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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.






pg. 176




Indians of Stanislaus County



The story of the Indians of Stanislaus county is pathetic. It records the contest of two peoples for the soil of the new country. It is indeed the epic of the races in the wilderness of the plains.


The aborigines who occupied the virgin valley of the San Joaquin and the foothills of the Sierras have died out completely. Fifty years ago a miserable remnant of the tribes existed in a primitive condition at Knight's Ferry and a few in the foothills about La Grange. In clement weather they could be seen paddling their frail canoes up and down the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus rivers in search of acorns and game. On the Tuolumne river they came down as far as Empire City. At other seasons they huddled in tier wigwams – quaint and uncouth hovels on the river's edge – and eked out a precarious existence, subsisting principally on the bounty of the tender-hearted whites. Numerous in the 40's, when the lure of gold attracted the Argonauts, the cupidity and the land lust of the miners and the immigrants and the apathetic negligence of the United States have pushed the Indians of Stanislaus from the face of the earth.


Marshall's discovery of gold at Coloma in January, 1848, brought on the serious strife between the red and the white men that crimsoned the plains and the mountains of California with the blood of the races. Until chance uncovered the golden treasures in the mountain gorges and in the water courses of the State, the first settlers and the aborigines lived together in comparative peace and mutual security. The news of this historic and romantic event brought from the four quarters of the civilized world the most daring adventurers and immigrants who ever sought to populate a country and who, in search of the glittering metal in the new El Dorado, flocked to the beautiful valleys and the rugged mountain ranges, to the fishing and the hunting grounds and to the acorn orchards that had surrounded the graves of the Indian forefathers for centuries -


pg. 177


to the lands that has long been unclaimed by others. After the discovery of gold, the Indian was treated as an intruder in his own ancient habitat and as a common enemy by the whites. In many instances he was shot down with as little compunction as was a deer or the antelope.


So strained had become the relations between the settlers and the Indians that in 1850, the federal government sent three commissioners to this state to negotiate treaties of peace and friendship with the various tribes of California. These commissioners were Redic McKee, George W. Barbour, and O. M. Wozencraft. Reaching San Francisco in January, 1851, they at once published in the press of that city a notice of their arrival, and of the purpose of their visit, and indicated their intention of entering upon the important duties of their commission as soon as the state of the weather and the roads would admit of traveling. Coincident with their arrival there came to San Francisco from all portions of the state, the most disquieting news of Indian depredations, with serious loss of life and property.


As if by preconcerted design the Indians of Tuolumne (of which Stanislaus was then a part) and of Mariposa counties and those who made their rendezvous on the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus rivers joined in the general state-wide warfare against the whites, the intention being as was expressed by one of the chiefs, to drive the pale face from the lands that had been the heritage and the possession of the Indians for centuries. The hostilities occurred principally in Mariposa county where there had been many thefts by the Indians for several months previous to the outbreak of the open warfare. Though the redmen had exhibited a restless disposition against the white settlers, the first evidence of their complete disaffection and enmity materialized at the camp of James D. Savage on the Mariposa river on December 1, 1850, when all of the Indians at this camp left stealthily in the night, the whites knowing neither why nor where they had gone. From the fact that the domestic Indians of Savage had forsaken him and gone with those of the rancheria, or village, it was suspected that an action of a serious nature had been committed or was in contemplation.


pg. 178


Located in a remote corner of the state, about twelve miles from Mariposa city, close to the former camping grounds of Captain Fremont, near a grove skirting a considerable plain and surrounded by tall, scraggly oak-covered projecting mountains, the camp of James D. Savage was a most picturesque spot in the wilds of California in the day of long distances, few settlements and uncertain trails. The scenery was of the wildest sort. Here Savage maintained his store and traded with the Indians. Near the store was his ranch from which his domestic Indians drew their sustenance. Supplied with the articles they needed from his counters they dug for gold for him and were generally faithful in their attachment.


As soon as Savage became aware of the disappearance of his Indians, he, with sixteen other men, began pursuit. After following their trail for thirty miles, he reached their encampment. The Indians fled to the mountains. Savage ascended the one nearest the encampment, but discovered the Indians on the top of an adjoining mountain at some distance. From these two hilltops a conversation took place between the Chief and Savage. The Chief informed Savage that the Indians had murdered the men on the Fresno River and robbed the camp. Savage urged them to return to their villages, assuring them that with little labor they could procure sufficient gold to purchase clothes and food. The Chief replied that this was a hard way to get a living and that they could more easily supply their wants by pilfering from the whites. He also informed Savage that the Indians intended plundering and killing the settlers as long as a white face was seen in the country. Finding all efforts futile, Savage and his party returned to their camp. Another party which at once set out for Fresno verified the statement of the Chief upon their arrival at that camp in finding it a scene of savage horror. The store had been sacked, the safe rifled of its contents, and the cattle and horses driven into the mountains. Stripped of their clothes the murdered men's bodies were filled with arrows.


