Battle of the Abiqua: Tensions escalate into deadly conflict

May 2009 Posted in Arts, Culture & History

The Battle of the AbiquaThis is the fourth in a series about 150 years of history in the region including Molalla, Mt. Angel, Scotts Mills and Silverton. Language in the historical source material may be considered inappropriate today, but has been retained in direct quotes.

By Linda Whitmore

Relations were uneasy between natives and the first whites who settled the area from Molalla to the Silverton hills. On March 5 and 6, 1848, the unrest erupted into what became known as the Battle of the Abiqua.

Both sides had reasons for unrest. 

In the late 1840s, the natives were deeply concerned about the influx of homesteaders who built fences across their migration trails and hunted out their food supply. Worst of all were the diseases introduced by settlers for which they had no immunity – the natives could do nothing as 80 percent of their family members and friends died.

Early in 1848, the settlers had concerns too. They had heard of the massacre a few months before at the Whitman Mission near Walla Walla, Wash. There, Cayuse tribe members, who blamed the missionaries for a measles outbreak that had left many of them dead, killed Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 12 others on Nov. 29, 1847.

At that time, most of the settlers were very new to the area, among them was the Ralph Geer family. Earlier in 1847, they had been part of a wagon train that had stopped at the Whitman Mission before they came to the Waldo Hills. There, they spent their first winter in a cabin near the trail traveled by the Klamath tribe on their winter trek to the valley. Today, Geer descendent, Jim Toler of GeerCrest Farm outside Silverton, tells the story from his family’s writings. 

A step-by-step account of the Battle of the Abiqua was recorded by Robert Horace Down, who in 1924 published A History of Silverton Country

Down wrote, “The principal Indian trail through the country was known as the Klamath Trail. It crossed the cascades … and came through the Waldo and Silverton Hills, crossing Silver Creek about two miles east of Silverton… Here as winter came, the Klamaths gathered by the village of their kinsmen, the Molallas, far from the cold and storms of their southern homeland.”

Beginning his account of events that led to the Battle of the Abiqua, Down wrote of incidents of harassment.

“Crooked Finger – ‘a desperate Molalla’ controlling the Molallas and the band of Klamaths on the Abiqua – was continually traveling from the Molalla River to the Santiam on the Klamath trail, insulting settlers’ wives by ordering them, in the absence of the men of the household, to cook him a meal at any time of the day. As nearly all the settlers along the trail were newcomers, he often succeeded by threats and gestures in frightening them to do his will.”

The settlers, afraid for the safety of their wives and children, decided to band together and form a militia. 

“Companies of ‘home guards’ were organized to be in readiness at a moment’s warning,” Down recorded. The men met each week to drill. They also decided to be proactive. Toler said, “The settlers went to the Molallas and told them the Klamaths had to go home. The Molallas either weren’t willing to tell, or the Klamaths weren’t willing to go, so the settlers formed a militia… Dan Waldo was appointed colonel and Ralph Geer was appointed captain.”

Then came another report of natives coming to cabin while the man was away; this led to the settlers’ taking action.

“One day, while Richard Miller was absent, the Klamaths and Molallas came to the cabin where Mrs. Miller, frightened by their threats and insults, cooked dinner for them,” Down recorded. “Richard Miller, after the visit of the braves to his house, got together the settlers between the Abiqua and Butte Creek and some few from Elliot’s Prairie in Clackamas county.”

Down said there were 80 Klamath tribe members staying in the Molalla camp. The settlers accused the natives of stealing cattle and other property.  “When the Molallas were accused, they denied the offense and suggested the guilt of the Klamaths. These in turn stoutly maintained their entire innocence, but intimated that their kinsmen, the Molallas, were not a bit past stealing.”  Down’s account said the settlers departed from this encounter, but soon their fear heightened.

“Early in March 1848, two Cayuse scouts arrived at the village on the Abiqua.”  It was Cayuses who had killed the Whitmans, and the settlers were worried they would stir up natives of this region. “To the settlers the annoyances of past depredations now became a deep-seated anxiety,” Down said. “To prevent the consummation of so dire a calamity by anticipating it if possible, some of the settlers living nearby determined to visit the Molalla village and hold a council with Coosta, the Molalla chief. As they approached the camp …, they unexpectedly came upon the Cayuse scouts and made them prisoners,” Down reported. Some of the militia held the prisoners. “The remainder of the party, according to the prearranged plan, proceeded toward Coosta’s village, a few hundred yards down stream.”

The settlers especially feared the Klamaths, who were led by their chief, Red Blanket. The settlers demanded the Klamaths return to their homeland, but “Coosta stoutly asserted the right of the Klamaths to remain, saying they were his kinsmen and under his protection.” Right then, some of the Cayuse prisoners broke away and jumped into the river to escape. A gunshot was fired and hearing this, the Molallas thought the Cayuses had been shot. 

