Some great reading about the gold rush years and Chowchilla Yokuts.
San Franciscans in the crazy Gold Rush year of 1850 were used to unusual sights, but even they gaped at the party that marched down Montgomery Street in the middle of October.
At the head of the group was a mountain man and Indian trader named James Savage. Tall, blue-eyed, with shoulder-length blond hair and a long beard, wearing his trademark red shirt, Savage was leading a group of Yokut Indians from the foothills near Yosemite, including two of his five wives and a chief named Jose Juarez. They were rolling a barrel filled with gold dust.
The two-week sojourn that followed was one of the odder chapters in the life of one of the most remarkable characters of the Old West.
James Savage was born in Illinois around 1817 and emigrated to California in 1846. His wife and young daughter died on the trip. After fighting with John C. Fremont’s battalion in the Mexican-American War, he established a store in 1847 on the Merced River near Yosemite, in Yokut territory.
Savage learned to speak several Indian dialects, made a peace treaty with the Yokuts and became the first white man to trade with them. He solidified his standing with the Yokuts not only by giving them presents, but by marrying five native women — the form of kinship diplomacy that California Indians had used from time immemorial.
The Yokuts respected and trusted him. According to Carl Parcher Russell in “One Hundred Years in Yosemite,” Savage “extended his influence until it amounted to something of a barbaric despotism.”
But Savage’s control did not extend to the Yosemite people, who inhabited the higher country and had avoided contact with the white interlopers. They attacked his store in early 1850 and forced him to relocate.
He opened trading posts in two new locations, on the Fresno River and Mariposa Creek, and employed 500 Indians to pan for gold. He sold goods from San Francisco to the Indians for the gold they found. An ounce of gold bought a pound of bacon; 5 ounces was required to buy a hat. Estimates of the profits he made from the Indian-mined gold were as high as $500,000.
As more and more miners encroached on Indian territory, tensions between the two groups grew. In the fall of 1850, one of Savage’s wives warned him that the Yosemite Indians were trying to persuade other tribes to rise up and wipe out all the whites in the area.
To forestall the attack, he decided to take Jose Juarez, a chief of the Chowchilla — one of the Yokuts tribes — to San Francisco to impress him with the power and numbers of the white people. He also took a few other followers and two of his wives, Eekino and Homut.
When Savage and his entourage reached San Francisco, they checked into the Revere Houseand embarked on a two-week spree of drinking, gambling and carousing during which they were, not surprisingly, “the sensation of the hour.”
Toward the end of their stay, Savage fell afoul of Juarez under murky circumstances. Several sources say Juarez got drunk and told Savage that his fellow Indians were going to attack the whites, whereupon Savage knocked him down.
Albert L. Hurtado tells a different story in “Indian Survival on the California Frontier.” He writes that Savage gambled away the money the Indians had entrusted to him and struck Juarez when he complained about it. Whatever happened, after the fight Juarez became aloof and distant.
Bad news back home
Savage and his retinue stayed in town for the huge celebration that marked California’s admission into the Union on Oct. 29. Then they started on their 200-mile trek back to his Mariposa trading post.
When they arrived, Savage learned that the nearby Indians were still threatening to attack. He called a peace conference at which he told the local Indians, “It is better for the Indians and white men to be friends. If the Indians make war on the white men, every tribe will be exterminated; not one will be left. I have just been where the white men are more numerous than the wasps and ants.”
Then he turned to Juarez for confirmation, but the still-brooding chief didn’t back him up.
“Those white tribes will not come to the mountains,” Juarez said. “They will not help the gold diggers if the Indians make war against them.”
While all this was happening, the federal government had dispatched Indian agent Adam Johnston to the area, hoping to prevent war. Johnston’s job was to buy time for the authorities to figure out what to do.
Johnston described the Indians he met as “wild and rather war-like … quite fine-looking.” He wrote that a Chowchilla chief had asked him, “This is our country; why do the Americans come here? They are good and brave, but they come upon the land of my people. What do they intend to do? I want to know, and must know, right now.”
After Johnston answered, the chief said, “Heretofore my people did not permit any stranger to pass over our country, or stop in it, except Mr. Savage — he made us many presents. If you will make us presents, too, you may remain in our country a while.”
Johnston gave the Indians a few presents. The chief professed friendship, but warned that he could not control other tribes.
On Dec. 17, just days after Johnston visited Savage’s Fresno River store, 500 Indians who had gathered nearby attacked, killing Savage’s clerk and two other whites and making off with $25,000 in cash and goods.
After several other deadly attacks in the area, whites organized a posse at the town of Agua Fria. To prevent a revenge-driven slaughter of the Indians, the new state’s governor, Peter Burnett, authorized the organization of a volunteer militia, the Mariposa Battalion. Savage was appointed major, commanding three companies totaling 204 men.
The Mariposa Indian war had begun. It was just one of dozens of similar conflicts that resulted in the near-genocidal slaughter of California’s Indians. Before it was over, one of the world’s great natural wonders would be discovered, and Jim Savage would lie dead — killed not by Indians, but by a bigoted white man who clashed with Savage over how to deal with the native people.
Next week: The strange death of James Savage.
|Chowchilla News Day
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