Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
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Chapter II:


Mr. Baker wanted to come to the prairie and inform the people, but Manuel did not deem it safe for any of them to leave.


That there was also in the house, furniture consisting of 12 cane-bottom chairs, rugs (made from rags), one homemade lounge, six ordinary cheap paintings, one parlor stove, and one kitchen stove with fixtures. There was also in the house clothing for my husband, four children, and myself--clothing enough to last my children for three years. My husband was a good provider and kept us well-provided with clothes. There was also a library of assorted books, consisting of school books, Bibles, fiction, etc. On the Sunday prior to the outbreak my husband brought to the house two purses of gold dust--do not know how much was in them. There was also one gold watch and chain bought in San Francisco in the spring of 1863, one black enameled breast pin, two sets of gold sleeve buttons, one set of earrings, two gold crosses, which were all used from two to 14 years.


When all was still, I cautiously crept to the house under the cover of the night. August lay just as I had seen him fall. They had taken his gun and left his body unmolested. Satisfying themselves with the supper I had prepared, they had hurried on to other scenes of bloodshed and pillage. I could find no clue to my husband's whereabouts. I searched everywhere, and called his name, but could find no trace--only some blood stains on the window, as though he might have escaped through it.


He turned and looked at them, lowering his gun without a word. I shall never forget that look. There was prophecy in it. He knew that he was giving up his last chance.


It would make your heart ache to see little children walk here and sleep here for 36 hours [and] never cry except when you name Indians.


If you never see me again in this world remember that my love was strong to the end, and that I will wait for you in the next.


It was mid-afternoon on June 14 when the war party led by Yellow Bull made its first stop at the ranch of John J. Manuel on White Bird Creek. [1] The homesteader and his family were aware of the possibility of an attack and had just started for the ranch of a neighbor when the Indians appeared.

James Baker, a 74-year-old rancher who lived one mile southwest on White Bird Creek, was the one who had brought the news of the wounding of Samuel Benedict a few hours before. [2] Accompanied by one of his employees, Conrad Fruth, he reached the Manuel spread about noon. Baker intended to continue on to Camas Prairie to warn the settlers there, but Manuel convinced him that he would be safer if he stayed at home, and the old man returned to his ranch. Perhaps an hour later he came back, this time in company with Patrick Brice, an Irish prospector who resided near Warren. [3]

Manuel, his father-in-law George Popham, and the two men discussed the matter at length. The rancher was strong in his resolve to remain where he was, but Baker and Brice decided to try to reach Mount Idaho and soon departed. Near Thorn Spring on the White Bird Divide, they saw a band of Indians approaching and quickly returned to the Manuel ranch. After a hurried conference the men decided to take Jennet Manuel and the children and flee to the Baker place, since it seemed to be a much better place to defend. In an emergency his stone cellar might afford them the protection they needed.

Popham and Brice volunteered to stay behind and lock the doors, while the rest of the party started down White Bird Creek. Manuel put his six-year-old daughter Maggie on his horse, and their 11-month-old son rode with his mother. Baker took the lead. [4]

After they had traveled a short distance, they found themselves face to face with the marauding party. Baker was the first to fall. Bristling with arrows he raised himself long enough to gasp, "Goodbye, Jack, they've got me." [5] Manuel was the second victim. When a bullet struck him in the hip, he slid from his horse. Driving an arrow into the back of his neck, the Indians left him for dead.

Picking up the weapons dropped by Baker and Manuel, the warriors took the woman and her children back to the ranch. During the shooting Mrs. Manuel had lost control of her horse, taken a bad tumble, and damaged her knee. The baby had apparently received some minor injuries in the fall. As the result of the barrage directed at her father, Maggie suffered two arrow wounds, one in the upper arm and the second in the back of the neck, but neither of them appeared to be serious.

Surrounding the ranch house the war party gave Brice and Popham an ultimatum. If they would surrender their weapons, they would not be harmed. If not, the Nez Perce would get them sooner or later--after the white men were dead. Believing that it was useless to resist, Popham and Brice handed over a Henry rifle and a shotgun, and, true to their word, the Indians took them and left.

Mrs. Manuel remained in the house to care for herself and the children, while the men took to the brush. Some of the Nez Perce kept watch in the vicinity, and, fearing that the Indians might change their minds and finish the job they had begun, the men remained hidden but in close proximity to the house in case they should be needed. [6]

Earlier that morning Isabella Benedict saw her husband approach the house, and she saw that he sat his horse with difficulty. [7] Rushing to his assistance she found that he had been shot through both legs and was bleeding profusely. Sliding off his horse Benedict sought the shade of a large tree that stood in the yard and told his wife to send their older daughter to fetch "Hurdy Gurdy" Brown, his closest neighbor, who kept a store about three-fifths of a mile down the Salmon River. [8]

When Brown arrived Benedict related his story and warned his friend that the Indians would return to finish their work. He told Brown that he should be ready to defend his life and property as well, because the assault marked the beginning of an uprising. Brown, however, chose to discount the intelligence, since he knew of the bad blood between Benedict and some of the Indians. Convinced that the attack was an isolated incident and nothing more than a judgment rendered in payment for an old debt, he prescribed a cold water treatment for Benedict's wounds and returned to his cabin. [9]

Not long after Brown left, five Frenchmen arrived. They worked a mining claim on the opposite bank of the Salmon River and had come by boat. Unaware of the gravity of the situation, they had not brought their rifles with them. After hearing Benedict's story, the miners decided to return to camp for their guns, leaving one of their number, August Bacon, with the family. Isabella gave the Frenchman a fine breechloader to use in the event that the Indians arrived before the party returned. [10]

After the men left, Isabella went into the garden to find lettuce and onions for supper. As she returned to the house, she saw a band of Nez Perce approaching. Hurrying inside she broke the dreaded news to her husband, who lay on a bed in a small room that opened off the parlor. Telling her to flee with the children, Benedict prepared to meet his foe. Bacon moved to the front door with rifle in hand. [11]

Leaving by the rear door Isabella urged her children toward the back gate. Looking up she saw that she was being observed by some Indians on a hillside above her, and, realizing the danger of her position, she returned to the safety of the house. When she entered the room where her husband had been, she found it empty. Firing began. Bacon, who still stood in the doorway, suddenly lurched backward and slumped to the floor. The chance for survival appeared slim to Isabella as warriors began to push through the door. One Indian, however, took pity on the woman and her children and told them to leave the house and go to the Manuel place. Quickly Isabella guided the children from the house and hurriedly followed them to the bank of White Bird Creek and the protective cover of scene willows. [12] After watching his wife and daughters leave the house, Benedict had apparently crawled through the open window in his bedroom and limped toward a footbridge spanning White Bird Creek. It was there that his enemies found him. A volley from Nez Perce rifles tumbled him into the water where life ended. [13]

Crouching among the willows, Isabella and the children remained hidden from view while the Indians pillaged the house and store. Feasting on the supper prepared for the Benedicts, they gathered their loot, including a keg of whiskey, and departed. When stillness returned, Isabella slipped back to the house. She found no traces of her husband except blood stains on the window sill in the bedroom. Covering Bacon's body with a quilt, she collected a few trinkets and the little money that was left and began to work her way along the creek toward the Manuel ranch. [14]

After leaving the Benedict ranch, the war party headed down the trail to the store operated by H. C. Brown. Luckily for Brown he learned of the presence of the Indians before they were upon him. As he sat reading on the porch, he heard someone calling to him from the opposite bank of the Salmon. "The Indians are coming," the voice told him, and remembering Benedict's warning, he moved quickly. Shouting to his sister and her husband to head for the boat, he grabbed his hunting bag and rifle and climbed to the top of a high rock to survey the path leading up from the Benedict ranch. The Indians, he observed, were only a short distance away. Swiftly making his way down from the vantage point and back to the boat, he found his brother-in-law, Albert Benson, fumbling with the rope holding the skiff to its mooring. Taking his hunting knife, he cut the line as Benson scrambled aboard to take a seat by his wife. Brown shoved the boat into the current and leaped in, while Benson began pulling on the oars. They were not far from the bank when the Indians opened fire. One bullet cut a furrow in Brown's shoulder and a second hit Benson in the arm, but the boat soon glided out of range. Reaching the far bank the party disembarked, safe for the moment. [15]

About 2 p.m. on the afternoon of June 14, William Osborn rushed into the Mason store to tell his brother-in-law that the Nez Perce had murdered two Frenchmen on John Day Creek. [16] William George, French Frank, and old Shoemaker had just finished lunch and sat around the table engaged in conversation. [17] Harry Mason lay on a cot in one corner of the store. He had injured his eye with a whip while driving cattle and was sensitive to strong light. Mason seemed to accept the news calmly, since the killings appeared to be an isolated incident. After Osborn left, however, he began to clean and load his weapons. If there really were Indians on the warpath, he knew that he might expect unwelcome visitors, and he sent William George below to warn the families located between the Mason ranch and White Bird Creek. [18]

Before he had gone very far, George met a man named Koon, who told him of the wounding of Samuel Benedict that morning. George and Koon returned to the store to inform Mason of the new turn of events. This time Mason sent George directly to the Baker place. He was to tell the old rancher to gather his neighbors and seek refuge at the Mason store. Mason believed his buildings were more defensible, since they stood in the open, and there was a good place to hide the women and children on the mountain in back of the house. When George returned sometime later, he brought word that the settlers on White Bird Creek had agreed to make their stand at the Baker cabin and carried an invitation for Mason to join them.

About 6 o'clock in the afternoon, Mason, his sister Helen Walsh and her two children, Osborn, his wife Elizabeth and four children, and William George set out for the rendezvous point. Mrs. Walsh rode one of the horses and held her small daughter Masie on her lap. A second horse carried the older Osborn children and little Edward Walsh. The rest of the party started out on foot.

Passing the Benedict ranch on the opposite bank of White Bird Creek, Mason and his retinue forded the stream and approached the Baker cabin. Suddenly the night air rang with war whoops, and the travelers saw a war party advancing toward them through the twilight. The Indians called for the men to push forward and parley, but Mason refused and firing began.

Reaching the fence that surrounded Baker's garden and orchard, the besieged party entered the enclosure. Protected as it was from rummaging cattle, the grass grew high inside the fence and afforded a refuge from sight if not from bullets. The Nez Perce maintained their position but did not advance. They kept up a haphazard fire as the last rays of light fled from the narrow gulch.

Waiting until complete darkness shrouded them, Mason, Osborn, and their charges waded across White Bird Creek and found shelter in the thicket bordering the stream. Soon after, the Nez Perce left, and the fugitives decided to make their way back to the Mason ranch.

William George did not follow Mason when the firing began but started for Camas Prairie to find help. In the darkness he lost his way and returned to find the party on the trail leading back to Salmon River. George had been wounded by a stray bullet; the tip of his little finger had been shot away, and although it was a minor injury, it was a painful one. [19] Mason gave George instructions so that he might find his way to Mount Idaho without following the established trail, and he soon departed.

By the time the weary caravan reached the ranch, the sun shone brightly in the east. French Frank and Shoemaker were in the process of preparing breakfast in the midst of chaos. During the night the Nez Perce had paid Mason a visit and ransacked his buildings. Frank and Shoemaker had heard them coming and escaped with their lives by hiding out in the brush.

Mason's plan was to gather food at the ranch and cross the Salmon River to hide out during the day. After dark they would return to the east bank and attempt to reach Mount Idaho before daylight. The basement yielded some bread, cake, and cold meat, and each took a handful. The rest went into sacks carried by the men. While Shoemaker stayed behind to let out the calves, the rest of the party started for the boat landing near the Osborn cabin, which stood on the bank of the Salmon one-half mile upriver.

Just as they reached the bank of the river, the war party appeared. Hurrying to the cabin the refugees barricaded themselves inside. Mason went to the room in the rear and poked his Winchester through a crevice in the logs. He had a clear shot at the Indians and was about to pull the trigger when Osborn called for him to stop. The miner knew some of the Nez Perce and believed that there was still a chance to avert bloodshed. Osborn's wife repeated his words, and Mason relented.

There was no chance to parley, however. A volley from the Indians came crashing through the only window in the cabin. The three men rushed to the opening and raised themselves to return the fire, but before they could steady their weapons, a second volley sent them sprawling. Osborn regained his footing long enough to shout, "You devils you!" and then stiffened and toppled backward.

The Frenchman moved only once after he fell. Mason was not dead, but a bullet had shattered his right arm, and he bled freely. The Indians continued to send volley after volley through the window, and to escape the barrage the women and children took refuge under one bed and Mason rolled under the other. Sensing that their victims were helpless, the warriors crowded into the cabin. Helen Walsh handed her revolver to Mason, but he was too weak to hold it. "If I could only shoot," he moaned.

The intruders soon discovered the hiding place of the survivors. They were able to dislodge the women and children by jumping up and down on the bed. One Indian dragged Mason out by his shattered arm and began pulling him across the floor toward the door. "Oh shoot me," he cried as the pain shot through the arm. Pulling a revolver, the warrior obliged.

After venting their lust on the women, the raiders released them. [20] "You go now," one of the warriors told them. "you go Lewiston. you go Slate Creek. you go where you like." It was about 6:30 when the war party rode away, leaving the women to stare at their dead.

They decided to go to Slate Creek, because it was the closest, but before they departed Elizabeth Osborn insisted that she had to change her dress. Her husband was dead and she would wear black. Soon garbed in her mourning clothes, she trudged after Helen Walsh and the children, who took the lead. A few miles upriver they reached the Titman ranch. Taking milk from the deserted house, the women gave it to the children but declined to drink themselves. "As for ourselves," Helen Walsh wrote, "we did not seem to realize that we should ever want any thing."

While they were resting, Shoemaker walked in. Detained by the calves, he had arrived after the cabin was under fire. Taking to the river, he had stood in water up to his neck until the war party left. After conferring with the women, Shoemaker decided to push ahead to Slate Creek to get help. Putting little Annie Osborn on his back, he moved quickly down the Trail. It was not too long afterwards that a rescue party led by William Wilson reached the women and their trial was at an end. [21]

Mrs. Walsh and Mrs. Osborn found many settlers gathered at Slate Creek. Among them were Mrs. Elfers and her children, the Hiram Titmans, the E. R. Sherwins, and the Van Sickles, whom they knew as friends and neighbors. Before long there were perhaps 40 women and children and 30 men huddled together in a stockade built of heavy timbers. The night before an Indian squaw named Tolo had carried the word of the outbreak to Florence, 26 miles distant, and a dozen or more hearty miners had responded to the call. [22]

One of them was William Wilson, a man of military experience. He had served with the Second Missouri Light Artillery during the Civil War, and it was he who supervised the construction of defenses. A trench three feet deep soon encircled the buildings owned by Charles Cone. Logs about 12 feet in length slipped into the ditch and stood upright to become the wall of the stockade. Inside a stone cellar afforded a place of security for the women and children. A bluff to the east overlooked the fortification and posed a tactical problem, but Wilson solved it quickly. He ordered his men to dig a rifle pit on its top and posted sentinels who maintained a steady watch. Whether the Nez Perce came along the trail hugging the bank of the Salmon or took the high road along the canyon rim, it made no difference: the settlers would be ready for them. As an added precaution, each night the men removed the planks from the bridge that spanned Slate Creek, cutting off the possibility of a sudden attack from the north under cover of darkness. The river was running high during June, and its width and swiftness made crossing a hazardous undertaking. Feeling more secure the settlers and the miners settled back to wait and watch. [23]

Isabella Benedict and her daughter approached the Manuel ranch late in the evening on June 14. She passed the body of Baker on her way to the homestead and saw Manuel lying inside the fence. When she reached the house, she found Jennet Manuel and her children inside, and shortly afterwards Popham and Brice emerged from the thicket. Isabella learned that Jack Manuel was still alive, although he was badly wounded and might not survive the night. She tried to persuade Mrs. Manuel to accompany her to the safety of Mount Idaho, but Jennet refused. She he would not leave her husband. Because Isabella was afraid to make the trip alone, she had no choice but to stay at the ranch. While they were talking, six Indians rode near the house. Fearing for their lives, Isabella, her daughters, Popham, and Brice sought cover in the thicket. [24]

Isabella and the girls remained secreted in the brush on June 15. They had become separated from the men during the night, and when Brice called to Mrs. Benedict in the morning, Isabella mistook him for an Indian and refused to show herself. During the day, Popham and Brice ministered to Manuel in the grass and his wife and children in the house. Popham risked his life many times by exposing himself to the watchful eyes of Nez Perce sentries in order to care for his son-in-law. An Indian discovered Brice when he attempted to reach the house with water but allowed him to return to the thicket unharmed. As the day drew to a close, Isabella reached a decision. Whatever the cost, she must reach Mount Idaho. After dark she took the children and started up the trail. She thought that if she could reach Camas Prairie before dawn broke, she might have a chance. [25]

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Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003