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The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised


Ezra Hamilton

This account is nonsense, and should never be cited. It's impossible to tell whether Hamilton actually observed any of what he claims, or is reconstructing events solely from scuttlebutt he heard while passing through the valley in 1855--conflated with stories from dime novels. Certainly he got many details wrong, details an eyewitness would have a hard time misremembering. Hamilton is the sole source for all of his more outlandish stories.


    Having described Yreka already I will pass on, so I started on to Klamath River, some 16 miles. Klamath River is the line between California and Oregon. I crossed on a ferry boat. Had to cross over a high mountain to Rogue River Valley. If I remember right it is about 7 or 8 miles, Klamath Ferry to Rogue River Valley. On the way up [on September 25, 1855] I met a small boy; he was running down the mountain as fast as his legs would carry him. I asked him what was the matter. He said his people had been all killed by the Indians and that he had hidden in the brush until the Indians had gone. I found the boy's statement to be true. There had been 4 ox teams, 4 yoke of oxen on each wagon killed--men, oxen, and all but the little boy. [No other account mentions a "small boy."]
    I went a little further. There lay in the road a dead man. His hat was partly on and filled with blood and bones. He had been shot in the head and his head smashed. Come to another man, he had been shot and beaten up. Come to another one, he had put up a fight. There was blood all around on the ground; perhaps he had killed one or two Indians. Come to another one near the wagons, he had also put up a fight. There was every sign of a desperate fight. I think there was 7 dead men and one boy. [No other account--including those given by the survivors--list a death toll higher than two.] The oxen lay dead in the yoke. The flour was scattered all over the country around. These teams was loaded with flour, bacon and other produce, mostly flour destined to the mines at Yreka. I will mention here that Yreka Bakery is said to be the only two words that will spell both ways in the English language. Back to my story. Talk of being scared, I was the worst scared man in the whole state of Oregon. Well, I stopped and thought the matter over. I reasoned that the massacre was the evening before, that the boy lay in the brush hidden, that the Indians had done and gone. So I came down and made an investigation of the situation. The boy gave the alarm on one side of the mountain, I on the other side, and going down that mountain, if a stick or anything else cracked or made a noise, I thinked I would have jumped 20 feet. Well, we gave the alarm. By night the same day there had gathered about 300 men from the mines and the farms. They struck the Indians' trail and followed them three days before they found them. They killed all the Indians they could find, but spared women and children. So I was told afterwards.
    I did not go on this road. I went on my journey until I came to Mr. Wells' place. They were with the Walkers when they crossed the plains, or part of the way. Mr. Wells insisted I should stay with them several days. The time we put in riding over the valley and having a good time in general. This is a beautiful valley, many rich farmers and stock men. I bought a cayuse pony. He had been broken to the saddle but not broken from bucking. The first time I got on him he bucked me off, but I had to ride him. I had bought him, had paid $60 for him. I stayed with him. Had to. I staked that horse out so he could have something to eat. He got loose. I had to pay a buckaroo five dollars to catch him for me. I finally got started on my way, but every morning when I got on that cayuse he would have a spree bucking.
    I am now writing at a place called Siskiyou Hot Springs, dated July 4, 1910. The gnats and flies bother me. There is a gnat that the Indians call "no see-um." I suppose they so call them because they are so very small you have to look very close to see them. But their sting makes you itch all over. There is also a larger gnat that wants to crawl in your eyes and ears. Common house fly, they are also bothering me at this time. The house fly is easy to get rid of, we kill them with Neirsn [sic] Fly Paper. The temperature today, 10 a.m., is 88. Well, I liked to forgot the trip to see my girl.
