The Oregonian, Portland, OR., November 8, 1931, magazine section, page 4
Includes an illustration titled:
The Indians attacking the blockhouse.
The Yakimas almost succeeded in taking Fort Rains in their attack on the Cascade Settlements.
WHEN THE YAKIMAS WENT BERSERK
Nine Indians Hanged on Charges of Conspiracy; Satisfied With Damage to Countryside, Return by Secret Trail to Their Own Territory; Sheridan Active in the Struggle.
Cascade Locks Communities Terrorized When Indians Sweep Down From the North to Attack Soldiers and Citizens Alike; Women and Children Barely Escape When Burning Brands Tossed.
by Carl Riesland
Visitors to the northwest find it difficult to realize
that less than 100 years ago the whole of Oregon and Washington was untraversed
wilderness, and that three-quarters of a century ago the people of the scattered
farms and hamlets were constantly in terror of attacks by Indians. Less than
76 years ago, on March 26, 1856, the Middle Blockhouse, known also as Fort
Rains, a few miles west of Stevenson, Wash., was attacked and afterwards
besieged for three days by the hostile Yakima Indians, aided by neighboring
During these troublous years the hatred between the Indians and the white settlers was intense. The Indians, feeling that they were losing their lands through encroachment of the settlers, were making desperate attempts to terrorize the whites and to drive them from their country. Their medicine men incited them to avenge their wrongs, showing them that their inevitable fate, if they bowed to white rule, was extermination.
The Yakimas, Klickitats and their confederates were on the warpath and had driven most of the settlers from the more remote claims into the towns in the region extending from Puget sound on the north to the Snake river on the east. Troops had been concentrated at Fort Vancouver, The Dalles and Walla Walla. The regulars were under command of Colonel George Wright, and comprised the ninth infantry, which had been sent out from the Atlantic coast to Fort Vancouver to wage a campaign against the Indians.
Sheridan Sent to Fort
The ninth regiment left Fort Vancouver March 25, 1856,
and traveled by steamboat to The Dalles. The future general, Phillip H. Sheridan,
who was at that time a second lieutenant and had been out of West Point but
three years, was left at Fort Vancouver under command of Colonel Morris with
a detachment of 40 dragoons.
At the Cascade mountains, 40 miles up the Columbia river from Vancouver, the river descends over a long series of rapids 41 miles in length, with a fall of 26 feet. These rapids are known as the upper, lower and middle cascades and constituted an absolute check to steamboat navigation. Steamers from Portland and Vancouver ascended the river as far as the lower cascades and there discharged their cargoes, which were then hauled up to the middle cascades in flat-bottomed bateaux. There they were again unloaded and transported to the head of the upper cascades on a wooden-railed tramway, operated by means of horses and mules. They were met there by other steamboats and the freight transported the remaining 40 miles to The Dalles.
The tramway was owned by Putnam and Daniel F. Bradford, who at the time of the outbreak were completing it by constructing trestles across two ravines near the upper end. These points were of great importance to the government, as the Columbia river furnished the only direct cut through the mountains, and all supplies from below, grain, food and clothing for the troops-, had to be sent through here. This point had been appreciated after the Yakima outbreak in October, for Captain Wallen, under orders from Major Rains in November, 1855, had erected a blockhouse on the projection of land later known as Sheridan's point, at the middle cascades settlement.
Troop Movement Ordered
The blockhouse stood on a commanding eminence near the
water's edge, overlooking the river for some distance, above and below. It
had been garrisoned by a company of soldiers during the winter under command
of Lieutenant Bissel, who received orders to proceed with the greater part
of his men to The Dalles, where Colonel Wright was organizing his expedition.
Following his orders he left Sergeant Matthew Kelly and nine men of company
H, fourth United States infantry, in charge of the blockhouse and government
stores at the cascades.
At the time of the attack the soldiers at the blockhouse were going about their duties of splitting wood and cleaning up around the garrison. Some men were working for the Bradfords on one of the tramway trestles near the upper cascades, and those at the lower cascades were engaged in transporting freight up the river in bateaux. At 8130 on the morning of March 26 the garrison and settlers at the middle and the settlers and store at the upper cascades were attacked simultaneously. Privates Williams, McManus, Sheridan and the cook were standing near the door of the blockhouse preparatory to taking up their daily duties. The first intimation of hostilities was the sound of shots being fired from the surrounding bushes. The cook gave the alarm by shouting, "Indians!" and McManus, standing by the side of Williams in the doorway, fell, fatally injured.
Great Excitement Prevails
Great excitement prevailed. People came running to the
blockhouse from all directions, many of them being wounded in running the
gantlet. The soldiers hurriedly placed on their accouterments and returned
the shots of the enemy, for, as Williams says, at the instant the alarm was
given the "painted and half-naked savages in great numbers at the edge of
the timber could be seen exultantly firing at us." Mr. Griswold, freight
agent for the Bradfords, was shot down and fatally injured.
