Idaho History November 5, 2017

Sheepeater Campaign 1879

1879 Sketch Map of Middle Idaho Showing Trails Made by Troops in Sheepeater Campaign 1879. (1926)

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Title Sketch Map of Middle Idaho Showing Trails Made by Troops in Sheepeater Campaign 1879. (1926)
Creator Brown, W. C. (William Carey), 1854-1939.
Date Original 1926
Publisher [Boise, Id. : Syms-York Company]
Description 1 map: 29 x 22 cm. Scale: 1 inch = 15 miles. Trails and marches of campaign drawn on map. W.C. Brown was a second Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars of the late 1870s. These maps come from a book by him, published in 1926 after his retirement, about the Sheepeater Campaign. …

source: Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries
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Time Line from Warm Lake Area History

1878 17 June
Indians raided ranches in Indian Valley and ran off with about 60 head of horses. Four ranchers were in pursuit when they were ambushed at the Payette Falls (Cascade). Killed were Wm. Monday, Jake (John) Grosclose, and Tom Healy with “Three-Fingers” Smith badly wounded (Sheepeater Indian Campaign, P12). History sign says ambush was on Aug. 20, 1878. Another article in book Sheepeater Indian Campaign says this occurred on Aug. 17, 1878 (P27). Their grave is located north of Cascade, west of SH55, on Vista Point Blvd. 0.7 mile and on the right side of the gravel road. A three foot high rock has “Grave” painted on it and the bronze marker is some 200 feet north of the road. This site is just north of the Cascade Dam.

1878 Aug. 20
Dan Crooks and Boone Helm (Bob Wilhelm on Historic Marker) were killed at Round Valley, presumably by Indians (Sheepeater Indian Campaign book p. 12). They were working a mine for a miner named Pearsol on a creek that now bears his name (USFS). Their grave is 1.5 miles east on the Little Pearsol Road from the Warm Lake Highway and about 150 feet south of the gravel road on a small knoll. A group called “Sons of Idaho” placed a marker stone at the site on Aug. 18, 1929. The gray granite stone is 1.5’ high by 2’ long.

1879 Feb.
Indians killed 5 Chinese placer miners on Loon Creek. Source: Trails of the Frank Church-River of No Return p 250 and Sheepeater Indian Campaign p6 (back section) 1968 Idaho County Free Press, Grangeville, Idaho.

1879 March or April
Indians killed Hugh Johnson and Peter Dorsey on the South Fork near the Salmon River, some 35 air miles north of Warm Lake. Sheepeater Indian Campaign p 12 & USFS

1879 July 24
Captain R. F. Bernard and 60 cavalry camped at the northeast end of Warm Lake. They were part of the Sheepeater Campaign. Source: map from the book Sheepeater Indian Campaign.

1879 Aug. 15
James P. Raines was shot and killed by Indians on his South Fork ranch, while putting up hay (48 air miles north of Warm Lake). P14 front section and p14 back section of the book Sheepeater Indian Campaign.

1879 Aug. 20
Private Harry Eagan was shot and killed by Indians at Soldier Bar on Big Creek, 3 miles upstream from the Middle Fork of the Salmon. P17 back section of Sheepeater Indian Campaign.

1879 Oct.
Sheepeater Campaign was concluded with surrender of 51 Indians. Source: Sheepeater Indian Campaign.

“Cougar” Dave Lewis was a government packer and scout during the Sheepeater Indian campaign. He had been a Union Soldier in the Civil War. Sheepeater Indian Campaign, p. 70. He lived on Big Creek and died at the Veteran’s Hospital in Boise at the age of 92. From the Boise Statesman June 25, 1936.

excerpted from: Warm Lake Area History

(link to Cougar Dave story)
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Sheepeater Campaign 1879

by Col W.C. Brown (Retired)


For several years this office has been compiling information in relation to the Indian Wars of the late seventies. In the latter part of 1924, I secured from Col. W. C. Brown, who was with Farrow’s Scouts as second in command during the entire Sheepeater Campaign of 1879, a promise that he would prepare a historical article for the present Biennial Report. Colonel Brown has performed that very important service and his article will appear as a part of the report of this Department, and is probably the first and only authentic statement that has been compiled of the Sheepeater Campaign. Colonel Brown has fortified himself with excerpts from military reports and from the diaries of himself and several officers and one private participating in this campaign, and the thanks of this department and the State of Idaho should be extended to him for his efforts in clarifying and recording the facts involving the campaign of 1879.