Depredations and massacres followed one after the other in rapid succession and extending over a wide area in the mountains and on the plains. Every camp in the southern mines was in danger of attack from the redmen drunk with the blood of the whites.


pg. 179


Major James Burney, sheriff of Mariposa county, afterwards, after its organization, an official of Stanislaus county and later and until his death the justice of the peace of the city of Modesto, raised a volunteer company of seventy-five men to drive the Indians back or to force them into more friendly relations. Under the guidance of Savage, this company went forth early in January, 1851, in pursuit of the warring Indians. They proceeded toward the Snow mountains for a distance of thirty miles from Agua Frio when they struck a trail that had been made by stolen horses. With a small spy contingent, Savage went forward to reconnoiter. The main company followed. At 2 o'clock on the following morning, Savage reported that the rancheria was near, as he had heard the Indians singing the war songs of the tribes. The company halted, leaving a guard with the horses. Major Burney then advanced with the balance of the company. They reached the village just before dawn when there was insufficient light for rifle firing with accuracy. Discovered by the Indian sentinel, the company charged upon the village, reaching it at the same time as the sentinel who gave the alarm of the approach. There were about four hundred Indians in the village. The fight continued for over four hours. About fifty Indians were killed. Six of the company were wounded, two mortally. The village was burned. The bravery and management of Major Burney were spoken of in terms of high commendation.


In response to representation detailing the atrocities and the brutal activities of the Indians, Governor John McDougal dispatched Colonel J. Neeley Johnson, a member of his staff and afterwards governor of the state, to the scene of hostilities with full authority to act under the exigencies as his prudent judgment would dictate. Arriving in Mariposa county, Colonel Johnson immediately organized a battalion of four hundred men. James D. Savage was elected to its command with the rank of major. There troops were held for defensive purposes until the Indian Commissioners could have the opportunity to meet with the warring Indians and compose the differences, if possible, with them. They were stationed at three points – one on the little Mariposa about fifteen miles from Agua Frio, another on the Fresno about twenty-five miles from


pg. 180


the latter place, and the other at Cassidy's Crossing on the San Joaquin river, each of which commanded a pass through which the Indians were accustomed to make their descents upon the white miners and the settlements. Major Savage was enrolled in the service of the state on February 10, 1851, and served until July 1st of that year. In behalf of the governor, Colonel Johnson maintained close touch with the troops in the field, making several pilgrimages from the state capitol to the scene of hostilities. On one of these journeys he was accompanied by Judge John G. Marvin, associate judge of Tuolumne county, the editor and publisher of the first newspaper issued in the town of Sonora, first superintendent of public instruction of the state, commissary of the battalion, founder of Empire City and grand-uncle of Mrs. A. G. Elmore, wife of the present county superintendent of schools of Stanislaus county.


Judge Marvin knew the Indian character well, was indefatigable in his efforts to assist in quelling the rebellion, and while the legislature was faltering in its duty to provide the sinews of war to protect the citizens, pledged his personal responsibility to obtain supplies for the troops. He transmitted to the state school fund the compensation that he received for acting as commissary.


On this tour to Mariposa these officers visited Knight's Ferry (Dent and Vantine's Ferry). At this settlement they found a company of one hundred men fully armed and equipped for service against the Indians. At this settlement they also met a group of Indians who were described by F. W. Rice, junior editor of the Courier, who accompanied the party as far as Agua Frio, as follows:


“There are, perhaps, two hundred Indians here at the Ferry, living in the most miserable lodges I have ever seen Indians live in anywhere. The Indians themselves are lazy, dirty, and ill-looking in the extreme. I walked through their encampment last night, after they had curled themselves up in their huts. Most of their huts are made of straw and small sticks and are very small, having the appearance of a two-bushel basket turned upside down. Cut away about one-quarter of the basket in front for them to creep into and set a few knots on fire in the mouth of the hole and you have the thing complete. Males and females perfectly naked, were coiled up together in the dirt and ashes, their long, black, horselike hair covering almost completely their faces.


pg. 181


As they snored away, they could be compared to nothing but the lowest order of brutes.


