- California and
the Indian Wars
- The Owens Valley
Indian War, 1861-1865
- Captain John W. Key, V.,
U. S. Army Reserve
- The Civil War battles and campaigns that
were fought in the East have been thoroughly studied by students
of military history. There has, however, been very little written
about the battles and campaigns that occurred in California during
the Civil War. With the withdrawal of Regular Army units from
California to form the nucleus of both the Union and Confederate
forces, volunteers from the gold seekers in California formed
an army as large as that or the Regular Army at the start of
the Civil War. These men bravely fought both Indians and Confederates
wherever needed throughout the western states. These volunteers
crossed difficult terrain: deserts, mountains, rivers, and lone
stretches of unpopulated areas from California to Montana and
Wyoming, in order to accomplish their assigned missions. These
men often had to provide their own shoes, clothing, arms and
ammunition, since priority in supplies lay with the forces in
the eastern campaigns. Balanced rations were often lacking and
meals often consisted entirely of fresh beef or wild. game.
- The Owens Valley Indian War of 1861 to
1863 is one of the many campaigns conducted in the West by the
Second Calvary California Volunteers during the Civil War.
- The Owens Valley is the westernmost of
more than 150 desert basins that form the Great Basin section
or the western United States, It is a narrow valley that runs
northwest to southeast and is bounded by the Sierra Nevadas on
the West, the White and Inyo Mountains on the East. It extends
northward from the Coso Range south of Owens Lake for over 100
miles to the great bend in the Owens River north of the present-day
town of Bishop, California.
- The Mountain Man, Joseph Reddeford Walker
was one of the first known white men to traverse the Owens Valley
in 1833. John C. Fremont named the lake for Richard L. Owings,
generally known as Richard Owens, in 1845. The river and valley
take their name from the lake. The Owens Valley was considered
a great thoroughfare for travel to and from the Nevada mining
districts of Esmeralda and Washoe, the Great Salt Lake in Utah,
and Southern California. It was also considered a significant
military route for supplies and communications to and from California.
- The Owens River valley had been the hone
of the Paiute Indians for many years; Linguistically, these Indians
spoke the Shoshone language and. are sometimes referred to as
the Paiute Shoshones. They were primarily rood gatherers and
farmers. They lived on Pinyon Pine nuts, wild hyacinth tubers
and yellow nutgrass tubers as well as the larva or a fly that
laid its eggs upon the surface of saline Owens Lake. They also
lived on deer, Desert big horn sheep, fish and small game. They
had built an extensive ditch irrigation system for irrigating
the wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass(1,3,7).
- Paiute communities were simply loose collections
of families living near each other. They were generally peaceful;
what disagreements there were arose from trespassing On pine
nut or hurting territory.
- In 1859 Captain John W. Davidson led an
expedition with men from Companies B and K, 1st Dragoons from
Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley in search of livestock believed
stolen from the San Fernando and. Santa Clara Valleys, by the
Paiutes. Davidson found a peaceful and industrious people that
he considered deserving the protection and watchful care of the
United States Government (7). He further proposed that the area
be set aside for an Indian reservation, and in fact, promised
the Paiutes that their valley would be set aside, thereby forbidding
whites from settling there. The Indians would allow free travel
through the valley and would maintain honest and, peaceful habits.
- Government Officials in the East who were
quite unacquainted with the Owens River Valley, wanted to make
the area an Indian reservation . However Congress repeatedly
failed to pass the necessary bills to do this. The Indian Agents
were opposed to the idea since they didn't believe the area could
support the thirty to sixty thousand Indians proposed for relocation.
- With the new discoveries of gold and,
silver in the land east of the Sierra Nevadas, the new mining
camps drew stockmen looking for new markets. L. R. Ketcham of
Visalia, California was the first cattleman to drive cattle into
the Owens Valley in 1859 (3,5). In 1861, Allen Van Fleet drove
a herd of cattle from Carson Valley, Nevada and built the first
cabin on the Owens River near Laws (northeast of present-day
Bishop). About the same time, the McGee and Summer families drove
cattle from the San Joaquin Valley into the Owens Valley. The
McGee's decided to winter at Lone Pine Creek. Charles Putnam,
who it is believed to have been in the McGee party, built a stone
trading post north of Lone Pine Creek at Little Pine (now Independence),
about this same time. Samuel Bishop and his wife also brought
500 cattle and 50 horses from Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley
- The winter of 1861-62 was one of the most
severe in the history of the Owens Valley. The plight of the
Paiutes was exceedingly bad. The bad weather had driven away
almost all of the game and had killed what little game remained.
