The Okanagan Lake Massacre

There were many Americans who wanted to travel overland from Washington and Oregon to the Fraser River gold diggings. However, the route was hazardous because the United States was in the midst of a war against the Palouse, Yakima, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene Indians. Over a thousand soldiers were involved in the “Indian War of 1858” which lasted from May to September.

Herman Francis Reinhart arrived at The Dalles in June 1858. The Dalles, about 160 miles up the Columbia River from Portland, was a “lively place” with “cutting and shooting and fighting all over town”. The government would not allow small parties to venture north because of the military conflict so Reinhart decided to join Major Robinson who was forming a company of 300 men with plenty of arms, ammunition, horses and mules and provisions to go to the Fraser River. Robinson’s first attempt at getting through Washington with 175 miners was unsuccessful.

At Fort Simcoe, sixty miles northwest, the miners were organized into companies A, B, & C with about 300 men in total. Each company had lieutenants and a captain. Reinhart joined Company A which consisted of 56 men. Company B was mostly Californians and Company C was mostly French. They started out with a train of over 700 horses and mules.

While most of the group was fearful of the Natives, nearly all the miners who came from northern California saw the Natives presence as a hindrance. Reinhart described what happened when they reached Okanagan Lake.

“Our advance guards saw some Indians just leaving their camp and cross the lake in canoes for fear of us. The [miners] saw a couple of their dogs at their old campground, and shot them down, and they saw some old huts where the Indians had stored a lot of berries for the winter, blackberries and nuts, fifty or a hundred bushels. They [miners] helped themselves to the berries and nuts, filling several sacks to take along, and the balance they just emptied into the lake, destroying them so that the Indians should not have them for provision for winter. I, and a great many others, expressed their opinion that it was very imprudent and uncalled for, and no doubt the Indians would retaliate. But they only laughed and thought it great fun to kill their dogs and destroy and rob them of their provisions. Most everyone but those who had done it disapproved of the whole affair…

We traveled along the lake all day and camped on the banks at night. Every morning after we left camp some Indians would come across the lake in canoes and look over our campgrounds to look if we had left or thrown away anything (sometimes we threw away old clothes, hats, shoes, shirts or old blankets or crusts of bread or meat, and they would come and get them after we left).

That morning the advance guard planned to punish the Indians if they should come to camp as usual after we left. So right after breakfast some 25 men concealed themselves in a gulch close to camp, and the train went on as usual. We were passing along a high trail close to the lake and we soon saw three or four canoes start to come across from the other side, with seven or eight Indians in each canoe, to go to our camping place. I had gone with the train [about] one and a half miles, when we heard some shooting. I stopped to listen and counted over fifty shots.

In the course of half an hour our advance guard that had formed the ambush came up to us and related how they were all lying down in the gulch, to be out of sight, and they got to talking to each other…[when] the Indians landed and were coming towards the camp right to where the white men were concealed. They had no idea of danger from the whites… when the Indians were within eight or ten feet…[the miners] all raised and made a rush for the Indians with their guns and pistols all ready to shoot. As soon as the Indians saw the whites, they were so frightened that some turned back and ran towards their boat, some fell down on their knees and begged for them not to shoot, as they had no arms at all, and they threw up their hands and arms to show that they had nothing. But the whites all commenced to fire and shoot at them, and ran out to the lake after those who were getting in their canoes, and kept on shooting till the few that got into the canoes got of reach of their guns and rifles. And lots jumped into the lake was shot in the water before they could swim out of reach of their murderers—for they were nothing else, for it was a great slaughter or massacre…for they never made an effort to resist or fired a shot, either gun, pistol, or bow and arrows, and the [miners] were not touched, no more than if they had shot at birds or fish.

It was a brutal affair, but the perpetrators of the outrage thought they were heroes, and were victors in some well-fought battle…There must have been 10 or 12 [Natives] killed and that many wounded, for very few got away unhurt. Some just have got drowned, and as I said before, it was…a deed Californians should ever be ashamed of…

About a week after the Indian slaughter…[one of the advance guards] brought in two Indians. A mass meeting was called and the Indians were questioned by an interpreter. They were friendly Shuswap Lake, British Columbia Indians on their way to [Fort] Colville in Washington Territory…At first our men were for taking them out and shooting them right off for spies, expecting we would be attacked, but they kept denying it and said they were good peaceable Indians…

At last we came to the conclusion to take them back with us as prisoners to Shuswap Lake, and took their arms from them and always kept guard over them…

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