Mashel Massacre 1856

The First Scout: The Massacre

(To conceptualize the gravity of the following events are written in present tense).

After the arrival of Americans and pushing out the British, the newly formed Washington Territory has a problem: the land they promised settlers was not theirs to give.  So, Gov. Stevens rushed through several treaties including the Medicine Creek Treaty that affected what would later be the Eatonville area.  Leschi and other warriors from the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Muckleshoot tribes rose up to fight being taken from their land and way of life.  After losing the Battle of Connell's Prairie on March 10, 1856, the Indian People gave up.  Still out for blood and upon orders from Adjutant General J. Tilton, Capt. H.J.G. Maxon and Capt. Achilles arrives with approximately 58 Washington Territorial Volunteers at the home of John McLeod on March 29, 1856. McLeod, L.A. Smith, Henry Smith, and other former Hudson’s Bay employees who married Indian wives, are accused of offering “aid and comfort” to the “hostiles” (Indians who refuse to go to designated reservation lands for what they are told is for their own safety). After Maxon arrests these settlers, he then turns his attention towards reported horse thieves.

James Longmire and other settlers had complained to the Governor that horses and cattle were being stolen from their farms on the Yelm Prairie. Maxon is told that the “thieves” are a large group of Nisqually Indians camped around the Nisqually River. Taking an unwilling Indian guide, who had been arrested two days prior, Maxon, Achilles, and their men leave the horses behind because of thick timber and hike south toward the Nisqually River.

After turning and traveling east, the soldiers encounter thick timber and continue to scout in search of Nisqually or any Indian encampment. At first, all they discover is one horse. Continuing on, they hope to locate an Indian camp close by. They surround the prairie but find nothing. Then, the soldiers head in the direction of a lake they call Olalley, most likely present day Clear Lake. Once there, they discover only footprints scattered among horse and dog tracks. After sending out scouts and again coming up empty, the soldiers decide to camp for the night and try again the following morning.

The soldiers start out again the morning of March 30th and head for a small lake, possibly Rapjohn or Mud Lake. Seeking any sign of Indian activity, the soldiers pass between these lakes and cross a swamp, advancing to the other side.

Following the sound of barking dogs, the soldiers are surprised by a Nisqually man called Chuck-nose along with two women and some children coming out to surrender. While taking this Indian family into custody, the soldiers spot two other Nisqually Indians trying to get away. They fire upon them and one shoots back. One Indian is killed and the other taken prisoner. The captured Indians, who could very well have been tortured, give information about a band of other Nisqually Indians. They report that a band of six Indians is in possession of a number of horses at the Mashel Prairie on the eastern side of the Ohop Creek. The soldiers take the prisoners and march through the Ohop Valley.

Upon arriving at a Nisqually encampment on the Mashel Prairie near Ohop Creek, Captains Maxon and Achilles realize they are too late. Only the warm ashes from the fires remain. The camp is empty, except for eleven horses, two colts, and a large sack of beef jerky. The soldiers eat the jerky after having lost their rations earlier in the day. Here they decide to stay the night.

Confluence of the Mashel and Nisqually Rivers
The next morning, March 31st, a portion of the command, ordered by Captain Maxon, continue to the confluence of the Nisqually and Mashel Rivers. Taking an old trail on the eastern side of the tabletop of the Mashel Prairie, they move down lower to the Mashel River. Once there, Maxon devises a military strategy for attack. To distract a family encamped on the Mashel; Maxon sends one of the Nisqually women, who had been captured the day before, to talk to them. She must have been reluctant, but the soldiers still held captive Nisqually children. Some of whom could be her own.

As she walks downstream toward this band of Nisqually, the Washington Territorial Volunteer soldiers are dividing about one mile upstream. One group hikes along the western side of the Mashel River while the other group quietly crosses over to the eastern bank. All the soldiers head south to where the rivers meet.

