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


About this time an extremely bitter feeling existed between the white man and the red. The Indians had moved fifteen miles from the mining camps, because the miners had killed many and robbed them of their claims. Filled with the spirit of revenge, they were in a mood to kill any miner that came within their reach. These conditions did not facilitate matters for William J. Howard in his efforts to gain the confidence and friendship of his red brethren; nevertheless, he was fully assured that he would be safer with them than with the miners.

Out of sight in a neighboring ravine, he bathed his wounds in a flowing stream, and then walked away from the mining camp with no idea of where he was going. His position was indeed tragic, for he lived in fear of being killed either by miners or by Indians. Nursing his wounds, both mental and physical, he walked twelve miles to the top of a. hill, where close observation revealed, in the distance, an Indian boy searching for something. William coughed to attract his attention, hoping to be able to talk to him; but the only result was that the red boy ran down into a gully, no doubt with the intention of getting behind the miner, and shooting him. Howard decided to play the same game. He ran down the hill, made a circuit through a gully, and got into a position where he could see without being seen. Soon the Indian boy appeared, looking around for William, and evidently surprised not to see him where he expected to find him. Suddenly William shouted in Spanish, “Baja su carbine!” which means, “Put down your gun!”

When the Indian boy lowered his gun, Howard walked nearer to him and asked him in Spanish what he was looking for. He replied, “I just wounded a deer and am tracking the animal.”

Howard diplomatically volunteered to assist him in the search, but at the same time he took the precaution to keep behind, thus avoiding sudden treachery. In this manner he followed the red lad four miles, while all the time his wounds pained him so much that he became quite faint. Suddenly they came in sight of an Indian village, and the boy quickly disappeared.

William was left in solitude to gaze upon the oven-shaped, badly-thatched structures of the village. They were six feet in height and about the same in diameter, while the only opening in each was a hole level with the ground, barely large enough for a man to enter when crawling on all fours. Occasionally he glanced at the graveyard in the distance, and the dim trails that led to the dancing grounds and wigwams of the medicine man and chief. While he stood silently planning how he could defend himself if attacked, a number of squaws gathered around him, apparently with hostile intentions. When they commenced to gather brush for a fire, William became quite alarmed, and shouted to them in Spanish, “I am not a miner.”

At the sound of his good Castilian the women paused and began to ask questions. While the excited young man was trying to answer all the inquisitive squaws, who should appear upon the scene but the Indian boy, and this time in the company of four men. They were followed by several children of both sexes, who in spite of their nakedness were very intelligent. One of the four men was a chief, and he was the father of the boy whom William had volunteered to aid in the search for a wounded deer.

Again he had to work on the defensive, and in Spanish informed the Indian chief that he was not a miner. Falis, the chief, listened to him with interest, and asked him what was the matter with his face. William replied, “A miner named Hank Reeves dealt me a sledge, hammer blow, because I suggested that hunting was a quicker way of making gold than mining.”

On learning that the wounds had been inflicted by a miner, Falis took the young man into his own wigwam and told him to sit down on the hide of a deer. William observed that the chief’s home was crowded with all kinds of hunting equipment, beautifully made baskets, hides, blankets, shell-inlaid bone pipes, wood-pecker scalps, and various implements of the chase.

In a commanding voice Falis told one squaw to collect some herbs and make a poultice, another to make a basin of gruel. While these were being prepared, William was placed in a comfortable bed made of deer-hides and blankets. When the squaws had furnished him with a basin of gruel and had bathed and poulticed his wounds, they left him to rest for the night.

The next morning, in spite of a restless night, he felt much better. For three days the squaws fed and nursed him with the greatest care, and when he was able to get about, the chief told him that he was at liberty to walk around the rancherio, but must not attempt to run away. William, however, had no intention of leaving the I ridians, for life with them promised to be more interesting and much easier than mining.

One week after his arrival at the Indian village, William joined in a sprinting match, and was successful in out-running all his Indian competitors. This gave him great prestige, and they began to place the utmost confidence in him. Having gained their friendship, he offered to hunt deer for them, and to sell some of the meat to a butcher at the mining camp. All the members of the village agreed to his proposition, and four young bucks proposed to join him.

The first day he was successful in shooting a fine deer, and sold the carcass to a mining-camp butcher for seventy-one dollars. With this money he bought provisions and gave them to the Indians. Needless to say, many days did not elapse before he was a little king among them. He did not cultivate a taste for all their native dishes, but he found one day that he had enjoyed a bowl of grasshopper soup; not finding any legs in it, he had thought it was clam chowder.