Cattle were now beginning to forage on the Indian's fields of
wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass. It seemed only natural to
the Paiutes that the cattle could be killed for their own use,
since the cattle were feeding on their fields. A cowboy named
Al Thompson caught an Indian butchering a steer and shot and
killed him. The tribe, indignant at this outrage, struck back.
They captured and killed a man named Yank Crossen, who was traveling
from Aurora, Nevada to Southern California, and had stayed a
few days with Allen Van Fleet.
- Men on both sides started to ride armed,
the Paiutes primarily with bows and arrows and the white men
with rifles and pistols. As neither side actually wanted war,
a peace convention was decided upon and held at the San Francis
Ranch on January 31, 1862. Since one Indian and one white man
had been killed, it was decided that both were even and that
the Indians wouldn't bother the cattle if the white man would
control their grazing(2,3). Everyone agreed to the treaty except
one Indian leader, Joaquin Jim, the leader of the Southern Mono
Paiutes. He and his warriors began raiding ranches and the peace
treaty faded away within two months.
- In February of 1862, Jesse Summers came
south from Aurora to buy some cattle from the McGee brothers
in Lone Pine. He agreed upon a price and the McGee Brothers started
to drive the cattle north. Joaquin Jim and some of his men stopped
the drive. The McGee's abandoned the cattle and, made their way
back to Putnam's Trading Post for help. They returned with fifteen
men to the San Francis Ranch where they encountered Joaquin Jim
and his band. After staying the night within the cabin, the cattlemen
found, the Indians had disappeared leaving the cattle. The cattlemen
started again in the direction of Aurora and after loosing 200
head the next night, turned south down the Owens Valley with
the reminder of the herd.
- A few days later, a group of cattlemen,
including Allen Van Fleet, saw four Paiutes chasing some stray
cattle. After following and confronting the Indians, who claimed
they were looking for their horses, an altercation ensued resulting
in the death of the four Paiutes and wounding Van Fleet and rancher
Tom Hubbard. One of the Indians killed was a popular leader,
Chief Shondow his death influenced other Indians who had previously
stayed out of the conflict to join the war.
- Now fully alarmed, the Owens Valley ranchers
gathered at Putnam's Trading Post for mutual protection. Their
fears were justified when a band of Paiutes attacked a cabin
near where Benton Hot Springs is now located. E. S. Taylor, a
local prospector occupied the cabin and defended it for two days,
killing ten Indians, until the Paiutes set the cabin on fire
and forced Taylor out into the open where he was killed.
- On March 20, 1862 the settlers in the
Owens Valley decided to raid an Indian camp in the Ambama Hills,
just north of Owens Lake. The attack was a success because the
Paiutes had.few firearms. Eleven Indians were killed and a ton
of dried meat was destroyed. Only three of the settlers were
- The Paiutes now sent messengers to neighboring
tribes for assistance. The tribes in Nevada had recently been
defeated in a battle with troops from Fort Churchill and. the
chiefs warned against participating in the Owens Valley War.
The firm of Wingate and Chon in Aurora, Nevada agreed. to sell
arms and ammunition to the Paiutes since they believed, that
they had been cheated in previous cattle buying transactions
with the settlers in the Owens Valley (2,3,5,6). A settler from
Owens Valley travelled all the way to Aurora to buy ammunition
but was refused by the merchants, because they felt that all
the whites in the Owens River Valley should be killed.. The man
returned home without the ammunition and reported this incident
to the other settlers, who immediately contacted the military
authorities in Los Angeles and Fort Tejon, requesting that troops
be sent to the Owens Valley.
- On March 17, 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton,
the Commander of the District of Southern California and the
Commanding Officer of the First Infantry, California Volunteers
wrote to Colonel W. Bowie, the Commanding Officer Fifth Infantry,
California Volunteers at Camp Latham. Colonel Carleton had recently
received correspondence from Mr. S. A. Bishop of Fort Tejon and
Mr. W. A. Greenly of the Owens Valley explaining the situation
in the Owens Valley and requesting military assistance. Colonel
Bowie immediately issued Special Orders Number 7 that ordered
Lieutenant Colonel George S. Evan, Second Cavalry, California
Volunteers to proceed to Owens Valley via Fort Tejon with three
officers, Captain Wynne, First Lieutenant French, and Second
Lieutenant Oliver from the three companies of Cavalry (G, I and
K) at Camp Latham. Colonel Evans was to personally investigate
the situation in Owens Valley and report back to the appropriate
military authorities. The party would take forty days rations
and one hundred rounds of ammunition per man.