There are several other small Nisqually groups trying to survive in this area. Some Nisqually are staying behind while others are on the move. It is a quiet morning, and the mist may still have been rising from both rivers. A Nisqually band numbering 40 to 50, including an old man named Skie-kie, has come here to hide and escape the fighting. They have journeyed down to the confluence where the Mashel meets the Nisqually to find safety and food. Here, eagles circle the air, and fresh water is plentiful. Salmon may have been migrating back to this place. Colossal trees, nestled right up to the edge of the river, hovered over the family. It was a hidden sanctuary cut deep into the Mashel Prairie.

In this haven, some are fishing, others perhaps are finishing breakfast, and most are trying to keep things as normal as possible. But, it is not normal. It has been over a year since they refused to leave their lands. They are not in their normal long houses or fishing shelters and not eating their usually prepared camas or berry cakes. Out there, without the help of old friends and with most of their men away, they are on the run and, in desperation, resorting to butchering and eating horsemeat. They are refugees in their homeland. It is a far different existence then when they had been living near Muck Creek. All that changed when early fighting started, and soldiers sought to capture Chief Leschi. To keep the women and children from the fighting and to avoid capture, Leschi and his warriors had left for Yakima.

Earlier, on the same morning of March 31st, one Nisqually woman suggests the group should separate and divide into three groups to move faster. The larger Skie-kie band consisting of old men, women, children, toddlers, and babies decides to stay together. Two groups are formed instead. The now smaller second group of 15 to 20 women and children separate and leave camp to press on and follow the Nisqually River toward Mt. Rainier. They were possibly trying to reach what is left of the Lah-al-thu Nisqually Village near Elbe.

But now, armed Washington Territorial Volunteers are down on hands and knees crawling on the western bank of the Mashel toward Skie-kie and his family. At just twenty feet away, Captain Maxon yells, “Close in!” It is a complete surprise attack. The soldiers shoot directly into the family. One shot is all the Nisqually get off. In the mêlée, some of the old men, women, and children scatter and scramble for cover under the brush and behind trees. They do not scream or cry out. This will only draw the attention of the soldiers. Others in the family, in an attempt to escape, jump into the Mashel River. They find themselves met by more volunteers who rise up from their hiding place on the eastern bank and shoot into the family. The sounds of constant gunfire from the soldiers pierce the still morning. Soldiers are running and yelling in pursuit. Older Indian men and mothers are grabbing younger children, frantically darting along the riverbanks. A few in the family, perhaps the older children, take flight and try their fate by jumping into the Nisqually River. Pvt. A.J. Kane, a soldier with Maxon, will report that three Indians were killed in the stream and two on the forks of the Mashel and Nisqually, all of whom were men.

The second smaller Nisqually group, that had separated from the Skie-kie family just minutes before, had already crossed the Mashel River and climbed the hill to the east leading to the opposite prairie tabletop. As a woman is helping the last child to the top, the gunfire from the soldiers causes her to turn and look back. Horrified, she witnesses, “The larger party overtaken by a band of white men, every man armed. The old men and the women were shot down. The defenseless children were killed and later the babies were found crushed against the boulders by the river and in the river…” She believes “not a life being spared.”

According to witness Robert Thompson, who claimed to be with Maxon at the time, when the shooting is over, about fifteen or more are murdered. “I saw the dead ones; two in the river. There were but two men among them.” The rest were women and children.

Tragically, one of first to die is Skie-kie. After identifying him and without any real proof, the soldiers justify his death by blaming him for the murders of two white men killed by rogue Indians a month prior in Thurston County. James Longmire recounts this Indian’s death in a different manner. “Maxon’s company hanged two Indians in the war of ’56. [Skie-kie] and his band…were encamped on the Mashel, a mile distant, in fancied security, when Maxon and his men surprised them and cut off every soul except the two prisoners whom they hanged here.”

After this vicious assault, Maxon, accompanied by his men, proceed back up to camp for breakfast. In his field notes, Pvt. A.J. Kane always stated if any Nisqually were captured in any of the encounters. No one is reported as taken alive from the Mashel River attack that morning. While still in camp, Maxon decides to send the women and children prisoners, who had been captured the day before, along with their horses to Ft. Stevens on the Yelm Prairie. The horses are reported in the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper as the stolen horses Maxon was looking for. Despite gaining back the horses, Maxon continues his pursuit.