Considerable attention has been given in the public prints during the last few months to facts growing out of this campaign, on account of the recent death of Lieutenant Farrow, who commanded Farrow’s Scouts, and one or two other officers connected with the campaign. Much information that has been given out has either been inaccurate or incomplete, and Colonel Brown’s contribution, including the maps and pictures which he has used, will be of decided service to every one interested in the accurate record of historical facts.

I should perhaps here note that the original manuscript from which this article is printed will be filed with the Historical Society, and, as shown by this article, it is the intention of Colonel Brown to file in the permanent archives of the Department copies of the diaries made by himself, Captain Bernard, who was in command; Lieutenant Pitcher, an officer under Bernard, and Edgar Heffner, a private, also in Bernard’s command. If Colonel Brown has in any way hesitated about giving every historical fact of value in connection with the Sheepeater Campaign, it may be noted that such hesitation was probably prompted by a desire to eliminate himself from the facts recorded. In accordance with this suggestion, I find upon examination of the official report that Colonel Brown has quoted the same with exactness, except in the matter of Bernard’s report to Howard, dated August 19th, 1879. From this report Colonel Brown has deleted the following: “Lieutenant W. C. Brown was on foot during the entire skirmish, and was first man to enter the Indian camp.” I assume that Colonel Brown’s modesty was the motive for this deletion, and have called attention to this fact without consulting him upon the subject. The Indian camp, referred to in Howard’s report, was the Sheepeater camp, first entered by Lieutenant Brown, according to Bernard’s report, when Farrow’s Scouts, then a part of Bernard’s command, were pursuing the Indians down Big Creek toward the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

– Ella Carter Reed.
Read the book at: The Sheepeater Campaign By Col. W. C. Brown, U. S. A., Retired.
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Col. W. C. Brown

Captain Bernard

source: The Sheepeater Campaign By Col. W. C. Brown, U. S. A., Retired.
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The Sheepeater Indian War of 1879

The Sheepeater Indian War of 1879 was the last Indian war fought in the Pacific Northwest portion of the United States. A band of approximately 300 Western Shoshone, (Turakina, or Tukuaduku), were known as the Sheepeaters because their diet consisted of the Rocky Mountain Sheep. They were not a sedentary tribe, instead moving throughout the Payette, Salmon, Boise, Challis, Sawtooth, and Beaverhead Forests to follow the game. They camped only in the winter, but the location varied widely. The campaign against the Sheepeaters primarily took place in central Idaho.

As with many other disputes with Indians, the troubles with white man started when gold was discovered in the Boise Basin in 1862 and in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. That location, and another gold camp on Panther Creek, were right in the middle of Sheepeater winter camps. By 1870, Leesburg on Panther Creek had 7,000 prospectors hunting for gold.

Leading up to the war the Sheepeaters were accused of stealing horses from settlers in Indian Valley and during the pursuit killing three of the settlers near present day Cascade. In August 1878, they were accused of killing two prospectors in an ambush at Pearsall Creek, five miles from Cascade. By February of 1879 the Sheepeaters were accused of the murders of five Chinese miners at Orogrande, the murders at Loon Creek, and finally the murders of two ranchers in the South Fork of the Salmon River in May. However, later it was proven that Indians had nothing to do with the attack.

General O. O. Howard dispatched 76 men including scouts and freighters from Boise to Challis to investigate the matter. Also deployed was a detachment of men from the Second Infantry under First Lieutenant Catley and men listed under Lieutenant Edward Farrow. The troops were all heading toward Payette Lake, near present day McCall. Bernard headed North from Boise barracks, Catley headed Southeast from Camp Howard at Grangeville, and Farrow headed East from the Umatilla Agency.

Heading the campaign against the Sheepeaters was Company G of the 1st Cavalry led by Colonel Bernard. They had a difficult time of it traveling through six foot snow drifts and fast running streams. They became separated from their pack train for several days. Some provisions were lost, but in ten days they arrived at Orogrande.

