The Owens Valley Indian War

By Captain John W. Key, V.,
U. S. Army Reserve,

Submitted to the Faculty of U.S. Army Command and General Staff College,
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The Civil War battles and campaigns that were fought in the East have been thoroughly studied by students of military history. There has, however, been very little written about the battles and campaigns that occurred in California during the Civil War. With the withdrawal of Regular Army units from California to form the nucleus of both the Union and Confederate forces, volunteers from the gold seekers in California formed an army as large as that or the Regular Army at the start of the Civil War (3). These men bravely fought both Indians and Confederates wherever needed throughout the western states. These volunteers crossed difficult terrain: deserts, mountains, rivers, and lone stretches of unpopulated areas from California to Montana and Wyoming, in order to accomplish their assigned missions. These men often had to provide their own shoes, clothing, arms and ammunition, since priority in supplies lay with the forces in the eastern campaigns. Balanced rations were often lacking and meals often consisted entirely of fresh beef or wild. game (3,6).

The Owens Valley Indian War of 1361 to 1863 is one of the many campaigns conducted in the West by the Second Calvary California Volunteers during the Civil War (3).

The Owens Valley is the westernmost of more than 150 desert basins that form the Great Basin section or the western United States, It is a narrow valley that runs northwest to southeast and is bounded by the Sierra Nevadas on the West, the White and Inyo Mountains on the East. It extends northward from the Coso Range south of Owens Lake for over 100 miles to the great bend in the Owens River north of the present-day town of Bishop, California (5).

The Mountain Man, Joseph Reddeford Walker was one of the first known white men to traverse the Owens Valley in 1833. John C. Fremont named the lake for Richard L. Owings, generally known as Richard Owens, in 1845. The river and valley take their name from the lake (5,7). The Owens Valley was considered a great thoroughfare for travel to and from the Nevada mining districts of Esmeralda and Washoe, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and Southern California. It was also considered a significant military route for supplies and communications to and from California (3).

The Owens River valley had been the hone of the Paiute Indians for many years; Linguistically, these Indians spoke the Shoshone language and. are sometimes referred to as the Paiute Shoshones. They were primarily rood gatherers and farmers. They lived on Pinyon Pine nuts, wild hyacinth tubers and yellow nutgrass tubers as well as the larva or a fly that laid its eggs upon the surface of saline Owens Lake. They also lived on deer, Desert big horn sheep, fish and small game. They had built an extensive ditch irrigation system for irrigating the wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass(1,3,7).

Paiute communities were simply loose collections of families living near each other. They were generally peaceful; what disagreements there were arose from trespassing On pine nut or hurting territory (5).

In 1859 Captain John W. Davidson led an expedition with men from Companies B and K, 1st Dragoons from Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley in search of livestock believed stolen from the San Fernando and. Santa Clara Valleys, by the Paiutes. Davidson found a peaceful and industrious people that he considered deserving the protection and watchful care of the United States Government (7). He further proposed that the area be set aside for an Indian reservation, and in fact, promised the Paiutes that their valley would be set aside, thereby forbidding whites from settling there. The Indians would allow free travel through the valley and would maintain honest and, peaceful habits (3,7).

Government Officials in the East who were quite unacquainted with the Owens River Valley, wanted to make the area an Indian reservation . However Congress repeatedly failed to pass the necessary bills to do this. The Indian Agents were opposed to the idea since they didn't believe the area could support the thirty to sixty thousand Indians proposed for relocation{3).

With the new discoveries of gold and, silver in the land east of the Sierra Nevadas, the new mining camps drew stockmen looking for new markets. L. R. Ketcham of Visalia, California was the first cattleman to drive cattle into the Owens Valley in 1859 (3,5). In 1861, Allen Van Fleet drove a herd of cattle from Carson Valley, Nevada and built the first cabin on the Owens River near Laws (northeast of present-day Bishop). About the same time, the McGee and Summer families drove cattle from the San Joaquin Valley into the Owens Valley. The McGee's decided to winter at Lone Pine Creek. Charles Putnam, who it is believed to have been in the McGee party, built a stone trading post north of Lone Pine Creek at Little Pine (now Independence), about this same time. Samuel Bishop and his wife also brought 500 cattle and 50 horses from Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley in 1861(2,3,5).

