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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


As the people came pouring into the mines there grew a connecting link of kindness between the white men and the Indians, which seemingly bound their common interests closer together. Civilities and gratuities imperceptibly indicated the opening of a broader pathway to mutual confidences and concessions between the two races, leaving no doubt as to ultimate harmonious concert of action.

With the development of his good fortune and his wants, the miner’s need for the packer, the trader and their assistants kept constantly swelling the army of occupation in the haunts and homes of the red men. Pitched tents and erected cabins indicated that the newcomers had come to stay. The Indians were pressed into willing service as miners, laborers, and their women as laundry-maids. They were liberally paid, and did not seem to object; therefore the onlooker naturally presumed that a mutually advantageous community of interests had sprung up which was as gratifying as it was profitable. However, the rapid increase of mules, horses and cattle among the whites offered visible evidence of an accumulating wealth that was unshared by the red men. This growth caused some unrest, discontentment and jealousy, which ripened into resentment and hatred, eventually leading to open warfare.

Actual Indian hostilities did not begin until the end of 1850. The following letter, written by Adam M. Johnston to Governor Peter Burnett, January 2, 1851, indicates the nature of the depredations committed by the Indians:


San Josť, January 2, 1851.


I have the honor to submit to you, as the Executive of the State of California, some facts connected with the recent depredations committed by the Indians, within the bounds of the State, upon the persons and property of her citizens. The immediate scenes of their hostile movements are at and in the vicinity of the Mariposa and Fresno. The Indians in that portion of your State have, for some time past, exhibited disaffection and a restless feeling toward the whites. Thefts were continually being perpetrated by them, but no act of hostility had been committed by them on the person of any individual, which indicated general enmity on the part of the Indians, until the night of the 17th December last. I was then at the camp of Mr. James D. Savage, on the Mariposa, where I had gone for the purpose of reconciling any difficulty that might exist between the Indians and the whites in that vicinity. From various conversations which I had held with different chiefs, I concluded there was no immediate danger to be apprehended On the evening of the 17th December we were, however, surprised by the sudden disappearance of the Indians. They left in a body, but no one knew why, or where they had gone. From the fact that Mr. Savage’s domestic Indian: had forsaken him and gone with those of the rancherio, of village, he immediately suspected that something of a serious nature was in contemplation, or had already been committed by them.

The manner of their leaving in the night, and by stealth; induced Mr. Savage to believe that whatever they had committed or intended to commit, might be connected with himself. Believing that he could overhaul his Indians before others could join them, and defeat any contemplated depredation on their part, he with sixteen men started in pursuit. He continued upon their traces for about thirty miles, when he came upon their encampment. The Indians had discovered his approach and fled to an adjacent mountain, leaving behind them two small boys, and the remains of an aged female, who had died, no doubt from fatigue. Near to the encampment Mr. Savage ascended a mountain in pursuit of the Indians from which he discovered them upon another mountain at some distance. From these two mountain tops conversation was commenced and kept up for some time between Mr. Savage and the Chief, who told him they had murdered the men on the Fresno and robbed the camp. The Chief had formerly been on most friendly terms with Savage, but would not now permit him to approach him. Savage said to them it would be better for them to return to their villages—that with very little labor daily they could procure sufficient gold to purchase them clothing and food. To this the Chief replied it was a hard way to get a living, and that they could more easily supply their wants by stealing from the whites. He also said to Savage he must not deceive the whites by telling them lies; he must not tell them that the Indians were friendly; they were not, but on the contrary were their deadly enemies; and that they intended killing and plundering them so long as a white face was seen in the country. Finding all efforts to induce them to return, or to otherwise reach them, had failed, Mr. Savage and his company concluded to return. When about leaving, they discovered a body of Indians, numbering about two hundred, on a distant mountain, who seemed to be approaching those with whom he had been talking.

Mr. Savage and Company arrived at his camp in the night of Thursday in safety. In the meantime as news had reached us of murders committed on the Fresno, we had determined to proceed to the Fresno, where the men had been murdered. Accordingly, on the day following, Friday the 20th, I left Mariposa camp, with thirty-five men, for the camp on the Fresno, to see the situation of things there, and to bury the dead. I also dispatched couriers to Agua Fria, Mariposa, and several other mining sections, hoping to concentrate a sufficient force on the Fresno to pursue the Indians into the mountains. Several small companies of men left their respective places of residence to join us, but being unacquainted with the country, they were unable to meet us.

We reached the camp on the Fresno a short time after daylight. It presented a horrid scene of savage cruelty. The Indians had destroyed everything they could not use or carry. The store was stripped of blankets, clothing, flour and everything of value; the safe was broken open and rifled of its contents; the cattle, horses and mules had been run into the mountains; the murdered men had been stripped of their clothing, and lay before us filled with arrows; one of them had yet twenty perfect arrows sticking in him. A grave was prepared, and the unfortunate persons interred. Our force being small, we thought it not prudent to pursue the Indians further into the mountains, and determined to return. The Indians in that part of the country are quite numerous, and have been uniting other tribes with them for some time.