    I came to a stage station and was going to put up for the night. The stage came in without a driver, with a dead man in the bottom of it. [No one else mentions a stagecoach in any context in the events of October 8-9, 1855.] By this time several had come in, reported that the Indians had broken out and were killing the settlers along the road. Well, we knew something had to be done and soon, so we organized a party of 22--which should be called the Twenty-Two Immortals. [Henry Klippel remembers there being fourteen Immortals of October 10, 1855 in his "Reminiscence"--and names them--and doesn't list Hamilton among the number.] The sights we saw that night will never fade from our memories. We were wrought up to desperation to see the butchers and mutilation. The tortures and mutilation were done by the old squaws and their children, such as tying their victims over anthills, letting the ants eat their eyes out, in fact, most of their bodies up. Just the agonies of the torture! It is said this mode of torture is [the worst] known to flesh. [No other source mentions this torture ever used in Southern Oregon.]
    The first house we came to was Wagner's place. The house was burned down. The skeletons of his wife and twin daughters were in the ruins. [The Wagners had one child.] And owing to this fact many lives were saved. Mrs. Wagner when the house was on fire sat down in the middle of the floor and called her two twin daughters to her and covered their heads until they were burned up. This act of hers so scared the Indians that they fled in disarray and abandoned the massacre. [The Indians didn't flee, but continued to the next homestead.] And it was lucky for us, for we would have not been able to have handled the entire band. [The way] it was we had plenty to do. Wagner was not at home when his house and family burned, but when he came home and found what had been done, he went crazy. He took his gun and disappeared, supposed [sic] to kill Indians. Some said he perished in the mountains and his last act was killing Indians.
    The next place we came to was a house; I never heard their names named. The house was not burned, but the family was all killed but one little girl. There was two of the children was nailed to the sides of the house, stretched out as one would stretch a cow skin to dry. The little boy was dead. The girl was still alive. We took her down and sent her to a place of safety. The father was all cut to pieces. The mother was cut open and her baby taken out and laid in her arms. Another one was hacked all to pieces. [No other source mentions these horrors.]
    It was a sickening sight. The next place they butchered them was about the same, killed all the stock, burned the barn. We came to another house, the entire family was killed but one young lady about 16 years old. She was tied on a red ant hill. [The are no red ants in Southern Oregon.] The ants had been more merciful than the Indians; she was not much damaged. We also sent her to a place of safety. The mother was cut open and her heart taken out and stuffed in her mouth. The man was not mutilated as bad as the woman and children. It was the Indian women and children that done the torturing. [There were apparently no women and certainly no children with the raiding parties of October 9. They kept on the move until reaching the Harris house and apparently had no time for torture.]
    We are now catching up with the Indians. There was a family by the name of Harris, wife and one child. They lived in a new log house. The house was chinked but not adobed or cracks stuffed with mud. Harris was carrying in an armful of wood when the Indians shot him. His wife pulled him into the house and barred the door. During the night they shot through a crack and killed her child; there lay her dead child and husband. [The child was not killed, but wounded, in the initial attack that killed Mr. Harris.] Mrs. Harris was handy with a gun and a good marksman. There was an oak tree about 30 yards from the house. The Indians crept up behind this tree to shoot at the house. There was several places on the tree that the bark was notched up, but no lead lodged in the tree, showing she had shot to hit. There was plenty of blood on the ground showing she had hit some of the red devils. The supposition is the Indians thought there was more in the house than there was. We were [I was?] well armed; we had rifle, Navy revolver with two cylinders, which made 12 shots. When one cylinder was empty we would slip in the full one in place of the empty one and finish. We heard shooting; we knew someone was in trouble. We got there about the break of day. The Indians were so busy they did not know we were there until we were among them. We did not use the rifles but popped them over with the revolver. These Indians cannot stand close quarters. They hopped around like crickets on a hot griddle. In about the time it takes to write the last dozen lines, there was 17 dead Indians. [No Indians were present--or killed--on the rescue of Mrs. Harris.]
    We piled them up a threw some brush on them and set the pile on fire. The squaws were waiting, and we got them too. We had only two of our men wounded slightly. When Mrs. Harris found there was help she fainted from exhaustion. We put her on a mule and sent her to a place of safety. I was told the the legislature of Oregon granted her a pension of $25 per month for life.