William noticed that the squaws and mahallas (camp drudges) did most of the manual work; they were the beasts of burden, and a woman often carried a crated child on her shoulder and another in her arms, while on her head rested a basket of provisions. When traveling, they followed their lords and masters, who spent a great deal of time indulging in sun-baths and hunting. The men wore their hair tied in a knot on the head, decked out with feathers; they had no hair on their bodies, no beards on their faces. Their eyes were very piercing, nose flat, head round, lips thick, cheek-bones prominent. While the women were fat, the men were thin and muscular, quick in movement, splendid with the bow and arrow, intrepid swimmers, with a highly developed sense of hearing, sight and smell. They loved to barter, and a favorite sign, used in this process, was made by crossing the two index fingers before the face.

Many of the squaws were badly scarred with small-pox. Basket-making was their chief industry, and these artistic productions were woven so firmly that liquid would not filter through them; to this day they are used as vessels for eating and drinking. The Indians often boiled water in these baskets by heating stones and placing them in the basket one by one. In spite of polygamy and extreme scantiness of clothing, which the miners thought shocking and abominable, they were not lustful, for their physique showed no sign of abuse.

On coming to womanhood, the girls were tattooed on the lips, and as they increased in years more tattooing was done, stretching down toward the chin. This decoration to a certain extent told their ages, in the same way that the obi signifies the age of a Japanese maiden. The Indian girls married young and became mothers early in the game of life, nursing their children as long as the milk lasted; a mother, it was said, was highly amused when a child five or six years of age would jump over a tree-trunk a meter high to take the breast.

Howard did not neglect to visit the much discussed sweat-house, a small chamber used for curing diseases, similar to the present-day Turkish baths. The mahallas and medicine-women were the only females admitted. One place of special interest to the young white man was the community dance-wigwam, where the Indians celebrated their spring, harvest, bear and sun dances. For these sacred occasions they put on their best garments, which were beautifully embroidered and brilliant in color. The men wore moccasins and tight breeches, but were bare above the waist. Their music was made with tom-toms assisted by extremely heavy breathing movements. Around a blazing fire, amidst great heat and offensive odors, they danced madly until they were quite exhausted and perspiration streamed from their bodies, causing them to glisten as tho they were covered with oil.

Young Howard became daily more popular with the tribe on account of his unusual trading ability and hunting skill. Foreseeing a career whereby he could not fail to do good in the interest of both the white man and the red, he erected for himself a tent just outside of the Mokelumne limits, and did all in his power to establish good permanent relations. Daily, with the help of the Indians, he would kill game, sell the meat to a butcher at the mining camp, and return to the Indian village with money or essential commodities. At intervals he took stray horses back to the miners, and for this service they paid him well. The miners would not venture far to search for these animals themselves, as they were afraid of the Indians. On the other hand, the Indians lived in fear of the white men, remembering the harsh treatment they had received at their hands when attempting to trade with them.

After several months of individual trading, William tried to bring about a friendship between the miners and Indians. The majority of miners did not understand the red men; their knowledge of these interesting people was confined to what they had read in their history-hooks, and they were fully under the impression that if they killed an Indian it was a laudable thing to do. This attitude necessitated a great deal of explanation—a campaign of education, in fact—in order to bring about any kind of lasting business relations between the two races.

William informed the merchants that the Indians were anxious to do business with them, but were afraid, and by diplomatic methods he obtained their collaboration. He and the merchants talked with the miners and tried to make clear to them the fact that the Indians had rights in the same way that they had, and that it would be to their advantage to be kind to them and encourage their commercial activities.

On learning that the merchants had been successful in gaining the miners’ support in the movement to protect and uphold the trading efforts of the Indians, William persuaded Falis, the chief, to accompany him to the mining town. The chief talked with the white men; they presented him with gifts, and told him that his brethren would receive the protection of the miners, should they decide to buy and sell in the camps. Falis went away convinced that the Mokelumne Hill miners were willing to trade with the Indians in a fair and genuine manner; nevertheless, he and his people were always on the alert, fearing that some white man would take a mean advantage of their friendliness.

Having accomplished the great work of bringing about a friendship between the white men and the Indians in and around Mokelumne Hill camp, William concluded that it was time for him to do other things. During his activities with the red men he had saved $3,000 in gold dust, and he decided to invest the money in a pack-train and a store where new camps were opening up. On learning of his intended departure, all the Indians gathered around his tent and made a powwow, calling him their heap-big chief. Howard gave them presents; they presented him with a new pony, and he waved them a heartfelt “Adios!” as he set out for Sacramento.

Captain Howard’s departure was a great blow to the Indians. While he was among them, good luck and peace had reigned supreme. According to custom, there was much weeping, for they regarded him as their white mascot, and to this day the Indians consider him one of the greatest friends they ever had.

Next: 9. Marshall & SutterContentsPrevious: 7. Mines

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management