The winter of 1861-62 was one of the most severe in the history of the Owens Valley. The plight of the Paiutes was exceedingly bad. The bad weather had driven away almost all of the game and had killed what little game remained. Cattle were now beginning to forage on the Indian's fields of wild hyacinth and yellow nutgrass. It seemed only natural to the Paiutes that the cattle could be killed for their own use, since the cattle were feeding on their fields. A cowboy named Al Thompson caught an Indian butchering a steer and shot and killed him. The tribe, indignant at this outrage, struck back. They captured and killed a man named Yank Crossen, who was traveling from Aurora, Nevada to Southern California, and had stayed a few days with Allen Van Fleet (2,3,5,6,).

Men on both sides started to ride armed, the Paiutes primarily with bows and arrows and the white men with rifles and pistols. As neither side actually wanted war, a peace convention was decided upon and held at the San Francis Ranch on January 31, 1862. Since one Indian and one white man had been killed, it was decided that both were even and that the Indians wouldn't bother the cattle if the white man would control their grazing(2,3). Everyone agreed to the treaty except one Indian leader, Joaquin Jim, the leader of the Southern Mono Paiutes. He and his warriors began raiding ranches and the peace treaty faded away within two months (2)

In February of 1862, Jesse Summers came south from Aurora to buy some cattle from the McGee brothers in Lone Pine. He agreed upon a price and the McGee Brothers started to drive the cattle north. Joaquin Jim and some of his men stopped the drive. The McGee's abandoned the cattle and, made their way back to Putnam's Trading Post for help. They returned with fifteen men to the San Francis Ranch where they encountered Joaquin Jim and his band. After staying the night within the cabin, the cattlemen found, the Indians had disappeared leaving the cattle. The cattlemen started again in the direction of Aurora and after loosing 200 head the next night, turned south down the Owens Valley with the reminder of the herd (2,3,6).

A few days later, a group of cattlemen, including Allen Van Fleet, saw four Paiutes chasing some stray cattle. After following and confronting the Indians, who claimed they were looking for their horses, an altercation ensued resulting in the death of the four Paiutes and wounding Van Fleet and rancher Tom Hubbard. One of the Indians killed was a popular leader, Chief Shondow his death influenced other Indians who had previously stayed out of the conflict to join the war (2).

Now fully alarmed, the Owens Valley ranchers gathered at Putnam's Trading Post for mutual protection. Their fears were justified when a band of Paiutes attacked a cabin near where Benton Hot Springs is now located. E. S. Taylor, a local prospector occupied the cabin and defended it for two days, killing ten Indians, until the Paiutes set the cabin on fire and forced Taylor out into the open where he was killed (2,5,6).

On March 20, 1862 the settlers in the Owens Valley decided to raid an Indian camp in the Ambama Hills, just north of Owens Lake. The attack was a success because the Paiutes had.few firearms. Eleven Indians were killed and a ton of dried meat was destroyed. Only three of the settlers were wounded (2,3,5).

The Paiutes now sent messengers to neighboring tribes for assistance. The tribes in Nevada had recently been defeated in a battle with troops from Fort Churchill and. the chiefs warned against participating in the Owens Valley War(2). The firm of Wingate and Chon in Aurora, Nevada agreed. to sell arms and ammunition to the Paiutes since they believed, that they had been cheated in previous cattle buying transactions with the settlers in the Owens Valley (2,3,5,6). A settler from Owens Valley travelled all the way to Aurora to buy ammunition but was refused by the merchants, because they felt that all the whites in the Owens River Valley should be killed (3). The man returned home without the ammunition and reported this incident to the other settlers, who immediately contacted the military authorities in Los Angeles and Fort Tejon, requesting that troops be sent to the Owens Valley(2,3).

On March 17, 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton, the Commander of the District of Southern California and the Commanding Officer of the First Infantry, California Volunteers wrote to Colonel W. Bowie, the Commanding Officer Fifth Infantry, California Volunteers at Camp Latham. Colonel Carleton had recently received correspondence from Mr. S. A. Bishop of Fort Tejon and Mr. W. A. Greenly of the Owens Valley explaining the situation in the Owens Valley and requesting military assistance(3). Colonel Bowie immediately issued Special Orders Number 7 that ordered Lieutenant Colonel George S. Evan, Second Cavalry, California Volunteers to proceed to Owens Valley via Fort Tejon with three officers, Captain Wynne, First Lieutenant French, and Second Lieutenant Oliver from the three companies of Cavalry (G, I and K) at Camp Latham. Colonel Evans was to personally investigate the situation in Owens Valley and report back to the appropriate military authorities. The party would take forty days rations and one hundred rounds of ammunition per man.

