In the month of June 1866, a number of horses and mules were driven off by the Indians, being taken from the vicinity of Washington ranch. Twelve men started in pursuit, following the trail of the stolen animals over the mountain to the head of Elk creek, and on towards the head of Powder River, then across the divide to Burnt River and over the west ridge to Willow creek. Here six of the party turned back, and John Hibbard, Hardin Estes, Frank Johnson, Hiram Kinnison, Jo Hodgeons and Curtis kept on the pursuit.
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The Indians had chosen their route over the stoniest ground in order to baffle their pursuers if they should be followed. When the party came to a place so stony they could not see the prints of the horses feet, they would divide, some going to the right and some keeping to the left, keeping on soft ground watching for the place where the Indians had left the hard ground. In this way they managed to follow at a lively gait, and from the appearance of the tracks, believed they were gaining on the Indians. Late in the afternoon of the 10th day they came to the brink of a precipitous bluff on a small tributary of the south fork of the Malheur River, and espied the horses and mules for which they were searching, in the valley below.
They could see six Indian wickiups and after a few minutes spent in consultation, they resolved to attack the camp, and drive the Indians away and recover the animals. Mr. Curtis, who was an experienced scout declared that he was good for one wickiup himself. They accordingly stripped their horses of all surplus luggage, and remounting, rode up the ridge about a hundred yards to turn a point of rocks where they would be a more gradual descent to the valley down which they intended to charge up on the Indian camp. But upon turning the point of rocks they came in sight of the main part of the camp nearer the foot of the bluff, which they had overlooked when taking their first observation. A number of Indians children were out playing beyond the camp, and under a kind of shed built of brush an Indian seemed to be making a speech to forty or fifty others who were gathered about him. He was doubtless the leader of the band which had stolen the horses and was recounting their adventures, for they had not reached camp more than two or three hours ahead of their pursuers. There were too many Indians for six men to think of attacking the camp, so they retraced their steps and gathered their blankets and things up and set out upon their return to Powder river valley, intending to get a company sufficiently strong to cope with the Indians, and try it again. Some two miles from the bluff they saw a dog in an open space between two thickets of brush, through which they had to pass, but saw no Indian then, but on looking back when they had got some distance away, they saw an Indian going towards camp at a rapid rate, and thinking they might be pursued, they rode all night without stopping. After taking a rest the next day, they continued on and arrived home without further adventure.
In a few days a company of about fifty men was organized with Hardin Estes, captain, Frank Johnson lieutenant, and Dr. Rackerby, commissary of subsistence. At Auburn they were joined by a man who said he had just come over from Canyon City and who pretended to be anxious to go with them. He had a large roll of blankets strapped behind his saddle, and when they crossed Burnt river at the mouth of Clarks creek, he told the company that he would go over to Mormon Basin and leave a portion of his blankets with a merchant with whom he was acquainted and then come on and overtake them. The company continued the march and on the eighth day after leaving Auburn came to a place where the party of six had seen the Indians a few days before, but the camp was deserted, the Indians evidently having departed hastily but a short time before. The fellow who had left the company at Clarks creek to go to Mormon Basin, had not rejoined them as he had promised to do, and they were now convinced that he had been a spy for the Indians, and had come on ahead of them and warned the Indians of their approach. Taking the trail of the retreating Indians they followed it until they came in sight of a camp on a fork of the Malheur River some two miles distant. They could not make out with the aid of a field glass whether they were Indians or white men some believing one way and some the other. After a consultation it was arranged for Frank Johnson with fifteen men to proceed up the stream and take a position opposite the camp -and be in readiness to co-operate with the rest of the company who were to cross the stream and move upon the camp from that side. The men who crossed the creek, found that they were soldiers when they came nearer the camp, and rode straight towards them never thinking of taking them by surprise, until the alarm was given and the soldiers ordered into line. Lieutenant Bernard in command of the soldiers, called to the volunteers to halt, but they paying no attention to his order, he ordered his men to fire. At that instant Frank Johnson from the opposite side of the stream called to them not to fire. The lieutenant now found out who they were, and welcomed them to camp. There were but eleven soldiers in the camp, the rest of the command under Sergeant Conner having gone in pursuit of the same Indians the volunteers were after. They returned that evening bringing the body of a comrade who was killed in an engagement with the Indians Corporal Wm. B. Lord, who, it was said, had served through the civil war and been in more than one hundred engagements without receiving a wound. When the soldiers charged upon the Indians they scattered in every direction, and when Corporal Lord fell from his horse those of his comrades who saw him believed he was killed, and they continued on in pursuit. Upon returning to the spot where the corporal fell they found him still alive and able to tell about some Indians trying to get to him but he kept them at a distance with his revolver, until they retreated at sight of the returning soldiers. He died soon after telling his story.