“Previous to the gold discovery these Indians lived on acorns and clover, occasionally catching a few fish. Now they get a little meat and occasionally bread with the money they gather by rocking the cradle for the miners, or for the small amount of gold dust which they muster industry enough once in a while to dig themselves. The gold diggings are right in front of the encampment and the few Americans who are working them, get them five to eight dollars per day, now that the river is low. There are few of these Indians who wear clothing, after the fashion of the miners, and who seem to have a little pride in red shirts and gaudy cotton handkerchiefs; but the mass of them have no such ambition.”


It was the intention of both Judge Marvin and Colonel Johnson to join the battalion in the field and await the advent of the Indian Commissioners. Within a few weeks thereafter in the month of February, the Indian Commissioners, accompanied by an escort of 101 men, and 10 officers from General Smith's command at Benicia, completely equipped, left their barracks for Mariposa county under the command of Captain Keyes. They came from Benicia to Stockton by steamer on February 8th. Captain Carson, brother of Kit Carson, accompanied the contingent as interpreter. The federal soldiers were selected to accompany the commissioners in order to protect them from attacks of marauding Indians and to give by their presence an air of dignity and authority to the proceedings of the federal officials. The command went overland from Stockton to Mariposa. Provisions were conveyed by three six-mule wagons and one hundred and fifty pack mules.


The Dent Brothers received Commissioners Barbour and Wozencraft at Knight's Ferry, Judge Dent acting as interpreter in the conversations with the Indians. Here the commissioners met a number of Jesus Jose Indians. These Indians were not unfriendly to the whites. The chief and the principal men of this tribe were shrewd and sensible. They were pleased with the offers made by the commissioners, and immediately sent out runners to bring in the chiefs and the captains of the Kossus or Stanislaus Indians within four months – 4000 being in this tribe.


pg. 182


It was further agreed to meet later on the Tuolumne river at Horr's Ranch with Cipriano, formerly the associate of Estanislao. The commissioners left Knight's Ferry on February 14 for Horr's Ranch, where they had an interview with Captain Cornelius and some of his captains. It was here that Cipriano undertook to bring in the hostile tribes from the headwaters of the Tuolumne river. Cipriano complied with the agreement. In the report of the commissioners the other Indians whom they met at Knight's Ferry were described as low and degraded – scarcely one degree above the brute, though known to possess animal courage and cunning. They were dirty, lazy and ignorant, living on acorns pounded into flour and fond of beef. They had no idea of a future state of rewards and punishments, but believed in the doctrine of transmission, on death the Indian being transferred into a grizzly bear or a coyote. They burned their dead, all the personal effects of the dusky warrior, including his mule or horse, being burned and buried with the master.


Captain Cornelius, referred to in the foregoing paragraph, was not unfriendly to the whites at any time in his career. Writing in 1898 of him, Squire F. H. Ayres who had been a resident of the county since 1848, said:


“It is known that Captain Fremont passed through this county on his expedition to California and camped with his command on the south side of the Tuolumne river, opposite Robert's Ferry, and buried one of his men there, marking the spot by placing a bronze plate bearing the name of an officer of his company on an oak tree. A few years ago this tree was blown down and the inscribed plate was found and preserved. At that time, there were Indians living on the river. Their chief, Cornelius, furnished Fremont with twelve men to go as guides and vaqueros, and on discharging them gave them a flag and each one a gun, telling them to display the flag and it would be a protection. The writer saw the stars and stripes on their rancheria in March, 1849, and received this information from their captain.”


For several months following the troops in the field, in the midst of a severe winter, with the snows covering the mountains, filling the defiles, and obliterating the trails, under the most adverse conditions, with scant provisions and equipment, suffering intense hardships in a rough,


pg. 183


wild and uninviting country still untrod by civilized man, operated against the recalcitrant Indians in their effort to administer chastisement, to round up the warring tribes and bring them in to meet the Indian Commissioners in order to establish the peace so ardently desired by the miners and the citizens of the towns. It was, indeed, no easy task that the men under the command of Major Savage undertook to accomplish in this day of unfriendly Indians – agile, treacherous and determined to regain their lands from the unwelcome whites. The complete story of this expedition and all its details, still reposing in the archives of the war department of the State of California, is yet to be written. Several engagements occurred in which the Indians were vanquished and their villages destroyed. The Semitees were pursued into their mountains fastnesses in a perilous and dangerous chase that was full of hardship and excitement and were forced to capitulate. In this manner the Yosemite Valley was discovered and first entered by the whites, in pursuit of this tribe who have given their name to this famous spot. The Chowchillas, a powerful tribe of over a thousand warriors and warlike to the last extremity, on the San Joaquin and Merced rivers were followed and hunted by the troops as far as the Coast Range mountains before they finally consented to meet the commissioners. The most refractory of the tribes, they were the last to surrender. Major Savage, in all the military operations, owing to his great knowledge of the Indian character and his former friendship with them, was constantly in the forefront of the activities. No hardship was too severe, no difficulty insurmountable for this fearless and intrepid Indian fighter. On the approach of his command, most of the tribes, after a short parley, immediately and peacefully agreed to repair to the place arranged for the meeting with the commissioners. Major Burney, at the head of a company of volunteer troops, also saw very active service.


