated in the eastern states. Winnemucca's speech was of considerable length and gave great satisfaction to all concerned. When he had finished, Big George, the peace chief, spoke, and then the general left them. The Indians were very much pleased with their visit, and when General Halleck departed, he directed a supply of rations to be issued to them, which gladdened their hearts.
A few days afterwards Winnemucca's Indians started for the Truckee reservation, taking with them all of the Indian prisoners which had been brought in, the little ones being carried along in army wagons, much to their delight. All went along pleasantly, except one surly and insolent fellow, who was put in the guardhouse for his bad behavior. His squaw sat down on the ground, utterly disconsolate, and had to be put in one of the wagons and was trundled off with the rest. They reached the reservation in safety and there found peace and quietness.
A dreadful slaughter of a large party of Chinese occurred in the spring of 1866 near the line between Nevada and Idaho. The party started from Virginia City, intending to go to the silver mines of Idaho. They had with them a four-horse wagon and an American driver, the men walking along the road as innocent and incapable of defense as so many school children. They carried sluice forks, umbrellas, and bamboo poles and seemed utterly unconscious that there was any kind of danger. A few of the men had pistols, but even these they may not have known how to use. However this might have been, they journeyed along until they came near a deep ravine leading into the Owyhee River, when they were suddenly assailed by a large band of Indians who shot down those in front, who made no effort to defend themselves; in fact, those having pistols surrendered them to the savages, thinking in this way to conciliate them, but the slaughter went on until the whole of them, some fifty in number, were killed. Never was there a more inhuman massacre. The Chinese were willing to give up all they had on earth, but this would not satisfy the devilish spirit of the red men, who thirsted for blood. The bodies of these poor creatures were left on the ground as food for the wolves and ravens swarming in that region.
After mustering out the volunteers, the troops in the district consisted of portions of the 1st United States Cavalry and 9th United States Infantry, On June 1 an Indian named Captain George was killed near Camp McDermit by a soldier of Company I, 1st Cavalry, and on the sixteenth of the same month an Indian murderer was killed near Fort Churchill while endeavoring to escape by Pvt. John Gould of Company F, 9th Infantry.
In August the headquarters of the district were moved from Churchill to Camp McGarry, near Summit Lake, on the road leading to Idaho. The Indians had been quite bold on this road, attacking a train from Susanville, California, severely wounding one of the teamsters, who, returning the fire, left one savage dead on the ground.
The autumn passed away in comparative quiet, the Indians having concealed themselves in the mountains. A small number spent the winter near Camp McGan'y, coming into the post occasionally at night and robbing the blacksmith's shop; though [a] strict search was made, nothing of them could be found. A long torch, made of the inner fibers of the sagebrush, by which fire could be preserved and carried for a long time, was discovered. With snow covering the country for many miles around, it was a mystery how these people eked out a living.
About January 1, 1867, Mr. Westover, the mail carried between Camp McGarry and Trout Creek, was captured and killed by the Indians. Upon it being reported to the commanding officer, he sent out a detachment of twenty men of the 1st Cavalry under Lt. George F. Foote of the 9th Infantry. This detachment was attacked by the savages on the night of February 7 above the Vicksburg mines, near a cave which was evidently their home and stronghold. The Indians were driven off and followed until their trail was lost. Upon their return, the soldiers burnt the huts of the savages. Pvt. William Hill was very severely wounded by the enemy, and Pvt. Samuel Hollister was dangerously wounded by accident.
The following autumn the district commander [Brackett] was sent to Camp Bidwell with his headquarters and had been there but a short time when he was ordered to Camp McDermit in Nevada.
On November 25, 1867, Capt. James N.
Excerpted from Conquering the Southern Plains by Peter Cozzens Copyright © 2003 by Peter Cozzens. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 12, 2009
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