On reaching our camp on the Mariposa, we learned that most of the Indians in the valley had left their villages and taken their women and children to the mountains. This is generally looked upon as a sure indication of their hostile intentions. It is feared that many of the miners in the more remote regions have already been cut off, and Agua Fria and Mariposa are hourly threatened.

Under this state of things, I come here at the earnest solicitations of the people of that region, to ask such aid from the State Government as will enable them to protect their persons and property.

I submit these facts for your consideration, and have the honor to remain,

Yours very respectfully,

Adam Johnston.  

To His Excellency,
  Peter H. Burnett.

Early in January, 1851, Captain William J. Howard was lying in his ranch-tent with malarial fever. The night was very dark and stormy; while lying there in a bath of perspiration he could hear the rain and hail beating against the canvas. With him was Charlie Wade, a working partner, who was also sick with fever. About midnight they heard the sound of bells, and William quickly recognized them as belonging to his own horses. In spite of his high temperature, he was ready for any fray that might arise to protect his favorite mare, who was tied to a pole near the tent entrance.

In a very emphatic voice he said to Wade, “Are our revolvers loaded? Because, if the Indians attempt to take my pet mare, we will take a shot at them.”

However, they did not try to steal that particular animal, but got safely away with all the horses, mules, and colts that were corralled eight yards from the tent.

The next morning Howard asked several of his friends to assist him in the search for his animals. Owing to the fact that intelligence traveled fast by word of mouth in the days of 1851, many hours did not elapse before every one in Mariposa and the surrounding counties knew about the Buena Vista raid; therefore the services of nineteen men were soon enlisted. In high spirits they set out to track the robbers, and on arrival at Mormon Bar they ran into Major James Burney, sheriff of Mariposa, with forty of his helpers. Captain Howard told him about the theft of his animals, and Burney immediately offered to join forces with him. The following paragraph taken from a letter written by Major Burney to Howard verifies the theft above described:

“The first night, you came into my camp and reported that the Indians had stolen all your horses and mules, a very large number; that you had followed their trail into the hill country, but, deeming it imprudent to go there alone, had turned northward, hoping to strike my trail, having heard that I had gone out after Indians. I immediately at sunset sent ten men, yourself amongst the number, under Lieutenant Skeane—who was killed in the fight the next day— to look out for the trail, and report—which was very promptly carried out.”

Major Burney was most willing to help Howard recover his animals. Major Savage also volunteered to assist in the search, and Burney, thinking that his knowledge of the country and Indian language would be invaluable in such work, willingly engaged his services. All the men followed the horse tracks, which led them into the mountains, where, after traveling for fifty miles, they decided to camp for the night.

There was a peculiar charm about this camp life in a country that was unknown and far from the world’s crowded thoroughfares. The absence of certain civilized formalities and restraints; the freedom from ordinary cares; the constant change; the tendency of the wilderness to develop the best and sometimes the worst of human qualities; the hourly inspiration to fearlessness; the uniform healthfulness of the mountain climate of California, filled these full-blooded men with an intense fighting spirit, and many a man boasted of the number of Indians he had killed.

Early the next morning Major Burney sent Savage to find the location of a certain tribe of Indians, and he returned later in the day with news of their position. They traveled another five miles and arrived within two miles of the Indian village, where they all camped for a second night under the twinkling stars.

The village was situated on the top of a steep hill, so at daybreak all horses were left in charge of twenty men, while the remaining forty, under Major Burney, headed for the Indian community. As they climbed steadily to the summit they heard the bark of a dog. This was the danger signal to the red men, and resulted in trained runners carrying the news of “white men advancing,” from one village to another. Sometimes they sent out messages through a primitive method of fire-and-smoke telegraphy, which was accomplished by covering a large fire with a wet hide, and lifting the hide at intervals; thus the alternating flashes of fire and clouds of smoke, according to their number or intensity, communicated the kind of trouble the senders were in and the nature of the assistance required.

Without hesitation Burney gave orders to charge. The excited men rushed forward with all speed to fall upon the enemy; but the Indians had disappeared into the brush. Among the pursuers, those fleet of foot were naturally ahead, and when the order, “Charge!” was given, they suffered as a result of the bad shooting of those who lagged behind. The men in the front line were Major Burney, Captain Howard, Lieutenant Skeane, William Little, Charlie Houston and Dick Tillinson. Burney, Howard and Skeane were the only men who had taken part in active warfare before; therefore, great confusion prevailed, and some of the men lost their heads completely. Shots from the rifles of those in the rear killed Lieutenant Skeane, wounded Bill Little and Charlie Houston in the neck, and carried away one-half of Dick Tillinson’s nose.