Much of the town had been burned. The troops waited an additional five days for their supply train, which arrived on June 13. A week later, the troops went to search for sign of Indians. They marched on to Challis, Salmon City, and Warren’s Diggings without success. Throughout the campaign, the troops faced difficulty with travelling through the rough terrain. The first segment of the campaign, from May 31 to September 8, was through the Salmon River dubbed the “River of No Return” because it was barely navigable. They traveled up the Middle Fork of the Salmon for several weeks enduring all sorts of severe weather. They lost some animals, ammunition, and much of their supplies. Five men contracted mountain fever and were sent home to recuperate. Fortunately, it was summer and game was plenty.

Meanwhile, the force from Camp Howard had reached the Big Creek Canyon near the South Fork of the Salmon River. Scouts observed sign of Indians on July 28. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Catley did not pay heed to the warning. He was leading his command up the canyon when Indians opened fire from all sides. Two men were seriously wounded, but were able to reach shelter. Shortly afterward, Catley commanded his men to retreat since the Indians had the high ground.

The soldiers regrouped about two miles away from the spot and camped for the night. The next morning the soldiers tried to locate a more defensible position but were somewhat encumbered by the two wounded men who had been put on litters. Unfortunately for them, the Indians were able to gain ground on two sides of Catley’s detachment. The Indians set fire to the base of a mountain where the soldiers were camped. First Sergeant John A. Sullivan’s quick thinking probably saved the day by burning an area closest to them to keep the fire from spreading. The Indians left during the night. This battle took place at a spot later named Vinegar Hill. The soldiers had gotten themselves trapped on the steep cliffs and had to leave much of their gear and supplies behind. Because of this, Catley decided to return to Camp Howard to re-outfit themselves. They headed back in August.

In the meantime, Bernard’s command received word to join Lt. Farrow, who was pursuing some Indians, which turned out to be a gang of horse thieves. Subsequently they received word of Catley’s defeat. Bernard sent word for additional troops and supplies to join him at South Fork of the Salmon. Lt. Farrow and his Umatilla scouts plus two platoons joined him at the North Payette River near the hot springs. The larger company marched for several days and passed through country that the Indians had previously burned. They also lost several more pack animals and many provisions. Meals were scant for a few days until the resupply train caught up with Catley and about 40 men on August 11.

The combined force passed campsites that appeared to be still in use. Indian fish traps were found in a creek. Indian sign was plentiful. The force reached the area where Catley had been attacked. Umatilla scouts who had gone on ahead had not returned and a soldier was dispatched to discover their whereabouts. The Umatilla scouts had discovered the Sheepeaters a few miles in advance. The soldiers spurred their horses on but upon reaching the Indian village they discovered all the occupants had left. The Umatilla scouts took what goods they wanted and the soldiers burned the rest.

The soldiers rested there until the next morning but soon word came the Indians were still in the area and mounted. Catley and his men headed back toward Camp Howard as they were desperately short of supplies. The rest of the command split up in search of the Indians. By August 20, a Sheepeater raiding party of ten to fifteen Indians attacked the troops as they rode on a train at Soldier Bar on Big Creek. As soon as the men were spread out on a precipitous mountain the Indians opened fire. At the same time they fired on the men guarding the animals and provisions. Those who defended the train included Corporal Charles B. Hardin along with six troopers and the chief packer, James Barnes. They managed to successfully drive the Sheepeaters off with only one casualty, Private Harry Eagan. The Indians retreated after nightfall.

But the soldiers continued to follow their tracks. The trail was very rocky and hard on the animals’ feet. Many more animals gave out from sheer exhaustion. They lost two dozen more horses that strayed off during the night. Many men had to go on foot until the horses were found toward the end of the next day. Finally the soldiers had to return to Camp Howard for supplies. Food was running low and the soldiers missed several meals. The Umatillas stayed behind to engage the hostiles.

On September 17, the soldiers set out again. They came upon an Indian camp right away, but there was no one there since the Indians had been warned. They were able to take an Indian woman and two of her children captive. A third ran away. Then an Indian named Tanmanmo, half Nez Perce and half Bannock, surrendered to the soldiers. He appeared to be a war chief. He promised to bring in the rest of the warriors that were harassing the whites. Lt. Farrow told him that no harm would come to those who had not killed anyone.

