Paiutes had hunted and farmed in the mostly peaceful California valley for centuries before white settlers crowded in with their voracious cattle. Conflict was inevitable.
In late March 1862 a 60-man force of volunteers under a settler named Mayfield, reportedly a former Army colonel, moved cautiously up the Owens Valley. Paiutes had been raiding local cattle herds, and Mayfield meant to find the guilty party and punish them. The colonel got more than he bargained for, as his small command soon spotted an estimated 500 raiders in the mountains north of Owens Lake near present-day Big Pine, California. On April 5, obviously outnumbered but undaunted (or perhaps foolish), Mayfield elected to go on the offensive. Dividing his command into two sections, he ordered his volunteers to attack the Indians, but they were quickly driven back. The fight was brief but intense—all it took for his men to lose their courage.
With one man killed, the volunteers panicked and retreated with Paiute warriors close on their heels. Taking up a defensive position in an irrigation ditch, the volunteers recovered enough spirit to keep the attackers at bay, but just barely. That night the Paiutes mortally wounded another volunteer and killed N.F. Scott, sheriff of Mono County, when he lit his pipe. Under cover of darkness Mayfield and the remaining volunteers managed to escape. Along with the three human casualties, they had suffered the loss of 18 horses and mules and all of their provisions, to say nothing of a little dignity. The Mayfield fight was not the first clash of arms between white settlers and Mono Paiutes, but it was the confrontation that initiated the Owens Valley War, which continued off and on for the better part of two years.
On the extreme eastern strip of California, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, Owens Valley stretches some 80 miles north to south with a floor about 5 miles wide. In the mid-19th century the valley was a corridor for travel between southern California, the Nevada Territory mining districts and the Great Basin. The valley also served as an important axis for military traffic through the region. Predictably, as white presence in the area increased, so too did conflict with American Indians. A root cause was the cattle settlers brought into the valley.
For centuries Owens Valley had been home to the Northern Paiute Indians. Related by language to the Shoshone people, the Paiutes were gatherers and farmers, subsisting on piñon pine nuts, wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass they irrigated with an extensive system of ditches. Theirs was also a hunting culture. Deer, bighorn sheep, fish and small game rounded out their diet. Like other California tribes, the Paiutes had no real tribal organization, being, rather, a community of families who shared a common homeland and lived in close proximity to each other. Although not especially warlike, they did engage in occasional clashes with Shoshone raiders.
The first white visitor to the valley was likely some itinerant trapper in the 1820s. In 1945 explorer John C. Frémont skirted the Sierras and named the valley for his guide Dick Owens (or Owings), a trapper who roamed the area in the 1830s, though hardly long enough, one would think, to have earned naming rights. In the summer of 1859 Captain John W. “Black Jack” Davidson—a veteran of the Mexican War and later the Civil and Indian wars—took Companies B and K, 1st Dragoons, from Fort Tejon to Owens Valley under orders to search for livestock stolen earlier that year from the San Fernando and Santa Clara valleys. Davidson found Owens Valley a relatively peaceful place and proposed the federal government set it aside as a reservation, provided the Indians not interfere with white travel through the valley. He opposed white settlement on reservation land. In his reports Davidson also praised the climate and growing conditions in the valley, descriptions that ironically may have attracted more settlers.
Visalia rancher L.R. Ketcham first grazed cattle in the valley in 1859, and two years later cattleman Allen Van Fleet settled near present-day Bishop, named for Samuel Bishop, yet another rancher who brought in cattle and horses, from Fort Tejon, south of present-day Bakersfield. About the same time Charles Putnam built a stone trading post near present-day Independence, just north of Mount Whitney. Putnam’s trading post proved a key location during hostilities with the Paiutes.
The cattle brought into the valley by Ketcham, Bishop and others who arrived in the early 1860s liked to forage on the native grasses and other plants essential to Paiute subsistence. As the cattle were eating their crops, the Indians may have reasoned they had a right to swipe and butcher the occasional steer. The white settlers did not follow that reasoning. Trouble was brewing in the valley.
Early in 1862, after one of the harshest winters on record in the valley, a cowhand named Al Thompson caught an Indian driving off a steer and shot him dead. The Paiutes retaliated, capturing and killing one Yank Crossen, an unfortunate itinerant who happened to be traveling through the valley.
Although tensions were high, neither side seemed anxious for an all-out war. The Paiutes far outnumbered the settlers but were armed mostly with bows and arrows, so any largescale clash would be a mismatch. Representatives of both parties held a peace conference at Sam Bishop’s San Francis Ranch, just west of Bishop Creek, on January 31, 1862. Those present agreed “to let what is past be buried in oblivion.” In the resulting treaty the settlers vowed to leave the Paiutes undisturbed, while the Indians promised not to bother the cattle. Missing from the conference, however, was Joaquín Jim of the Southern Mono Paiutes, who ignored the treaty and soon resumed his raiding ways.