“Early in the morning of March 4, fifty Molallas and Klamaths in battle regalia appeared at the cabin of John Warnock and demanded that he go with them to Richard Miller’s to act as interpreter. Evidently an important council was about to be held. The Indians were especially afraid of Miller and were resolved to do something to him,” Down recorded.

Warnock went along, following the natives. “The long line of savages was observed by the settlers, now thoroughly alarmed. On their fastest horses they spread the alarm to the settlements of Molalla Prairie, Howell’s Prairie, the Waldo Hills and beyond to the Santiam.” The Molallas and Klamaths, with Warnock, arrived at the Miller homestead. “Upon their arrival the Indians put on their boldest front, and the purpose of the council was now apparent. They alleged that the Cayuse spies had been killed by the settlers left to guard them and demanded five horses in payment. These demands were refused when Warnock stated that he had seen the Cayuses alone the day before. The whites went into the cabin and barred the door, while an angry parley ensued. The chiefs were making no efforts to control the warriors and some shots were fired into the walls of the cabin. When Coosta came to the door to repeat his demands, he was seized by Warnock and unceremoniously pulled into the cabin.” Coosta was threatened with death, and he was told to order his men to depart. “The Indians then withdrew but not before threatening to ‘cut the throats of the Miller, Warnock and Patterson families,’” Down said. These threats rallied the settlers into action. 

On the morning of March 5, “The companies of home guards appeared at Warnock’s, the appointed rendezvous. … It was decided that the Klamaths should be sent home.” Toler said the militia divided into two forces with the cavalry led by Daniel Waldo and infantry by Geer. “They encountered the Indian camp along the Abiqua River and there was a skirmish,” Toler said.

Down’s report said, “The orders were that no shooting was to be done. It was desirable to send the Klamaths home without bloodshed if possible. The Indians had scouts observing the approach of the settlers. Despite orders not to shoot, Joseph Churchill fired at the sentinel on the north side as he was running in and he fell from his horse. … But now the camp was alarmed. … Before they were out of the woods Geer’s men were assailed by a shower of arrows. The firing became general.”

There was a heavy rain, creating difficulty for the flintlock rifles and cap dueling pistols in use on both sides. “Two Klamaths were killed when Red Blanket and his band fled up the river. Captain Geer gave orders to cease firing, which were instantly obeyed,” Down said. “The settlers returned to the rendezvous at Warnock’s. As the location of the Klamaths was then unknown, it was feared that they might start homeward on the Klamath trail, committing depredations as they went. Accordingly, those living near the trail returned home to protect their families.” Geer was among them; the Klamath Trail ran close to his family’s cabin. “According to Ralph Geer’s writings, he wasn’t there the second day,”  Toler said. Things got worse on March 5.

Down continued the account, “That night it snowed. Considerably augmented in numbers, the settlers proceeded to the scene of the previous day’s encounter. Coosta was questioned. All that he would say was that the Klamaths were gone.”  The militia followed the tracks in the snow and came to the Klamath camp. “The arrival of the settlers was greeted with war whoops and a shower of arrows, as before. The action was brief but deadly. Grimly closing in, the settlers returned the fire with deadly execution. The dusky warriors began to fall and the first was Red Blanket …. Dismayed by their losses, the Klamaths fled toward the mountains.”

Down’s report said, “One of the squaws was now found to be wounded, crying out in Chinook for mercy. On this the settlers ceased their fire.” Other accounts say the native woman had taken up arms and was involved in the battle. One record said because she was dressed in pants she had been mistaken for a man and was shot. Some records say she was killed, others that she was wounded. But the incident seems to be the cause of the cessation of the battle.

Down reported, “The Klamaths this day had ten killed. Their losses in two days were thirteen killed and one wounded. One white man was wounded.”

“The white men now returned to the Molalla camp. At Coosta’s village, both Molallas and Klamaths were told what was to be expected of them in the future. The Klamaths were to be permitted three days in which to bury their dead and take the trail for home. The wife of Red Blanket asked Jacob Caplinger why the whites were so hard on the Klamaths, while they did not kill the Molallas, who were just as insulting and mean. He explained that (this region was home to the Molallas, but) ” … the Klamaths did not belong in the valley. …The Molallas probably buried the dead, as the whole band of Klamaths passed Geer’s cabin that night. Before leaving the camp a few admonitions were given to the Molallas. One was that Crooked Finger was not to enter the house of a settler unless there was a white man in the house. If he did so, he was to be shot on sight. 

Shortly after the return of the settlers to their homes, the Klamaths, wailing their mournful death chants, departed southward. For a few days the men of Geer’s and Davie’s companies watched the trail but the Klamaths were finally gone. They never returned to the Great Valley.”

The settlers kept quiet about of the events of those two days. “This was something that wasn’t talked about for a long, long time,” Toler said.

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