The next day the soldiers and volunteers all set out in pursuit of the Indians whom they followed until Lieutenant Bernard gave up all hope of accomplishing anything more when all the volunteers except four started homeward, John Hibbard, Charley Smith, Curtis and Strickland went on with the soldiers, hoping they might recover some of the stolen horses. Going southward to Silves River they followed that river to its source, then turned northward and traversed the country to the John Day River without finding any Indians. When they came to The Dalles and Canyon City wagon road, the four volunteers quit Lieutenant Bernard’s command, and returned home by the way of Canyon City without having recovered even one stolen animal in a campaign lasting five weeks.
If the Indians had remained in their camp on the Malheur a little longer, the result would have been different. The country where the soldiers overtook them was one of the most favorable nature for eluding their pursuers. Their manner of conducting a retreat was to send their women and children and animals, except what they needed for a kind of rear guard, rapidly in advance, whilst the rear guard maneuvered to delay the troops as much as possible.
Frequently one or two Indians would be seen off to the right or left, out of range of rifles, who would quickly disappear in the brush, and the troops would have to reconnoiter in that direction to ascertain if the main body of Indians were there.
While the volunteers were with the regulars two Indians were seen away to the right running back in the direction from which they had come. A detachment went in pursuit of them and they disappeared in a thicket of brush through which the troops could not ride. Returning to the main body, they pressed on and soon came to a little valley through which it was evident most of the Indians had passed but a short time before, and where they would certainly have overtaken them had it not been for the hour of delay caused by the pursuit of the two Indians. Soon after that the Indians scattered until there was no trace of any considerable number of them keeping together, and Bernard gave up the search.
It was a new experience to some of the boys who went out on the expedition with Captain Estes and no doubt they thought joking and fun making was entirely out of place when business of such a serious nature was on hand, but most of the company had been engaged in enough of adventures of similar kind to enable them to contemplate the probable danger ahead, without that feeling of dread which is apt to prey upon the spirits of those who are brought face to face with such dangers for the first time. Fun of some kind was kept up all the while, one of the most inveterate jokers being McWilliams, one of the pioneers of ’62, still remembered by many of the first settlers in Powder River Valley. An opportunity for one of his characteristic jokes presented itself on the morning of the day when they expected to attack the Indian camp. Just after they had eaten breakfast, a young man who was in McWilliams’ mess remarked that if they succeeded in taking the Indian camp they would have to use strategy. Me looked at him like one suddenly brought to the very brink of despair, and inquired: “How are we going to get the stuff, away out here in these mountains? I didn’t bring any along and I don’t believe any of the other boys did: there’s not a bit in camp unless Rackerby has some in the commissary, and I’ll go down and see if he has”, and with that he went through the camp telling each group of boys as he passed, that Tom Bailey said they would have to use strategy on the Indian camp and that he was going down to see if there was any in the commissary. Rackerby flew into a towering passion when McWilliams stated the case to him and inquired if he had any strategy in the commissary, and with the most vehement protestations against such insults, he vowed he would leave the company and return home forthwith. Some of the men thought it would be a bad example for one of the company to desert in that way, so they set about persuading the doctor to pass it by as being nothing but one of Mc’s jokes, but all their efforts to restore tranquility in the commissary department availed nothing. Rackerby was rapidly packing all his individual property upon his mule when as a last resort they appealed to John Hibbard to use his influence to get the doctor to change his purpose. “Don’t fret yourselves about the doctor leaving; you couldn’t drive him out of camp,” said Hibbard. At this the boys seemed to realize that traveling alone for four or five days, constantly exposed to attack by Indians, would be worse than enduring jokes, so they paid no more attention to the rebellious doctor, and he unpacked his mule and never reported the amount of strategy in the commissary.