The attack was kept up all that day, the Indians only retreating in order to torture their prisoner, Private Rooney, of the garrison. Provisions were carried in by William and Jehu Switzler, who ran the gantlet to the nearby houses under cover of the guns of their companions. Darkness came and with it renewed hostilities on the part of the enemy, who made attempts to set fire to the blockhouse. It was necessary for the besieged to redouble their vigilance, for if the efforts of the Indians were successful all was lost. Mr. Switzler's narrative tells of a vicious bulldog, the property of one of the settlers. "The dog would rush out into the darkness, growling and barking furiously at every approaching Indian and in that way directing our fire." He continues "With the aid of this dog we succeeded in keeping them at so great a distance from the building that it was impossible for them to set the fire. The dog undoubtedly saved us from destruction that night."
Attack Then Slackens
The attack slackened somewhat during the next day, and
firing could be heard in the direction of the lower cascades. It was hoped
that relief was close at hand, and this was correct, for Sheridan was there,
holding the enemy at bay with his band of 40 dragoons. At that signal of
participation vigilance was relaxed and the guards at the loopholes were
enabled to snatch some much-needed rest and sleep.
The settlement at the upper cascades had been attacked at the same time as the blockhouse and the settlers had taken refuge in Bradford's store. Putnam Bradford was at that time visiting in Massachusetts, and his brother, Daniel Bradford, and Lawrence Coe, their clerk, were in charge of the store and the building of the trestles on the upper end of the tramway.
Fifteen men were at work on the trestle leading to Bradford's when the attack commenced. The Indians were about 40 yards distant and were in a long line from the Mill creek, above the store, to the big point at the head of the rapids. They fired their first volley without warning, wounding three bridge builders and killing another. Upon hearing the crack of the rifles the men rose and saw that they were preparing for another volley. They immediately gave the alarm by shouting "Indians!" and, jumping down from the trestle, started running for the store.
Settlers Rush for Store
All of the men but three ran along the lower side of
the tramway embankment; crouching as they ran to keep under cover. The other
three ran across the trestle and down the track to the cars, where they cut
the horses and mules loose. They mounted with the drivers and rode to the
blockhouse, 1½ miles below, reaching it
in safety, with the exception of a German boy who was shot from his horse.
Settlers from nearby houses rushed for the store, among them being the Watkins
family and Mr. Bush and his family. Mr. Sinclair of the Hudson's Bay company
was shot and killed instantly.
Mr. Coe, who was just coming to the door when the bridge builders rushed in, took in the situation at once and assumed command in a very efficient and cool-headed manner. As soon as the last of the refugees was within he barricaded the doors and then distributed the guns and ammunition which had providentially been left there for transportation only an hour before by Mr. Switzler. He next ordered loopholes cut in the walls and a stovepipe hole enlarged in the ceiling so that the upper floors were made accessible, the stairway being on the outside and exposed to the fire of the Indians.
The store, which now held about 40 persons, was attacked at once, and, as the Indians could not be seen from the first floor, which faced the river, most of the firing was done from the port holes in the roof. The savages took advantage of a slight depression in the bank above the store and there made a fire from which they threw burning brands and red-hot irons onto the roof of the store. At first the defenders tried to keep the fires out by punching the shingles loose with poles, but, as this was not successful and as there was no water available, the danger of fire became imminent. Luckily some barrels of salt pork were discovered, the heads were knocked in and the brine pored on the spots where the fire was in danger of spreading.
Steamer Mary Escapes
The steamer Mary was lying in the mouth of Mill creek,
about 400 yards from the store. The fireman, Chenowith, had just filled the
boiler with cold water and she had no fuel on board. He saw the Indians running
toward her, firing at the refugees as they came. These were all more or less
seriously wounded, but managed to make it on board. The captain and mate,
having gone ashore to loosen the lines, were attacked, but managed to make
their escape through the timber, and the engineer kept the Indians away from
the gangplank with a revolver while the firemen split up some hatches to
Before long the valiant Mary was in motion and the fireman crawled to the pilothouse under fire, and, lying on his back to protect himself, turned the wheel with his feet while directions were shouted to him by the engineer from below. The boat at first barely held her own against the swift current, which pulled her toward the rapids, for the fire worked up the steam very slowly. Gradually, however, a slight head was made and they were able to blow a blast from the whistle, telling those at the store that the boat had been saved and not, as they had feared, burned by the Indians. She crossed to the Oregon side of the river, where the Wasco lay. They loaded up with fuel taken from fence posts, and, taking aboard all refugees from the Oregon side and some from the Washington side who had crossed over, the boats got under way for The Dalles and reinforcements.
Freight Boat Held Back
At the wharf the men who had attempted that morning to
take freight up to the middle cascades in a bateaux had been deterred by
a strong head wind and were resting and talking.
F. M. Sebring, whose narrative is here followed, lost no time in taking the news to the owner of the schooners which were moored at the wharf. This gentleman, Mr. Kilborn, seems to have known what he was about, for as soon as he heard the report he gave Sebring instructions to round up all the women and children in the vicinity and tell them that a schooner would be off for Portland immediately and that if they wished to escape they must come aboard at once.
The people behaved quite sensibly, and in an incredibly short time all the women and children were aboard the boat, and, with a stiff breeze astern and with all sails set, she sped down the river. The men escaped later in the remaining schooner and all the houses were burned by the Indians as soon as they arrived. The wharf boat at the dock and all the government stores and more than 100 tons of freight were destroyed.