When Major Burney observed their haphazard shooting, he said, “Boys, don’t fire unless you see something to shoot at.”

Then they entered the village with the hope of finding some dead Indians, but to their surprise there were only two wigwams, and not far from one of them lay a poor old squaw who had been shot in the thigh. Charlie Houston was lying quite near her, and she, in spite of her wound, was attempting to finish him with a bow and arrow. A short distance from Houston they discovered the bodies of two Indian boys.

After improvising a litter for Skeane’s body, they all sat down to rest under a large pine tree at the edge of the village. Suddenly Major Burney asked for volunteers to cut down three parts of a horse carcass that was hanging on the limb of a neighboring tree. All the men, knowing that the Indians were hiding in the brush, were unwilling to take unnecessary risks. Being of a daring disposition, William Howard said, “I’ll take a chance.” Long years afterward he seemed to enjoy telling the rest of the story at his own expense.

While he was busy with his bowie knife cutting the string that held the horse-meat, a bullet struck the tree close to his head. Dropping the knife, he ran like a deer in the direction of his companions, and said breathlessly to Major Burney, “It’s no use, our staying here; there does not seem to be anything to shoot at.” Howard then sat down under a large pine tree, while the other men lay quietly on the grass. Without warning there was another report; a bullet hit the tree, knocking off a large piece of bark, which struck William in the face, almost knocking him over. He immediately covered his face with both hands, and Burney said in a half-frightened voice, “Oh, Howard, are you hurt?”

William answered, “Yes, don’t you see the blood running down?”

Impulsively Burney grabbed away his hands, looked in his face, and said, “No, you’re not— you’re only crying!”

In accordance with suggestions, Major Burney and eight men attended to the wounded as well as they were able; then, picking up the litter which held Skeane’s body, they made for the valley, where the twenty men were waiting with the horses.

Captain Howard and nine men remained near the pine tree until the others were out of sight. These tactics were used in case the Indians in the thicket should attempt to cut off Burney and his men before they could reach those who were waiting in the valley.

When Major Burney and his helpers were out of sight, Howard and his companions started down the hill. After they had gone about two hundred yards, their attention was attracted by dreadful yelling. In the distance they distinguished an Indian running like a hare in his efforts to cut them off. Howard said, “Let’s get that fellow!” but his men did not appear keen to shoot.

Gazing in the direction from which the shouting came, Howard spotted a Mexican standing on a huge boulder at the side of the hill. He was cursing the Americans in the Spanish language and calling them cowards. This was too much for Howard to endure; he knelt on one knee in a firing position, and took deliberate aim. It was a long distance to make a center, but he had a good gun, and at the crack of the rifle the Mexican fell forward on his face, signifying that the bullet had found its mark.

Howard’s companions, by this time, were far ahead. Finding himself with an empty gun, and in great danger of being cut off, he did not let the grass grow under his feet as he rejoined them. They all arrived safely in the valley, where the horses and men were encamped, and here they erected a fort in case of another invasion. After burying Lieutenant Skeane’s body and again attending to the wounded, they all retired for the night; and, being thoroughly tired out as a result of the skirmish, they were soon fast asleep.

Precisely at eleven o’clock the following morning horse-bells sounded in the distance and Major Burney commanded that Captain Howard take nine men and head the Indians off. In this scrap they secured forty-nine horses and mules, killing one man, while two men with one horse made a miraculous escape.

When Howard and his men and animals arrived again at the camp, they soon built a corral to put the horses and mules in. All the men examined the animals and commenced helping themselves, one man claiming this one and another that one, until the expression of their desires led to contention. In the midst of the confusion, William stood up and said:

“Boys, you can’t do that. These animals belong to your neighbors. If you take them this way you are no better than the Indians. You have been helping me to hunt my horses; if they had been found, would you all claim them?”

As a satisfied grin passed over the faces of his listeners, he said to Major Burney, “I’m going home; the men have no right to portion these animals out,” and left them to fight it out amongst themselves.

For a few days Major Burney and the men stayed at the temporary fort; they finally settled the matter with regard to the horses and mules, and all returned to their various homes in and around Mariposa.

At the request of Governor McDougal, Major Burney made a report of this skirmish, and according to Captain Howard, whose veracity, I understand from two Stockton Judges, was unquestioned, many of the statements in this report were “extremely exaggerated.” These inaccuracies, Howard said, were due to Savage’s peculiar influence over Burney.

