Excerpts from Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqaully: The Mashel Massacre of 1856 are in accordance with the Creative Commons License with the Bethel School District
Years before the treacherous day of the Mashel Massacre and prior to any pioneer settlements, the Mashel (or Me-Schal) Nisqually Indian people lived in the area now known as Eatonville, located in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. On March 31, 1856, where the Mashel meets the Nisqually became the site of one of the worst atrocities of the Puget Sound Indians Wars.
After Chief Leschi of the Nisquallys and other leaders defied orders to leave the area forever giving up their lands, Govenor Stevens gave orders to capture him and any others involved in the war. However, due to the shortage of US troops, Governor Stevens was authorized to recruit a territorial militia. These recruited soldiers and the regular army were under the direct command of Governor Stevens. In effect, Stevens formed his own private army. Some of them were local settlers. Others were settlers who came from lower counties and had enlisted in Washington after having previous experience fighting in the Cayuse Indian Wars. One of these men was H.J.G. Maxon. He enlisted in Vancouver and became the captain leading the “Washington Mounted Rifles” of the Washington Territorial Volunteers. Another soldier who enlisted with Capt. Maxon and served in the same company under Maxon is Pvt. A.J. Kane. Kane’s published journals gave vital details to Maxon’s actions during his scouts to the Mashel River. With no prior formal training, this mounted rifle company received orders on March 12, 1856 to protect supply wagon trains and arrest settlers aiding the Indians. Their orders also stated, “All Indians found in your field of operations… are to be considered as enemies.”
The First Scout: The Massacre
To conceptualize the gravity of the following events, the next two chapters are written in present tense.
James Longmire and other settlers had complained to the Governor that horses and cattle were being stolen from their farms on the Yelm Prairie. Maxon is told that the “thieves” are a large group of Nisqually Indians camped around the Nisqually River. Taking an unwilling Indian guide, who had been arrested two days prior, Maxon, Achilles, and their men leave the horses behind because of thick timber and hike south toward the Nisqually River.
After turning and traveling east, the soldiers encounter thick timber and continue to scout in search of Nisqually or any Indian encampment. At first, all they discover is one horse. Continuing on, they hope to locate an Indian camp close by. They surround the prairie but find nothing. Then, the soldiers head in the direction of a lake they call Olalley, most likely present day Clear Lake. Once there, they discover only footprints scattered among horse and dog tracks. After sending out scouts and again coming up empty, the soldiers decide to camp for the night and try again the following morning.
The soldiers start out again the morning of March 30th and head for a small lake, possibly Rapjohn or Mud Lake. Seeking any sign of Indian activity, the soldiers pass between these lakes and cross a swamp, advancing to the other side.
|Ohop Creek/Nisqually River confluence|
The next morning, March 31st, a portion of the command, ordered by Captain Maxon, continue to the confluence of the Nisqually and Mashel Rivers. Taking an old trail on the eastern side of the tabletop of the Mashel Prairie, they move down lower to the Mashel River. Once there, Maxon devises a military strategy for attack. To distract a family encamped on the Mashel; Maxon sends one of the Nisqually women, who had been captured the day before, to talk to them. She must have been reluctant, but the soldiers still held captive Nisqually children. Some of whom could be her own.
|Mashel River looking south|
There are several other small Nisqually groups trying to survive in this area. Some Nisqually are staying behind while others are on the move. It is a quiet morning, and the mist may still have been rising from both rivers. A Nisqually band numbering 40 to 50, including an old man named Skie-kie, has come here to hide and escape the fighting. They have journeyed down to the confluence where the Mashel meets the Nisqually to find safety and food. Here, eagles circle the air, and fresh water is plentiful. Salmon may have been migrating back to this place. Colossal trees, nestled right up to the edge of the river, hovered over the family. It was a hidden sanctuary cut deep into the Mashel Prairie. In this haven, some are fishing, others perhaps are finishing breakfast, and most are trying to keep things as normal as possible. But, it is not normal. It has been over a year since they refused to leave their lands. They are not in their normal long houses or fishing shelters and not eating their usually prepared camas or berry cakes. Out there, without the help of old friends and with most of their men away, they are on the run and, in desperation, resorting to butchering and eating horsemeat. They are refugees in their homeland. It is a far different existence then when they had been living near Muck Creek. All that changed when early fighting started, and soldiers sought to capture Chief Leschi. To keep the women and children from the fighting and to avoid capture, Leschi and his warriors had left for Yakima.
Earlier, on the same morning of March 31st, one Nisqually woman suggests the group should separate and divide into three groups to move faster. The larger Skie-kie band consisting of old men, women, children, toddlers, and babies decides to stay together. Two groups are formed instead. The now smaller second group of 15 to 20 women and children separate and leave camp to press on and follow the Nisqually River toward Mt. Rainier. They were possibly trying to reach what is left of the Lah-al-thu Nisqually Village near Elbe.
According to witness Robert Thompson, who claimed to be with Maxon at the time, when the shooting is over, about fifteen or more are murdered. “I saw the dead ones; two in the river. There were but two men among them.” The rest were women and children.
Tragically, one of first to die is Skie-kie. After identifying him and without any real proof, the soldiers justify his death by blaming him for the murders of two white men killed by rogue Indians a month prior in Thurston County. James Longmire recounts this Indian’s death in a different manner. “Maxon’s company hanged two Indians in the war of ’56. [Skie-kie] and his band…were encamped on the Mashel, a mile distant, in fancied security, when Maxon and his men surprised them and cut off every soul except the two prisoners whom they hanged here.”
