Nicholas Day Saves the Umpqua Indians

The following story appeared in the Oregonian in 1900. Nicholas Day was an Indian agent who was hired by Joel Palmer to manage the Umpqua Indians. Day took his job seriously at a time when there was much unrest in the region. The Rogue River Indian war was raging through southern Oregon with many settlers killed. The military force is a command of volunteer militia under the Oregon Territorial government who were activated and ordered to go to Rogue River to assist in the defense of the settlers in the region. During this period there were many feelings expressing in the newspapers that all Indians should be exterminated and so we can see here the result of such encouragement. The thought was that if they exterminated all Indians there would no longer be an Indian problem.

Day presents other details about the lives of the Umpqua Indians that addresses their lifeways. He says they ate fish and camas and tarweed seed. This is a result of their prairie environment and of the great salmon runs in the Umpqua River. This food equation may be unique for the region. Then there is mention of the Flournoy, Coles and Lookingglass valleys, smaller areas of the Umpqua prairie, There are in fact Umpqua Indians who identified with these valleys suggesting that there was three divisions in the tribe. In fact, a few individuals took the name Flournoy in the 1855 Umpqua census. So the account does reveal a lot regarding suggesting the tribal arrangement and food systems of the Umpqua Indians. The Umpqua Indians here are a generalized label given to Yoncalla and Upper Umpqua peoples who were living on the reservation until removal.

Note Flournoy, Lookingglass, and Coles Valleys, and at Coles valley was the Umpqua reservation, these named locations were likely sites of tribal villages

Proposed extermination of Umpqua Tribe prevented by one Man’s Grit and Determination

I am not a writer, and the following simple account of an adventure during Indian times in Douglas County must take the place of what some gifted historian might have handed down to posterity had the affair terminated otherwise. Nor am I impelled by any adverse feeling toward any one in giving these facts to the public, for I have never been boastful of the part I took, nor felt that any good end might be served by the criticism that a truthful recital thereof necessarily entails. But now that there seems to be a revival of interest in Indian affairs, and as almost all the actors are gone, I feel that I have been spared so long, being now in my 80th year, that I now may speak.

In the Fall of 1855. General Palmer, who was then Superintendent of Indian affairs in the territory. Issued an order to concentrate the various Indian tribes in Southern Oregon, at points upon their lands, for the purpose of removing them to the Grand Ronde reservation, in Polk County, and I being personally acquainted with the General, he allotted this task to me, so far as it related to the Umpquas. Acting upon his instruction, I sent word by Indian runners, who promptly notified the Indians, and in a  very short time, and without difficulty, I gathered together practically all of the tribe upon a piece of ground on the banks of the Umpqua River, near its junction with the Calapooia Creek, about three-quarters of a mile below my house. An unusually hard winter having set in early, and the officials being engaged in the Rogue River War, it prevented moving the Indians, as had been intended, and they were left on my hands, with orders to issue to them a certain quantity of beef and flour each day.

They had been quartered in this way for some time, when Hay B. Flournoy, conceiving that the Indians were in the way of becoming hostile, resolved upon investigating the state of affairs, himself, and unattended he went to their camp and to Tyee William, the chief of the tribe. The Umpquas should not be confused with the Rogue River Indians, who were of a warlike nature, and lived principally by hunting, but, on the contrary they were peaceable and harmless, and lived almost entirely on fish and camas and the seed of tarweed, which latter the squaws would gather by first burning off the other grass and then shaking out the seeds into their aprons. When they got a handful, they would toss it over their shoulder into a sack. The seeds were of a good size, and the squaws called it wheat. The camas was dug with a pointed stick, only bulbs being used.

Felt no apprehension

This tribe, as I say never had the reputation of being warlike, and whatever alarm might have been felt at times over Indians in general, I felt confident that unless provoked to a great extent, or desperate for their own safety, they would never give any just cause for alarm.

Tyee Williams could speak but little English, and Flournoy could speak about as much Chinook, so their conversation was a mixture of both languages, supplemented by signs and gestures. Flournoy began by deprecating the war in Rogue River Valley, calling the white men bad and the Indians bad. Tyee, not divining his errand, launched into the all-absorbing topic of military tactics. This was probably the first opportunity he had had to give his views of the war, and, of course, he was highly interested immediately. He picked up an old dehammered gun, and, pointing it about, he indicated how the “masatchee bostons” (bad whites)  “pooh-poohed” (shot), and  then how the “masatchee Indians” “pooh-poohed,” and how he would “pooh-pooh”  them both and everything else, I presume, if he were there. Flournoy construed all this to be a threat to become hostile, and tried to dissuade Tyee not to go on the warpath, but, seeing that he made no impression on him, he actually offered him his cayuse ponies if he would not “pooh-pooh.”