The Belle, which had been headed up the river toward the cascades with the Fashion, her sister boat, met the schooner containing the women and children at a point near the Sandy river's mouth. She turned about and headed directly back to Vancouver, arriving there that evening. The news was taken at once to Colonel Morris, who immediately dispatched Sheridan with his 40 dragoons aboard the Belle to go to the relief of the blockhouse. He started up the river to the cascades at 1 o'clock the morning of the 27th. On his way he picked up the men on the schooner from the lower cascades, who volunteered to accompany him, and reached his destination at 10 o'clock that morning. Finding the lower settlement totally destroyed, he made a landing on a sandbar just above the Hamilton place. The river being very high at this time, he had only a narrow strip of ground on which to advance.
The Indians had taken a stand between his men and the shore, and, although greatly outnumbered, Sheridan prepared to assail them. The savages rushed forward, but were driven back by the fire of the men in the rear, who had unshipped a small cannon and now directed it into the underbrush where the enemy were concealed. This had the effect of checking their attack, and the parties held each other at bay for the rest of the day, with further skirmishing at long range taking place. After the Mary had made her escape she headed for The Dalles, where Colonel Wright and his men had gone the previous day. The Wasco preceded her, and when at last her crew of wounded and dying had, with the aid of the refugees, brought her in, a courier was sent to carry the tidings of the attack to the troops. The ninth regiment had started for Walla Walla on the morning of the 26th and had made camp that night about five miles east of The Dalles.
Men Hurriedly Awakened
The courier had arrived after "taps" had been sounded
and the "Shanghais" (so called from their long legs and the red cock's plumes
which they wore in their caps) were asleep in their tents, but they were
hurriedly awakened and marched back to The Dalles on the double. At 6 o'clock
the following morning they were rushed aboard the steamers, and without any
supplies but what they already had in their packs sped down the river.
They came in sight of the landing at the upper cascades at 6 o'clock the next morning, the third day of the siege.
The besieged in the store were overjoyed in their relief at seeing their rescuers, who made a brave appearance coming around the bend at Thirteen-Mile point, with the early morning sun shining on their blue jackets and bright bayonets. The moment the landing was made the soldiers rushed ashore without waiting for orders and dashed here and there, thrusting their bayonets into the bushes. The Indians, seeing themselves overcome in numbers, had not waited to give battle, but fled like the wind, amid several volleys of grape from the howitzer. Now the doors of the store could be opened for the first time since the attack began, and citizens from The Dalles crowded in, anxious to get news of their friends and relatives.
Wright Organizes Force
Colonel Wright at once proceeded to organize a force
of two companies and a detachment of dragoons under the command of Lieutenant
Colonel Steptoe, who was to advance to the blockhouse and thence to the lower
landing. Upon arriving at the blockhouse they relieved the survivors, and,
leaving some of their number to give aid to the wounded and to help bury
the dead, they proceeded to a point about 11 miles below. Here they could
descry Sheridan, who had that morning crossed over to the Oregon side in
his bateau and worked his way up the current between Bradford's island and
the south shore. He was still unaware of Steptoe's party and was planning
on recrossing and coming to the relief of the blockhouse.
On the north side of the river were a number of Indians, holding a barbecue. They evidently did not intend to attack Sheridan immediately, and while he held their attention the column under Colonel Steptoe came upon them, headed by the dragoons. Before the soldiers could reach them they had fled into the woods and vanished completely, with the loss of only one of their number.
They were pursued for a short distance without result and then Sheridan, who had reported to Colonel Steptoe, obtained permission to cross over to the island with Lieutenant Piper and the howitzer and there to capture and hold as prisoners any of the Cascade Indians who were there.
Captured Reds Executed
The captured Cascade Indians were tried by a military
court under Colonel Wright on the day following the relief. Nine of them
were found guilty of conspiring to aid the Yakimas in the attack and were
hanged. Several of them were afterward declared innocent by those who knew
them, the most unjustly convicted being said to have been Tumalth. At any
rate, the Yakimas, having escaped by means of a secret trail and returned
to their own territory, the spirit of vengeance was satisfied.
The bodies of the dead soldiers were sent to Vancouver for burial, and Sheridan and his forces were sent back on the steamer. Colonel Wright ordered some of his men, under Major Lugenbeel, to build a large blockhouse at the upper cascades on the hill above the store.
Three hundred Indians had carried on the attacks and had captured and held the cascades settlements for three days, had taken the lives of more than a score of persons and had wounded as many more, had destroyed hundreds of dollars' worth of property and had terrorized communities as far away as The Dalles and Portland.
Most of the material from which this article was taken is contained in the collection of D. A. Brown of the Skamania County Historical society, to whom I am much indebted for his kindness in lending it to me. The society on May 30, 1927, dedicated a memorial blockhouse which is a replica of the old Middle Blockhouse and which stands a few hundred yards from the site of the original, which was washed away in the flood of 1876.
I wish also to acknowledge assistance from George H. Himes, curator of the Oregon Historical society.
© Jeffrey L. Elmer