When they reached Fort Hall in what would eventually be known as southeast Idaho, the leaders of the Oregon-bound Elijah Utter wagon train believed that the most dangerous part of their trek was behind them. Their fortunes would soon change dramatically for the worse, in large measure because of the involvement of the United States military.
The 44-member train assembled at a bridge crossing on the Portneuf River near an abandoned fur trading outpost in the late summer of 1860. Their ranks were increased by five recently discharged soldiers who offered their services as guards and scouts “in return for the sustenance supplied them.” Prior to this time the Utter Train, which originated in Wisconsin, had received an occasional military escort as it traversed lands coveted by Washington but still populated by Indians who had neither sold nor relinquished them.
Like other Euro-American emigrants, the members of the Utter Party confided in the ability of the US Government to protect them during their voyage to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This assurance was especially valuable as they confronted the prospect of crossing the Snake River plains, where major Indian attacks had occurred the previous year.
Historian Donald Shannon observes that “Although these assaults were made by Indians, each of them were led by or involved with white men.” Twelve emigrants had been killed, and at least twice that many wounded, in three separate attacks in 1859. Several other bloody episodes occurred in the weeks leading up to the arrival of the Utter Party, including a raid by the Snake Indians that wiped out a mining camp along the appropriately named Malheur River.
Vividly aware of the potential dangers ahead of them, the emigrants were delighted to receive a visit from Lt. Col. Marshall Howe, who had been assigned to supervise the main overland route to Oregon and California. Rebuffing their eager welcome, Howe imperiously commanded the train’s leaders to deliver a team of oxen to an elderly member of the party named Munson, who had decided that he wanted to join the California-bound train.
Like most expeditions of its kind, the Utter Train had a charter that established mechanisms for peaceful resolution of property disputes. Like too many others in similar situations, however, Mr. Munson enlisted the help of an official representing the State, which deals exclusively in violence. Howe was eager to intervene, using his visit to the camp to assess other goods he could “requisition” – that is, steal. His esurient gaze quickly fell upon the female members of the party – all of whom were pious and morally disciplined, many of whom were married.
Understanding the tactical value of distance, Howe returned to his encampment. The following day he dispatched a messenger “with an invitation to the women and girls of the train to attend a dance, to be held in the soldiers’ tent area,” relates Shannon in his book The Utter Disaster on the Oregon Trail. That overture, understandably, was firmly rejected. Howe’s response was to send a second, more sternly worded message that included a demand that the married women in the Utter party consort with his soldiers “in opposition to the wishes of their husbands.”
Howe was the sort of government functionary who believed that both oxen and women could be confiscated and redistributed as he saw fit. He regarded both private contracts and sacred marital vows as trivial impediments to the exercise of his State-conferred “authority.” In the interest of its own protection, the Utter Party was willing to compromise by allowing Howe to seize a team of oxen, but they weren’t inclined to pimp unwilling women out to his troops.
Inconsolably offended by such impudence, Howe “swore the train should have no military escort,” Shannon recalls. In the interest of creating a self-serving record for his superiors, Howe allowed a small party of dragoons to accompany the train for six days – and then turn back, leaving the party to its own devices.
Emeline Trimble, who kept a detailed dairy of the journey, recorded that some soldiers assigned to escort the Utter Party “apprehended danger,” and warned that “the train was doomed.” The Lieutenant in command of the escort was aware that the wagon train would almost certainly be destroyed, but obeyed orders he must have known were inspired by Howe’s personal grudge.
As the Utter Train reached Rock Creek, near the present-day city of Twin Falls, the Lieutenant advised the settlers that they were now out of the “danger zone.” Joseph Myers, one of the leaders of the expedition, noted in his journal that he “felt very bad as indications were ominous.”
This sense of impending disaster grew in crescendo as the emigrants continued west, eventually making camp at Castle Creek in what is now Owyhee County, Idaho, on September 8, 1860.
When the party awoke the following day it discovered that several oxen belonging to a man named Alexis Van Ornum had been stolen. The train proceeded a few miles before coming upon a grisly tableau – a freshly dug grave framed by a copse of trees from which dangled a collection of bones. Inscribed on the bones was a warning left by a wagon train that had been attacked thirteen days earlier. The shallow grave contained the mortal residue of a man who had been killed while trying to find some stolen sheep.
Obviously, the emigrants couldn’t remain where they were, and heading back wasn’t an option. The leaders still held out hope of reaching Oregon and linking up with a larger wagon train. The party proceeded another mile before encountering “about one hundred Shoshoni or Bannock” Indians, who as a group were called “Snakes.” Elijah Utter and Alexis Van Ornum quickly organized the train in the familiar circular defensive formation, passed out weapons and ammo, and awaited the inevitable siege.
Although outnumbered more than two-to-one, the Utter Train gave as good as they got for two days.
“It was certain death to an Indian if he showed his head as the defenders were all pretty good marksmen,” Joseph Myers would recall in his account of the two-day onslaught. Charles Utter, thirteen years old at the time, shot five of the attackers. His stepsister Emeline Trimble, also thirteen, defended the family’s wagon with a rifle and, at one point, with an ax.
The Utter Train was well-provisioned with ammunition and well-supplied with courage. However, they had no water, and the pitiless late summer sun proved to be their deadliest enemy. A decision was made to abandon most of the livestock in the hope that the Indians would focus on plunder and allow the emigrants to reach a nearby river. A half-dozen former soldiers who had joined the wagon train gallantly offered to act as skirmishers, keeping the attackers occupied while the main party escaped.Field Marshal Moltke famously said that no battle plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy, and the same proved true of the over-sold valor of the former military men who had joined the Utter Party. As the Indians surged toward the depleted train, the ex-soldiers acted on the priorities they had been taught in government’s employ. Shannon writes that the supposed protectors, who had been paid and provided with firearms at the expense of the Utter Train, fled on horseback “as fast as they could go, without firing a shot, making no resistance whatever, thus leaving the rest to the mercy of the Indians.”