At Horr's Ranch in Stanislaus county in February, 1851, the commissioners held a satisfactory parley with the Tuolumne Indians. With this band there were six wild Indians from the mountains who said that they had left their tribes because they did not desire to fight against the whites. They were supplied with provisions and hired


pg. 184


to return to the mountains to try to induce the chiefs to come down and negotiate with the commissioners. As they failed to return to the camp, it was assumed that they were spies. When early during the hostilities, Colonel Johnson, in company with Major Savage, visited one of the tribes and sought to make a treaty of peace with them – the Indians agreeing to protect Savage and any of his friends – the Indians refused to listen to him. The principal Chief said that his people had been driven by the whites from the hunting grounds of the valley to the barren snow-covered hills where they must starve or be provided for. Colonel Johnson told them that their Great Father, the President of the United States, intended to make provision for them. The Chief asked where he was. Learning that he was three thousand miles away, he remarked that before the Great Father could hear of or relieve their distress, all of the Indians might die. The Colonel assured the Indians that they would be protected if they remained peaceful towards the whites. To this the Chief replied that whether the Indians were hostile or peaceful, they were abused by the whites equally in the one as in the other condition.


Major James D. Savage, who took such a prominent part in this Indian warfare, was probably one of the most noted characters in the early history of the state. His romantic career is yet to be written. He lived a wild and adventurous life among the Indians and his history during that period is strangely dashed with the romantic and abundant in wild incident. He distinguished himself not only as an Indian fighter, but in obtaining a complete mastery over the Indians while at peace. He was in this country when the Bear flag was raised, volunteered beneath its folds and fought through the war against the Mexicans. A member of Fremont's battalion, he was with Fremont both in Oregon and in California. After peace and before the discovery of gold, and shortly after the disbanding of Fremont's battalion, he went to the south, settled among the Indians, and through Jose and Jesus, two of the most powerful chiefs in the valley of the San Joaquin, he established an intimacy with the principal tribes. By his indomitable energy, capability of endurance, and personal prowess he acquired a complete mastery over them to such an extent that he was elected chief of several of the tribes.


pg. 185


He obtained great influence over the Indians of the lowlands and led them successfully against their mountain enemies, conquering a peace wherever he forayed.


During the Indian war he was particularly obnoxious to the Indians with whom he was formerly most friendly. They singled him out for death. He was held in such terror by them that from his surprising strength and activity he always prevailed in personal conflicts with them. He understood the Indian character perfectly, talked their language fluently, and availed himself to their superstitions to hold them in check. He was no enemy of the red men and he was alleged to have remarked that he never knew of an Indian war that was not caused by the brutality of the whites and that he attributed the outbreak to the same cause. After the conclusion of the peace he returned to their midst, established a trading post among them on the Fresno river, by special license of the Indian Commissioners, and regained his former control over the savages. His tragic death at the hands of Captain Harvey early in 1852 in the presence of his bosom friend, Judge John G. Marvin, at Campbell's Ferry on the King's river, while he was on his way to attend an Indian council, cast widespread gloom throughout the state. He possessed numerous friends who knew him for the big heart that was in him and for the signal service he had rendered the state. The Indians mourned equally with the whites. In his death, the white residents of the San Joaquin Valley lost an able exponent of their true rights and demands among the Indians and the Indians probably their best and most influential friend in the entire state.


