Pioneer Profiles – August 2017

Ross Lane, which meanders through the Valley floor just north of Jacksonville, demarcates some of the former land holdings of Colonel John England Ross.

Ross, who gained his title and his reputation as an Indian fighter during Oregon’s various Indian wars, is an enigmatic character. His first marriage was to a half-breed member of the Menominee tribe in Illinois. And by virtue of his military authority, he at one point solemnized the marriage of one of his lieutenants to the daughter of a famous Cayuse chief. Yet he was consistently chosen or volunteered to lead militias organized to deal with “Indian troubles.” He earned his initial military ranks in the Cayuse War, fought and was wounded in the Rogue Indian Wars, and served in every principal engagement of the Modoc Indian War.

Born in Ohio in 1818, Ross immigrated with his parents to Indiana and then Illinois. At age 22, he married 16-year-old Margaret Robinson. Her mother Cateche or Cynthia Sashos was considered an “Indian princess.” Her father, Alexander Robinson, was well known in the Chicago area for mediating disputes between settlers and Indians, accepting tracts of land as payment and amassing sizable holdings in the process.

Ross may have received some of these holdings as a “dowry” and added to them as well through land negotiations, a skill learned from his father-in-law. In 1888 his Chicago tracts were valued at $2,000,000. But when Margaret was suddenly taken ill and died just eight months after their wedding, Ross lost interest in settling disputes and in farming. He sold his land holdings for a nominal sum and headed west.

In 1847, Ross, a natural leader, captained a 40-wagon train headed for Oregon by way of Fort Hall and the Snake River. At that time the Walla Walla Indians were “disposed to be hostile.” When near John Day’s River, the Ross train encountered a company of emigrants who had had their goods, clothing, and cattle stolen.

According to his 1878 memoirs, Ross remained with them for several days until other wagon trains arrived. He traded his clothing to the Indians for salmon and split peas; hired an Indian to hunt for their cattle; and gave the women his blankets, “keeping only a buffalo robe for cover from the frosty night.” Ross became known for such gestures of selflessness throughout his career.

Having given away almost all of his goods, Ross was destitute when he reached The Dalles. He had borrowed $2.50 from an old lady to “buy biscuit” to sustain him en route. At The Dalles, Ross hired-out to a man who had a boat to transport emigrants down the Columbia River. Ross rowed the boat for thirteen days at a dollar a day, working sometimes half the night, sometimes all night, and sometimes in the rain.

Finally arriving in Oregon City in November 1847, Ross found a job as a butcher. However, he barely had his knives sharpened when the Cayuse War broke out one month later. When the Territorial Legislature called for volunteers, Ross joined the militia as a mule skinner. His fellow soldiers elected him 2nd Lieutenant and subsequently Captain.

After the war, Ross briefly returned to the butchering business but by August of 1848 was running a mule-powered threshing machine, the first threshing machine in Oregon. But when news of the discovery of gold in California reached Ross that autumn, he took his mules and headed for the Sacramento Valley.

Ross learned to “wash out gold” at Feather River, moved on to what is now Placerville, and in the spring of 1849 joined old companions near Coloma. During a trip to town for supplies, the five miners who had remained at the claims were killed by Indians and thrown into the river. Ross raised a company of 20 Oregon men and went in search of the Indians.

At a nearby camp they took about 130 Indians including women and children as prisoners. Two of the young boys directed them to the camp of those who had murdered Ross’s companions, but the Indians had torched their camp and fled.

According to Ross’s memoir, the Indians had been trading with a man named Hastings who had a store in the hills above Coloma. Hastings had given one of them a pass to show that he was “a good, friendly, trusty Indian.” The “band of murderers” were surprised while holding a great feast, and 14 of them killed. When Ross later saw Hastings, he asked him if he had given that pass. Hastings said he had. Ross then told him that he had countermanded that pass and would so countermand him if he ever gave an Indian, another.

Ross and party arrived at Coloma with 150 captives. Five Indians were selected for trial, but when brought before their jury, they broke and ran. One plunged into the river and escaped. The other four were killed. The place where the five men were murdered was afterwards known as Murderers Bar.

From there Ross prospected at Yankee Jim’s Diggings, Wambo Bar, and then the South Fork of the Yuba in company with James Poole, one of the founders of Jacksonville. Ross returned to California in 1850, one of the first party of white men to ever hunt for gold on the Klamath.

Shortly after finding gold near Sawyer’s Bar, Ross and his companions had their horses stolen by Indians. During the raid to retrieve them, Ross sustained a thigh wound. The horses were briefly recovered but the Indians again captured the animals.

When Ross’s party finally found their way, entirely destitute of provisions, to the Salmon River, they were found by a party of prospectors. Two of his party had become insane from hunger and thirst. Ross himself had carried a captured crow for three days, expecting to be obliged to eat it. In this case, “eating crow” would not have been a humbling experience but rather a means of survival.

Next month: Mining, more Indian troubles, Jacksonville, and a second marriage.