    We were now among the Indians and things was lively. We passed several houses that was besieged, and some of the houses hailed still. We relieved them with the results that there was several dead Indians. The last fight we had was at a log house with [a] thatched roof. There were 6 men in it. The Indians had shot fire arrows on the roof and it was all ablaze and ready to fall in. There was about 75 Indians waiting for those men to come out, but we spoiled their little game. For we went for them in the old-fashioned way, and when we got through there was but a few of them, except dead Indians were plenty. The six men came out of the house with their clothes on fire. I tell you there was a thankful lot, as well as scared. [Thatched roofs--are unknown in any other known account of Southern Oregon.] This seemed to be the last of the Indians. We had thinned them out and broke their courage. Our work was about done. The settlers and miners were taken off the rear. We went on until we came to the next station. There we halted for a much-needed rest. We had been on the road for about 40 hours without rest or food under the most trying circumstances. We were nearly dead. When the excitement wore off we collapsed.
    It was about three days before I was able to resume our journey. They all returned but me. I was on my road to see my girl with the jaded or tired pony. So progress was slow. I finally reached Umpqua Valley. They lived near Roseburg. I found them well and happy to see me. Well, I had a good time with my girl for about two weeks. Then I very reluctantly bid them goodbye. I started back with the same pony. Riding, I skinned and bruised myself, and there come another where I sat on the saddle. But there was no laying up, I had to stick to it. When I first got on the saddle, oh, they hurted. After riding a while they became numb and did not hurt so bad.
    Up the Rogue River Canyon road [the Canyon was almost always referred to by that name--sometimes as the Umpqua Canyon or Canyon Creek Canyon], the Indians are still on the warpath. The USA is fighting the Indian. The Indians seemed to have the best of it. They capture government trains, plenty of ammunition and U.S. supplies. Regulars are no good to fight Indians. These Indians are good shots, and at a distance of 200 yards they will outshoot the whites. But at close quarters the Indians become so excited that they become almost helpless. This fact the miners and hunters understand and will not shoot with them at a distance but slip up on them or charge them. This is the difference between the volunteers and the regulars. The regulars fought these Indians over one year, and at the end of this time the Indians were better off than when the war commenced. [The Rogue River Indian War of 1855-56 lasted a little over seven months, much of that time inactive.] The settlers and miners got tired of this kind of warfare, for the country was unsafe both for the miner and farmer. Especially for the traveler, for he knew not when he might be ambushed and killed. The settlers and miners organized themselves in independent companies and went for the Indian. In less than three months there was two-thirds of these Indians were dead and the other third was in the forts for protection. This ended the Rogue River War. [The volunteers were a significant portion of the forces involved for the entire seven months' duration of the war.]
    The Indians as a general rule are very superstitious. The volunteers had a small field gun that they packed on a big mule they had trained for this business, for if the mule is not trained, the recoil of the gun will kick him over. A trained mule will brace himself in such a way that the recoil of the gun does not affect him much. But this time they had the gun on an untrained mule. The Indians made an attack, they fired the gun, it kicked over the mule. Gun and mule rolled down the hill together. [Mountain howitzers were packed on mules, but they were unpacked and assembled before firing. The mule referred to was lost while packing ammunition.] This scared the Indians. Cleared out or stampeded, which ended the fight. This squad of Indians surrendered to the regulars and was sent to the forts for protection. We heard afterwards the reason was the mule and gun rolling down the hill. The Indians said, "Boston man hyas cultis, shoot fenis calipin and moulek at Indian." In English it means "American man shoot a mule and big gun at Indian." [Hamilton's sentence translates as "American very worthless, shoot fenis rifle and elk at Indian." The word "fenis" is a mystery; Chinook didn't use the "F" sound.]