In February, Jim and his band interrupted a northbound cattle drive near San Francis Ranch that sent buyer Jesse Summers and one of his cowhands scurrying to Putnam’s for help. Rounding up 15 men, they returned to the ranch to find Joaquín and his band brandishing torches and otherwise carrying on. The night passed without incident, though probably not without some edginess. By morning Jim was gone, and the ranchers resumed their drive. The next night, however, the Indians drove off 200 head, and the drovers turned the cattle back into the valley.
A week later Allen Van Fleet, in company with other ranchers, chanced upon four Paiutes chasing cattle. When confronted, the Indians said they were looking for their horses, an entirely unsatisfactory explanation as far as the ranchers were concerned. A fight erupted in which Van Fleet and another rancher were wounded, the Indians killed. It was a small affair, but it prompted those Paiutes who had thus far refrained from clashing with the whites to take up arms.
The next few days saw only scattered clashes between ranchers and Paiutes, mostly over stolen cattle, but the Indians seemed to be growing bolder. One band attacked a cabin near Hot Springs. Its occupant, a prospector named E.S. Taylor, is said to have killed 10 of the attackers before the Paiutes set fire to his cabin, killing him as he emerged. The armed ranchers converged on Putnam’s to discuss strategy.
Things were ratcheting up. On March 20 ranchers raided a Paiute camp in the Alabama Hills, north of Owens Lake, killing 11 Indians and destroying much food. Three settlers were wounded in the attack. War was no longer a rumor. The Paiutes now sent word to other bands, although chiefs of the recently subjugated Nevada Paiutes warned against escalation of the Owens Valley conflict. Others answered the call.
Growing ever more concerned, the settlers petitioned military authorities in Los Angeles and at Fort Tejon for assistance, and the Army complied. On March 17, 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton, the district commander in Southern California, ordered Colonel George Bowie at Camp Latham (near present-day Culver City) to investigate the situation in Owens Valley. Bowie in turn ordered Lt. Col. George Evans to mount an expedition to the area. The column, comprising 40 men of the 2nd California Volunteer Cavalry, was outfitted with 40 days’ rations and 100 rounds of ammunition per man.
The settlers, meanwhile, were not idle. They gathered their cattle 30 miles north of Owens Lake and sent riders to Aurora, Nev., and Visalia, Calif., for help. On March 28 John Kellogg, a former Army captain, arrived from Aurora with a party of 18 volunteers, while an additional 30-odd arrived from Visalia under Colonel Mayfield. The Paiutes outnumbered their combined commands at least 10-to-1. Getting the upper hand on the Paiutes would not be such a simple matter. This was war.
The 2nd Cavalry arrived at Putnam’s on April 4 to find 15 men and a number of women and children barricaded inside. As the settlers briefed Colonel Evans, the troopers handed out provisions. The following morning Evans left seven men to protect the settlers and set out with the rest of his troop to aid Mayfield’s command. They met the retreating force of settlers early on the 6th and camped with them that night on Big Pine Creek, 30 miles north of Putnam’s. There they found and buried the bodies of two more settlers killed by Paiutes.
As things were heating up in Owens Valley, Warren Wasson, acting Indian agent for Nevada Territory, had contacted territorial Governor James Nye. Wasson, fearful hostilities in California might spill over into Nevada, had asked to lead a peace mission to Owens Valley. Nye agreed and contacted General George Wright, commanding the Department of Pacific. Wright ordered Captain Edwin Rowe, commander at Nevada’s Fort Churchill, to provide Wasson with a peacekeeping detail. Thus, on April 4, even as Evans was approaching Putnam’s, Lieutenant Herman Noble and 50 men of the 2nd California Cavalry joined Wasson near Aurora and headed for Owens Valley.
On April 7 Evans resumed his advance up the valley. In addition to his own command he now had Mayfield’s volunteers, thinned by attrition to 40 in number but apparently with plenty of fight in them. As they readied to march, Noble’s column arrived, swelling their ranks to more than 100 well-armed men. The combined force advanced up the valley to the site of the Mayfield fight, but the Indians had long since moved on. In retrospect, it’s a little difficult to envision exactly what sort of “peacekeeping” mission Wasson and Noble had in mind. They seemed more interested in a preemptive strike that would discourage the Paiutes from entering Nevada.
On April 8 Evans’ scouts reported a large gathering of Indians near Bishop Creek, but as the soldiers advanced through falling snow, the Paiutes dispersed. That night sentries spotted campfires up a nearby canyon. The next day a patrol tracking the Indians up the canyon came under fire, with one man killed and another wounded. Evans brought the main body to the fore, dismounted his men and prepared to attack on foot.
Forty troopers under Noble and Lieutenant William Oliver moved up the left side of the canyon, while Evans and Lieutenant George French took another 40 up the right. Mayfield and four of his volunteers joined Noble, while the remaining volunteers waited at the mouth of the canyon. Noble’s detachment penetrated the canyon far enough to recover the body of Private Christopher Gillespie, the man killed the preceding day, but came under heavy fire from the Indians. Mayfield was killed, prompting Evans and Noble to withdraw to the creek. Evans and his men probably assumed they were facing a large body of warriors, but Wasson, who had watched the fight from a nearby high point, counted but 25 Indians—likely a rear guard that enabled the Paiutes and their families to escape.