In the spring of 1867 the citizens of the valley found that something would have to be done to put a stop to horse stealing. It was proposed to form a company and be in readiness to send a sufficient force in pursuit of thieves to insure their capture, the pursuers to follow the trail until they accomplished their purpose.
The settlers in the eastern part of the valley set the matter on foot and proposed to have the organizations extend all over the valley. Mr. Morrison was then living on Willow creek near Rock creek, and when the proposition was submitted to him, he said the Indians had never troubled them and they would be safe if the people east of them would keep the Indians out of that part of the valley. About ten days after that the Indians stole a number of horses and mules on Willow creek, taking them up Rock creek and across the mountains. Included in the lot was a fine span of mules belonging to Ernst Leonig. There was no effort made to recover the animals.
A company was organized for the purpose above stated, and very soon had an opportunity to engage in a chase after robbers. Louis Carey and Anthony Sicord were robbed on the road between Burnt River and Rye Valley. They were engaged in hauling lumber to Rye Valley, and on their return, when within three miles of Burnt river, they were ordered to halt by six masked men. The robbers then tied them and rifled their pockets, took all their animals but two, and departed, telling them that somebody would come along shortly and turn them loose. There was one mule in the team that had always been very docile and could be ridden with only a rope around his neck, which the robbers found to be unmanageable before they had proceeded very far. They could neither ride, lead or drive him and had to abandon him. Carey and Sicord managed to untie themselves in a little while, and mounting the horses which the robbers had left, rode to Powder River valley and told John Carey, Louis’ brother what had happened. John was the owner of the teams and he immediately set out to recover the horses, declaring he would follow them beyond the river Styx if he did not find them on this side of the stream.
Mack Hindman went to Auburn the morning that the news of the robbery was brought to the valley, and he proposed to go after the robbers and follow them until they were captured. Two others offered to go and then Sheriff Virtue also agreed to accompany them, and the four men started out to find the trail of the robbers. Beyond Clarks creek they found it and followed the tracks to Willow creek, where they were overtaken by Lum Davis and three others from Rye Valley who were also in pursuit of the thieves. The party now numbered eight, and proceeding up the creek they found cartridges and some other articles left on the ground. They could not tell whether Indians or white men had occupied the camp, but whoever it was they fled at sight of the party coming up the creek. The party continued on the trail of the robbers to Canyon City where they learned that the thieves got some of their animals shod at a blacksmith shop. About twenty miles farther on they came upon the robbers near the head of a gulch, who opened fire on the pursuing party from a patch of brush in which they were concealed. The pursuers crossed the gulch and took position between the robbers and the timber to which it was thought they might retreat. From that point the party returned the robbers fire with repeating rifles sending bullets into the patch of brush thickly whenever they saw the bushes shake. The gang soon ran to open ground and surrendered, when it was found that one of them named Judd had received four slight wounds.
Sheriff Howard, of Grant County, took charge of the prisoners and put them in jail until the next day when the party that captured them started to Auburn with them. On the way over, a man came to their camp one evening and stayed awhile and went away about two hundred yards and camped by himself. The men thought his manner looked suspicious, and Hindman went down and made him come up and stay at their camp. The next day he went on with them to Auburn and seemed to take a great interest in the prisoners, and they believed he was a confederate of the robbers. There were only four of the thieves caught, two of the six who committed the deed having gone to Silver City. The captured robbers were put in jail at Auburn, and in a few days they sent word to Hindman that they wanted writing paper, pens and ink, which he furnished them with, and they wrote an account of their adventure in rhyme commencing thus:
“On the trail we met two fools,
And took from them their watch and mules,
We left them with their pocket knives,
Which served perhaps to save their lives,
The arrival of Lewis and Sicord at John Carey’s is thus described:
“They stretched themselves out on the lawn,
And cried aloud ‘Shon’s mules are gone.”
The prisoners escaped from jail and two of them, Judd and Alexander were retaken at The Dalles brought back, tried and sentenced to the penitentiary for eight years. When their time had expired, Alexander came back to Baker City, where he often joked with Sicord about the robbery. He served as a scout under General Howard in the Indian war of 1878. Judd went to Galveston, Texas, where he carried on blacksmithing for a few years and then went to Colorado and got an eight year sentence for horse stealing.