At noon, Maxon and Achilles send soldiers back down the trail to the Mashel River. The soldiers divide. One group heads downstream to the south for the Mashel Nisqually confluence. The remaining group of soldiers is sent in the opposite direction upstream. While upstream and just before the soldiers cross the Mashel River, a group of five to six Indians is discovered crossing a log. The soldiers are commanded to fire upon them, killing one and badly wounding another. The rest of the Indians make it to the other side of the Mashel River and flee downstream. Some of them climb the hillside trying to escape. The soldiers fall behind and struggle to gain their footing along the prairie wall.

Downstream, a splashing noise alerts the other detachment of soldiers to one of the fleeing Indians swimming in the Mashel River. They watch as the current sweeps him to shore, twenty feet short of escaping to the Nisqually River. As he regains his footing, a soldier takes aim and shoots him. His limp body falls back into the river. The soldier goes to retrieve the body but is alarmed by the sight of another Indian right at the fork. Fearing this additional Indian could be part of a larger group coming from upstream, the soldiers are ordered to fall back to the brush and re-load.

When no one else appears, the soldiers realize that there is no large group of Indians coming. They then move cautiously upstream searching both sides of the Mashel River. Catching up with the other soldiers that had divided earlier, they join them and begin marching along trails on both sides of the Mashel River. The soldiers search all night and into the next day, finally stopping at approximately 11 A.M. after coming to a dead end. After no other Indian trails are located, Captains Maxon and Achilles decide to take their men toward Ohop River hoping to discover another reported hostile camp. On the way, the soldiers find a recently abandoned Nisqually camp, which does not yield any new leads. They march again and cross the Tenook Creek (possibly Tanwax Creek) and make camp for the night. By the next day on April 2nd, Maxon, Achilles, the rest of the soldiers, and three male prisoners end up back at McLeod’s.

An Indian account from Nisqually leader Willie Frank Sr., whose father lived during this period, adds more detail and differs from Pvt. A.J. Kane’s version claiming that only eight men were gunned down:

Those Indians at the massacre, they were – up on the hill looking down at the place where the Mashel runs into the [Nisqually]. They said the soldiers came on them and the Indians all ran down the hill, swam across the Nisqually, and ran up the other side. In addition, the soldiers were shooting them from the top of the hill. There was a woman carrying a baby on her back and they shot her. She and the baby fell into the river and floated down…Some of the young got away- climbed up the hill on the other side of the river. I don’t know how many they killed, but there were a lot of them.

By the following Sunday on April 6th, Maxon delivers fourteen Nisqually prisoners to Olympia after having retrieved the eleven women and children from Ft. Stevens. Of the three men listed, two are the captured Nisqually men, and the third is the Indian man taken as a guide from the Yelm Prairie. The soldiers decide to use them as guides. One of the men took a cord, tied it around his neck, and hung himself. Suicide was not a common practice for a Nisqually. This man could have been distraught or believed it would be better to die than to be locked up. This was the first hanging of the two “old men” according to the massacre story.

James Longmire stated in his diary, “Indians were still stealing horses and cattle. A band of these robbers were followed by Capt. Maxon to the Mashel River where the last one was killed.”

Though Longmire believes Maxon killed them all, some of the Skie-kie family could have survived. During the 1850’s, the banks of the Mashel River contained large, old growth trees, blackberry bushes, and other underbrush. Nisqually Indians were taught from an early age how to escape and hide silently when attacked or raided. These teachings combined with the protective terrain could have shielded them from harm. Some could have survived by finding aid and comfort among other Nisqually who may have still been in the area. Still, some must have survived or witnessed the shootings in order for the oral traditions to exist to this day.

