Curry’s Volunteers

This letter from General Wool is remarkable for its transparency in revealing the actions and decisions of Governor Curry of Oregon. General George Law Curry was a two-time governor of Oregon and in control of the territorial militia. Common histories of Oregon suggest that Curry “led” some 2500 of his volunteers in the Yakima Indian war in support of the federal troops. Wool’s letter below reveals this to not at all be the case in December of 1855, instead Curry declines the assign his troops to the federal authorities, has Col. Nesmith command about 350 of them in some sort of support role to the federal troops as they encounter the Yakima and Klicktats. the tribes escape over the mountains in the snow and the federal troop must retreat to the Dalles. At this point, there is no suggestion by Major Hall that the volunteers saw battle. Then the report suggests that the volunteers moved to Fort Walla Walla where they are to encounter the Walla Walla tribe because of erroneous reports the Peo-peo-mox-mox had attacked and ransacked the fort. Wool shows that the rumor is not at all true and reports that the skirmish that does erupt, likely over the capture of Peo-peo-mox-mox who is under a flag of truce, results in the death of the great chief and his companions.

It was well known that the volunteer militias were not well controlled by their commanders and many times when they captures tribal people, most of the males would be killed. Tribes on the Rogue River refused to surrender to the militias because this was well known, and they instead surrendered at Fort Orford to federal authorities. the letter does not encompass the whole of the Yakima war so clearly later Curry would have had a chance to lead his volunteers, perhaps even a larger force, but Wool clearly places the blame for further aggression from the tribe in the lap of Curry and Nesmith who commanded and led forces which caused an unnecessary conflict with peaceful peoples.

It is also the case that many of these attacks by volunteers are planned and engineered to cause the tribes to react with violence, giving them “reasons” for federal and territorial troops to capture and punish the tribes involved. This is how the Mexican-American war began and we see numerous attacks by militias on tribal villages in Oregon, Washington, and California, in veiled attempts to exterminate tribes that do have the desired effect, causing a massive confederated tribal response and ending up in a “war” for the record books. This then becomes a strategy to legally take tribal lands, legally commit genocide against “lawless savages”, and not give them federal annuities under ratified treaties, which does occur on many occasions.

It is the territorial government that is taking these actions and this letter clearly indicts George Law Curry and James Nesmith for the murder of numerous native individuals. It was well known that they would never be blamed nor see a trial for killing savages. Since history books were written to extol Curry’s virtues, I would suggest they were successful in covering up their illegal actions against peaceful tribes. James Nesmith himself becomes an Indian Superintendent of Oregon in a short stint following his service in the militia.

In March 1856, there as an attack on the American settlements and forts on the Columbia. this is a coordinated attack by Klickitat tribes, and others to try to drive the white men ways from the Columbia. It is not successful. the cascades rapids attack is the most egregious and from that attack some nine Cascades chiefs are shot or hung in a battlefield execution based on little evidence. This series of attacks may be the result of Governor Curry’s actions.

December 25, 1855

I have already reported after the repulse of Brevet Major Haller which created great excitement and alarm in Washington and Oregon, lest all the Indian tribes should combine and come down at once upon the settlements. Major Rains called upon Governor Curry of Oregon, for four companies of Volunteers, which were not required as I shall presently show, but which the Governor refused, because, as he said, Oregonians would not serve under the command of United States Officers; at the same time instead of furnishing to the United States Four companies he ordered out a regiment of Volunteers, all mounted, whose operations were to be exclusively under the command of Territorial Officers.

Major Rains entered upon his expedition against the Yakimas, and six companies of volunteers followed under the command of Col. Nesmith. The Major met the Yakima some seventy miles from the Dalles, and, after several skirmishes with them, they fled over the mountains, some forty miles distant to the Yakima River. The Major could follow them no further on account of the snow, then rapidly falling, being several feet deep on the intervening mountains, and commenced his return, during which he passed over mountains covered with snow two to five feet deep. He left the greater part of his command of regulars, on the 20 November, about 25 miles from the Dalles, to build a block house, and arrived at Vancouver on the 24th.

Chief Peo-peo-mox-mox

It is said that the proud and haughty Chief of the Walla Wallas, Pui-pui-mox-mox [Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox], had plundered and burned Fort Walla Walla, McKay’s and Brooks & Bromford’s residences. This I supposed to be true, hence my remark in my letter of the 13th instant, that I thought Joel Palmer Supt. Of Indian Affairs in Oregon, was mistaken in his opinion, that Pui-Pui-mox-mox, was not hostile to the whites- Since which I have learned to my entire satisfaction that he was right, and that Pui-pui-mox-mox was for maintaining peace. This opinion is affirmed by the reports of the Volunteers of Governor Curry’s sent by him against the Walla Wallas. It would seem that unbeknown to Major Rains or myself, Governor Curry when he authorized or ordered Col. Nesmith to follow Major Rains in his expedition to Yakima Country ordered Four Companies in the direction of Walla Wallas. Four companies under Major Chinn took post at the Umatilla, and there waited re-enforcements. After the return of Col. Nesmith from the Yakima Country, he ordered several companies to re-enforce Major Chinn. During this period of more than two weeks, although the Volunteers reported more than 1000 Indians at or near Fort Walla Walla, they were not attacked nor molested by these Indians. As soon as Major Chinn was re-enforced and with Lieut. Col. Kelly in command, the Volunteers moved into Walla Walla but found no Indians there. From thence they moved up the Touchet River where they met Pui-Pui-mox-mox and three others with a white flag. He said he was for peace, and would not fight, and if his young men had done wrong he was prepared to make restitution. He was taken prisoner by Lieut. Col. Kelly and sent to the Volunteer Camp, when a skirmish took place with the Wallas wallas. During the engagement, this proud and haughty chief with his companions was killed. The skirmishing was kept up for several days with no great loss on either side, and until the Indians crossed Snake River taking with them their women and children.

The result I think of this expedition will be to unite all the tribes in that region against us, except the Nez Perces, who still remain friendly and will probably continue so.

John E. Wool

Leave a Reply