Don Shannon, Historian
Author of "The Utter Disaster," "Massacre Rocks and City of Rocks" and "The Boise Massacre on the Oregon Trail."
John Crancer – Please give us an overview what occurred here at Castle Butte.
Don – Behind me is Castle Butte which is a distinctive site on the south alternate route of the Oregon Trail and Castle Creek was a favorite camp ground of immigrants travelling this route. On the 9th of September, 1860 after the trail had been travelled for about seventeen years an immigrant wagon train of forty-four people, composed mainly of four families and eight wagons. They also had in this group of forty-four people five discharged soldiers whose enlistment had been up and they were mounted and armed by the immigrants to give them protection as they came over this route of the trail. They also had an eighteen year old deserter from the army who met up with them at Rock Creek at Twin Falls who was a bugle boy of Company ‘E’. Now this was the last wagon train of the season and there had been a cavalry escort in the area but the wagon trains before had convinced the army that there were no more trains coming along because this train led by Elijah Utter and Mr. Van Ornum had been travelling with a California train before so there was confusion on that part.
The Indians of the area knew that the army had departed for Fort Walla Walla so in the morning on the 9th of September after camping over night on Castle Creek the wagon train started forward. They were late getting started because Indians had stolen two oxen from Mr. Van Ornum. They had no more gotten started along here when they came across a person who had been killed by Indians. He was from a sheep train two weeks before. The Indians had come along and dug him up and taken his clothes and left him partially unburied. This unnerved the wagon trains.
Over to the left the immigrants continued along the trail and when they reached the high ground there was when they first encountered the Indians.
John – Tell us what the results of the attack meant in an historic perspective
Don – In the twenty years of the classic period of travel over the Oregon Trail – from 1843 until permanent settlements came into western Idaho in 1863 – this was the greatest loss of life to immigrants and the attacking Indians of any such encounter on the Oregon Trail in the Snake country of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho.
John – How many attacks were done on this?
Don – The survivors – there were only eleven people killed in the initial two day attack and the survivors travelled along the south side of the Snake River until they got to the Owyhee River in Oregon. After two weeks the Indians again found them and traded salmon for them and the Van Ornum family headed on down the trail and they were later caught at Farewell Bend in a meteor crater just on the hill by Huntington, Oregon and that was where the Van Ornum occurred. Out of the forty-four people over a forty day period, they were set upon by the Indians on at least five different occasions and only sixteen people survived.
John – How many locations relate to this massacre? Go through the major locations.
Don – The Utter train camped on Castle Creek on the eighth of September and as they went over the high ground, west of Castle Butte they first encountered the Indians and the Indians had been hiding in a ravine further along the trail on the west part of Henderson Flat and the soldiers, the ex-soldiers riding in advance on the horses had seen dust ahead and they went ahead and found the Indians hiding in a swell so Mr. Van Ornum who was leading the wagons that day saw the dust as they went over the high ground here and immediately had the wagons circled and they put the stock inside. The Indians came up on them, as was their want. They attacked many wagon trains in this manner to stampede the stock and try to have some of the stock run away so that they could gather the stock up later. They weren’t interested in really any great loss of life or anything. They were after the goodies of the train and primarily the stock. For over an hour or maybe two hours the Indians tried to stampede the stock and found that they we’re unsuccessful because the wagon train
John – Tell me how this relates to the circle of wagons and how it was one of the few successful attacks.
Don – The attack on the Utter/Van Ornum wagon train in September of 1860 was one of the few occasions where a prolonged two day attack on a wagon train occurred. Hollywood – this was one time that Hollywood sort of got it right. The wagon train was first attacked on the high ground to the west here and when the Indians found that they could not stampede the stock because the immigrants were in a strong position with their circled wagons they allowed the wagon train to continue on. The Indians expected them to head north down to the river to get water but the immigrants in the wagon trains suspected something was going to happen. As they went down to the western part of Henderson Flat down through a swell there was a sage brush as tall as a man along either side of the ravine and that is when the Indians started their ambush. Before they got down onto the Henderson Flat and the immigrants got their wagon train circled again with the oxen inside two men had been shot down and wounded severely and for the next day until the evening of the next day the Indians kept up their attack with more and more Indians arriving and some of them arriving with rifles and by the evening of the next day the immigrants knew they could stay no longer so they made motions to the Indians that they could have four wagons and they harnessed their oxen to the other four wagons and tried to head on down the trail with four of the surviving soldiers mounted to try to clear the way through the Indians and two brothers on foot who were no longer driving wagons – the Reeth Brothers – to go along with guns to try to clear the way. But the Indians would have nothing of it and they overran all the wagons and in the process more people were killed.
