Indian Troubles, Union County, Oregon

    During the Yakima Indian War of 1855 and 1856 there was, according to Isaac I. Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, not a single white person living in the area between The Dalles and Walla Walla, and the Indians had destroyed all the homes of settlers in that area. The Indians were threatening to drive every while person from the whole Inland Empire territory, and had it not been for the great Indian defeat in the battle of the Grande Ronde on 17 July, 18564 the settlement of the Oregon country east of the Cascades after that time would undoubtedly have been delayed for many years.

     The Indians, not organized into one army, had been driven in small groups up the Columbia River and out of the Yakima country. Could they but muster the strength of all the tribes they would be in a position to sweep back northward through eastern Washington and attack the weak force of troops garrisoned at Walla Walla.

     The Grande Ronde Valley, being centrally located, was an ideal rendezvous for the several Indian tribes to gather for such a purpose, and thus it was that in the summer of 1856 the greatest warriors of the Walla Walla, John Day, Deschutes, Yakima, Cayuse, Umatilla and Nez PercÚ tribes met there to plan their strategy. The Grande Ronde valley had long been a neutral meeting ground for all of the northwest tribes, and here they came annually to fish, hunt and hold horse races, the one great sport of the savages. Now the beautiful valley was to serve another purpose. Here they were to resolve to join all of their forces in one great stand and, if victorious as they planned, to commence regaining the ground which limy had been forced to yield.

     News of the gathering of the warriors was brought to the army authorities at Fart Walla Walla by a friendly Indian and Colonel F. B. Shaw, in command of the Second Washington Volunteers, determined to cross the Blue Mountains and crush the Indians before they could gather any considerable force or supplies. Taking 90 men with rations for 10 days Shaw left Walla Walla by night to march over 60 miles of poorly marked trail to the Grande Ronde Valley. This movement was accomplished without incident, the force arriving at the present location of Summerville on the evening of 16 July. On the morning of the 17th they marched southward along the emigrant trail leading toward the crossing of the Grande Ronde River near the present site of La Granule. They sighted the Indian village about 10 miles south of their Summerville camp, on the hill just north of the city park in La Grande.

     When the Indians sighted the troops marching toward them in battle formation, the squaws and children were sent with the pack horses out into the valley, while the warriors moved in battle array through the brush which lined the river. Col. Shaw's main attacking force comprised 150 men, 40 being left behind as a rear guard in charge of the commissary and the pack animals. These 150 men gathered on the site of the camp from which the Indians had fled. After a treacherous attempt on the part of the savages to entice the whites into a trap for supposedly peaceful discussion, Colonel Shaw gave the signal to attack, and the men dashed down the hill to meet the foe. As a part of his strategy, Shaw directed less men to ride to the left of the main body of Indians, thus placing his troop between them and their squaws and children. Thinking that the whites were planning to attack the women and children, the Indians split into two groups, one rushing to the defense of their families, while the others rode further into the brush along the river. Shaw did not permit his men to harm the squaws or to take the scalps of the Indians they killed, although many of the volunteers wished to do so.

     The early part of the fight was for the most part a running affair, with each side attempting to cut off small groups of the other as they engaged in hide-and-seek tactics in the thick growth of willows which lined the river banks. After about half an hour of such fighting the Indians reformed their lines on the south bank at a ford in the river about half way between the present sites of La Grande and Island City. There the volunteers charged them, firing their revolvers with deadly effectiveness from the backs of their swimming horses. The Indians could not prevent the volunteers from crossing the river, and after submitting to the murderous attack for a few minutes, scattered in all directions, some riding hard for the Powder River country, and others toward the mountains back of what is now the Cove and Union area. The volunteers pursued them for distances as far as fifteen miles, killing a great number of them in close individual fighting.

     The whole fight occupied the hours between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon and during that time five of the volunteers were killed and several were wounded. The Indians suffered far greater loss, there being, out of the original force of about 300, thirty killed outright and 10 probably mortally wounded. The volunteers captured over 200 horses, 100 pounds of powder and great stocks of camas root, venison, salmon and berries. On the knoll where the Indian village stood, over 100 teepees were piled and burned.