During Maxon’s six-day expedition, the number thought to have been killed ranges from eight to thirty. It is unlikely that only eight died as Pvt. A. J. Kane reported. The death toll must have been higher because some of the soldiers probably used .36 caliber Colt Navy revolvers. A soldier could shoot six rounds before having to reload. Most of the guns used in the 1850’s were single shot. These soldiers were members of the “Washington Mounted Rifles” of the Southern Battalion and most likely used a .54 caliber 1841 Model “Mississippi Rifle.” This rifle was designed to shoot accurately at a distance of 200 yards. At twenty feet, firing directly into the family, their aim could have been dead on.

Even if only eight were killed instantly from gunshot wounds, the number must have climbed higher. In the moments, hours, and days later, some could have died from mortal wounds, infected wounds, or from the shock of seeing their baby or little child smashed to death against a tree trunk or boulder. Others may have died from attempting to escape across the rapid moving, frigid Nisqually River only to drown or die later from exposure. Though the newspaper Pioneer and the Democrat will proclaim “Southern Battalion Right Side Up: Complete Surprise on an Indian Encampment!” as a victorious battle killing eight “hostiles,” evidence indicates that the number killed had to be greater.

But this was not a day of battle between Nisqually fighting men and the soldiers of the “Washington Mounted Rifles.” March 31, 1856 was the day of the Mashel Massacre. After the single shot from a Nisqually Indian, there is no exchange of fire. No soldiers were killed or even wounded. There was no call or warning to surrender, only an order to “Close in” and attack. After the one shot, the Nisqually Indians did not fight. The old men, women, and children were running, hiding, or trying any means possible to escape. Prior to Maxon’s first scout to the Mashel River, an article in the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reported that the “horse thieves” Maxon was tracking down were a group consisting of “infirm old men, women, and children.”

Days after Maxon, Achilles, and the rest of the soldiers leave the area, A. V. Kautz, a lieutenant with the regular US Army, encounters a large group of Nisqually Indians camped and making fish traps near the Mashel confluence. Lt. Kautz states, “When we fell in with them, we learned that the Washington Territorial Volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed most of them regardless of age or sex.” Kautz captures around thirty of this remaining band of Nisqually but does not harm them. The Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reports that Kautz arrives at Ft. Steilacoom on April 12th with seven men and a group of sixteen women and children.

Even before Kautz arrives at the fort, Maxon is traveling back to the Mashel Prairie. This time Captain H. J. G. Maxon is familiar with the area where the Mashel meets the Nisqually.

Second Scout: The Rest of the Story

On April 11, 1856, Captain Maxon starts out again from John McLeod’s farm. This time he is joined by Benjamin F. Shaw, a celebrated “Indian fighter” from the Cayuse Indian Wars. Shaw came up from what was formally the Oregon Territory and was the interpreter at the Medicine Creek Treaty. At this point, he has been given the rank of Lt. Colonel in charge of the Southern Battalion of the Washington Territorial Volunteers.
Shaw as a much older man

Instead of hiking, they ride on horseback straight for the Mashel Prairie arriving there at noon the next day. Leaving their horses with a small detachment of soldiers, they hike down and march up the Mashel River for eight miles and make camp.

On April 13th, Maxon and Shaw split up and each search one side of the Mashel River. Shaw and his men go off in several directions, frantically seeking anyone or anything they can find. About four miles below Mashel Falls, Shaw comes across an Indian man but loses him in the driftwood. On a different part of the Mashel River, Maxon and his men find an old Indian man making a fish trap and find another Indian spearing salmon. The two are captured. After questioning them, Maxon is informed of a nearby village containing several Indian men, women, and children.
When Maxon and company arrive at the village site, it is entirely vacant. The Indian man who had
The Lower Mashel Falls
escaped Shaw earlier in the driftwood warned the Indians at this village. These Indians barely escaped. Maxon writes, “They had not had time, however, to take anything as we found all their clothing, two guns, a cache containing blankets, and some women and children’s clothing, and some ammunition and other articles.” Frustrated, Maxon destroys it all and sends scouts out “in all directions.” Shaw takes one of the captured Indian men and forces him to find another camp. While Maxon is still at the abandoned encampment, an old Indian woman wanders in and is taken into custody. The group of soldiers then camp for the night. So far, they have three prisoners: one old woman and two old men.