The settlers had meanwhile concentrated their herds about thirty miles north of Owens Lake. They then sent messages to Aurora, Nevada and Visalia, California for help. On March 28, 1862 eighteen volunteers under John J. Kellogg, a former Army captain, came from Aurora. A group of twenty-two men came from Visalia under Colonel Mayfield, a retired Army officer. This force of sixty men took to the field under Colonel Mayfield and marched fifty miles north up the valley (2,3,6).

Lieutenant Colonel Evans and his detachment of cavalry arrived at Owens Lake on April 2, 1862 and at Putnam's Trading Post on April 4th. Putnam's was under attack by approximately thirty Indians who retreated with the arrival of the cavalry. Colonel Evans for the first time learned something of the real conditions in the valley. On April 5th, Colonel Evans left seven men under the command of Captain Winne to protect their supplies and Putnam's store (also known as "the fort"). With the rest of the men Colonel Evans started up the valley (2,3).

On April 5th Colonel Mayfield's position was becoming increasingly critical. The Indians had showed themselves in force of about five hundred near the mountains southwest of Mayfield's party. The whites decided to attack and sallied forth in two groups. In the skirmish that followed one white man, C.J. Pleasant from Visalia was killed and the white forces panicked and retreated back to their camp. The Indians soon followed and forced the whites to seek shelter in an Indian irrigation ditch until nightfall. N. F. Scott, the sheriff of Mono County was killed when he lit his pipe. Under the cover of darkness, the whites made good their escape. In all, three man died, but they lost all their horses and supplies (3,6).

On April 6th at about 9 a.m. Colonel Evans met the citizen soldiers retreating back to Putnam's Fort. Both groups camped for the night about thirty miles north of Putnam's, at Big Pine Creek. Here they found the bodies of two men killed by Indians. They were identified as Mr. Talman and Hansen of Aurora (2,3.6).

Colonel Warren Wasson, the acting Indian Agent for Nevada had previously contacted James W. Nye, Governor of Nevada about a peace mission to the Owens River Valley to prevent the Indian War from reaching the Territory of Nevada (2,6). Governor Nye had approved the expedition and had contacted General Wright, the Commander of the Department of the Pacific for a fifty man detachment. General Wright ordered Captain E. A. Rowe, Commander of Company A, 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers and Post Commander, Fort Churchill, Nevada to provide the necessary men. Captain Rowe ordered Post Lieutenant Herman Noble, 2nd Cavalry, Detachment Commander, in Aurora, Nevada to proceed to the Owens Valley with Colonel Wasson on a peacekeeping mission. Lieutenant Noble and his detachment joined Colonel Wasson on April 4th about thirty miles south of Aurora and proceeded towards the Owens Valley (2,3,6).

On April 7th Colonel Evans got ready to march and Colonel Mayfield reported with forty citizen-soldiers, the remainder of his men still wi1ling to fight. the Indians. As this force was moving north, Colonel Evans saw some movement about three miles to the east and sent Lieutenant French and five men to instigate. Lieutenant French soon returned and reported that the movement was Lieutenant Noble of Company A with fifty men from Fort Churchill on their way south to Putnam's Store. Colonel Evans halted until Lieutenant Noble's command could come up and then proceeded to the battle ground. No Indians were found (3,6).

On April 8th, three parties of scouts were sent out looking for Indians. One scout returned to report that a large force of Indians had been observed about twelve miles away near Bishop Creek. When the command moved up in a snow storm no Indians were found. They had scattered at the approach of the main body of cavalry. Campfires were observed in a canyon to the north (3,6).