On April 10, with provisions exhausted, Evans elected to return to Camp Latham. Noble and his men would accompany him as far as Putnam’s, before returning to Aurora. The settlers wanted a military presence left in the valley, but Evans, lacking authority to comply, instead offered to escort them out of the valley. A few settlers chose to stay, but most decided to drive their livestock—some 4,000 cattle and 2,500 sheep—to the safety of Camp Latham, which Evans reached on the 28th. In his report Evans recommended a military post be established in Owens Valley to protect both the settlers and Nevada-bound miners.
Back at departmental headquarters in San Francisco, General Wright also got an earful from the valley settlers about their need for protection. Throughout May and June 1862 Indians attacked miners and stockmen on numerous occasions. Those raids, supported by Evans’ report, prompted Wright to direct Colonel Ferris Forman, the new commanding officer at Latham, to establish a post in the valley. Evans soon found himself en route to Owens Valley once again.
On June 14 he left Camp Latham with 201 men of Companies D, G and I, 2nd California Volunteer Cavalry, accompanied by 46 wagons. The plan called for enough rations and forage for 60 days, but the post commissary at Latham could only supply enough for 18 days. Arriving in the valley on the 24th, Evans spent a week pursuing the Indians, trying in vain to coax them into a fight. He may have imagined that if he could whip them in one good fight, it might not be necessary to establish a permanent post. The shortage of rations may also have prompted him to pursue this strategy.
On July 4 Evans established Camp Independence—in honor of the holiday—raised the flag and set about building a permanent post. Until their new home was finished, the men lived in nearby caves. Meanwhile, Evans received word that Wasson and Captain Rowe of the 2nd Cavalry had entered the valley and made a treaty with the Indians. Evans, Wasson and Rowe arranged a parley with Captain George, a fearsome Paiute war chief, who vowed that he was tired of fighting and wished only to befriend the whites. Evans remained skeptical, believing that if the troops were withdrawn, the raids would resume.
Notwithstanding Evans’ doubts, the Department of the Pacific supported Wasson’s treaty, which called for the Indians to return all stolen property, including several hostages. Wasson arranged a council at Camp Independence on October 6, and the warring parties signed the treaty. Leaving one company of cavalry to garrison Camp Independence, Evans and the rest of his command then returned to Camp Latham. Captain George remained at Camp Independence as insurance the treaty would hold up.
Things were calm enough for a few months, but then on March 1, 1863, George vanished from camp. Garrison commander Captain James Ropes issued a warning to area settlers, then sent for reinforcements. On March 11 he sent a six-man patrol under Lieutenant James Doughty to nearby Black Rock Springs in search of Captain George. Approaching the springs the patrol rode into an ambush by some 200 Paiutes. Five troopers, including Doughty, were wounded—one mortally —but the patrol managed to return to Camp Independence. Evans had been right. Three days later Ropes sallied out with a force of 27 soldiers and several civilians, but the Indians had again melted away.
On March 19 a settler reported a party of 30 to 40 Indians slaughtering livestock in the Alabama Hills, 11 miles south of camp. Ropes quickly dispatched a column, which engaged in a running fight with the Indians down to Owens Lake, reportedly killing most of them. One soldier was wounded.
On April 4 Herman Noble, since promoted to captain, arrived at Camp Independence with Company E, 2nd California Volunteer Cavalry, which boosted the garrison’s strength to two full companies. Five days later, at the head of 120 soldiers and 36 civilians, Ropes took the field, determined to find the Indians. He caught up with 200 of them near Big Pine Creek, but the Paiutes again slipped his grasp.
In late April, Captain Moses McLaughlin arrived at Camp Independence with Company D, 2nd California Cavalry, to take over as post commander. The Army now had three companies at its disposal. For the area Paiutes the situation was desperate. The bluecoats seemed in constant pursuit, destroying their food stores and keeping them on the move. Worse still, their firearms had fallen into disrepair, and ammunition was scarce.
On May 22 Captain George finally surrendered, saying he wanted to talk peace. It was a familiar refrain, but this time he brought in 400 followers, who willingly gave up their weapons. Two months later, on July 22, 1863, soldiers escorted some 900 Indians to the Sebastian Indian Reservation near Fort Tejon. For all intents and purposes the Owens Valley War was over. Joaquín Jim and other renegades continued to launch scattered raids through 1865, until the troopers at Camp Independence hunted down the last of them. The Owens Valley War had lasted little more than two years, claiming the lives of an estimated 60 whites and 200 Indians.
Jerry Keenan of Longmont, Colo., has contributed to 25-yearold Wild West since its premiere issue in June 1988. He is the author of Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars and West of Green River: A Novel of the Bonneville Expedition, 1832–1835. Suggested for further reading: The Boys in Sky-Blue Pants, by Dorothy Clora Cragen; Army of the Pacific, 1860–1866, by Aurora Hunt; and The Story of Early Mono County, by Ella M. Cain.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.