Benjamin Wright, who built a reputation as a fearsome Indian fighter, worked to broker peace as an Indian agent— until a half-blood friend turned on him.
Gunfire cracked in the distance. Twenty-eight riders kicked their mounts to a trot, topping a sage-covered ridge. Leading the way was buckskinclad Benjamin Wright—mountain man, prospector and Indian fighter—his long, dark hair flying in the wind. Close on his heels were 27 scruffy miners armed with rifles, pistols and knives.
A wagon train of emigrants was under attack, pinned down between a lakeshore and a high volcanic bluff. From behind brush and boulders Modoc Indians kept a steady hail of arrows whizzing amid the wagons. Smoke billowed from a grass fire, while terrified livestock milled inside the wagon corral, stirring up a cloud of dust. Shouting and shooting, Wright’s riders whipped their horses to a run and thundered into the fracas. Indians fell where they crouched or dove into the lake to swim for waiting canoes or to hide amid the tule reeds.
Cheers went up from the emigrants, even as the fight continued. Miners plunged into the lake to shoot and club Indians as they came up for air or tried to paddle away. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out along the shore. When the last of the Indians were either dead or had escaped, the rescuers returned to the wagons to check on the travelers.
It was August 1852. The six-wagon train of 30 men, a boy and a woman had taken the Applegate Trail, a supposedly safer alternative to the main Oregon Trail. Modoc raiders had trapped the emigrants on the shore of Tule Lake, just south of the present-day Oregon-California border. The wagon train was one of several passing through Modoc country that summer, bound for the goldfields and settlements of northern California and southern Oregon Territory.
A few days earlier and a couple of miles to the west the Modocs had ambushed a party of eight packers. The lone survivor, a fellow named Coffin, had escaped by cutting the pack from one of the party’s mules, jumping on its back and dashing straight toward his attackers. Taking the Indians by surprise, Coffin had broken through their line. After hiding in the tules for several days, he had stumbled into the northern California gold boomtown of Yreka. Concerned citizens had called a town meeting and asked BenWright to lead a patrol to guard wagon trains passing through Modoc country for the remainder of the summer and fall. Twenty-seven men had volunteered to join him.
A mysterious man with glossy black hair that hung in ring- lets nearly to his belt, Benjamin Wright was an enigma. At times he lived with Indian tribes, adopting their customs and modes of dress, and taking a squaw as his common-law wife. At other times he hunted Indians, mutilating his victims according to the respective tribe’s traditions. He had been known to scalp or cut off noses and was even reported to have worn a necklace of human finger bones hacked from Indian hands.
Some said his parents were Quakers, while others claimed he was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Born on April 7, 1828, in Milton (Wayne County), Ind., Wright arrived in Oregon City in the fall of 1847. Indians had attacked the wagon train in which he had traveled west, killing the daughter of the wagon master. It was rumored she was Wright’s sweetheart and that her death had turned him into an Indian hater.
On November 29, 1847, warriors from the Cayuse and Umatilla tribes attacked the Whitman Mission, near present-day Walla Walla, Wash., killing missionary couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman plus 11 other whites and taking more than 50 women and children captive. This incident sparked the Cayuse War. Ben Wright quickly joined the volunteer militia and by December 1847 was a private under Captain William Martin, fighting Cayuses along the Columbia River. In spring 1850 the Cayuses turned over five from their tribe to be tried for the murder of the Whitmans. Most of the volunteers, including Wright, were discharged at that time, even though sporadic fighting continued until 1855.
Wright tried farming in the Willamette Valley in 1850 but decided it was not to his liking. For a few years he trapped beaver and hunted Indians, at times living with various tribes in northern Oregon, adopting their customs and style of dress. When prospectors discovered gold in southern Oregon and northern California, Wright drifted south. By the spring of 1851 he was living near Yreka, Calif., less than 20 miles south of the Oregon border, where he took up with a Shasta Indian woman and prospected for gold on the Scott River. A few weeks after Wright arrived in the Scott Valley, a Modoc band raided a pack train and stole nearly 50 mules and horses. He joined a vigilante group seeking to recover the stolen animals and punish the Modocs. Passing a Modoc village near Tule Lake, the vigilantes made a show of camping nearby. But while the Indians slept, a party under Wright’s leadership surrounded the village. At daybreak the force attacked, killing several men and capturing women and children. The triumphant vigilantes returned to Yreka with stock—although just whose is unclear.