Mr. Utter the leader had been wounded severely. The immigrants abandoned the wagons, most of them with the little children got off to one side and Mr. Utter tried to plead with the Indians as they were over running the wagons. He was shot down. Mrs. Utter who had married him the year before and Mr. Utter’s three youngest children refused to leave his side. That’s when the massacre part occurred because they were wantonly shot down. The rest of the immigrants got away from the wagons and fled down along the trail but their ordeal was not over and over the next few weeks they faced more attacks, starvation and another massacre.
John – What does this disaster mean in historical perspective?
Don – There were only a half dozen of what you would call actual massacres along the Oregon Trail where massacre is unresisting, unarmed people being killed under circumstances of atrocity. The Ward massacre in 1854 was the first of those just two miles south of Middletown and three miles east of Caldwell. There were two other massacres in 1859 in southeast Idaho. The Sheppard Massacre on the Hudspeth Cut-Off and the Miltomor massacre at American Falls, and this again could be classified a massacre as to what beheld the unresisting women and children after the wagon trains were over run. The Bear River massacre – it used to be called the Battle of Bear River – but you had a number of Indian women and children also killed after the battle by soldiers who during the second year of the civil war were actually citizen soldiers from northern California who had pretty much exterminated the Indians in the period after the gold rush.
So fortunately there were only a half a dozen of such terrible adverse encounters although there were numerous attempts by the Indians to stampede stock. They had forced other people from wagon trains away from their wagons but only less than a half a dozen of what you would call massacres, fortunately
John – Where does the Utter Massacre rank as far as numbers and severity?
Don – There was a lot of lost on travel on the Oregon Trail. East of the south path whole wagon trains were wiped out by diphtheria, bad water holes and such. The Donner Party with their tragedy had greater loss of life so as far as the attacking Indians they estimated at least twenty Indians were killed in this two day attack here at Castle Butte and eleven people lost their lives during these two days. By the end of the forty days only sixteen people actually were rescued and survived and that included the one of the four captive children that were rescued two years later.
(At Starvation Camp site)
John – Tell us the story of what happened here along the Owyhee River with some of the survivors of the previous attacks.
Don – this is the Owyhee River flowing into my left here. Right below us is where the south alternate route of the Oregon Trail crossed over the Owyhee River. Now , survivors of the Utter massacre that happened over by Castle Butte on the 9th and 10th of September, 1860, ten days later arrived at this location. Twenty-six of them – many of them very young women and children – they had just killed an immigrant cow with the first shot they fired since leaving the massacre and they had enough meat to last them for a while so they decided to wait here in hopes of being rescued in some way or another. They were here two weeks when little Christopher Trimble fishing one mile down the mouth of the Owyhee River where it empties into the Snake River. He was fishing in the Snake River when a Snake Indian who identified himself as a Shoshone discovered him. The Indian left, came back with three others and traded fish for the clothing, whatever the immigrants could barter. Christopher Trimble went with the Indians back to the village which was across the Snake River and they came back three days later with a lot of fish and traded. They took the immigrants guns from them forcefully and gave them fish and called that a trade. They took Mr. Van Ornum’s blanket from them.
After the Indians left Mr. Van Ornum said, well we have enough fish here and his children were older so they decided to head on down the trail. Mr. Meyers’ family and Mr. Chase, Emily Trimble and her two little sisters remained here. Three days later the Indians came back with Christopher Trimble – they had fish and they traded for whatever clothes were left. Mr. Joseph Meyers asked Christopher just where that Indian village was and Christopher said well, why do you want to know? And Mr. Meyers said in case the soldiers come to rescue us we want to know where to get you.