It took some days, but by October 1 the campaign ended once Lieutenants W.C. Brown and Edward S. Farrow, along with a group of twenty Umatilla scouts, negotiated the surrender of 51 men, women, and children. The prisoners were taken to the Vancouver Barracks in Washington State. The troops went back to Boise after marching 1,258 miles through mostly unmapped territory. The Indians were questioned and though they admitted to the attack on the Rain’s ranch, they denied killing Johnson and Dorsey and the five Chinese. They were resettled on the Fort Hall Reservation. A few small bands remained in the area having eluded the army and continued to live their mountain life unmolested in its ancient pattern for another decade or two.

source: The Third Millennium Online
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With the end of the Bannock War, attention was turned to the Sheepeaters – a Shoshoni group of expert hunters who had the skill necessary to pursue mountain sheep in the Salmon River Mountains. A massacre of five Chinese miners on Loon Creek on February 12, 1879, was blamed on some refugees from the Bannock War who were thought to have spent the winter with the local Sheepeaters. Army units went out in the spring of 1879 to ask the Sheepeaters if they knew who was responsible for the Loon Creek Chinese disaster. Deep snow held back the search for the Sheepeaters, who lived in rough country largely unknown to the whites. Suspicious of army intentions after the Nez Perce and Bannock wars of the previous two years, the Sheepeaters decided to resist. Ten or a dozen of them ambushed and defeated forty eight mounted infantry who were accompanied by twenty or more scouts and packers. After this engagement on Big Creek, July 29, one energetic Sheepeater halted the army retreat on a mountain ridge. The resulting battle of Vinegar Hill turned into an incredible fourteen-hour siege in which a handful of Indians pinned down the entire white force. Another, better-managed army expedition managed to catch up with the Sheepeaters at Soldier Bar, a little farther down on Big Creek, on August 20. Again confronted with overwhelming numbers, the Sheepeaters scattered into the Salmon River wilderness. Soon the army, exhausted by the difficult twelve-hundred-mile campaign, had to retire. Still another military expedition set out on September 16 and, after a two weeks’ search, managed to catch up with the elusive warriors. They explained that they had nothing to do with the Loon Creek Chinese massacre but agreed to go out with the army and to settle on a reservation. Thus the campaign ended without a battle, and more than fifty Sheepeaters retired from their wilderness homeland. Most of them were women and children. Only ten to fifteen warriors had participated in the entire campaign, which lasted longer than the Nez Perce War. The perpetrators of the outrage against the Chinese never were found, but the somewhat clumsy military investigation of the incident brought the army campaigns against the Idaho Indians to an end. Some of the Sheepeaters avoided the army, and Eagle Eye’s band did not move to the Fort Hall reservation for many years.

source: Idaho State University
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1879 The First Map Ever Made of Country Between Big Creek and Salmon River, I.T. (1926)

1879MiddleIdaho-aclick map for low quality larger map size
click source link for high quality zoomable very large map

Title The First Map Ever Made of Country Between Big Creek and Salmon River, I.T. (1926)
Creator Brown, W. C. (William Carey), 1854-1939.
Date Original 1926
Publisher [Boise, Id. : Syms-York Company]
Description 1 map: 15 x 22 cm. Scale: 1 inch = 7 miles. A handwritten note by the author is in red pencil on the left. W.C. Brown was a second Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian Wars of the late 1870s. These maps come from a book by him, published in 1926 after his retirement, about the Sheepeater Campaign. …

source: Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries
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“That night, after the moon had got down…”

Lt. Catley’s 1879 Affair on Vinegar Hill

Payette National Forest Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness
January 2011 By Michael H. Koeppen

Deep in the backcountry of central Idaho, in today’s Frank Church Wilderness, lays a non-descript, grass covered ridge. Along this ridgeline, which runs in a short to north direction, is a point marked on the map as Vinegar Hill. To the east of the ridge, and parallel to it, runs Cabin Creek, and at the south end of the ridge, the storied Big Creek.

Although the ridge has been quiet with only the wind and elk along it for well over a century, in July of 1879, it was the scene of an encounter between two cultures. This incident, the Battle of Vinegar Hill, was between Lieutenant Henry Catley’s 2nd Mounted Infantry of the United States Army and a handful of Sheepeater Indians defending their homeland and last stronghold.