In August 1852 Wright, given his reputation as a fierce Indian fighter, was the miners’ logical choice to lead a patrol escorting wagon trains through Modoc country. After rescuing the six-wagon train at Tule Lake, Wright and his men searched the marshes and to their horror discovered the mutilated remains of at least 22 white emigrants, plus charred wagons, clothing and other personal effects. The miners buried the victims.
News of the Modoc attacks reached the gold boomtown of Jacksonville in southern Oregon’s Rogue River Valley. A company of volunteers under Captain John E. Ross rushed toward Tule Lake, where the men discovered the remains of 14 more emigrants, including several women and children. It was impossible to tell how many settlers the Indians had killed (some historians estimate as many as 70 may have died at the hands of the Modocs that summer), but at Tule Lake it appeared they had wiped out at least one entire wagon train. The scene of the attacks became known as Bloody Point.
The Oregon volunteers joined forces with Wright’s men, and together they scoured the countryside. One gruesome discovery—the body of a young woman —particularly infuriated the volunteers. It appeared she had run more than a mile before the Modocs overtook her. Her attackers had cut her throat, scalped her, stripped her body of clothing and sliced off her breasts. Eligible white women were scarce on the frontier, and the sight of this mutilated young woman caused some of the men—many of whom were as young as the victim— to weep or shake with rage. All vowed to avenge her death.
That summer and fall Wright and 15 of his men continued to patrol the Applegate Trail through Modoc country. Through Indian interpreters Wright negotiated with the Modocs, seeking the return of stolen property. Learning that two white girls had been captured in a raid on a wagon train near Lower Klamath Lake, he added their immediate release to his demands. He met with Modoc leaders, pressing them to bring in the captives and stolen property in return for his promise to leave their country. He also offered to trade with them for feathers and furs. None of these tactics worked.
By early November 1852 the volunteers were running short on supplies, so Wright dispatched four men to Yreka for food and ammunition. Arriving just before Election Day, the miners decided to stay long enough to vote. For six days Wright and his men were on starvation rations, and they were preparing to slaughter one of their horses when the four finally returned with beef on the hoof and additional ammunition. The miners killed one of the steers, and Wright invited local Modocs to the feast. An oft-repeated rumor had it that one of Wright’s men had purchased strychnine in Yreka, that the volunteers prepared poisoned beef, and that more than 40 Modocs died from eating the poisoned food. Wright and his men vehemently denied this version of events, saying it wouldn’t have been “sporting enough.” Most historians agree it is doubtful poison was used. According to Wright, the Indians remained suspicious, and only two Modoc men showed up. He fed the pair, gave them presents and allowed them to return to their village. Still the other Modocs kept their distance.
In mid-November, Wright moved his camp to the trail crossing at the natural bridge on the Lost River, a few hundred yards from the Modocs’ winter village. The dropping temperatures brought more Indians into camp every day, and their fighting men now outnumbered the whites 3 to 1. The miners were understandably nervous and grew even more so when a volunteer named Fenning brought information from his Indian mistress that the Modocs planned to attack the whites in the next couple of days. Wright decided to wait no longer. He would approach the Modoc village alone to settle things—one way or another.
The Indian village sat on a low ledge just above the river. Rising directly behind it was a 20-foothigh bluff. That night Wright placed 10 of his volunteers on the bluff and six others across the river opposite the Indian encampment. The men hid in the brush. At daybreak he strode boldly into the Modoc camp. Over his buckskins he wore a blanket poncho, beneath which he concealed a pistol.
Wright could not locate Schonchin John, the headman, so he walked up to the man he knew was second in command and demanded he release the captive white girls and return all the stolen property. The warrior scowled and refused, so Wright fired two shots through the blanket. The Indian dropped dead. At that instant Wright lay flat on the ground.
