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


Judge George Belt’s store on the Merced Reservation was a meeting-place for both the Indians and the white men. One day in the year 1855, Captain W. J. Howard, licensed trader; Kit Carson, one of Colonel Frémont’s scouts, and Sam Ward, the son-in-law of John Jacob Astor, were in a heated discussion with the Government Agent, Colonel Adam M. Johnston, when in walked the three United States Indian Commissioners, Barbour, Wozencraft, and McKee, accompanied by a distinguished-looking man, whom Barbour introduced as James Savage. Savage was well built, and had a fair complexion, with large blue eyes. His conversation showed him to be extremely well educated, and he seemed very much at home with the local Indian language. His actions showed that he was shrewd, an interesting talker, and a man who spent money freely.

It is said that this brilliant character came from Oregon to try his luck at the mines. Shortly after his arrival in Mariposa, he gained the reputation of being able to make his gold at the expense and labor of others. He did not mine with the “sweat of his brow,” as many were obliged to do, for, being a man of polygamous tendencies, he had at his service seven squaws, who worked hard and mined the precious metal for him.

According to Captain Howard, the relations of James Savage with the red men have always remained a mystery to the miners and settlers of California. In his efforts to gain both notoriety and revenge, he tried to play two games; his scheming brain, assisted by a thorough knowledge of the language and customs of the Indians, gave him great prestige and power. When the white men were trying to arrive at a compromise with their red brethren, he circulated untruths that made them appear hostile. On the other hand, he imparted information to the Indians that created in them a very hostile feeling against the miners and traders. His wealth and exceptional personality enabled him to deceive his associates and to influence in any desirable manner those who worked under him. He made reports which were accepted as truth, and for such services received praise and recognition on more than one occasion. Many of his statements were put down in black and white by Doctor Bunnell, and are to-day regarded by the reading public as a true record of events pertaining to that period. According to Captain Howard, however, they are not always reliable.

For several months Major James D. Savage was the acknowledged leader of the Indians in California; they regarded him as infallible and elected him their general agent to do all their buying and selling. In September, 1855, accompanied by Chief José Juarez and two Indian squaws, he went to San Francisco for two reasons: one, to find a secure place for the storage of his gold-dust, the other, to buy provisions and blankets for the different tribes who had supplied him with money. This trip was the great event of the season, for Major Savage carried a large amount of gold. All four traveled by stage to Stockton, where they took the boat.

On their arrival in the city of the Golden Gate, they all put up at a down-town boarding house. As usual, the great land-locked bay was plowed by vessels of every class and tonnage. The gold rush had broken the city’s uneventful calm with a new and vigorous trading activity; the streets were throbbing with fresh business energy, due to the inflowing tide of humanity, and this grew into a habit which eventually laid the foundation of San Francisco’s great commercial prosperity.

Naturally, the two men did not neglect to visit all the places of interest, including the gambling dens, where they drank too freely and not wisely of fire-water. In the Plaza Hotel, Savage caused great excitement, for, being a born gambler, now under the influence of alcohol, he jumped on the scales and gambled off his weight—one hundred and sixty pounds in gold. At the turn of the card his luck was out, and he had to pay his debt with some of the money that had been given to him for the purpose of buying supplies. This act of madness annoyed José Juarez so much that, in spite of being under the influence of alcohol, he commenced to remonstrate with Savage.

To think that a red man dared call him down in a public place made Savage so angry that he gave the chief a blow, which caused him to fall to the ground. Juarez received the blow in silence, and even on the return journey he made no reference to it; nevertheless, deep in his heart he was determined that Major James Savage should pay.

On their return to Mariposa, Savage, presuming that he was taking advantage of an unusual opportunity, called the Indians together and made a short speech. He told them all about the beautiful women and clothes to be seen in San Francisco, also about the dance-halls and gambling hells, concluding by emphasizing the fact that it would be to their advantage to cultivate a good understanding with the whites, for they were willing to be friends.

At the close of this address there was great applause. Then José Juarez stepped forward and said:

“What I have to say will come from my heart, and I will speak with a straight tongue, for the Great Spirit is looking at me and will hear me. Savage, indeed, has told you many interesting things, but he didn’t tell you how he gambled away our gold, and how he struck and knocked me down. I tell you he is no friend of the Indians; he has a forked tongue; he is telling lies to his Indian brethren. He is not our brother. He is ready to help white gold-diggers to drive the Indians from their country. We can drive them from us, and we will, with rocks and bows and arrows. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. They do not pay for insults and dead people. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for our country, now over-run with white people, and they do not pay for horses and cattle. Good words will not give me back my children, they will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. It makes my heart sick to think of all the good words and broken promises. There has been too much talking by white men who had no right to talk. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief, and if the white men want to live in peace with the Indians, they can live in peace. There need be no troubles. Treat all men alike. Give all an even chance to live and grow. All men are brothers and the earth is the mother of them all. When I think of our condition my heart is heavy—but we must fight to protect ourselves. José Juarez has spoken for his people.”

A solemn and ominous silence hung over the council of red men at the close of the chief’s speech. Then José Rey stepped forward and expressed his approval of what José Juarez had said. Savage kept his lips closed; he saw that he had made a mistake in giving this talk, for it gave the chief the desired opportunity to comment, criticize, and impart to the tribes the truth about his careless actions in San Francisco; how he had squandered some of the gold that had been given him to buy winter clothing and provisions for the red men. Indeed, it was evident to many that he had made enemies of the two most influential Indian chiefs.

“Now you have spent the money, where do we get food from?” they demanded.

“There are plenty of horses,” was all that Savage could reply.

Previous to this meeting the Indians had done all their buying and selling at this white man’s store, but after hearing the speech of José Juarez they gradually left Savage and did all their purchasing at Cassidy’s. This change of patronage made Savage extremely envious, and he did all in his power to gain revenge by declaring the Indians hostile. He commenced to circulate reports about them which gave him notoriety among the white men. At the same time he communicated with the red men through the medium of his squaws, and endeavored to make them forsake their pale-faced brethren and take up arms against them. Captain Howard’s friendly relations with the Indians, and his intimate knowledge of their language and habits, enabled him to unearth these pernicious activities of Savage.

Savage frequently indulged in a drink and chat with Colonel Johnston and Judge Belt, and one day he said: “I have just given a Mexican two thousand dollars to buy horses and cattle for a ranch I am going to purchase next month. Do you know,” he continued, “I strongly object to white men living with squaws.” (There were a large number of Americans and Europeans living with squaws).

“What are you going to do with your seven squaws?” Judge Belt asked.

“Oh,” answered Savage, “I have enough money now and can afford to marry a white girl.”

Next: 13. Skirmish with IndiansContentsPrevious: 11. Wild & Woolly

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