It appears from Howard’s statement that James D. Savage had discreetly grasped this opportunity to attain a certain goal he had in mind, and had offered to assist Major Burney make up the report. Being a very talented man, and working in his own interest, he possessed extraordinary hypnotic powers which enabled him to influence State officials, gaining for himself fame and public honors. Major Burney was desirous of telling the truth in his report, but in all details Savage suggested that he draw on his imagination and make things stronger. His actual words were, “Make it stronger; we don’t know how many we killed say forty or fifty.”

With similar speeches the agitator did all in his power to prejudice Burney and others against the Indians. Therefore, when Burney’s account of the “great battle” was read by Governor McDougal, he naturally was led to believe that the red men were extremely hostile.

In spite of the roving “California banditti,” the Indians were unjustly accused. Savage, according to Captain Howard, circulated untrue statements as to how they had killed the storekeepers, Baldwin and Anderson; also as to how they were killing and robbing other Americans. These reports were received by Adam M. Johnston, and he, considering them to be real facts, had at intervals imparted them to the Governor in a letter. Here is the letter from Burney to the Governor:


Agua Fria, January 13, 1851.


Your Excellency has doubtless been informed by Mr. Johnston and others, of repeated and aggravated depredations of the Indians in this part of the State. Their more recent outrages you are probably not aware of. Since the departure of Mr. Johnston, the Indian Agent, they have killed a portion of the citizens on the head of the San Joaquin River, driven the balance off, taken away all the movable property, and destroyed all they could not get away. They have invariably murdered and robbed all the small parties they fell in with between here and the San Joaquin. News came here last night that seventy-two men were killed on Rattlesnake Creek; several men have been killed in Bear Valley. The fine Gold Gulch has been deserted, and the men came in here yesterday. Nearly all the mules and horses in this part of the State have been stolen, both from the mines and the ranches. And I now in the name of the people of this part of the State, and for the good of our country, appeal to your Excellency for assistance.

In order to show your Excellency that the people have done all that they can to suppress these things, to secure quiet and safety in the possession of our property and lives, I will make a brief statement of what has been done here:

After the massacres on the Fresno, San Joaquin, etc., we endeavored to raise a volunteer company to drive the Indians back, if not to take them or force them into measures. The different squads from the various places rendezvoused not far from this place on Monday 6th, December, 1850, and numbered but seventy-four men. A company was formed, and I was elected Captain; J. W. Riley, First Lieutenant; E. Skeane, Second Lieutenant. We had but eight days’ provisions, and not enough animals to pack our provisions and blankets, as it should have been done. We, however, marched on, and struck a large trail of horses that had been stolen by Indians (William J. Howard’s horses and mules). I sent forward James D. Savage with a small spy force, and I followed the trail with my company. About 2 a. m. Savage came in and reported the village near, as he had heard the Indians singing. Here I halted, left a small guard with my animals and went forward with the balance of my men.

We reached the village just before day, and at dawn, but before there was light enough to see to fire our rifles with accuracy, we were discovered by their sentinel. When I saw they had seen us, I ordered a charge on the village (this had been reconnoitered by Savage and myself). The Indian sentinel and my company got to the village at the same time, he yelling to give the alarm. I ordered them to surrender; some of them ran off, some seemed disposed to surrender, but others fired on us; we fired and charged into the village. Their ground had been selected on account of the advantages it possessed in their mode of warfare. They numbered about 400, and fought us three hours and a half. We killed from forty to fifty, but cannot tell exactly how many, as they took off all they could get to. Twenty-six were killed in and around the village, and a number of others in the chaparral. We burned the village and provisions, and took four horses. Our loss was six wounded, two mortally; one of the latter was Lieutenant Skeane, the other a Mr. Little, whose bravery and conduct through the battle cannot be spoken of too highly.

We made litters on which we conveyed our wounded, and had to march four miles down the mountain, to a suitable place to camp, the Indians firing at us all the way, from the peaks on either side, but so far off as to do little damage. My men had been marching or fighting from the morning of the day before without any sleep, and with but little to eat. On the plain, at the foot of the mountain, we made a rude but substantial fortification, and at a late hour those who were not on guard were permitted to sleep. Our sentinels were (as I anticipated they would be) firing at the Indians occasionally all night, but I had ordered them not to come in until they were driven in.

I left my wounded men there with enough of my company to defend the little fort, and returned to this place for provisions and recruits. I sent them reinforcements and provisions, and in two days more I will march by another route, with another reinforcement, and intend to attack another village before going to the fort. The Indians are watching the movements at the fort, and I can come up in the rear of them unsuspectedly, and we can keep them back until I can hear from Your Excellency.

If Your Excellency thinks proper to authorize me or any other person to keep this company together, we can force them into measures in a short time. But if not authorized and commissioned to do so, and furnished with some arms and provisions, or the means to buy them and pay for the services of these men, my company must be disbanded, as they are not able to lose much time without any compensation.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,    
James Burney.

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