The next morning on April 14th, Shaw returns to the camp on the Mashel Prairie. He brings with him six emaciated horses he found south of Ohop Lake. When Lt. Col. Shaw learns of the Indian men captured by Maxon, he accuses one of them of the same murders for which Skie-kie was blamed. Shaw decides to run his own trial. Finding this Indian man guilty, Shaw hangs him on a tree on the Mashel Prairie. Shaw seems satisfied with the one kill and leaves to go back to the Yelm Prairie. This is the second old man hanged.

Meanwhile, Maxon reports, “Thinking that the Indians had escaped over the Nisqually, I returned down the [Mashel] a short distance, and crossed.” He then journeys to the fork and travels along the banks of the Nisqually River before being forced to stop “by the tremendous precipices.” Maxon searches the area and decides it is not a good place for Indian camps. As he journeys by the Mashel River on his way to the prairie top, he passes the place where he “had killed the Indians on the previous scout.” The bodies of those killed in the Mashel Massacre were “still there and had not been disturbed.”

Captain Maxon heads back to camp and discovers that company “D” of the “Lewis River Mounted Rangers” led by Lt. Powell has arrived. Maxon stays a few days and re-supplies, then starts out again on April 17th.

Maxon remembers where he might find other hostiles from his first scout. He orders a detachment toward the Nisqually River. Lt. Powell’s men are ordered up the Mashel River while Maxon heads back through the Ohop Valley towards Ohop Lake with his men. Having taken the Indian prisoners with him, Maxon heads north and discovers an old camp containing saddles, ropes, and axes. He again destroys everything. After crossing three streams of the Ohop Creek, Maxon and his men set up camp. For three days, he searches up and down this area going as far north as Tanawax Lake. Maxon hikes around the lake only to find deserted camps and several dead horses. He finally returns to the Mashel Prairie.

Meanwhile, Lt. Powell and about eleven men comb up, down, and around the Mashel River. Around four miles up, they are startled by a boy, two women, and four children. They shoot at the boy, but he escapes. Powell reports that the women appear starving and do not even attempt to escape. They take the remaining six into custody.

The following morning, Powell and this group head south and because of the winding, snake-like nature of the Mashel, they find the river again after heading east. They came upon fresh tracks and follow them until sundown.

On the same day, two of Powell’s men get lost. Once they find the Mashel River, they claim to fall upon ten Indian men and possibly several women and children. The two men report that since they could not escape, they fired both rifles and got off one pistol shot. Amazingly, they state that all shots seem to have hit a “hostile,” but the lost soldiers decide they are outnumbered and finally make their escape. For some reason, this news does not prompt Powell to go back and seek this group of Indians described by the two soldiers.

Powell deduces that the Indians are heading to the gorges in the mountains. Maxon arrives back at camp from Tanawax Lake. All are low on supplies and some soldiers had given their food to the captured women and children. These compassionate soldiers take the prisoners and head out to Fort Nisqually. Not having found another encampment, any new signs, and low on provisions, Maxon, Powell, and the remaining soldiers all head back. They trickle in to Camp Wren between the 20th and 21st of April. On the 23rd, Maxon writes to report this second scout and informs Adjutant General Tilton to expect the prisoners to arrive at Ft. Nisqually that day.

On April 26th, a group of Washington Territorial Soldiers, under the command of Captains White and Swindal from Fort Montgomery, start the process of building a block house, a type of safe house for settlers in case of Indian attack. They name it Ft. Preston and build the fortification where ordered at the “Michael fork of the Nisqually.”

This second scout is different from the first. The makeup of the detachment was different. Some did not go out again while others had recently enlisted like George Dean, brother to Audrey Dean.
An older George Dean
On this scout, the death toll is not as high. The only confirmed death is the man that was hung on the Mashel Prairie by Lt. Col. Shaw. The condition of those captured is much more desperate. A large family group does not even try to escape and looks to the soldiers to save them from starvation. One woman goes so far as to walk right in among the soldiers when they did not even know she was there.  

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