Because of army expeditions previously here the Indians got very upset and concerned at the mention of the word soldier so they headed on back to their village and a short distance away there was a terrible noise of dogs and things and we believe it was then that Christopher Trimble was killed. The van Ornums headed on and the rest of the immigrants stayed here with no more Indians appearing and starvation stared them in the face. Eventually they were rescued but it was after four little children had starved to death and their bodies were consumed.
John – Give us an overview – the name of the camp and even a short overview of what happened.
Don – This is what we have called, historians have come to term the Starvation Camp. I think newspaper accounts sort of referred to it as that. It was identified as fifty rods upstream from the Oregon Trail crossing of the Owyhee and off to my left you can see where the Owyhee River bends, on the left hand side bends. It was in that area that the immigrants remained until awaiting rescue. They dug in the brow of the hill there which is mainly sand, two dug-outs in it and they put willow and sage brush over the top of it to provide shelter for themselves. There they awaited rescue.
John – How many were lost during this process and how long were they here?
Don – Yes it was forty days until they got rescued, until they were first attacked and they first reached here about the 19th of September and the Van Ornums left about two and a half weeks after that. So from the time the Van Ornums left until they were rescued was about another ten days to two weeks when the starvation of the small children occurred. When the Indians came the last time with fish Mr. Chase got a fish bone or got the hic ups during the night and he perished and died, so there was just Mr. Meyers with Mrs. Chase and thirteen year old Emily and Mrs. Meyers and all those little children.
John – What did they have to resort to here?
Don – They had to resort to consuming the dead for the living to subsist. They did this after much prayer and thoughtfulness but hunger had overtaken them so much they ate everything around – frogs, snails, snakes, anything. Moths, anything to survive and the terrible thought took over their minds that they had to consume the flesh of the poor little dead children to survive. It was flat cannibalism if you want to use that term although, what would you do in a situation like that? When rescue did arrive by Lieutenant Anderson with mounted infantry on mules they found over the fire by the Owyhee River meat cut from Mr. Chase’s body that was roasting. Lieutenant Anderson saw that over the fire, asked what it was, picked it up and threw it into the Owyhee River.
John – A desperate situation.
Don – Oh, indeed.
(At Van Ornum Massacre Site)
John – Give us an idea of where we are and what was found here in this crater area.
Don – Here in this meteorite impact crater between the town of Huntington, Oregon and Farewell Bend we some soldiers after a fast search for survivors of the Utter massacre over at Castle Butte, found gleaming in the moon light the bodies of Alexis Van Ornum, his son Marcus, the two Utter boys and a young man named Gleason. Mrs. Van Ornum was also found off to one side horribly mutilated and abused. The four young Van Ornum children – three girls and young Reuben – were missing and taken captive. Two years later Reuben Van Ornum was finally rescued through the efforts of his uncle and by the army in 1862 in November over north of Salt Lake City. This was more or less the tragic end of the Utter and Van Ornum massacre saga, however, Captain Fredrick Dent leading the rest of the army expedition continued on down to the Owyhee River and the starvation camp and found the rest of the survivors.
Of the 44 people involved in the Utter disaster and the multiple attacks by the Indians only 16 actually survived.
John – Give us the numbers of the folks who were found here again. Who found it and how many people did they find here?
Don – Second Lieutenant Marcus A. Renal leading a fast dragoon force discovered the bodies in the dark as he was heading back to their camp on the Burnt River. They found the bodies of Alexis Van Ornum, his son Marcus, Henry and another Utter boy and a young man named Gleason. Mrs. Van Ornum was discovered over to one side terribly abused and mutilated. The men had all their clothing removed and had been shot with arrows. The older ones had their throats cut. The four younger ones were taken captive, the Van Ornum children were taken captive by the Indians and the three girls eventually died in captivity. No one really knows the fate of two of them. Reuben Van Ornum was rescued through the efforts of his uncle, Zackias Van Ornum and the army out of Camp Douglas from Salt Lake City in November of 1862.That marked the end of the Utter disaster with out of the 44 people only 16 eventually surviving.