LEAVES FROM THE PAST: FORT MILLER

by

June English



 
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Mexican soldiers and captive Indians from the coastal missions ran away to the interior valley to escape punishment and bondage. Mexican troops were sent to look for the deserters. Later, the Californios raided the villages on the west side to capture the children to help care for the huge families of the landed Spanish (25 children was not uncommon) and to work in the fields and help butcher the cattle for their hides. Resentment of the Spanish settlers on the coast built up to the point of revenge. There was open warfare. Runaway mission Indians led raiders to the ranchos to steal the horses that the valley Indians had grown fond of eating. Shortly after the American influx, there was a good market for stolen horses with the American frontiersmen. American and Canadian trappers working through the valley had little trouble with the Yokuts. As late as 1850, the Indians were helpful to any stranger in their land, except the Spanish and Mexican-Indian soldiers from the coastal settlements.


Jeff Mayfield was a very small boy when he, his parents, and two older brothers camped at the site that later became Fort Miller. He related to Historian Frank Latta, in the few weeks before his death, his life in this country. One of his earliest memories is of seeing a ferry boat being constructed by two men at the San Joaquin River adjacent to an Indian village at that spot. He and the Indian children played in the ferry boat and here he was taught to swim by the Indians. It was here that all the supplies the family had were washed away by a sudden rise of the water in the summer of 1850. He told of the food the Indians freely gave them or they may not have survived the following winter. He probably knew the Indians of this region better than any other white man and he claimed (as have other white men who knew them in the early days) they were honest and good and faithful friends. Six months later all the white men, excepting the Mayfield family, were considered enemies by the Indians. Perhaps that is why the older Mayfield men were not listed in the Mariposa Battalion roster, although they fought the Owens Valley Indians (Paiutes) in 1862.


Gold had been discovered in the Sierra Nevada as far south as Coarse Gold Gulch (Texas Flat) in the foothills and in the San Joaquin River by 1849. Before January of 1851, the miners had begun to arrive, first a few and then more came, men who were determined to wash the gold from the streams and rivers of this region. Territorial rights of the Indians meant nothing to the white men. They went where they wished and took what they wanted upsetting the ancient laws and rights of the inhabitants. The Indian men were forced to work as slaves and the women were taken. The Indians retaliated. They raided the isolated mining camps, killed any miner they could find and finally, in spite of the influence of James Savage whom they feared and respected as a great medicine man and chief and for whom they labored at his command, some of the tribes or villages banded together and the Mariposa Indian War had started.


Wiley B. Cassidy had asked for trouble by his treatment and contempt of the Indians and he was killed near the site of his Fort Washington on the San Joaquin River that had been constructed for protection against the wrath of the Indians. The story of his station and the people concerned with it will be the subject of another story.


The miners asked the governor for help and official permission was given to form an armed force and the subsequent volunteer army was called the Mariposa Battalion. The Indians who mined for Savage suddenly disappeared and his trading post was attacked and several of his clerks were killed. Because of his knowledge of the Indians, their languages and customs and his desire to recoup his losses, he accepted the command of the Battalion.


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