On April 9th, Colonel Evans sent a patrol of nine men from Company A to investigate the canyon where the campfires had been seen the previous night. The patrol moved three hundred yards up the canyon before coming under fire. Private C. Gillespie was immediately killed and Corporal J. Harris wounded. Colonel Evans moved the men up to about four hundred yards from the mouth of the canyon. The troops dismounted and prepared to fight on foot. Lieutenants Noble and Oliver took forty men to the left side of the canyon and Colonel Evans and Lieutenant French took forty men to the right, Colonel Mayfield took four of his men with Lieutenant Noble, with the balance of Mayfield's men remaining at the mouth of the canyon. Lieutenant Noble's column succeeded in getting into position to recover Private Gillespie's body, but was drawing fire from both sides of the canyon. Private Gillespie's body was recovered but in the process Colonel Mayfield was killed. Lieutenant Noble found that it was impossible to maintain his position due to the heavy fire from his concealed foes and therefore had to retreat. Colonel Evans, because of the rugged nature of the terrain decided to retreat dlown the valley to a better position. Camp was established about one and a half miles from the canyon (2,3,6).

Colonel Wasson, the Nevada Indian Agent, had observed the entire battle from a rock higher than the canyon near Bishop Creek. He noted that not more than twenty-five Indians were involved. These Indians, he concluded, were probably left behind as a decoy to protect the main body and their families who probably escaped to the north away from the conflict(6).

On April 10th, Colonel Evans' command was entirely out of provisions after feeding his men and the citizens in the Owens Valley. He decided to return to Camp Latham some four hundred miles away, via Putnam's Store Lieutenant Noble and his detachment accompanied Colonel Evans as far as Putnam's. The settlers in the Owens Valley demanded government protection from Colonel Evans. Colonel Evans explained to the settlers that he did not have the authority to leave troops to protect the white oitzens and had no provisions for them to live upon. Three choices were offered the settlers: remain in the valley, accompany Colonel Evans to Los Angeles (sic). Most or the settlers decided to drive their livestock, (4,000 cattle and 2,500 sheep) out of Owens Valley (2,3,5,6)

On April 14th, Colonel Evans started the long trip back to Los Angeles and Lieutenant Noble returned to Aurora. (3,6).

Colonel Evans arrived at Camp Latham on April 28th. He recommended that a military post be established in the Owens Valley to protect the citizens there and to protect the route to the Nevada mining areas. It was the only route except the route through Placerville (2).

General Wright in San Francisco prior to reading Colonel Evan's report of the situation in Owens Valley, heard from several citizens that Colonel Evans had escorted out of the Valley. These citizens urged that a permanent military post be established in the Owens Valley. On May 2, 1862, General Wright wrote to Colonel Ferris Forman, the new commander of Camp Latham to send, two or three companies of the Second Cavalry with Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Evans as commander to establish a post in the Owens Valley(3).

The months of May and June 1862 found the Indians in complete control of the Owens Valley (3,5). They attacked isolated parties of stockmen and miners throughout the area.

On June 14, 1862. Colonel Evans with 201 men of Companies D, G and I, and the 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers departed Camp Latham for the Owens Valley. A train of forty six wagons carried the necessary equipment, ammunition and rations for the men. Even though sixty days of supplies were specified only eighteen days of rations were available (3)

After five days of chasing Indians. Colonel Evans decided that the Indians would not come into the open to fight and that it was impossible to follow then into the mountains. He decided that a permanent military camp was required( 3).

On July 4, 1862, a camp was established on Oak Creek in Owens Valley and named Camp Independence for the occasion, Independence Day (2,3).

On July 7th. Captain Rowe, Company A, 2nd Cavalry, California volunteers despatched a note to Colonel Evans at Camp Independence. Captain Rowe stated that he and Mr. Wasson, the Indian Agent had talked to the Indian Chiefs in the area and made a treaty with them. Orders to Captain Rowe and Colonel Evans were conflicting. Captain Rowe was on a peace seeking mission while Colonel Evans was under instructions to chastise the Indians. A meeting was arranged between Colonel Evans, Captain Rowe, Colonel Wasson and Captain George, a big war chief of the Paiutes. Captain George stated that he didn't want to fight anymore and wanted to become a friend of the white man. Colonel Evans felt that many the promises made by Indian Agent Wasson could not be kept. He also reported that if the troops were withdrawn, the attacks would start all over again(2,3).

The terms of the treaty were concurred upon in San Francisco by the Department of the Pacific to. However, the Indians were to restore all property stolen from the whites and they were to surrender four or five hostages to be a guarantee or their good faith. Several important Indians surrendered themselves as well as their families as hostages, among them being Captain George, Chief Tinemba and several others(2.3).

