How an arrow wound kept Dr. Leach in the Valley


Madera County Historical Society

This photograph shows Dr. Louis Leach circa 1880. By this time he was no longer a pioneer doctor. In addition to being a physician, he was a prominent businessman and bank director.

For thousands of years Native Americans held a monopoly on the land that is now the San Joaquin Valley and the foothills that border it on the east.

They were free to hunt, fish, and grind acorns pretty much wherever they pleased. Then came the Europeans, and almost overnight life radically changed for the Indians. They were thrown into competition for the land and their lifestyle was up for grabs.

Everyone knows how it all turned out. The Europeans won and that drastically changed how the Indians lived.

What may not be so well known, however, is how an arrow wound kept one pioneer, Dr. Louis Leach, in the Valley and helped usher in that new way of life.

Dr. Leach was born in Pennsylvania in 1823 and moved to New York State as a lad of 13. In 1840, the tide of westward expansion carried him to St. Louis where he took up the study of medicine at the University of Missouri.

Graduating in 1848, he practiced in St. Louis for two years before starting for Salt Lake with a party of traders. There, he organized a company of a dozen men to push on for California.

Fifty miles west of Salt Lake, Leach’s party fell in with another train composed of 13 families, which had lost their way and were almost out of supplies. They asked the privilege of joining the single men, and Leach permitted it under the condition he, as captain, should have absolute authority over the combined parties. This was a wise precaution, as divided authority and failure to cooperate when the going got tough resulted in disaster for many an emigrant party.

Leach led the company safely across the Great Basin to the Santa Fe Trail, reached and crossed the Mojave River. There, the parties divided, the families proceeding to Los Angeles while Leach and the single men turned north to Antelope Valley and Tejon Pass.

Near the Kern River, they ran into a party of refugees from Woodsville, the earliest settlement in the Four Creeks country, not far from modern Visalia. Having escaped with nothing but their skins from a massacre in which John Wood was flayed alive, they were in danger of starvation.

Learning the Indians were on the warpath, Leach looked for a way to get around the troubled area. The only arms his company had consisted of a rifle, a shotgun, and seven pistols, not enough to stand off a raiding party, so he instructed the men to whittle out wooden guns, making them look as realistic as possible.

Presumably the ruse was successful, because the Indians stalked the party but failed to attack. Bristling with fake arms, the Leach Company moved safely northward.

They stopped at Woodsville long enough to bury the bodies of 13 settlers who had died in the Indian raid, then they continued toward the San Joaquin River. When they reached it, they had been without flour for 25 days and were almost at the end of their rice and salt pork.

The raw and primitive conditions of life on the San Joaquin coupled with what he had seen at Woodsville convinced Leach that the Wild West was not for him. He announced he would join the first passing party and return to civilization.

Somebody, however, asked him first to attend a boy who had been wounded in the Woodsville massacre and then made his way north. He was at the point of death with a gangrenous arm.

This challenge to his human sympathy and professional skill changed the course of Leach’s life. He had no anesthetics nor did he have any surgical tools. They had all been stolen or lost during the trek west. All that he had at his disposal was a wood saw and a jackknife. Wielding these primitive tools with the dexterity of a Harley Street physician, Leach amputated the boy’s arm, and then remained at his side until he was no longer needed. By the time that the youth was well, Leach changed his mind and decided to stay. He had thrown his lot in with the San Joaquin Valley. Incidentally, his patient lived through the operation and recovered.

Over the next four decades, Dr. Leach became a pivotal figure. He established what is now Madera County’s first hospital. It was located on the Fresno River. He operated one of its first stores. Fresno’s first water works owes its formation to Dr. Lewis Leach, as does its first bank. Dr. Leach was also crucial in forming Fresno’s first gas company, its first electric light company, and its first streetcar company.

When he passed away in 1897, his funeral cortege consisted of over 100 wagons and buggies, a fitting tribute to a pioneer whose contributions helped remove Madera and Fresno counties from their frontier buckskins and clothe them in modern garments.

Indeed, the Valley would have been a much different place had not trouble with the Indians kept Dr. Leach from wandering off.

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