     From that hour when the last of the Indian braves rode out of the Grande Ronde Valley to escape into the surrounding hills, the whole of the Inland Empire was a safer place for white people to travel and to settle, and never again was there an Indian fight of any consequence in the Grande Ronde Valley.
     Twenty years later there was another Indian scare in the region of the Grande Ronde, but it was not marked by any particular activity in the valley itself, other than a general uneasiness manifested by the settlers. This Indian trouble came about as a result of the decision of the government to remove the Indians under Chief Joseph from the Wallowa Valley and place them on reservations elsewhere. No part of the war which resulted was fought in the Union County area.

     More particularly of concern to the Grande Ronde region was the Bannock uprising of 1878, when it was feared that this dreaded tribe might invade the valley. The Bannocks had committed many depredations in the Snake River region of southern Idaho and it was thought they would move northward through the Grande Ronde. To arm the settlers, guns were sent from Fort Vancouver to Union and were distributed among the men. Two scouting parties, known as the Blue Mountain Rangers, were sent out from Union in the middle of July of 1878, one going by way of the Meacham road and the other up the Thomas and Ruckles route. However they found no sign of the Indians on the east side of the mountains. Instead of coming into northeastern Oregon by way of the Grande Ronde, the Bannocks had swung westward through the John Day country before coming into the Umatilla area.

     Nevertheless, there were many uneasy days for the settlers in the valley. Whenever it was reported that the Indians were coming and there were many such alarms, the inhabitants of the little towns or the valley hurried into the improvised forts. In La Grande, the Blue Mountain University building was used as a gathering place for protection. About half way between La Grande and Island City at the fair grounds (the present Cleavinger place), one of the buildings had been fitted out as a fort, protected by a high fence, and here many of the valley residents hurried for safety. At Union the Court House was pressed into service as a place of security, and at Elgin a temporary building known as Fort Baker was hurriedly made for a refuge for the residents of that district.

     The Bannock uprising came to rather an abrupt end when they found they could not interest the Umatilla tribe in their plan to harry the whites out of the Oregon country. After the Bannock uprising there was never again any organized opposition of the Indians to the whites in eastern Oregon and the two groups have since lived at peace with one anther.

     The only victims of the Indian uprising at this time from the Union County region were four freight haulers who were killed near Meacham on 12 July, and George Coggan, a La Grande resident, who was murdered on the Umatilla Indian Reservation on the same day. The freighters were James Myres, Olney J. P. McCoy, Charles McLoughlin, and Thomas Smith. Myres had a ranch on Balm Creek, a small tributary of the Lower Powder River in a territory which then was a part of Union County. He had two well equipped freighting outfits of 12 horses and two wagons and trailers. Just before the tragedy in the mountains Myers had traded one of the teams for stock from one of his neighbors. It was his intention to retire from the freighting business and give his entire attention to livestock, continuing Jacob Nibler, later a La Grande resident, in his service as the man in charge of the other team. However, in order to close up his freighting business, Myres started for Umatilla himself with the remaining team, leaving Kibler behind to care for the stock ranch. In company with the three other men Myres started out on what was proved to be his last trip over the mountains. On the morning of 12 July 1876 the four freighters were attacked, probably in their sleep by the Indians, and killed at a point near Meacham now known as "Dead Man's Gulch" or "Dead Man's Pass."

     Of the four, Olney McCoy was the only married man. Although he at one time lived at Starkey where his father was one of the early ranchers, his home at the times of his death was on the Umatilla River a few miles this side of the Columbia Landing. Charles McLoughlin was employed at the time of the tragedy by Charles Goodnough, the leading merchant of Island City, and his wagons were loaded with flour being shipped to Umatilla by Mr. Goodnough and by Cattiness and Sterling, the owners of the mill at Island City. The flour and horses were recovered from the Indians after the murder. Thomas Smith was a rancher and freighter from the Lower Powder River region. The remains of Myres and Smith were interred in the Union cemetery and graves are marked by suitable monuments.

     Four Indians were executed for the murder of Coggan, but it was never definitely determined that they were of the same group which had murdered the freighters.

Contributed by: Jim Reavis

Jim has contributed Nez PercÚ Indian History to the Wallowa County Pages, please take a few minutes and read the articles he has contributed.

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