- The settlers had meanwhile concentrated
their herds about thirty miles north of Owens Lake. They then
sent messages to Aurora, Nevada and Visalia, California for help.
On March 28, 1862 eighteen volunteers under John J. Kellogg,
a former Army captain, came from Aurora. A group of twenty-two
men came from Visalia under Colonel Mayfield, a retired Army
officer. This force of sixty men took to the field under Colonel
Mayfield and marched fifty miles north up the valley.
- Lieutenant Colonel Evans and his detachment
of cavalry arrived at Owens Lake on April 2, 1862 and at Putnam's
Trading Post on April 4th. Putnam's was under attack by approximately
thirty Indians who retreated with the arrival of the cavalry.
Colonel Evans for the first time learned something of the real
conditions in the valley. On April 5th, Colonel Evans left seven
men under the command of Captain Winne to protect their supplies
and Putnam's store (also known as "the fort"). With
the rest of the men Colonel Evans started up the valley.
- On April 5th Colonel Mayfield's position
was becoming increasingly critical. The Indians had showed themselves
in force of about five hundred near the mountains southwest of
Mayfield's party. The whites decided to attack and sallied forth
in two groups. In the skirmish that followed one white man, C.J.
Pleasant from Visalia was killed and the white forces panicked
and retreated back to their camp. The Indians soon followed and
forced the whites to seek shelter in an Indian irrigation ditch
until nightfall. N. F. Scott, the sheriff of Mono County was
killed when he lit his pipe. Under the cover of darkness, the
whites made good their escape. In all, three man died, but they
lost all their horses and supplies (3,6).
- On April 6th at about 9 a.m. Colonel Evans
met the citizen soldiers retreating back to Putnam's Fort. Both
groups camped for the night about thirty miles north of Putnam's,
at Big Pine Creek. Here they found the bodies of two men killed
by Indians. They were identified as Mr. Talman and Hansen of
- Colonel Warren Wasson, the acting Indian
Agent for Nevada had previously contacted James W. Nye, Governor
of Nevada about a peace mission to the Owens River Valley to
prevent the Indian War from reaching the Territory of Nevada.
Governor Nye had approved the expedition and had contacted General
Wright, the Commander of the Department of the Pacific for a
fifty man detachment. General Wright ordered Captain E. A. Rowe,
Commander of Company A, 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers and
Post Commander, Fort Churchill, Nevada to provide the necessary
men. Captain Rowe ordered Post Lieutenant Herman Noble, 2nd Cavalry,
Detachment Commander, in Aurora, Nevada to proceed to the Owens
Valley with Colonel Wasson on a peacekeeping mission. Lieutenant
Noble and his detachment joined Colonel Wasson on April 4th about
thirty miles south of Aurora and proceeded towards the Owens
- On April 7th Colonel Evans got ready to
march and Colonel Mayfield reported with forty citizen-soldiers,
the remainder of his men still wi1ling to fight. the Indians.
As this force was moving north, Colonel Evans saw some movement
about three miles to the east and sent Lieutenant French and
five men to instigate. Lieutenant French soon returned and reported
that the movement was Lieutenant Noble of Company A with fifty
men from Fort Churchill on their way south to Putnam's Store.
Colonel Evans halted until Lieutenant Noble's command could come
up and then proceeded to the battle ground. No Indians were found.
- On April 8th, three parties of scouts
were sent out looking for Indians. One scout returned to report
that a large force of Indians had been observed about twelve
miles away near Bishop Creek. When the command moved up in a
snow storm no Indians were found. They had scattered at the approach
of the main body of cavalry. Campfires were observed in a canyon
to the north.
