Modern history

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Chapter 16

A PERFECT BUTCHERY

On the morning after the Klamath attack, it was already decided: Fremont would return to California just as he’d been angling to do all along. His scientific expedition would metamorphose more frankly into a military one, and he would meld what he considered his own shining future with that of a soon-to-be-continental nation.

But before he could turn south, Fremont had another, less glorious matter to attend to—avenging the deaths of his three comrades. The Klamaths must suffer a terrible price, he vowed. It was a matter of honoring Lajeunesse and the two fallen Delawares, but it was also the principle of the thing: No exploring party, now or in the future, should ever have to suffer an unprovoked attack like this again. “For the moment,” Fremont wrote, “I threw all other considerations aside and determined to square accounts with these people before I left them.”

Fremont decided to make a northward clockwise circuit around the entirety of Klamath Lake, eventually intersecting with the others in his expedition party who were camped on the north shore. As he crept along the timbered shoreline, Fremont planned to search for Indian villages and exact retribution wherever he went. Carson had no problem with this course of action; his outrage over the loss of his old friend Lajeunesse was still keen. “The Indians had commenced the war with us without cause,” Carson later said. “I thought they should be chastised in a summary manner.”

That morning, May 10, 1846, Carson and the others wrapped the bodies of Denny, Crane, and Lajeunesse in blankets and slung them over the pack animals. Carson wanted to bury them in some nice spot by the lake near the main camp, where they had shovels to dig a proper grave. But as the party threaded through the thick timber, the now-rigid corpses kept thudding and smacking against the trunks of the trees, “becoming much bruised,” according to Carson. Realizing they could not in good conscience continue this ghoulish procession, the men scraped a shallow hole with their knives and solemnly buried their friends together, covering the grave with logs and brush to avoid detection. Fremont, exercising the explorer’s prerogative, named the nearby brook Denny Creek—a name it still carries to this day.

Fremont’s party resumed the march north. The Delaware Indians were the first to detect Klamaths in the bush. They took off in pursuit and in a few moments came the reports of their long rifles. Soon the Delawares returned, bearing two bloody scalps. “Very sick before,” one of them said. “Better now.”

They kept moving along the shoreline. Fremont picked Carson and ten other men to scout an area where he believed a Klamath settlement was located. Carson’s group surged ten miles ahead and soon found the hamlet. They crept up and viewed it from the cattails. It was a large fishing village, named Dokdokwas, built near a marshy place where the Williamson River flowed into Upper Klamath Lake. The village had more than fifty lodges and bustled with life: Dogs yapped, women wove mats out of the lake reeds, fishermen glided about in their dugout canoes. Fillets of salmon and sucker-fish dried in the curing smoke.

Suddenly the villagers became agitated, and Carson realized they’d spotted him. He called for an immediate charge, and although they were greatly outnumbered, the eleven men cantered across the shallows and raced into the now-swarming village. Carson’s small party fired away with impunity. Most of the Klamath men were out fishing or hunting, and those few present were armed only with bows and arrows. In a few minutes Carson and his men had killed twenty-one Indians. Frantically the surviving villagers scattered for the hills, and the Delawares slaughtered many of them in their hiding places. Some of the Klamath boys swam away beneath the water, breathing through hollow reeds.

It was, as Carson might say, a perfect butchery—by any standards, pure and literal overkill. “We gave them something to remember,” he said. “They were severely punished.” Although Carson claimed his men “did not interfere with” women or children, one of his men later wrote that he found at least one “old Indian woman” dead in a canoe. Klamath accounts of the attack on Dokdokwas insist that many women and children were massacred.

Carson then ordered the village destroyed. “I wished to do them as much damage as I could,” he later reasoned, “so I directed their houses to be set on fire.” His men fanned out and torched the Klamath lodges, semi-subterranean hovels made of mud and logs woven together with patterned reeds that, being brittle and dry, were extremely flammable. Soon the whole village was ablaze. It was, Carson thought, “a beautiful sight.”

Fremont saw the billowing smoke from a distance and raced to catch up. When he galloped into the burning village, the captain was sorely disappointed to have “arrived too late for the sport.” But he seemed immensely satisfied. Said Fremont: “It will be a story for them to hand down while there are any Klamaths still living on their lake.”

(True to Fremont’s prediction, the massacre at Dokdokwas is indeed a story handed down among the Klamaths—and it still serves as a reminder of what happened in their people’s very first encounter with an official party of Americans. The tribe never rebuilt what was then their largest fishing village; today Dokdokwas is a pristine and desolate swath of reedy shoreline, with no markers to indicate what happened there. According to historian David Roberts, who writes perceptively about the curious friendship between Fremont and Carson in his fine study A Newer World, the tragedy at Dokdokwas is deepened by the fact that most scholars now agree that Fremont and Carson, in their blind vindictiveness, probably chose the wrong tribe to lash out against: In all likelihood the band of Indians that had killed Lajeunesse and the two Delawares were from the neighboring Modocs, another lake-land tribe centered closer to the Oregon-California border. The Klamaths were culturally related to the Modocs, but the two tribes were bitter enemies.)

Later that day, one of the Klamath warriors returned to Dokdokwas and, realizing his village had been destroyed, drew a bow on Carson in the deep woods. Spying him, Carson raised his gun but it misfired. The Klamath was about to let his poison arrow fly when Fremont—riding a fearless gray warhorse he called Sacramento—glimpsed Carson’s predicament. He wheeled Sacramento and trampled the hapless warrior, whose arrow flew awry. Sagundai, a Delaware chief, then descended on the injured Klamath and pummeled him to death with a club. From that moment on, Carson felt he owed Fremont his life. “In all probability, if he had not run over the Indian as he did, I would have been shot,” Carson later said. “I owe my life to them two—the captain and Sacramento saved me.”

As Fremont and his men completed their long, brutal circuit around Klamath Lake, they continued to kill Indians in a desultory fashion, in ones and twos, but their anger was spent. Even Fremont had reached the bottom of his revenge. “I had now kept the promise I made to myself and had punished these people well for their treachery,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Now I turned my thought to the work which they had delayed.”

Fremont headed due south now, crossing out of the realm of the Klamaths and on into California. Yet as he and his expedition members dropped out of the Sierras and into the Sacramento Valley, they were nearly continuously hounded by Indians of various tribes—Yahooskins, Modocs, Shastas—whose warriors were clearly riled by reports emanating from Klamath Lake. Carson felt a constant hint of attack, an awareness that the party was being watched. At one point Carson suggested that they bypass a deep gorge where, he rightly suspected, Indians had planned an ambush. Some of those Indians followed Fremont’s party, however, and Carson decided to ride into their midst and flush them out. Suddenly one of them emerged from behind a rock. “He came from his hiding place and commenced firing arrows very rapidly,” Carson narrates in his autobiography. “I dismounted and fired. My shot had the desired effect.”

Carson was impressed by the warrior he had just killed and bore him no ill will: “He was a brave Indian, deserved a better fate, but he had placed himself on the wrong path.”

Carson collected the warrior’s “fine bow and beautiful quiver of arrows” and presented them as a souvenir to Lieutenant Gillespie. More accustomed to sea travails, Gillespie was exhausted by this nerve-racking existence and was dazzled by trail-savvy men like Carson, who seemed to have the stomach and aptitude for it. “By heaven, this is rough work!” he exclaimed to Fremont. “I’ll take care to let them know about it in Washington.”

But Fremont’s mind was elsewhere. He replied, “It will be long enough before we see Washington again.”

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