After this vicious assault, Maxon, accompanied by his men, proceed back up to camp for breakfast. In his field notes, Pvt. A.J. Kane always stated if any Nisqually were captured in any of the encounters. No one is reported as taken alive from the Mashel River attack that morning. While still in camp, Maxon decides to send the women and children prisoners, who had been captured the day before, along with their horses to Ft. Stevens on the Yelm Prairie. The horses are reported in the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper as the stolen horses Maxon was looking for. Despite gaining back the horses, Maxon continues his pursuit.
|Up steam Mashel Prairie Wall|
Downstream, a splashing noise alerts the other detachment of soldiers to one of the fleeing Indians swimming in the Mashel River. They watch as the current sweeps him to shore, twenty feet short of escaping to the Nisqually River. As he regains his footing, a soldier takes aim and shoots him. His limp body falls back into the river. The soldier goes to retrieve the body but is alarmed by the sight of another Indian right at the fork. Fearing this additional Indian could be part of a larger group coming from upstream, the soldiers are ordered to fall back to the brush and re-load.
When no one else appears, the soldiers realize that there is no large group of Indians coming. They then move cautiously upstream searching both sides of the Mashel River. Catching up with the other soldiers that had divided earlier, they join them and begin marching along trails on both sides of the Mashel River. The soldiers search all night and into the next day, finally stopping at approximately 11 A.M. after coming to a dead end. After no other Indian trails are located, Captains Maxon and Achilles decide to take their men toward Ohop River hoping to discover another reported hostile camp. On the way, the soldiers find a recently abandoned Nisqually camp, which does not yield any new leads. They march again and cross the Tenook Creek (possibly Tanwax Creek) and make camp for the night. By the next day on April 2nd, Maxon, Achilles, the rest of the soldiers, and three male prisoners end up back at McLeod’s.
An Indian account from Nisqually leader Willie Frank Sr., whose father lived during this period, adds more detail and differs from Pvt. A.J. Kane’s version claiming that only eight men were gunned down:
Those Indians at the massacre, they were – up on the hill looking down at the place where the Mashel runs into the [Nisqually]. They said the soldiers came on them and the Indians all ran down the hill, swam across the Nisqually, and ran up the other side. In addition, the soldiers were shooting them from the top of the hill. There was a woman carrying a baby on her back and they shot her. She and the baby fell into the river and floated down…Some of the young got away- climbed up the hill on the other side of the river. I don’t know how many they killed, but there were a lot of them.
By the following Sunday on April 6th, Maxon delivers fourteen Nisqually prisoners to Olympia after having retrieved the eleven women and children from Ft. Stevens. Of the three men listed, two are the captured Nisqually men, and the third is the Indian man taken as a guide from the Yelm Prairie. The soldiers decide to use them as guides. One of the men took a cord, tied it around his neck, and hung himself. Suicide was not a common practice for a Nisqually. This man could have been distraught or believed it would be better to die than to be locked up. This was the first hanging of the two “old men” according to the massacre story.
James Longmire stated in his diary, “Indians were still stealing horses and cattle. A band of these robbers were followed by Capt. Maxon to the Mashel River where the last one was killed.”
Though Longmire believes Maxon killed them all, some of the Skie-kie family could have survived. During the 1850’s, the banks of the Mashel River contained large, old growth trees, blackberry bushes, and other underbrush. Nisqually Indians were taught from an early age how to escape and hide silently when attacked or raided. These teachings combined with the protective terrain could have shielded them from harm. Some could have survived by finding aid and comfort among other Nisqually who may have still been in the area. Still, some must have survived or witnessed the shootings in order for the oral traditions to exist to this day.
Even if only eight were killed instantly from gunshot wounds, the number must have climbed higher. In the moments, hours, and days later, some could have died from mortal wounds, infected wounds, or from the shock of seeing their baby or little child smashed to death against a tree trunk or boulder. Others may have died from attempting to escape across the rapid moving, frigid Nisqually River only to drown or die later from exposure. Though the newspaper Pioneer and the Democrat will proclaim “Southern Battalion Right Side Up: Complete Surprise on an Indian Encampment!” as a victorious battle killing eight “hostiles,” evidence indicates that the number killed had to be greater.
But this was not a day of battle between Nisqually fighting men and the soldiers of the “Washington Mounted Rifles.” March 31, 1856 was the day of the Mashel Massacre. After the single shot from a Nisqually Indian, there is no exchange of fire. No soldiers were killed or even wounded. There was no call or warning to surrender, only an order to “Close in” and attack. After the one shot, the Nisqually Indians did not fight. The old men, women, and children were running, hiding, or trying any means possible to escape. Prior to Maxon’s first scout to the Mashel River, an article in the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reported that the “horse thieves” Maxon was tracking down were a group consisting of “infirm old men, women, and children.”
Days after Maxon, Achilles, and the rest of the soldiers leave the area, A. V. Kautz, a lieutenant with the regular US Army, encounters a large group of Nisqually Indians camped and making fish traps near the Mashel confluence. Lt. Kautz states, “When we fell in with them, we learned that the Washington Territorial Volunteers had been before us, and with their immensely superior force had killed most of them regardless of age or sex.” Kautz captures around thirty of this remaining band of Nisqually but does not harm them. The Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reports that Kautz arrives at Ft. Steilacoom on April 12th with seven men and a group of sixteen women and children.
Even before Kautz arrives at the fort, Maxon is traveling back to the Mashel Prairie. This time Captain H. J. G. Maxon is familiar with the area where the Mashel meets the Nisqually.
Next Chapter "Second Scout: The Rest of the Story" to be loaded soon
Next Chapter "Second Scout: The Rest of the Story" to be loaded soon