Lieutenant Catley, along with Lieutenants E.K. Webster and W.C. Muhlenberg, led forty eight soldiers from Fort Howard, in Grangeville, Idaho, south and east across the Salmon River and Chamberlain Basin to Big Creek, as part of a multi-pronged plan to capture the Sheepeaters and forcibly place them onto a reservation. Descending Big Creek on July 29th, Catley and his men reached the large, open flat at the mouth of Cabin Creek, from which they descended into the canyon below.

After about two miles at a narrow, rocky place later known as the “First Crossing,” they encountered a fusillade of bullets from Indians concealed in the rocks. Two troopers were wounded and the soldiers retreated back to the open flat. Regrouping from this rout, Catley chose to camp for the evening at Cabin Creek, a half mile away. After a tense, but quiet night, the following morning the fateful decision was made to abandon the field and return to camp Howard. Catley picked the ridgeline, “which was alongside our camp to the north,” according to Lieutenant Muhlenberg, hoping it was a good escape route to Cold Meadow.

As they moved up the ridge, soldiers observed an Indian riding a horse into their abandoned campsite, and a few shots were fired downwards. Proceeding upward, small groups of troopers under Lieutenant Muhlenberg would move forward. In this manner, they continued until some Sheepeaters, having ridden up Cabin Creek and the side of the ridge, cut them off.

While riding across a saddle to the next promontory, a shot was fired at scout Dave Monroe, riding just ahead of Catley. Panicked, Catley ordered the men to fall back to the previous point, where they took positions as best they could, in the rocks and behind their baggage. Muhlenberg, though, believed only one Indian was ahead of them at this point.

Trapped here, the men exchanged at least four shots with the Sheepeaters, who, according to Muhlenberg, fired only five shots in return. Subsequently, the Indians lit fires to try to burn the command off the hilltop. Backfires, lit by Sgt. John Sullivan and some of his men, and a change in the wind saved the soldiers from the ascending flames. Sitting out the rest of the hot afternoon, the soldiers stayed on the hill, and, according to legend, had only vinegar to drink.

During the night, it was decided to abandon the bulk of the equipment and provisions and flee off the ridge to the west. Around 2 AM, and, “…after the moon had got down,” according to Catley, the soldiers muffled the mule bells and began the steep descent into Cave Creek, reaching the bottom at daybreak, losing sixteen pack mules in the dark. From here, they ascended the ridge to the west and successfully followed the ridgelines north to Cold Meadows.

On their way out of the wilderness, Catley’s command was intercepted, combined with Lieutenant Albert Forse’s twenty-five men, and turned back to Big Creek to rejoin the campaign.

Although the Sheepeaters took what they wanted of the soldier’s gear, much was left on what became known as Vinegar Hill. Over the years, casual visitors to the ridge top carried away items such as boots, saddlebags, and even a few rifles. Some of these items were later lost in a house fire, and some are held in private hands to this day, unavailable for public viewing. As the years went by, remnants of the equipment faded from the hilltop, and even the location was lost in time, By the 1980’s it was generally believed that physical evidence of the soldiers no longer existed, and that locating the Vinegar Hill site was no longer possible.

Personally for many years, I had an interest in the Sheepeater War from boating the nearby Middle Fork of the Salmon River, but knew only what was written in the river guidebook. However, in the spring of 2009 I volunteered for the Payette National Forest Heritage Program, headed by archaeologist Larry Kingsbury. Kingsbury was enthusiastic, and our goal was to search the Vinegar Hill Ridge in an attempt to find the precise location of the 1879 skirmish.

That May, I flew into Cabin Creek to begin the search. Fortunately, a wildfire had burned over parts of the ridge the previous summer, causing fresh erosion down several gullies. It was while ascending one of these gullies, that I came upon part of a broken three-legged iron pot. Searching further up the slope, I was able to recover several more pieces.

With confirmation of the iron pot’s age from Kingsbury, I returned the following March camping for two days at the Cabin Creek Airstrip. With my two dogs for company, I began a more detailed examination of the ridge. Initially, nothing was found on Vinegar Hill. Frustrated, I reread the soldier accounts and moved the search to another area.

