Miners’ carelessness was costly
Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society One and a half years after Jim Savage led the first expedition in the Indian War of 1851, he was shot to death in Tulare County. His body was brought back to the Fresno River for burial. This monument was erected by his friend, Dr. Lewis Leach, to mark his grave. The site is now covered by the waters of Hensley Lake.
One hundred sixty five years have passed since the foothills were set aflame with the fires of vengeance by the murder of 3 men on the Fresno River and a posse of 74 men set out to exact the proverbial pound of flesh from a band of renegade Indians.
Led by Mariposa County Sheriff James Burney, the self appointed avengers left their gold diggings at Agua Fria and naively marched into what is now Madera County to engage the Native Americans here on their own turf. What resulted was the first battle of the Indian War of 1851.
When news of the December massacre at Jim Savage’s Fresno River trading post reached Mariposa, the nearest population center, 400 men impulsively threw down their gold pans and declared their intention to take up arms against the natives, but within two weeks that number had dwindled by more than three fourths. On Jan. 6, 1851, 73 miners joined Sheriff Burney, who was elected captain of the paramilitary expeditionary force, which included J.W. Riley and young Skeane Skeenes, the company’s 1st and 2nd Lieutenants respectively. Acting as guide for the group was mountain man, Jim Savage.
For five days the posse confidently followed Savage while he in turn traced the enemy. As one member of the group put it, “From his long acquaintance with the Indians, Mr. Savage has learned their ways so thoroughly that they cannot deceive him. No dog can follow a trail like he can.”
With complete confidence in their guide, the miners moved up the Fresno River on the evening of Jan. 11, 1851.
At about 1 a.m., Savage gave the word, “Halt, we are on the Indians.” Every heart beat just a bit more quickly as the men quietly unsaddled their horses and tied them to nearby bushes. Sixty of them were chosen to invade the camp with the remainder left behind to guard the horses.
Savage indicated the Indians were about six miles off and were engaged in a great feast. By 2 a.m., the posse was moving in single file along the rocks and bushes, through the deepest ravines and up steep and rugged inclines until they were within half a mile of the Indians.
Here each member of the posse took off his boots and then moved to within 200 yards of the camp. There they waited until daylight. Savage, meanwhile, crawled to within 10 paces of the rancheria and learned that their adversary included a group of “Chow-chil-las,” the most war-like tribe in California.
As time wore on, the men grew weary. They had been lying in their stocking feet on the cold ground for more than an hour. Almost frozen by the intense cold, they dared not to move or speak.
Then just as the light began to break, one of the Indians spotted the invaders and gave the warning. “Like a coyote, he turned for the rancheria, howling, whooping and yelling.”
Upon learning that they were discovered, the posse charged. Fifty rifles cracked, and almost instantaneously a dozen Indians lay groaning in front of their huts. The remainder of the band ran, and it looked as if victory in this first encounter was going to be swift and sweet for the miners.
As they were looking around the camp for plunder, however, a rifle shot from the bushes some yards distant dropped one of the posse. The whites were staggered; they had expected bows and arrows, not rifles!
One member of the posse, T.G. Palmer, recalled, “I had always entertained the idea that I could run as fast as the common man, but by the time I had collected my wandering senses, I was nearly alone, the majority of the party being some 30 paces ahead and running as if they never intended to stop.”
Jim Savage managed to overtake the retreating posse and had just about restored order when a pistol ball struck another of the men in the face. Looking up through blood-covered eyes, the man yelled, “If we stay here, we will all be shot.” With that, the retreat was on again as the posse sought the refuge of nearby trees.
The Indians once again took possession of their camp, and from a slight rise nearby, rained arrows and bullets down upon the posse from three sides. Suddenly Skeenes dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. Clearly the Indians had been underestimated.
Considering prudence to be the better part of valor, the posse prepared a litter for Skeenes and began an orderly retreat, but all down the pass the Indians followed and continued to fire from behind the trees. Finally after a flight of more than 6 miles, the miners reached what is now Ahwahnee and pitched camp. Sometime that night, Skeenes died, and he was buried on the spot.
The remainder of the story has often been told. After this first pitched battle, the Mariposa Battalion was formed to subjugate the Indians. Savage was elected as its major, and the natives were ultimately defeated.
By July, 1851, the war was over, and the indigenous population of Madera County was placed on the Fresno River Indian Reservation on what is now the Adobe Ranch.
Later, someone came back and erected a marker at Skeenes’ grave. Then in 1970, his remains were exhumed and reinterred in the Oakhurst cemetery.
Surrounded by a wrought iron fence, his tombstone outlines Skeenes’ demise as the first white man to fall in the Indian War of 1851. One has to wonder where they buried all the Indians who fell with him.