- On April 9th, Colonel Evans sent a patrol
of nine men from Company A to investigate the canyon where the
campfires had been seen the previous night. The patrol moved
three hundred yards up the canyon before coming under fire. Private
C. Gillespie was immediately killed and Corporal J. Harris wounded.
Colonel Evans moved the men up to about four hundred yards from
the mouth of the canyon. The troops dismounted and prepared to
fight on foot. Lieutenants Noble and Oliver took forty men to
the left side of the canyon and Colonel Evans and Lieutenant
French took forty men to the right, Colonel Mayfield took four
of his men with Lieutenant Noble, with the balance of Mayfield's
men remaining at the mouth of the canyon. Lieutenant Noble's
column succeeded in getting into position to recover Private
Gillespie's body, but was drawing fire from both sides of the
canyon. Private Gillespie's body was recovered but in the process
Colonel Mayfield was killed. Lieutenant Noble found that it was
impossible to maintain his position due to the heavy fire from
his concealed foes and therefore had to retreat. Colonel Evans,
because of the rugged nature of the terrain decided to retreat
dlown the valley to a better position. Camp was established about
one and a half miles from the canyon.
- Colonel Wasson, the Nevada Indian Agent,
had observed the entire battle from a rock higher than the canyon
near Bishop Creek. He noted that not more than twenty-five Indians
were involved. These Indians, he concluded, were probably left
behind as a decoy to protect the main body and their families
who probably escaped to the north away from the conflict.
- On April 10th, Colonel Evans' command
was entirely out of provisions after feeding his men and the
citizens in the Owens Valley. He decided to return to Camp Latham
some four hundred miles away, via Putnam's Store Lieutenant Noble
and his detachment accompanied Colonel Evans as far as Putnam's.
The settlers in the Owens Valley demanded government protection
from Colonel Evans. Colonel Evans explained to the settlers that
he did not have the authority to leave troops to protect the
white oitzens and had no provisions for them to live upon. Three
choices were offered the settlers: remain in the valley, accompany
Colonel Evans to Los Angeles. Most or the settlers decided to
drive their livestock, (4,000 cattle and 2,500 sheep) out of
- On April 14th, Colonel Evans started the
long trip back to Los Angeles and Lieutenant Noble returned to
- Colonel Evans arrived at Camp Latham on
April 28th. He recommended that a military post be established
in the Owens Valley to protect the citizens there and to protect
the route to the Nevada mining areas. It was the only route except
the route through Placerville .
- General Wright in San Francisco prior
to reading Colonel Evan's report of the situation in Owens Valley,
heard from several citizens that Colonel Evans had escorted out
of the Valley. These citizens urged that a permanent military
post be established in the Owens Valley. On May 2, 1862, General
Wright wrote to Colonel Ferris Forman, the new commander of Camp
Latham to send, two or three companies of the Second Cavalry
with Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Evans as commander to establish
a post in the Owens Valley.
- The months of May and June 1862 found
the Indians in complete control of the Owens Valley. They attacked
isolated parties of stockmen and miners throughout the area.
- On June 14, 1862. Colonel Evans with 201
men of Companies D, G and I, and the 2nd Cavalry, California
Volunteers departed Camp Latham for the Owens Valley. A train
of forty six wagons carried the necessary equipment, ammunition
and rations for the men. Even though sixty days of supplies were
specified only eighteen days of rations were available.
- After five days of chasing Indians. Colonel
Evans decided that the Indians would not come into the open to
fight and that it was impossible to follow then into the mountains.
He decided that a permanent military camp was required.
- On July 4, 1862, a camp was established
on Oak Creek in Owens Valley and named Camp Independence for
the occasion, Independence Day.
- On July 7th. Captain Rowe, Company A,
2nd Cavalry, California volunteers despatched a note to Colonel
Evans at Camp Independence. Captain Rowe stated that he and Mr.
Wasson, the Indian Agent had talked to the Indian Chiefs in the
area and made a treaty with them. Orders to Captain Rowe and
Colonel Evans were conflicting. Captain Rowe was on a peace seeking
mission while Colonel Evans was under instructions to chastise
the Indians. A meeting was arranged between Colonel Evans, Captain
Rowe, Colonel Wasson and Captain George, a big war chief of the
Paiutes. Captain George stated that he didn't want to fight anymore
and wanted to become a friend of the white man. Colonel Evans
felt that many the promises made by Indian Agent Wasson could
not be kept. He also reported that if the troops were withdrawn,
the attacks would start all over again.
- The terms of the treaty were concurred
upon in San Francisco by the Department of the Pacific to. However,
the Indians were to restore all property stolen from the whites
and they were to surrender four or five hostages to be a guarantee
or their good faith. Several important Indians surrendered themselves
as well as their families as hostages, among them being Captain
George, Chief Tinemba and several others.