Soon, on semi-frozen slope, molten glass fragments, an iron button, and square nails were discovered. They were exciting, but not conclusive evidence of the soldiers. Moving to a nearby, sun exposed area, I discovered the end of a cartridge case protruding out of the gravelly soil. I picked it up, recognizing immediately what it was – an unfired 45-70 military cartridge. Further searching resulted in the recovery of ten cartridges, four having been fires.

Although most artifacts from the soldiers had been removed years ago, enough remained to conclusively mark the location of the Vinegar Hill engagement. Concerned about future visitation, I returned later to carefully and systematically cover the skirmish site a second time, making sure all remaining artifacts were recovered. Today the Vinegar Hill artifacts are in the care of the Payette National Forest Heritage Program, located at the Supervisor’s Office in McCall, Idaho.

source: Secesh Area History
[h/t B Johnstone]
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Mountain Howitzer – Civil War Era

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source: Civil War Wiki
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The Big Creek Cannon: Fact or Legend?

1879 Sheepeater War
Payette National Forest Heritage Program May 2011 By Michael H. Koeppen

After the close of the Sheepeater War in the fall of 1879, Indian hostilities ceased, and the U.S. soldiers trailed out of the vast Idaho wilderness. With time, signs of the trails, camps and skirmish sites returned to nature, so that today evidence is difficult to find, and then only to the hardy wilderness explorer. Much of the scene of this conflict lies within the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness, with the only two skirmish sites located in the Big Creek drainage, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

For many years rumors and stories have persisted concerning a cannon, more specifically a mountain howitzer, abandoned in the field by the soldiers. The fact that the mountain howitzer could be disassembled and carried by mules, and was available to soldiers at the time, leads to interesting speculation as to the validity of these tales.

Over the years stories have been told of people finding the lost cannon, refusing to divulge its location, and taking it to the grave with them. One story concerns two brothers who saw the gun, took a photograph of it (which has since disappeared), and told the tale later in life calling it the “Big Creek Cannon.” Another rumor has hunters along Big Creek near Taylor Ranch getting lost and stumbling upon the gun, but after getting back to camp being unable to relocate it. Still more rumors of a cannon lying in a meadow in the headwaters of Disappointment Creek to the north. Another story that there were actually two cannons rather than one. Still another rumor of a cave discovered by a packer in the 1930’s which contained crates of rifles and the cannon carriage. Usually these stories are secondhand and sometimes third hand. Some stories, obviously false, place the cannon far from where the soldiers traveled.

Is there any evidence that these stories have any foundation in reality? First of all, what do the soldiers’ diaries from the campaign have to say concerning a cannon? Do any of these accounts mention anything about a mountain howitzer in the possession of the troops? An examination of the writings of the overall field commander Captain Reuben F. Bernard; Lieutenants W.C. Brown, A.G. Forse, W.C. Muhlenberg, and Henry Catley; Private Edgar Hoffner and Corporal C.B. Hardin, all participants, should prove clues to this possibility.

Unfortunately for the cannon stories, none of these men ever mention a cannon in the possession of any body of troops in the campaign. In fact there are numerous times when such mention would be appropriate, especially of an item as prestigious as a howitzer, yet nothing is said. Of the troops, they generally were in three main groups, Bernard’s 1st Cavalry, Farrow’s Umatilla Scouts, and Catley’s 2nd Mounted Infantry.

Lt. William Carey Brown, who accompanied Lt. Farrow, wrote one of the most thorough accounts of the campaign (Brown 1879). Brown makes no mention of a cannon, and it is unlikely that Farrow’s scouts would be so equipped considering the mobility required of this group, and the fact that most of their members were Native Americans. Farrow had twenty Umatilla Indian scouts along with seven enlisted men, four packers and twenty pack animals (Brown 1926:29).

Private Edgar Hoffner in Bernard’s command wrote an extensive diary, full of details about equipment and life during the campaign (Hoffner 1879). Hoffner stated that when the troops left the Boise Barracks they and thirty pack mules, which carried “blankets, clothing, rations, and ammunition.” (Hoffner 1879:1) Again no mention of a cannon is made. Later in Hoffner’s diary he mentions other items carried by the soldiers such as blankets, boxes of hardtack, tents, horseshoes ammunition, picks and shovels, a medicine chest , and horseshoe nails (Hoffner 1879: 2,3,5,8,9,14). Why did something as notable as a cannon not catch Hoffner’s attention?