The volunteers on the riverbank opened fire, and as Wright scrambled from the village, the men on the bluff joined in, catching the Indians in a crossfire. Some Modoc men tried to grab their bows but were soon cut down. Others dove into the water and were shot when they came up for air. Still others ran for the sagebrush only to be rounded up and clubbed or shot to death. In all, Wright’s men killed more than 40 Modocs, including several squaws, while just three of the volunteers were wounded, none seriously. The two captured white girls were never found. Only two Modoc warriors escaped—Schonchin John and Curly Headed Doctor. Neither would forget that day, and both would play important roles in the Modoc War 20 years later.
The miners scalped and mutilated their victims, as the Modocs had done to the emigrants’ bodies, and then rode back to Yreka, their ghastly souvenirs dangling from their guns, hats and horses’ bridles. An honor guard and cheering citizens met the riders and carried them from their horses to the saloons, which dispensed free whiskey for all. The residents then honored the fighting miners with a grand banquet. The drunken revelry continued, day and night, into the following week. Wright and his men were heroes, not only in Yreka, but also in the other settlements and mining camps.
While Ben Wright and his men were fighting the Modocs, prospectors discovered gold on the beaches of southern Oregon, near the mouth of the Rogue River. Ruffians of every sort were soon pouring into the area, pushing aside local Indians in pursuit of mineral wealth. When a prospector turned up dead, white miners assumed the Rogue Indians (or Takelmas, as they called themselves) had done the killing and retaliated by raiding their villages.
On May 12, 1854, Joel Palmer, the Oregon superintendent of Indian Affairs, wrote to Brig. Gen. John E.Wool, commander of the Department of the Pacific, asking for troops—not to protect the whites, but to protect the Indians of the region. “How mortifying that we have so reckless a population as to demand the presence of troops, to protect the natives against the barbarities of our own citizens,” Palmer wrote in his letter to General Wool.
In September 1854 Superintendent Palmer appointed Wright special sub-agent of Indian Affairs at Port Orford, a district that included the lower Rogue River and the southern Oregon coast between Coos Bay and the California border. It seems puzzling Palmer would choose a man like Ben Wright for the job, but he may have been desperate. Earlier that year two Port Orford sub-agents had resigned after filing reports about the brutality of miners against local Indians. “Within the last six months four [Indian] villages have been burned by the whites,” reported Josiah Parrish, the sub-agent whom Wright replaced. “Many of them have been killed merely on suspicion that they would arise and avenge their own wrongs, or for petty threats that have been made against lawless white men for debauching their women.” When portions of those reports were leaked to the newspapers, irate miners threatened the agents’ lives.
Palmer may have felt he needed a man like Wright, respected by whites and Indians alike as a fearless fighter, someone who spoke several Indian languages and claimed friends among whites, Indians and mixed bloods.
By February 1855 Wright was busy trying to prevent the “Exterminators,” a ruthless group of white vigilantes in Crescent City, Calif., from crossing into Oregon to slaughter Chetco Indians. The no-nonsense agent met with the men and warned them of “fearful consequences” if they entered his district.
When the fearful Chetcos asked Wright what they should do, he advised them “to keep out of the way of the whites and not fight the whites…[and] to take to the mountains when the whites commenced killing them.” He warned them not to cross the California border under any circumstances, for fear the Crescent City vigilantes would attack them. They promised not to.
The Rogue River War broke into wholesale violence in early October 1855, after a mob from Jacksonville attacked a sleeping Indian village near the Table Rock Reservation, killing more than two dozen Shasta men, women and children. In response the Shastas, Umpquas and Rogues combined forces to attack and slaughter miners, packers and homesteaders. The whites retaliated by raiding Indian villages and hanging captives from oak trees along the streets of Jacksonville. Freighters refused to travel through hostile Indian territory, which led to shortages and drove up prices. The whites petitioned the Army to round up the Indians and confine them to reservations.