Flournoy left, no doubt surprised at not being molested, and went through Flournoy, Coles and Looking-Glass Valleys on to Roseburg, where headquarters were maintained, spreading the alarm as he went, and imploring the settlers to fortify themselves, for the Indians were about to break out, if, indeed, they had not already done so.

A platoon of volunteers, under the command of Lieutenant ____, being a part of [Capt.] Jonathan Kenny’s company was at the time at Oakland, Or., marching south to take part in the Rogue River War. Oakland is on the Calapooia River, some 12 miles above its mouth, and “Jim” Patton and Charley Haight, who were sent as messengers to intercept them, directed the soldiers down the creek to where the Indians were camped. It was night when the messengers arrived, and it was agreed that the troops should attack that night. Ash and Jesse Clayton, two brothers living near Oakland, learned of their purpose, and, after trying to dissuade them., without success, mounted their horses and rode ahead of the soldiers to warn me.

The first intimation that I had of their approach was a vigorous knock at my door, in the early morning, and a hasty summons from the Claytons to get up for the soldiers were coming to attack the Indians. I was alone in the house at the time, but I determined to save the Indians at all hazards. I felt I could rely upon the Clayton boys, yet it was three against 40 or 50.

We had no time to wait, for the soldiers were then crossing the creek ford and ascending the bank upon which my house stood. When the foremost became aware of our presence, almost simultaneously we heard the rattle of their musket hammers, as they drew them back at full cock. I cautioned them not to shoot, as we were friends, and asked then what they were going to do. The spokesman answered that they were going to attack the Indians. I then explained to them that the Indians were in my charge and were not hostile or dangerous, but in spite of all my protestations and assurances they said that they had come to fight Indians, and, by G-d! they were going to do it. I tried to dissuade them, when some one said that I was a —— renegade, and was standing in with the Indians. This idea seemed to take with them, and they started to push on by me.

Straight to the point

I was by this time considerably nettled and indignant at the outrageous proposition to murder the defenseless Indians, and, while feeling that it was at some risk to myself, I determined upon a bold plan. I asked them who their leader was, and, being informed that it was one Kern, although I may have misunderstood the name. I directed my remarks to him, although he did not disclose his identity, and told him that what was proposed was a cowardly thing to do, and that I would defy him and his men to make an attack.

I don’t know all I said, but I became more fluent than on ordinary occasions. I didn’t so much address the whole crowd as that imaginary leader who failed to show himself. While abusing them roundly, I did not neglect to put facts before them, and, before long, had drilled it into them that the Indians were almost completely unarmed, and were the wards of the Government, under my protection; that I held myself responsible for them, and would go to the point of destruction to save them.

The Claytons, during this time, had not spoken a word, but followed along, their guns in their hands. I don’t know whether it was my eloquence, or that of those Kentucky squirrel rifles, in the hands of the Clayton boys, that brought the crowd to its senses; at any rate, when I proposed that they should go back with me to my house and put up their horses and wait till morning, when I would take a committee of their number and show them that the Indians were unarmed, some one suggested that they would practically hold me as hostage until what I said was verified. I agreed to that, and we returned to my house.

I was anxious to have a complete understanding with them, and also to have the Indians thoroughly understand the whole affair, so, as soon as daylight came, we went to the camp of the Indians and gathered up all the arms belonging to them, and, with 10 or 12 of the most prominent bucks, we started to Roseburg to lay the matter before the authorities.

I rode ahead of the soldiers, and the Indians just ahead of me, and I was just beginning to feel secure, when up rode old man Reason Reed to me, and, in great alarm, suggesting that the Indians might take it into their heads to run, and that then the soldiers would slaughter them. He was about to return to the soldiers and caution and implore them to use judgment and not shoot, but I headed him off, and compelled him to ride with me, and not say anything to them, under penalty of personal violence.

Had Desired Results

My threat was effective, and we proceeded to Roseburg, without further incident, and had a hearing before Colonel Martin. I expected to be more heartily supported by him and to have the instigators of the affair reprimanded, but in that I failed. However, the Indians were permitted to return, without further trouble, and unattended by soldiers.

I never could understand why they all appeared so lukewarm in rectifying that mistake that so nearly proved disastrous, but was privileged to learn later that Colonel Martin’s private opinion was regarding the state of the country, when he told me: “Why, the hills are full of hostile Indians, all about here.” I joked him about it, and he confidingly said: “Well we’ve got to do something to hold our jobs.” Colonel Martin was the author of the order, “to take no prisoners.”

The Indians were moved away to the Grand Ronde Reservation the following Spring, notwithstanding their great grief at being taken from their native haunts. That they felt great grief I know, for they told me, with tears in their eyes, that they would rather by buried where they were than leave the country of their childhood, and it was indeed a beautiful country then, with grass overtopping a horse’s back, and fish and game in abundance. Nicholas T. Day.

The Sunday Oregonian, May 6, 1900

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