While along the Middle Fork numerous written accounts describe pack animals having to jump high logs over the trail (Hoffner 1879:9), mules swimming the river (Hoffner 1978:9), and bridging streams swollen by spring runoff (Hoffner 1879: 5,8,14). One of these streams, Loon Creek, was bridged by cutting and falling trees across the water (Hoffner 1879:8, Bernard 1879:18). The horses could swim the creek but the heavily laden mules could not, so the soldiers carried the gear and provisions across the logs. It should have been noteworthy if a heavy cannon was carried across logs bridging raging waters.

Lieutenant Catley’s command, after being ambushed on July 29th in Big Creek, retreated to what later became known as Vinegar Hill. When he fled in the middle of the night, much equipment (Catley 1879:158, Brown 1879:3, Lewis 1925:3) was abandoned and later found by casual visitors to the hill in the early 20th century (Gillihan 2010, Martin 1924).

When the Vinegar Hill site was rediscovered in March of 2010, further items abandoned by Catley’s forces were recovered (Koeppen 2010). None of these items are connected to, or provide evidence of a mountain howitzer. In contrast, during investigations into the 1874 Red River War in Texas, archaeologists found primers, priming wire, and lead shot associated with a cannon present in the battle (Cruse 2008:204-205).

During the Vinegar Hill, Soldier Bar, and Big Creek surveys (Koeppen 2010), extensive searches were made of likely areas for the cannon to be hidden, all with negative results. In addition, although numerous artifacts were discovered at Soldier Bar related to the Sheepeater Campaign, none of them as at Vinegar Hill provided clues of a cannon being present. Since some of the cannon stories feature a gun placed in a cave or rock shelter, rocky areas on Vinegar Hill, Soldier Bar, and between Taylor Ranch and Soldier Bar were examined during the surveys.

After considering the lack of evidence provided by the soldiers’ accounts written by Bernard, Hoffner, Brown, Catley, Muhlenburg, Forse, Lewis and Hardin, and from field investigations, it is the author’s opinion that It is unlikely that the soldiers possessed a cannon during the campaign of 1879. So until such a time that more evidence comes to light, the stories of the “Big Creek Cannon” while tantalizing, must be considered only legends.

source: Secesh Area History
[h/t B Johnstone]
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The Sheepeater Campaign

There are numerous accounts available of what has come to be called the “Sheepeater War” (Bailey 1935; Elsensohn 1947; Carrey 1968), most of which are biased and inaccurate, depending heavily on local word-of-mouth traditions and soldiers’ accounts.

The most objective account encountered to date is that done by Carrey and Conley in 1980. In the beginning of their chronicle they state that:

Though gold miners had no compunctions about traveling through Sheepeater country at this [1879] time, there were a number of whites who had observed the financial benefits realized by civilians in the path of a military campaign against the Indians (1980:160).

The authors go on to cite correspondence between an officer in the Clearwater District, and Brigadier General O.O. Howard in the spring of 1870. This correspondence states that the people of northern Idaho are hoping for open hostilities between whites and Indians, and mentions a Boise merchant who is very anxious for hostilities since in the 1878 Bannock War he had gained “…some 25 thousand dollars worth of Government vouchers…” (ibid.).

Most accounts of this campaign cite the theft of some horses in Indian Valley (Figure 1) in the summer of 1878 “…some hours before dawn…” by Sheepeaters as the opening incident in the hostilities (Parker 1968:8). Parker’s account goes on to state that three ranchers went after the perpetrators sometime after dawn. They followed the Indians into Long Valley where the latter, waiting in ambush, killed the three ranchers and wounded Three-Finger Smith who had ridden out with the ranchers. This version of Parker’s might be called the “standard” version of the affair, and from it three questions arise. First, how did the ranchers know in the middle of the night that the raiders were Sheepeaters? Second, why did the Indians, especially if they were Sheepeaters, bother to sit around waiting in an ambush when they could easily have been losing themselves back in their mountains?

And last, how did Smith happen to be on the scene?

