Red Dog: Early Days in Southern Oregon
by W.W. Fidler
(Oregon Native Son Magazine, December, 1900)
The recent hegira to the frozen North in search of the precious yellow metal is exceptional experience for this Coast only in one respect, and that is the magnitude of the sudden exodus. The westward course of the "Star of Empire" was long ago deflected northward, and will probably never cease its movements in that direction until it bumps up against the North Pole, as it did formerly against the Pacific Ocean. Frantic scrambling after new placers has been the fashion ever since Sutter dug his memorable mill race. Southern Oregon was long a "storm center" for such excitements, and is not, even now, and probably never will be, wholly proof against them. The best diggings were easily discovered long ago, but people go on rediscovering them, or extensions and additions to them, as the richer claims give out, just to keep their hand in. The Jacksonville diggings were the first to lead off in 1852, soon followed by the Sterlingville and Willow Springs diggings, and live camps they were. Then came in quick succession the rich finds of Althouse, Sailor Diggings and Sucker Creek to absorb some of the o'er eager seekers after the "golden fleece." Those were days of quickly acquired and quickly spent fortunes, as well as days of quickly hurrying to and fro. In the madness of their devotion to "the root of all evil," the lucky as well as the luckless wayfarers became indifferent to their own safety and fell easy victims to the treachery of savage foes. And here, in Southern Oregon, and especially in Josephine County, was "the dark and bloody ground" of our early territorial existence. As the stampede I have set myself about describing raged over a section of country thickly studded with historical incidents relating to Indian hostilities, I will devote a portion of my space to their rehearsal.
It was in the late '70s [a belated era for placer excitements], that word was passed around among the sometimes sleepy settlers of Josephine County that certain parties were quietly taking out great gobs of gold on Red Dog, a tributary of Briggs Creek. That simple statement, often told in a clandestine manner, was sufficient to awaken every somnolent Van Winkle into old-time activity. Sedate old farmers, who were certainly old enough to have known better, began to gather up their camp fixtures and camp followers and Cayuses to engage in the inspiriting chase.
Not to be wholly out of fashion, a neighbor of mine and myself concluded to join the surging crowd. My neighbor, in addition to being an experienced miner, was a good fellow all around to be out with on such an expedition. He was one of those rare individuals, sometimes met with, who insist on doing all their part of the work and the other fellow's, too. This is something easy to submit to, where a man is mean enough to tolerate it, and some men are constructed on that plan to a grievous degree. My partner also had a penchant for doing more than his share of the talking. This would have been agreeable all round, too, had he only had a better speaking acquaintance with the Queen's English. The trouble was he labored with the serious impediment of prior acquaintance with unmusical Dutch, and the readiness with which he would become entangled in the mixed intricacies of complex English was a credit to his courage rather than to his discretion. It was no use to extend sympathetic assistance to him, for he was no sooner out one linguistical difficulty than he was into another. But there was nothing harmful in his loquacity. He did not, as is the habit of too many voluble beings, burden the atmosphere with wretched profanity. His most impious form of ejaculation was embodied in the mild expression of "By Dorge." "By Dorge," however, did service on all occasions, in season and out. It was the keystone and finish to all his oral architecture.
But this is slow progress towards our intended El Dorado. Our route took us down Applegate to Slate Creek, and up that stream to the crossing of the divide known as Hays' hill, thence past the old Hays place over to Deer Creek, and down Deer Creek to its mouth, where it forms a junction with Illinois River, where we camped on a bar noted in Indian war history. But there were other spots passed by us that deserve mentioning first. One place on Slate Creek is sometimes pointed out by old timers as the scene of the shameful murder of two Indian women. J.M. Sutton, one of Southern Oregon's earliest and most painstaking historians, makes the following reference to the circumstance. After describing the hanging of an innocent Indian boy at Jacksonville, whom he vainly endeavored to rescue, he proceeds as follows: "No mob ever committed a more heartless murder than this. It is only equaled by the murder of two Indian women and a child ten months old, by a private of Captain Wilkenson's company on Slate Creek, on the 7th day of November, 1855. The women and child had been taken prisoners and entrusted to this man and another to guard in the rear of the company as they marched to Illinois Valley. He wantonly shot them and left them lying by the side of the road."
