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The Madera County Indian War of 1870

Interaction between the Native Americans and European pioneers in what is now Madera County was tense in the 19th century. Today, many lay the blame for the uneasiness at the feet of Major James Savage, Indian trader and head of the Mariposa Battalion. Seen here is Savage’s tombstone, erected by his friend, Dr. Lewis Leach. (Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society)


The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Little Big Horn, the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee, the Mariposa Indian War — all of these are well known encounters between Native Americans and Europeans, as the American frontier moved inexorably west.


While these and countless other battles have been recorded, the Indian uprising of Madera County has for the most part escaped the scrutiny of historians. Nestled away in the archives of the Fresno Expositor is the story of a conflict that would rival actor Kevin Costner’s exploits in “Dances with Wolves.”


On Aug. 24, 1870, Expositor publisher, J.W. Ferguson, reported that a Mono medicine man, angered by the grievances of his people, set out alone to search for wisdom from the “Great Spirit” in the mountains. Upon his return, he was alleged to have made contact with the “Divine Being” and informed his band that “at the appearance of the new moon, the Whites were all to die, together with their cattle, sheep, hogs, and all the Indians in the service of Whites also.”


The result was a “general skedaddling of all the Indians in the employ of white men, and for “several days rumors flew that the Indians were about to commence hostilities against the Whites.”
The publisher of the Expositor, while entertaining doubts as to the veracity of the reports, nevertheless admitted that the possibility of danger was “plausible.”


Within a week the paper raised the anxiety level all over the county. Recanting some of its past optimism, editor J.W. Ferguson maintained, “The Indians are certainly acting strangely. They have abandoned their camps at all points and, with their women and children, have gone far back into the mountains, a course usually pursued when violence was anticipated. Everyone was urged to remain in a state of readiness.


So the whites armed themselves and did not venture out into the countryside alone. The Native Americans, expecting an attack, prepared likewise, and each group viewed the other through jaundiced eyes. One store clerk in Millerton, having been called on to serve in the local militia, stole out of town on the midnight stage thanking his lucky stars that he had gotten the news in time.


The “Madera County Indian War” finally came to a head in Crane Valley (present day Bass Lake), and not a shot was fired. It was decided the Indians should have a powwow with the whites there to delve into the cause of the present friction. J.M. Ault was chosen to interpret to the assembled representatives of both groups. The newspaper reported over 50 whites attended as well as a larger number of Indians.


The principal chief of the bands, which resided in the foothills of what is now Madera County stated they had never contemplated any difficulty with the whites. They contended that while their gardens had been destroyed by stock and other wrongs had been inflected upon them, they preferred to suffer rather than raise a difficulty, and that they wanted peace, but should the other Indians see fit to raise a fight, they would stand by the whites.


In an interview after the meeting, Mr. Ault gave the opinion, “There is not a particle of danger of any trouble; the reports were gotten up by parties who had stock in the mountains, with a view to frighten away others so that they might have more pasture room.”


So the great Madera County Indian War fizzled out, thankfully. Throughout the remainder of 1870, tensions eased. The Indians returned to their camps and took up employment once again on the ranches of their former employers.


While unfounded stories of Indian depredations continued to circulate, no significant credence was given to the rumormongers. The two cultures, Native Americans and European, continued to coexist in the foothills of Madera County.


As for the young store clerk who fled at the height of the scare, his courage was directly proportional to his distance from Millerton. It was reported that once he was in San Francisco, he repeatedly related his “hairbreadth escape” from the jaws of disaster to his wide-eyed neighbors.
The capacity of the human mind for fantasy once more proved to be a marvelous thing.