The river was less than a quarter-mile from the train’s defensive corral. That distance might as well have been measured in light-years. After breaking formation the emigrants were overwhelmed.
During the two-day siege at Castle Creek, the Utter Party lost eleven people – one-quarter of its complement. Over the next forty days, the survivors would be pursued, harried, and picked off until only sixteen remained. Some of the survivors, including several children, continued along the Oregon Trail, reaching a spot south of what is now Nyssa, Oregon.
“After much hesitation, those who remained alive resolved to eat the bodies of the dead, with the hope of preserving their own lives until relief should come,” Shannon writes.
In words saturated with sorrow, the redoubtable Emilene Trimble, who had already endured enough hardship to last several lifetimes, described the death, by starvation, of “my darling little baby sister whom I had carried in my arms through all the long, dreary journey….”
Alexis Van Ornum and his wife were slaughtered in front of their children near present-day Huntington, Oregon. Their bodies were later found “gleaming in the moonlight” by a dragoon force under the command of Lt. Marcus Reno, who sixteen years later would head the only unit within the Seventh Cavalry that survived the Battle of Greasy Grass (or, as the losing side insists on calling it, the Little Bighorn).
The Van Ornum children were taken hostage. For two years the family sought the Army’s help in locating and freeing the children, but by then it was too occupied with the campaign to re-conquer the Confederate States.
Without material assistance or support from the government, Zacheus Ornum, the uncle of the four missing children, conducted his own search and – with the help of a volunteer unit – fought a successful battle in Utah’s Cache Valley to free the sole survivor, Reuben Van Ornum, in December 1862.
What became known as the “Utter Disaster” at Castle Creek was a prelude to the four-year regional conflict called the “Snake War,” an effort to subdue and assimilate the Paiute and Shoshoni bands in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada.
Government is the only human enterprise that profits from its own failure. Owing to its own native incompetence as much as Lt. Col. Howe’s petty vindictiveness, the U.S. government failed to protect the Utter Train from the predictable blow-back resulting from colonization and dispossession of the Indians. In equally predictable fashion, the government quickly capitalized on the massacre to escalate the conflict.
“Humanity, the obligation of the Government to the citizen and the general prosperity of Oregon and Washington, demand that prompt and vigorous measures be taken to inflict summary chastisement on these miscreants and for the future security of immigrants and the frontiers,” wrote Edward R. Geary, Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs, in a message to Colonel George Wright.
As news of the Utter massacre was propagated throughout the region, the Army made plans to retaliate against the Snake Indians, eventually compelling them to “submit or starve.” The problem, as Colonel Wright admitted, was that “We pursue an invisible foe, without a home, or anything tangible to strike at…. Victories can easily be gained over such an enemy, but they will rarely prove decisive.” This is why, he predicted, “the complete subjugation of this nomadic people will require some years….”
Nearly a century and a half later, following another September massacre that claimed a much larger number of victims, Donald Rumsfeld would offer a similar assessment. Striking back at al-Qaeda would be difficult, Rumsfeld complained, because there were “no decent targets in Afghanistan” and the elusive, decentralized enemy had “no return address.” Defeating the threat on the periphery of the American empire, according to Rumsfeld and his comrades and successors, would require nothing less than a “generational”conflict.
For people in the parasitical sector, the first rule of crisis management is: Find someone else to blame. The efficiency of the Bush administration in applying that principle is attested by the fact that not a single consequential official was fired or saw fit to resign in the wake of the epoch-shattering disaster that occurred on September 11, 2001. Col. Wright lived in a more primitive time technologically, his bureaucratic instincts were as well-developed as those of his 21st Century descendants.
“It will be recollected that I had reported complete success in the protection of the immigration route as one of the results of the summer’s operations, and that the Snakes had been driven from the region of country lying West of the Blue Mountains,” Wright wrote in a letter to Army headquarters following the Utter massacre. Pointedly underscoring the fact that the “large body of migration” had made the passage in safety, and insisting that they “owe their security unquestionably to the troops” under his command, Wright insisted that the victims of the massacre had only themselves to blame:
“Although the Commander of the Dragoon force on the road had not deemed it necessary to go as far on the route as the place [that was] probably the scene of the massacre in the discharge of his duty of escorting emigrants, this party would have experienced the benefits of his proximity and been safe, but for the convictions of the main body of the emigrants that there were no parties of emigrants in [the] rear, and their having communicated their convictions to the Officer in Command.”
This all-but-unintelligible statement seemed to accuse the Utter party of turning down a military escort – when it was Lt. Col. Howe who refused to provide them with an escort after the women in the wagon train refused to act as camp followers for his troops.
The men and women of the Utter Train were typical of the individualist settlers who surged westward at the invitation of the regime in Washington. Individualistic in outlook and industrious by nature, they were cynically exploited as icebreakers by entrenched, ambitious men carrying out the murderous enterprise in corporatist collectivism known as Manifest Destiny.
For those seeking to create a continent-spanning empire, the greedy and unscrupulous among the settlers were more useful than those who sought to deal honorably and equitably with the Indians. Those killed in the inevitable backlash were more useful still – martyrs invoked in war propaganda intended to overwhelm any misgivings about the righteousness of annihilating the empire’s implacable enemies.
Even today, more than 160 years after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the American Frontier, the Empire’s military emissaries use the expression “Indian Country” to describe any territory inhabited by people indisposed to be ruled by people in Washington who pursue Manifest Destiny on a global scale.