Further on up Slate Creek, near its forks, was the scene of a genuine Indian ambush on March 23, 1865, that proved the prelude to an attack and prolonged engagement at the Hay ranch. Mr. Olney, a member of Captain O'Neil's company, then stationed at Eight Dollar Mountain, started on that day to return to camp from a trip he had taken to Vannoy's Ferry. He overtook four other men and a boy close to the scene of the ambush with a view of having their company over the mountain. Hardly had they got through exchanging greetings when they were greeted in return with a sudden rattle of firearms. Fifty or a hundred Indians showed up with an evident intention of exterminating the small body of whites. It was no use to undertake to try conclusions with the foe in open fight. But Olney was compelled to dismount and try it afoot, as his horse had come to grief at the first fire. He found his movements greatly impeded by a big pair of spurs, and in endeavoring to free himself from them as he ran, shed one of his boots. He then got tangled up with the remaining spur in such a way that it threw him to the ground. At this the boy, a lad 14 years old named Willie Hay, cried out, "See, he is killed." One of the men named Wright and a genuine hero of the true stamp, said it would not do to leave him that way, and proposed that they go back to his aid. The boy went back with him, and Wright took Olney up behind him on his mule. The mule, thus loaded, naturally fell behind, and, on crossing a gulch, got shot through the flank, which partially upended it, throwing Olney to the ground. Wright, not willing yet to give up his effort to save a newly-found companion, urged Olney to mount again; but the latter refused, and urged Wright to do his best to save himself, for it looked now like Olney's chances were nil. By desperate sprinting and dodging over ridges and gulches he managed to reach a brushy bottom he was aiming for in time to overtake his would-be rescuer once more and see the latter fall from his mule a lifeless corpse. Olney now continued his single-handed game of hide and seek with the Indians all that afternoon and far into the friendly darkness of the succeeding night. Olney, it should be remarked, however, did the hiding, while the redskins did the seeking with all their customary ferocity and altertness.
But while this part of the play was going on, the boy hero of the engagement, together with the rest of the men, had pushed on over the hill to his father's ranch and notified the soldiers on guard at that temporary fortification of the happenings en route, giving out the report that Wright and Olney were both killed. John Davis, Shellback Smith, John Gould, Charley Abrams and J. Sargent, all messmates of Olney, repaired to the summit of the long hill as rapidly as horses could carry them, and immediately plunged into the fight. But as I am drawing on Olney's narration of the events, I will let him do some of the describing in his own words: "They raise the hill and descent at a rapid pace the steep ridge, down which the trail ran towards the forks of the creek. Half way down and they are saluted by a hundred rifle shots from front and both flanks, accompanied by the too well-known Indian yell. Dismounting and tying their horses to the brush, with the bullets and yells growing thicker and louder, the brave little party boldly went into the fight. Taking each a tree, they loaded and fired with good effect, as was plainly indicated next day when the battle-ground was visited. Louder and fiercer grew the uproar; the Indians numbering near two hundred, soon gained the rear of the little party, and poured upon them a hail of rifle and pistol shots. "We must get out of thus," shouted Gould. "They've got us in a tight place; come on." He ran to his horse, and all followed but Davis, who, seeing a number of Indians running towards them, shouted to his companions: "Hurry up, boys, and mount. I'll keep those devils away until you are ready to start. Charlie, untie my horse and hold him until I come." And almost in the same breath, he added: "Go ahead, boys, I'm shot right through the tum-tum." With much difficulty the rest of the party extricated themselves from surrounding difficulties, and, as Olney puts it, "holding their guns in the bridle hand, with revolver in the right, discharging rapid shots at the Indians, they streaked it up the hill and down the trail to the ranch, closely followed by the yelling and disappointed Indians, who were but a few rods in their rear when they reached the gate of the palisades surrounding the ranch."