J. H. P. Wentworth, the Indian Agent for the Souther California District met with Colonel Wasson and as a result sent messages out to the Indians to gather at Camp Independence. The meeting was held and on October 6th a treaty was signed (2).

The bulk or the troops now returned to Camp Latham leaving Company G under Captain Goodman, to keep the peace. Captain George was held, at Camp Independence as a hostage to ensure the treaty (2,3).

Peace remained until March 1,1863 when Captain George disappeared. Captain Ropes who replaced Captain Goodman as Camp Commander sent soldiers to various settlements, warning people to stay home and be on their guard(3). Several miners and ranchers were killed within the next few days. Captain Ropes sent messages to Camp Babbit requesting assistance. Camp Babbtt immediately sent First Lieutenant S. R. Davis with forty-four men to reinforce camp Independence (2,3).

On March 11, 1863, Lieutenant Dougherty led a patrol of six men to Black Rocks and encountered two hundred Indians. A battle started and one soldier was killed and four including Dougherty wounded. Three days later Captain Ropes with twenty seven soldiers and several civilians rode out to find Indians, but failed to locate them(2,3).

On March 19th, a citizen brought information that thirty to forty Indians were killing livestock eleven miles south of Camp Independence in the Alabama Hills. The Indians were dislodged and chased in a running battle down into Owens Lake Thirty five Indians died. in the battle and the Army had only one man wounded.

On April 4th, Company E, 2nd Cavalry arrived, as reinforcements under the command of Captain Herman Noble. With two full companies in camp, Captain Ropes on April 9th, led a force or one hundred and twenty men and thirty-six citizens in search of the Indians. They found a band of two hundred north of Big Pine Creek. In the battle that ensued the troops received two casualties and the Indians none.

In late April, Captain Moses A. McLaughlin arrived at Camp Independence as the new Camp Commander with members from Company D. 2nd Cavalry, California Volunteers. The situation for the Indians became desperate. The soldiers were constantly seeking out the Indian food stores and destroying them. Also the Indians had never been instructed in the care and maintenance of their firearms. Their guns had become rusted and dirt encrusted. Numerous weapons became unserviceable and some exploding gun barrels were reported (2,3,5).

On May 22nd, Captain George came to Camp Independence to talk peace. He indicated that he no longer wanted war. As a result of his surrender, more than four hundred Indians came in to lay down their arms (2)

On July 22, 1863 some nine hundred Indians were escorted to Fort Tejon to the San Sebastian Indian Reservation.

This ended the Owens Valley Indian War except for several attacks by Joaquin Jim in 1864 until December 1864 when Joaquin Jim and his band, were pursued with most of the marauders being killed (2,3,4,5).

The Owens Valley Indian War lasted a little longer that two years. It originally started, because of the white man s disregard for the property and rights of the Indians. It is estimated that about sixty white men and about two hundred Indians died during the conflict. The tactics employed by the Indians were mainly hit and run and harassment. The Indians seldom fought in large groups and when they did the results were usually not favorable. Improper maintenance of firearms and the destruction of food for the winter season were key factors that brought the conflict to a speedy conclusion(2,3).


1. Ella M. Cain, The Story of Early Mono County: Its Settlers, Gold Rushes, Indians, and Ghost Towns. Fearon Publishers Inc., San Francisco, CA. 1961. p. 27, 88-90.

2. Fred S. Cook, Legends of Inyo County. The Printery, Pahrump, NV. 1978. p 3-9.

3. Dorothy C. Cragen, The Boys in the Sky Blue Pants, The Men and Events at Camp Independence and Forts of Eastern California. Nevada, and Utah 1862-1877. Pioneer Publishing Company, Fresno, CA. 1975. p. 11-13, 21-36, 46-62.

4. Francis P.Frarquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley. CA. 1965. p 136-137.

5. Genny Schumacher (editor), Deepest Valley: A Guide to Owens Valley, Its Roadsides and Mountain Trails. Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA. 1962. p 176-182.

6. T. H. Thompson and A. A. West, History of the State of Nevada. Howell North, Berkeley, CA.. 1958. p 166-168.

7. Philip J. Wilek and Harry W. Lawton (editors), The Expedition of Captain J. W. Davidson from Fort Tejon to Owens Valley in 1859. Ballena Press, Socorro, MN. 1976.