    Well, back to my ride down Rogue River Canyon. This canyon is 16 miles long and is the gateway between the country on the north and the Rogue River Valley. When I passed through it it was very rough and stony. The road was down the bed of the creek and in water. The banks very very steep and high. I rode my pony up to the mouth of the canyon. We wheeled and turned back three times. The fourth he lay back his ears and started down that canyon as fast as his legs would carry him. We had not gone far before I saw the Indians poking their heads up behind the rocks. They seemed to enjoy our run. Now and then an Indian would give a big grunt. Talk about being scared, I did not know whether I was in this world or the next! The pony seemed to be about as bad scared as I. We were alone, pony and I. This lasted for about a mile. I learned afterwards the reason I was not fired on was that the Indians were waiting for bigger game. They were expecting a government train, which they captured the next day.
    That night I stopped at the station. One dollar [per] pony to hay with oats [and] for the privilege of sleeping on the floor with scant blankets. The way the good landlord kept hotel, he had to be a good card player. He would sit down and play cards with his guests until one would get sleepy and he would put him to bed, then go back and play cards until another one got sleepy. He would put him to bed and so on as long as the supply of blankets held out. When the blankets gave out he would steal the blankets of the first he had put to bed and put the rest to bed in time. This is what they called good hotel keeping in those days!
    Well, while we were at the station, Major Red, the celebrated Indian hunter, he says, "Boys, there is a company of regulars of about 24." He says he, "The Indians will kill the entire lot unless they have help." Well, he got together I think the number was 74 [volunteers]. We went to the government stores and helped ourselves to a supply of provisions and was soon on our way. I joined the band. I left my pony in pasture, that is, I turned him loose with the rest of the stock. We elected Red as chief; he was the only officer we had. He took the lead and looked our or seen that we were not ambushed. ["Major Red" is unknown to history.] All we needed to be U.S. soldiers was mustering in. We tried to get Major [A. J.] Smith to muster us as U.S.A. soldiers so that could draw rations and pay, but the miserable cur would not do it. It would have been an honor at that time.
    Well, our march or trip lay over a broken country. Several days we skirmished around, saw plenty of signs of Indians. One day we heard firing in the distance. Red shook his head and said, "Boys, we can't get there too soon. There is trouble ahead." So we hurried up, got there about sundown. The Indians, some 300 of them, were so busy with these soldiers that they did not see us until we were among them. That fight did not last over 20 minutes. A very few of those redskins got away. When we took an inventory of the battle, we had 5 dead chiefs and two wounded ones, which we afterwards turned over to the regulars. Those cowardly regulars never came out of their pits to help us. I had forgotten to say that we only had seven or eight wounded slightly, none markedly. The Indians got after Smith's command. They chased them several days until they chased them up on this bald, dry hill. Here Smith dug rifle pits, had not water. They had been in these pits over 2 days. They were about famished for water. When a soldier poked his head up the Indians would shoot him. Major Smith had been hit. The ball had split the skin on top of his bald head, a place about 4 inches long. He was a sight to behold. The blood was down his face. Some of it dried in what little hair he had. [This is likely a description of the Battle of Big Bend.]
    When we examined those pits we found about 75 or 80 dead soldiers. [The army lost 20 dead at the Battle of Big Bend.] The wounded chief told us that night they intended to take their knives and cut the throats of what was left, that they did not intend to waste any more ammunition on them. They would have done it only for [our] timely arrival on the ground. That night Smith's men got water, for there was plenty not far away. We built a big campfire and talked matters over. Red wanted to kill the major, but we would not let him. Red said such a coward had no business to live or command men. What happened afterwards, we wished we had let Red kill him. He refused to muster us in. Then his report to [the] government some six months afterwards I read in the Golden Era, a paper published in San Francisco. Smith's report to the government, how he had chased the Indians for three days, had chased them upon a dry hill and killed them all after a desperate struggle, that his losses were heavy, giving himself all the credit. Not even mention us, but put in all the details reporting he had done [it]. We wished we had let Red kill him. The killing or fight broke the backbone of their raids or fighting. As I said before, what was left went to the forts for protection.
A Memoir of the Indian War: The Reminiscences of Ezra M. Hamilton, Sheila Whitesitt and Richard E. Moore, ed., The Stump Press, 1987, pages 12-21



Last revised February 7, 2016