Fighting in the interior valleys of southern Oregon added to Ben Wright’s problems. He threatened to arrest anyone— white or Indian—who caused trouble. Hearing that hostile Indians from the inland valleys were making overtures to the coast tribes to join them in war, Wright hurried between villages of the Coquilles, Chetcos and Tututnis, reminding them of treaties signed in 1853 and 1854. He then ordered the Coquille Guard, a militia of whites patrolling the coast, to cease their aggressions against Indians. He also persuaded a group of Coquilles to move onto a temporary reservation at Port Orford.
By November 1855 the Takelmas were making a last-ditch stand for their freedom, battling white forces on the lower Rogue River. The coastal tribes grew increasingly apprehensive as they watched white intruders push the Takelmas toward the Pacific. But heavy snows in the mountains curtailed communication between the regions. By early winter a deceptive calm had settled over the coastal Indian villages and neighboring white settlements.
Living among the Tututnis was an English-speaking half-blood French-Canadian named Enos, who had arrived in Oregon in the 1840s as a scout for John C. Frémont and had recently become an employee of Ben Wright. Enjoying the Indian agent’s full confidence, Enos came and went as he pleased. He had lived in Yreka and Jacksonville but had also spent much time among the warring tribes. Under Wright’s very nose Enos was inciting the coastal Indians to unite against the white miners and settlers.
At the time Wright was living with an Indian woman known as Chetco Jenny, whom he’d hired as a government interpreter. One night in a rage Wright stripped Jenny naked, then walked her along the boardwalks of Port Orford while whipping her with a riding quirt. Even the hardened miners were outraged by Wright’s actions. Jenny turned to Enos to help her seek revenge.
Enos had been plotting with local chiefs to launch an attack on the lower coast settlements. His chance came on the night of February 22, 1856, when miners gathered to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. While white revelers kicked up their heels at an all-night dance, the Indians struck the mining camp at Gold Beach. They killed 31 whites and burned 60 houses and most of the rest of the buildings in the mining settlement.
According to one account, Ben Wright and Captain John Poland, commander of the Gold Beach Guard volunteers, were at Wright’s cabin when some Tututnis stopped by to complain that Enos was in their camp and causing trouble. Wright and Poland paddled a canoe to the village, where Indians immediately seized them. Enos personally walked up behind Wright and buried his tomahawk in the Indian agent’s head. The Indians killed Poland, too, then mutilated both men’s bodies. While the rest of the tribe danced around a huge bonfire in a celebratory frenzy, Enos and Chetco Jenny reportedly roasted and ate Ben Wright’s heart, believing it would give them courage.
Several more months of fighting followed before white officials arrested Enos on the Grand Ronde Reservation, west of Salem in Oregon’s Coast Range. They took him in chains to Port Orford, where miners lynched him on April 12, 1856.
According to great-great grandsons Larry and Donny Fry, Chetco Jenny married a white man named Randolph Tichenor. This allowed her to escape “Oregon’s Trail of Tears,” as it is called, when soldiers rounded up most of her people, held them for weeks in pens at Port Orford, then forced them to march north nearly 200 miles to the Siletz Reservation.
In 1857 the agent at Siletz confiscated from his wards Ben Wright’s scalp, which they had affixed to a tall pole and used as the object of traditional scalp dances. By then soldiers had confined most of the other southern Oregon tribes to inland reservations.
The enigmatic Ben Wright had been the best Indian fighter in northern California and Oregon, and to those he rescued and their descendants he would remain a hero. But many Indians, especially the Modocs, recalled only his ruthlessness, as when Wright destroyed the Modoc winter village in fall 1852. When the Modocs took up arms again in 1872–73, they cited Wright’s brutality 20 years earlier as one of their primary motivations.
Carole Nielson, of Shady Cove, Ore., is a retired school secretary who has traveled with her husband, Dan, to 27 countries. They give talks on local history, though, and her writing centers on the American West. Suggested for further reading: The Modocs and Their War, by Keith A. Murray; Indian Wars of the Rogue River, by Dorothy and Jack Sutton; and The People and the River, by Elizabeth Heckert.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.