- J. H. P. Wentworth, the Indian Agent for
the Souther California District met with Colonel Wasson and as
a result sent messages out to the Indians to gather at Camp Independence.
The meeting was held and on October 6th a treaty was signed.
- The bulk or the troops now returned to
Camp Latham leaving Company G under Captain Goodman, to keep
the peace. Captain George was held, at Camp Independence as a
hostage to ensure the treaty .
- Peace remained until March 1,1863 when
Captain George disappeared. Captain Ropes who replaced Captain
Goodman as Camp Commander sent soldiers to various settlements,
warning people to stay home and be on their guard. Several miners
and ranchers were killed within the next few days. Captain Ropes
sent messages to Camp Babbit requesting assistance. Camp Babbtt
immediately sent First Lieutenant S. R. Davis with forty-four
men to reinforce camp Independence.
- On March 11, 1863, Lieutenant Dougherty
led a patrol of six men to Black Rocks and encountered two hundred
Indians. A battle started and one soldier was killed and four
including Dougherty wounded. Three days later Captain Ropes with
twenty seven soldiers and several civilians rode out to find
Indians, but failed to locate them.
- On March 19th, a citizen brought information
that thirty to forty Indians were killing livestock eleven miles
south of Camp Independence in the Alabama Hills. The Indians
were dislodged and chased in a running battle down into Owens
Lake Thirty five Indians died. in the battle and the Army had
only one man wounded.
- On April 4th, Company E, 2nd Cavalry arrived,
as reinforcements under the command of Captain Herman Noble.
With two full companies in camp, Captain Ropes on April 9th,
led a force or one hundred and twenty men and thirty-six citizens
in search of the Indians. They found a band of two hundred north
of Big Pine Creek. In the battle that ensued the troops received
two casualties and the Indians none.
- In late April, Captain Moses A. McLaughlin
arrived at Camp Independence as the new Camp Commander with members
from Company D. 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers. The situation
for the Indians became desperate. The soldiers were constantly
seeking out the Indian food stores and destroying them. Also
the Indians had never been instructed in the care and maintenance
of their firearms. Their guns had become rusted and dirt encrusted.
Numerous weapons became unserviceable and some exploding gun
barrels were reported.
- On May 22nd, Captain George came to Camp
Independence to talk peace. He indicated that he no longer wanted
war. As a result of his surrender, more than four hundred Indians
came in to lay down their arms.
- On July 22, 1863 some nine hundred Indians
were escorted to Fort Tejon to the San Sebastian Indian Reservation.
- This ended the Owens Valley Indian War
except for several attacks by Joaquin Jim in 1864 until December
1864 when Joaquin Jim and his band, were pursued with most of
the marauders being killed.
- The Owens Valley Indian War lasted a little
longer than two years. It originally started, because of the
white man s disregard for the property and rights of the Indians.
It is estimated that about sixty white men and about two hundred
Indians died during the conflict. The tactics employed by the
Indians were mainly hit and run and harassment. The Indians seldom
fought in large groups and when they did the results were usually
not favorable. Improper maintenance of firearms and the destruction
of food for the winter season were key factors that brought the
conflict to a speedy conclusion.
- 1. Ella M. Cain, The Story of Early
Mono County: Its Settlers, Gold Rushes, Indians, and Ghost Towns.
Fearon Publishers Inc., San Francisco, CA. 1961. p. 27, 88-90.
- 2. Fred S. Cook, Legends of Inyo County.
The Printery, Pahrump, NV. 1978. p 3-9.
- 3. Dorothy C. Cragen, The Boys in the
Sky Blue Pants, The Men and Events at Camp Independence and Forts
of Eastern California. Nevada, and Utah 1862-1877. Pioneer
Publishing Company, Fresno, CA. 1975. p. 11-13, 21-36, 46-62.
- 4. Francis P.Frarquhar, History of
the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley.
CA. 1965. p 136-137.
- 5. Genny Schumacher (editor), Deepest
Valley: A Guide to Owens Valley, Its Roadsides and Mountain Trails.
Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA. 1962. p 176-182.
- 6. T. H. Thompson and A. A. West, History
of the State of Nevada. Howell North, Berkeley, CA.. 1958.
- 7. Philip J. Wilek and Harry W. Lawton
(editors), The Expedition of Captain J. W. Davidson from Fort
Tejon to Owens Valley in 1859. Ballena Press, Socorro, MN.
- Submitted to the Faculty of
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth,