Letter from Lt. August V. Kautz in Fort Orford to Gen. Joseph Lane in Washington, D.C., 1855

Fort Orford, O.T.

Dec. 1st, 1855

Dear Genl.:

Agreeable to promise, I write you, and I think it will take about a sheet of this size to hold all I have got to tell you. I returned a few days ago from my expedition to Fort Lane after a trip varied with adventure and hardships more than I bargained for when I set out.

I left here on the 1st of October, and succeeded in satisfying myself that a road can be made from here to Fort Lane with some expense. I had set out with ten men armed with axes only, and we had a guide making twelve of us.

On the 14th we reached Big Bend and learned from peaceable Indians that the bands in the valley had broken out into a war. So I abandoned the axes and went back for guns to arm my men with. I relied but little on the rumor but I thought best to prepare.

I had given up all hopes of seeing any Indians and had reached within six miles of the Oregon Road on the divide between Grave Creek and Cow Creek on the 25th ult. when I suddenly ran right into a large encampment of them on a high knoll on the top of a spur of the divide. I was not certain that they were hostile until they fired into us.

We were ready for them and fought them for half an hour, my men were raw recruits and knew nothing about Indian fighting and were considerably "flustered," and the guide he wanted to back out so I had difficulty to keep them to the mark, but suddenly the Indians got upon our flank, and three shots in quick succession from our right killed two of my men dead, and the third knocked me over, when the rest broke and all h_ll would not have stopped them.

Fortunately a small memorandum book in my right flannel shirt pocket prevented the ball from penetrating, and I jumped up immediately and tried to rally my men but it was of no avail, I could not even get them to drive off our animals and I was compelled to make a "glorious retreat" with the loss of two men, all my animals, and provisions and "traps."

Night favored our escape; we doubled on the Indian camp and got down upon Wolf Creek and going up it we reached the "Six Bit House" which we found abandoned but were fortunate enough to find a few potatoes and a little butter which served to help us on to Grave Creek where we found a stockade around Harkness and Twogood's stand.

There were about ten men there who were thrown into a great excitement by our approach, and if we had not called out to them they would have fired into us for Indians, from which you may infer the state of affairs.

I then learned the particulars of the war, and how the troops and volunteers had been scouring the country (up and down the high roads) for two weeks and had not been able to find an Indian.

I immediately dispatched an express to Maj. Fitzgerald at Evans Ferry; it was two o'clock at night when we got in and the next evening he arrived. On the 27th I went up with him to the ground where I had lost the two men and found their bodies and buried them.

The Indians had moved their encampment about three miles, back from the spur to the main divide. We had seventy men and intended to fight them but when the Maj. saw the camp which they had abandoned, he came to the conclusion that they were too strong for us and we marched back to Grave Creek as though we had not discovered them, though they saw us.

Here we found Capt. Smith who had arrived with some additional men. Expresses were sent out to all the volunteer forces and the Capt. sent to Fort Lane for more ammunition, arms and provisions enough for a fifteen days campaign. As they intended to organize a regular expedition, I concluded that I would join them and when they had driven the Indians off my trail I would return to Port Orford by the way I came, so I proceed to Fort Lane and fitted out my party anew and was back again in three days. Maj. F. had returned to the fort sick.

I wanted them to take the howitzer but no one at the fort would take the responsibility of taking it along, and I was also astonished that Dr. Crane did not accompany us, but he said he would not go without Capt. Smith's orders. When I returned to Grave Creek I begged of the Capt. to send for the Dr. and for the howitzer; he said it was too late, that we would have to do without them. I replied that late or early he would send for the doctor anyhow, and that he would wish he had the howitzer before he was done.

My experience had taught me that it would be no child's play and I also felt that the Indians would make a stand, yet they prepared for the fight as though they expected the Indians to run and that the great difficulty would be to get the red devils to stand.

When I reached Grave Creek all the troops had arrived. There were about two hundred and fifty volunteers under Col. Ross and about 130 regulars under Capt. Smith. A beautiful plan of battle was agreed upon. One detachment of volunteers was to occupy the divide on the west; another was to start out from the Six Bit House and take position on the north, and Col. Ross with the volunteers was to come in on the south and all were to wait for Capt. Smith to make the attack on the east.

We set out about 12 o'clock on the night of the 30th and moved along with as much precision and silence as could have been desired at first, but the nearer we got to the enemy the more careless and noisy they were.

When we got upon the ground where I had met the Indians, Col. Ross was to separate from Capt. Smith. The party that had to occupy the west had already left us. I pointed out to Capt. Smith the position of the Indians, the course he was to take and the way Col. Ross must go, and as it was already daylight I urged the necessity of going on rapidly.

Col. Ross thought he had better wait until the other party had taken position on the west, and the Capt was anxious that the only two officers he had with him, who had indiscreetly filled their canteens with brandy instead of water, should get sober, and they delayed an hour and a half or two hours.

In the meantime the detachment that was to occupy the north came in behind us on our trail; they had mistaken their trail, and adopted ours. It was a cold foggy morning, and the men started up fires to keep warm. I pointed out the position of the Indians to the Col. and the Capt. but they said they could see no Indians and they did not believe there was any Indians there.

No sooner however did the smoke curl up between the trees than the hillsides were covered with Indians driving in their stock and preparing for battle. It was now too late for a surprise, but I again urged the Capt. to move and not delay any longer. He said he should move immediately.

But before he got started a party of "harum scarum" volunteers got the start of him and led the way down into a deep gulch some fifteen hundred feet which intervened between us and the enemy. Instead of complying with the plan of attack agreed upon and going around on the ridge the Capt. followed them, leaving his train and Lt. Alston, who was not yet sober. Gibson made out to follow.

By the time we got up with the Indians, we were very much used up and the plan of attack was effectually knocked in the head by the fourth party joining, so instead of having surrounded the Indians we were all together. In the first meet the Indians gave up their position. One of ours was killed and several wounded, and this one dead man won the battle; two thirds of the men never got past this one dead body.

The Indians took up a position just beyond a sink in the ridge that protected their squaws and children who were moving to their rear, along the main ridge. The north side of the ridge was covered with heavy growth of fir timber and thick undergrowth, the south without trees but a dense brush of hawthorn, hazel and oak. Totally unfavorable for a charge, but the most desirable for flanking.

Some thirty or forty men succeeded in advancing to the brow of the knoll the Indians had abandoned and which they commanded now, where we kept up a fire quite sharp for three hours or more when we gradually hauled off and before night it had ceased.

The rest of the troops were behind and occasionally fired at those of our men in front who had the courage to advance towards the Indians. Everything was "helter skelter."

Capt. Smith and Col. Ross were behind taking care of the wounded. At night we hauled off down on the hillside about four hundred yards into a little gulch where the Indians had got their water from some dirty little springs. I begged the Col. and the Capt. not to camp there, they thought it was a bad place, but still they camped there. I had represented during the afternoon to the Capt. the necessity of either moving back to our train, or else to send for it to come up as we had nothing to eat since the night before and no blankets. Neither was done, and we hovered around little brush fires, cold and hungry, the sides of the little gulch so steep that we could scarcely find room for the wounded.

Things were very gloomy. I never was so depressed in my life. I felt certain that the Indians would attack us and if made in the night with a proper skill would complete our overthrow. Everybody felt this so much so that when a tremulous volunteer on post accidentally pressed too hard upon the trigger of his revolver and off it went, so did everybody else for the brush, stumbling over the wounded, whose shrieks could be heard above the tumult.

One sleepy volunteer, when the stampede (began), started out of his sleep, snatched up a musketoon and cracked away at what he conceived to be the enemy and wounded two of his brother volunteers, one mortally, and a third slightly. Old Doctor Henry called them to order and explained the difficulty and thus settled their nerves.

At daylight the Indians came down upon us. The attack however was not well sustained, and after several hours firing they hauled off in consequence of the arrival of a company of Willamette volunteers who were very anxious to fight, and I supposed that the attack on the Indians would be renewed now that the force was considerably increased, but instead they packed up the wounded and moved off and we did not reach Grave Creek until between two and three o'clock that night, having fasted for fifty hours, and had no sleep for three nights.

Thus (illegible) fifteen days expedition for Capt. Smith returned with all haste back to Fort Lane, and the volunteers were billeted out to various (illegible) in the valley. We lost ten killed and twenty-seven wounded, several of these were killed and quite a number of the wounded were shot by our own men. The Indian loss of course not known; I do not think that they could have more than four or five killed and wounded, but if we are to believe the statements of all those in the fight there is scarcely a man that cannot give the particulars of how he killed one Indian "certain, sure." I believe I had as good an opportunity as any in the fight and I can't say that I killed one.

I don't believe that the Indians numbered over seventy warriors in all; the volunteers say however that there was three or four hundred; when I ask them where they came from, they cannot make over a hundred and fifty supposing that all the hostile Indians were there that are in the valley, and at the same time they assert that there are other bands in various other portions of the valley that could not have been in the fight.

It is asserted however that they have reinforced their ranks very much from the coast, but I happen to be posted up on the subject and know that there could not have been any coast Indians present.

The unpleasant truth is that the whites were cowards, that they were whipped out by one-fourth of their number of Diggers, and had it not been for thirty or forty good men the rest would have broke and run, and they would have caught h__l.

As it was some did break and never stopped until they got through the Canyon 25 miles distant the same day the attack commenced, and some thirty or more men came in to Jacksonville express from Col. Ross, and never returned.

The great secret of the failure is that the volunteers expected the regulars to do all the fighting, whilst the regulars were expecting the same thing from the volunteers. I do not think much of the conduct of the officers, nobody attempted to lead the men, and I don't think that Col. Ross or Capt. Smith attempted to fire a gun. There was a want of confidence all around.

On the morning of the 1st of Nov., when the Indians attacked us (which attack was made by about twenty Indians according to my estimate), Capt. Smith was as usual attending to the wounded and Col. Ross did for once show that he was in command by standing down in the gulch and quoting all the gallant speeches that had been made from the Revolution (illegible) such as "Stand your ground men and don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes and know he is an Injun."

Altogether it was an affair that I would never boast of and no one shall even know that I was there or had anything to do with it, unless he gets it from somebody else. I had no one under me except five, my men who would have abandoned me five days before had I been so badly hurt as not to pack myself off. I determined to leave them to fight their own battles and took advantage of my orders "to return to this post as soon as possible," to leave them.

It is a war they have brought on themselves; the Indians are fighting in self defense and they fight well. I have every reason to believe that it has been gotten up expressly to procure another appropriation. I fear you paid them too well for their meritorious services of '53. War is a money making business.

When I left they had nearly a thousand troops in the field and I venture to say they will get whipped again notwithstanding the comparatively small number of Indians, unless they fight.

Capt. Smith wished me to stay and promised the affair should be differently conducted. He felt that it was all wrong and acknowledged it. As I prophesied, he sent for Dr. Crane before we had come up with the Indians 20 minutes and he would have given anything for the howitzer. I told him that there must be more courage displayed all around or he would get whipped again.

I returned in time to relieve the people here who were in the greatest consternation at my prolonged absence. The whole country is one grand stampede; even in Portland they kept a night watch. There have no doubt been several fights before this, and the steamer that takes this away will no doubt bring us the intelligence from the north as well as the south, of some big fights.

With regard to the road from here to Fort Lane, it is quite practicable and will cost no more than the other roads in the territory that have been appropriated for. I shall complete my drawings and report as soon as possible and it will no doubt reach Washington by the middle or last of January. I must close or you will never read this. I hope I shall hear from you.

Very Respectfully Yours &c

August V. Kautz, U.S.A.

Hon Joseph Lane,

Washington D.C.

P.S. Dec 15th I enclose a hasty map that may be of service to you. I shall get my maps and report of the road ready by the 1st of January. They will reach Washington about the middle of February. We have had no steamer for more than a month is the reason this letter has not gone off; she is expected in the morning. Please send me one of Preston's maps as soon as they are out. We have no news of the war since my return. Very severe weather for six weeks back. K.

Lieutenant August V. Kautz, Joseph Lane mss 1835-1906, Lilly Library, Indiana University

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