In February of 1879, five Chinese miners were killed at their camp on Loon Creek near Oro Grande east of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Again, the deaths were blamed on “the Sheepeaters.” Carrey and Conley state, however, that It should be noted here that there was never any satisfactory evidence that the murders were the work of Indians, let alone Sheepeaters. There were white miners in the area, and killing Chinese was not unthinkable…(1980:161).

Following notice of this incident, Captain Reuben Bernard at Boise was ordered to proceed with troops to Challis as close to June first as possible. Before these orders could be carried out, Hugh Johnson and his partner Peter Dorsey were killed at their ranch on the South Fork. These killings likewise were blamed on the Sheepeaters.

Subsequently, troops numbering about 60 men under Captain Bernard set out from Boise. Troops numbering about 50 men under First Lieutenant Catley set out from Camp Howard at Grangeville. And, Lieutenant Farrow with seven enlisted men and 20 Umatilla “scouts” left Umatilla Agency, Oregon. All were headed for the South Fork country (Carrey and Conley 1980:161,162).

In their “Postscripts” to their account of the Sheepeater Campaign (1980:199), Carrey and Conley state that the Sheepeaters were:

Subjected to personal interrogation by General Howard at the Vancouver Barracks in November, 1879. During the questioning they willingly admitted the attack on the Rains’ ranch, but vehemently denied any connection with the murders of the five Chinese miners or the deaths of Johnson and Dorsey.

The above-mentioned troops left their posts in June, of 1879. In August, J.P. Rains was killed at his ranch on the lower South Fork while putting up hay–purportedly by Sheepeaters. Thompson, however (personal communication 1979), says the incident occurred because Rains had hired the Indians to help with the haying and then had run them off without paying them for the work.

The troops were still moving around in the back country, and so were the Indians. There had been two small skirmishes with the Indians the undisputed victors in both instances. According to Carrey and Conley:

At this point Bernard realized that his supplies were exhausted, his stock worn out and famished, so he requested permission from Gen. Howard to return to Boise and refit in order to continue the battle. Bernard had covered 1,168 miles, fought snow for 37 days, and lost 63 head of stock (Garrey and Conley 1980:193).

It was late September before any contact was made with the Indians, and then it was a Bannock/Nez Perce man named Tamanmo who approached the soldiers offering to bring the people in for surrender. The day before he came in, the soldiers had “captured” a woman and her baby, and holding the baby hostage, had sent her out to send the people in. The total number of people surrendered was 51, “…of whom fifteen may be classed as warriors” (ibid.)!

The discrepancies speak for themselves. As was discussed earlier, the Sheepeater culture was predicated upon pacifism, and this pacifism was put into effect by simple isolation. It, therefore, seems exceedingly unlikely, especially taking into account the reduced population, that they would, of their own volition, have taken such extreme overt measures and, thus initiated a confrontation. A young Sheepeater man says that in fact, they did not.

According to Mr. Vic Mann, whose mother is a Sheepeater, the campaign was, indeed, one of defense rather than offense. Five Indian men had been trapping all winter in the Little Salmon River country west of the South Fork, and were bringing their furs out to trade when they met four white men in a camp who wanted to buy the furs. The Indians didn’t want to sell, so went on and were then attacked by the whites. The resulting skirmish left three Indians and three white men dead, and one white man (probably Smith) badly wounded. The two Indians left, went to report the news to the other tribal members, and then headed for the South Fork. There they found that a posse was hunting them.

Parker (1968:16) says that after Rains was killed, Sim Willey’s brother Norman took a volunteer posse of 18 men, all well-armed, out to track the Indians. The Indians didn’t want to fight so they headed towards the East Fork of the South Fork, and from there back to the Big Creek country, where, eventually, they were captured (Vic Mann, personal communication, 1980).

Whether the trouble started with rebel Nez Perce and Bannocks who then joined with the Sheepeater people, as most authorities believe (Bailey 1935; Parker 1968; Carrey and Conley 1980), or with whites, or from a combination of the two, the results were all the same — the Sheepeater people were forced out of a homeland that may have been theirs for millennia and their culture was totally destroyed.

source: pgs 115-119 “Cultural Integrity and Marginality Along the South Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho”, Thesis by SJ Rebillet 1983 (7 megs)

page updated October 17, 2020