The termination of hostilities was followed by the consummation of seven treaties of peace in the valley of the San Joaquin by the Indian Commissioners with sixty-three tribes, aggregating twenty thousand souls. The fourth one was made at Dent and Vantine's Crossing at Knight's Ferry on the 28th day of May, 1851, between O. M. Wozencraft, commissioner plenipotentiary of the United States of America, of the one part, and the chiefs, captains, and headmen of the Iou-ol-umne, We-chilla, Sucaah, Co-to-planemis, Chap-pah-sims, and Sage-wom-nes tribes on the other part.


pg. 186


This treaty was signed by O. M. Wozencraft for the United States, by Cornelius and Sala-do-nia for the Iou-ol-umnes, by We-chilla and seven others for the We-chillas, by Su-caah-ke and You-it-ka for the Suc-caahs, by Pa-ki-no and Fer-re-seto for the Co-to-plane-mis, by Fe-lippe and Ni-colas for the Chappah-sime, and by Yo-mil-lo for the Sage-wom-nes. It was sealed and delivered, after being fully explained, in the presence of E. S. Lowell, secretary; A. Johnson, agent; F. Belcher, John C. Dent and S. Dent. The Indian Chiefs signed by their marks. It was estimated at the time that from three to four thousand Indians were involved in the pact. It was indeed a gala occasion for the town of Knight's Ferry when all these chiefs and principal men of the tribes came to this settlement to consummate this treaty of peace and friendship and it was no doubt a spectacular affair when in the presence of the United States military, the assembled citizens and Indians, the chiefs, relying on the promises of the federal representative, and in consideration thereof, signed the treaty and swore allegiance to the United States and acknowledged its sovereignty.


During the ceremonies attending signing of this treaty, a captain of one of the tribes in the mountains came to the meeting. He represented to the commissioners that he was there in behalf of his people. He stated that his tribe had formerly lived down in the foothills of the Calaveras, but owing to the aggressions of the whites, they were forced up into the mountains where it became necessary that they steal or starve. He asked the protection of a reservation. He said that if this was assured he would bring down all the members of his tribe. He was given the promise of the protection requested.


In this treaty these tribes agreed to cede rights in lands to the United States, to keep the peace, to accept the sovereignty of the United States and to accept the reservation provided therein for them. The United States undertook and agreed to pay the Indians certain sums in goods, to reserve in perpetuity for the Indians' use and enjoyment the reservation provided in the treaty, to provide schools and other buildings, and to provide skilled instructors, etc.


pg. 187


The description of the reservation is as follows:


“Beginning at an acute bend in the river about half a mile distant from and above this place, running thence in a due line to the elbows of Tuolumne, opposite the point fixed in the former treaty, and running down in a straight line eight miles on said river, from thence across the Stanislaus river on a line parallel with the first, thence up the middle of said river to place of beginning, to have and to hold the said district of country for the sole use and occupancy of said Indian tribes forever.”


An additional paragraph provided that “for and in consideration of the uniform friendly, honest, and meritorious deportment of Captain Cornelius towards the American citizens, it is agreed and stipulated that the tract of land on which he now resides is hereby set apart for the sole use and occupancy of himself and his people, but not in fee simple, bounded as follows: Beginning at a point on the northeast side of the Tuolumne river, one-quarter of a mile below How's Ferry, running thence down said river three miles, thence out and back to the place of beginning, embracing a square of three miles; and in further consideration of his appreciation of our Republican form of government, we hereby present him with an American flag, it being the first request made by him to us.”


According to a statement published of Redick McKee, one of the commissioners, of date of July 30, 1851, these Indians permanently located upon these lands appropriated to the use of these tribes and guaranteed to them forever. He also wrote that “ the Indians are said to be well contented with the treaties, scrupulous in the observance of their stipulations and many of them are working industriously either in agricultural pursuits, or in the mines. If they are only let alone by the whites, we are in hopes the country will remain quiet and prosperous, and that the measures adopted for their improvement and melioration will result in lasting good to both races.” The reservations were generally below the mining or gold region, though on the bars in some of the streams gold was to be found in small quantities.


On May 28, 1852, this treaty, in company with seventeen others negotiated by these commissioners with the tribes of California, were submitted to the United States Senate by President Millard Fillmore. On June 7, 1852, they were all read and refused ratification unanimously by the senate on June 28.


pg. 188


On January 18, 1905, the injunction of secrecy was removed – fifty years later.


Though Redick McKee wrote at the time that the Indians were all permanently located on their reservations, it is a matter of serious doubt whether any of the Indians who participated in the treaty of friendship and peace at Dent and Vantine's Ferry ever went on the land appropriated to their use in perpetuity. The government long ago opened this land to homestead entry. It is now occupied by American citizens.


In the years that have passed since May 28, 1851, the six tribes that numbered four thousand souls – the Indians of Stanislaus county – have, through penury, disease and official neglect, dwindled and faded away.


Securing the benefits and the advantage of the treaty, the federal government failed to assume any of its obligations.


It is indeed a pathetic story.






Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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