Arthur Wigmore was a settler from Missouri. He lived near Lower Rancheria on the Eel River. Settler’s from back east, such as Mr. Wigmore, would come to farm the land among other choice career opportunities. In September of 1854, he was murdered and thrown into a local marsh. After an investigation done by officials and locals, it was made clear that a local native known by the locals as “Billy” was the one who had killed him.
As soon as word of “Billy’s” accusation reached the local natives of the Lower Rancheria, they, apparently knowing or having good reason what to expect in response to this accusation, all fled into the elevations of the Trinity mountains. Over the course of a few days, meetings were held and plans were in the works to find and arrest the murderer of Mr. Wigmore. During the course of this time, one citizen “enlisted into their service a small band of renegade” natives to hunt down to perpetrator. After a day or two, the natives returned with a newly decapitated head claiming it to be that of “Billy.”
Around that same time, then Commander of Ft. Humboldt Colonel Robert Buchanan sent out Captain Henry Judah to arrest any natives implicated in the murder. Judah, proving an effective leader, surprised a camp of about 100 local natives—two of whom confessed to the murder. Judah detained the two perpetrators and escorted them back to Ft. Humboldt to await civil authorities intervention—leaving the rest of the tribe alone, in peace, to themselves.
Released Without Charges
A communications breakdown would occur at this point, as the citizens of the county called upon the Commander of Ft. Humboldt to punish them—which he would not. Buchanan held firm that he had “no authority to punish the Indians for the murder of Wigmore, even after admission of guilt” occurred. At that moment in time, it was seen as not the place of the civil authorities to give legal trial to prisoners captured by the military. In the end, the two local natives were released without charges and left back to their tribe.
This incident stirred negative sentiments from the settling citizens of these industrious towns across the entire western region of Northern California. For about a year afterwards there was no outbreak of hostility. The local native tribes however were completely restless though and the miners in the mountain and foothill districts of Humboldt and Trinity counties were well aware. There was serious trouble on the horizon and the miner’s knew it.
Orleans Bar is located on the Klamath river that forks the Trinity River in Humboldt County. In 1855, the miners along the Klamath river passed local ordinances that “all persons detected in selling fire-arms to the Indians should have their heads shaved, receive twenty-five lashes and afterward be driven from camp; and also that all the Indians in the vicinity be disarmed.” In following through with the last resolution passed—a delegation of miners visited a handful of ranches and the weapons discovered there were confiscated.
The Klamath's Grace
A few tribes however would be reluctant to hand over their firearms to the entrustment of the miners, regardless the reason or cause. In response to the local tribes disagreement, an armed company of miners was formed. They punctually marched to the nearest ranch withholding firearms and demanded their surrender of weapons. The natives responded with a quick volley of fire from their firearms to the miners sudden surprise. In the melee as several miners would lay dead and others would scatter wounded.
Instead of fighting, the miners retreated under attack to Orleans Bar and sent for military assistance from Commander Buchanan at Fort Humboldt. He sent Captain Judah up to the Klamath river as a response—with very little reaching effect. Partially this reason is due to his non-consent and unwillingness to lay waste to all of the natives living on the Klamath under such an isolated issue of murder in this nature. For instance, “Billy” was known around the neighborhood personally. This would further make it a domestic issue. More than that though, Captain Judah was recalled by the U.S. Army before he could even make any standing order on how to deal with the situation.
At this same time, at various areas above Orleans Bar was equally as bad. At the split where the Klamath and Salmon rivers meet, there was a stout anxiety by the mining communities to kill off all of the local Klamath natives once and for all. That determination to commit to this massacre was quickly thwarted by United States Army soldiers and among them was a young Captain-in-Charge by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. This is that same man who would later “rise to the highest distinction in the profession of arms and the highest office in the gift of his countrymen.” Captain Grant curtailed the miners hostility and agitation that day, using a show of force as well as masterful communication skills. It would have been a day where the ends at that moment would have not justified the means. Without Grant's assistance, the miner's would have dealt a swift end to the Klamath river tribes.
Daniel L. Smith,
Images courtesy of: Smithsonianmag.com & The National Archives.