The fighting, instead of being over with now, was just fairly beginning. Olney's narrative continues: "When Willie Hay and his companions made their appearance at the ranch with the news of the Indian's attack upon them and the killing of Wright and Olney, a courier was at once sent with the intelligence to Captain O'Neil's camp, at the foot of Eight Dollar Mountain. As soon as the news was received, O'Neil ordered the horses and pack mules to be immediately brought up and saddled and packed, and at once set out for the ranch, endeavoring to reach it before the Indians did. But in this he failed, as I shall now relate. Calling the roll he found he had but fifty men fit for duty, and with a pack train of fifteen heavily laden mules he must spare three or four for the special duty of attending to the packs. Forming a vanguard of fifteen men, he sent them forward under Lieutenant Armstrong. The mules followed, and the rear was brought up by the remainder of the company under his immediate command. Away they went at a sharp trot until they had crossed Deer Creek and had entered the heavy timber within two miles of the ranch, when they overtook a pack train passing which with some difficulty, they kept on their way, with the loss of two or three mules which had run into the other train and could not be easily extricated, so they were allowed to remain and come away with the train, which was put to its utmost speed, when the packers had been told that the Indians were ahead. On they go through the heavy pine woods, the bell on the "bell mare" tinkling out hasty music to the loaded train mules behind, while the "Huppah Mulah," "Cahambo," and the everlasting string of Mexican epithets calculated to urge forward the train, were being bellowed and hissed in hasty and excited way. They have reached within half a mile of the ranch, and they hear an occasional rifle shot. Soon comes a crash of reports succeeded by the usual rattling reverberations through the timber of each separate but continuous report and the near yells of the Indians. On they go, the vanguard at a gallop, pack mules ditto; they are too slow. "Forward faster." Another train in the road - Jimmy Lowery and Billy Sutherland's train - Billy on the "bell mare." Jimmy driving up the train; trains at this time on the keen jump. "D ---n the train," says the Captain; but it doesn't make matters any better. The train behind is making good time, and its "bell mare" has overtaken the rear guard. So there are two pack trains and a company of volunteers surging together along the road through the woods towards the ranch. They are now within two hundred and fifty yards of the ranch. Volunteers have left their pack mules behind and gone pell mell through and are firing from behind every tree and bunch of brush into the very faces of the men. Each man, with revolver in hand, yelled defiance and sent shot after shot at the Indians, who, in a few minutes, turned their attention to the pack trains."
To follow all the particulars of the general engagement that now ensued would make this article unduly long. It can be abreviated by simply saying that the fight continued till after midnight, when a temporary lull was obtained by the Indians retiring. Olney showed up at the ranch in the morning, considerably the worse of the wear for his enforced adventures. The remaining pack mules were gathered in and relieved of tumbled burdens. The Indians were heard of right away at Captain O'Neil's camp near Eight Dollar Mountain, where they managed to catch onto another pack train, this time the property of Coyote Evans. A couple of battles were fought around this noted mountain that and the following day, in which the Indians were victorious at first, but finally withdrew with their abundant plunder down Illinois River towards the Big Meadows on Rogue River.
Without stopping for any further long digressions we will now try and get in touch with our original theme - the trip to Red Dog. The foregoing extracts are sufficient to show the contrast between such expeditions now and in earlier days, when the red man had such a fetching desire not only for pack trains, but also for locks of human hair. But if the dangers have been minimized, so too have been the glittering prospects of suddenly acquired wealth.
The remainder of our route took us down the same stream thus renowned in Indian war annals, past the celebrated copper mines and over the mineral-bearing hills to Briggs Creek, thence up that creek to Red Dog. A good-sized miners' village composed of tents was already on the ground. There is no mistaking the character of this sudden aggregation of adventurers - it is the old story, told and retold so often on the Pacific Coast, the same hurrah, the same banter and badgering, the same noisy carousal and midnight drunkenness that are so uniformly characteristic of these wild rushes. That there were no "dead men for breakfast," or supper, as the case might be, was due mainly to the brevity of the excitement. The elements were abundantly ripe for it; but the Red Dog furor eased up nearly as suddenly as it was started. One account of its inception, as told me by J.L. Wilder, is as follows: A man [he thinks it was Melichi Baughman, though he is not positive on this point], was riding along on a mule when he saw something that resembled the copper bottom of a washboiler, but wondering how it could have got up into that terra incognita sort of a region, he concluded to investigate. His investigation soon developed the fact it was nothing more or less than a slab of gold that had become disintegrated from its bed of quartz. Perhaps one of the reasons for the sudden ending of the stampede might be traced to the infrequency of such findings of old washboiler bottoms. Another reason - a reason that must crop out at every new discovery of mines from this on - is found in the unfair allowance of such big claims to be the first men on the ground. Good diggings had been found all right enough, but with twenty acres to the man it does not take many claims to absorb a good-sized stream. Before Congress took a hand in regulating this matter, claims were apportioned more in accordance with common fairness through those usually turbulent assemblages called "miners' meetings." One hundred feet up or down the gulch was the maximum allowance. Congress, it must be confessed, has made a bad mess of it regulating something it did not understand.
Finding everything claimed up and rapidly ripening into that condition when contest and lawsuits would come in fashion, my partner and myself could only re-enact the role of "a looker-on in Venice." We had no occasion, however, to regret our trip. There is a fascinating excitement about these movements that makes recompense for many of their hardships. One seems to live more in a few weeks then he would otherwise in as many months. Let no one then seek to decry this form of hegira on general principles; for experience has shown that it will not "down." It furnishes the necessary training for those hardy adventurers who have made Pacific Coast development what it is.