Julie McDonald Commentary: White Settlers Flee to Blockhouses During Indian Wars


With white emigrants settling in the Pacific Northwest during the mid-1850s, Native Americans throughout the region faced huge disruptions to their lives and displacement from their traditional lands.

Gov. Isaac Stevens, who also served as the territory’s Indian Affairs superintendent, negotiated the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, which preserved native fishing rights but took away farmland. Nisqually Chief Leschi refused to sign it and chose to fight instead.

In October 1855, militia Captain Charles Eaton led his citizen militia, Eaton’s Rangers, against the Nisqually, which resulted in the deaths of two militia men, Joseph Miller and Abram Benton Moses. After the governor ordered the military to capture Leschi and bring him to Olympia, additional skirmishes occurred near what today are Tacoma and Seattle in what was called the Puget Sound Indian War.

On Oct. 28, 1855, in what became known as the White River Massacre, a party of White River, Muckleshoot and Klickitat natives (or alternatively Chief Leschi and his Nisqually band) attacked and killed nine settlers — members of the Harvey Jones, Will Brannon and George E. King families — and burned their homes. Three children escaped on foot, fleeing toward Seattle, but one 5-year-old boy was captured and kept for six months, according to Kathy Weiser with “Legends of America,” and a baby was kidnapped and never recovered.

In response, the militia captured about 4,000 Native Americans and kept them on Fox Island, where some died from lack of food, water and shelter, according to “Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History” by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown. The militia relocated Upper and Lower Chehalis to a farm near Steilacoom, the Cowlitz to a Chehalis River site and the Chinook to Fort Vancouver.

At the same time, to the south and east, in retaliation for what was called the Whitman Massacre — the Nov. 29, 1847, murders of Methodist missionaries Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 11 others at the Waiilatpu mission near Walla Walla — the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla were forced to cede more than six million acres to the United States government. Yakama Chief Kamiakin initially refused but eventually joined other native leaders in signing the Treaty of Yakama at Walla Walla June 9, 1855, which set aside about 1.5 million acres as a reservation for the Yakama.

At the time, Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens promised that white settlers would not trespass on tribal lands before the treaty was ratified, according to historylink.org.

But then gold was discovered in the Colville and Fraser River areas in what became known as Eastern Washington and British Columbia, drawing large groups of miners across the tribal lands to reach the gold fields. Along the way, some stole horses from Native Americans and mistreated their women, according to historylink.org, which prompted Yakama warriors to kill miners. After Indian subagent Andrew J. Bolon, who was investigating the attacks, was shot and killed at The Dalles in September 1855, Army Major Granville Haller, a noted Indian fighter, and his 84 troops set off for the Yakima Valley, where they engaged in a battle Oct. 5, resulting in casualties on both sides before Haller, greatly outnumbered, retreated back to The Dalles.

A month later, on Nov. 9, 1855, 700 troops led by Army Major Gabriel J. Rains marched against Kamiakin’s 300 Yakama warriors, but the Native Americans escaped, and the soldiers burned the Saint Joseph Catholic Mission after discovering gunpowder buried in the garden.

What does all this have to do with Lewis County?

News quickly spread about Indian uprisings, according to Mary Jane (Mills) Brown, an eyewitness to history who was born in 1838 and crossed the Oregon Trail in 1847. She wrote her recollections about what transpired locally when she was in her 70s.

“The Indians threatened us with war, and it was a miracle that we were not all murdered, but an old Indian by the name of Skleen (or Skloon) turned state’s evidence against the Indians, and the government ordered blockhouses and forts built,” she wrote.

The Washington Territorial Volunteers built 47 blockhouses or forts to protect settlers throughout the territory, and the federal government constructed posts while communities like Claquato and Grand Mound erected blockhouses of their own.

To the north, Fort McAllister, named for Lt. James McCallister, one of Eaton’s Rangers and a Nisqually settler killed during the Indian Wars, was erected at South Prairie in today’s Pierce County. Volunteers erected two blockhouses in the center of Olympia: one later became the city jail and the other was on the Andrew Chambers property. Also constructed were Fort Miller, named for William Winlock Miller, a territorial volunteer and Olympia’s first mayor, on the Tenalquot Prairie north of present-day Rainier and east of the Deschutes River; Fort Preston and Fort Raglan, both on the Nisqually River; and Fort Stevens on the Yelm Prairie, a supply depot.

At Grand Mound, or Mound Prairie, settlers erected Fort Henness, named for Captain Benjamin Lee Henness, a Washington Territorial Volunteer and early Tenino pioneer who lived nearby. The fort consisted of two blockhouses, a stockade, and huts. Its location is marked with a monument and diagram at 183rd and Apricot Road.

At Claquato west of Chehalis, residents erected a blockhouse and lived inside it for 16 months until they could safely return home. That’s where Chehalis founders Schuyler and Eliza Saunders fled with their children during the war, returning home only to discover their home, barn and fences burned, their animals killed, and all their belongings stolen or destroyed.

At Toledo, territorial volunteers erected a blockhouse with a stockade at Cowlitz Landing on the north side of the Cowlitz River, where life remained quiet despite the tension. However, Matilda Jackson, who lived at Highland Farm with her husband, an Englishman named John R. Jackson, refused to flee her home because her 14-year-old son, Felix “Grundy” Koontz, was suffering from white swelling of the knee and too sick to travel. “If the Indians kill him, they will have to kill me,” she said, according to her granddaughter Anna Koontz. Felix died Dec. 7, 1855. Residents to the south of Lewis County built Fort Arkansas on the Cowlitz River near Castle Rock.

On pioneer Joseph Borst’s land, Oregon Volunteers under the direction of Captain Francis Goff in early 1856 built the Fort Borst blockhouse at the Chehalis River crossing near the mouth of the Skookumchuck River, assisted by Borst and local pioneers Patterson Luark and James Lum. Borst hauled logs to the stream and floated them across the river where workers peeled, scored and hewed them to erect the blockhouse, which had only one door and no windows, just narrow slits on the upper and lower floors through which defenders could shoot attackers. Pioneers never sheltered inside the blockhouse, which was used primarily for grain storage to serve the military and militia. Borst later paid $500 to buy the blockhouse, which he and his wife, Mary, lived in for a while during construction of their two-story white house with green shutters. The blockhouse was moved to Riverside Park in 1919 and to its present location in Fort Borst Park in 1922.

But it was to Fort Henness that Elkanah Mills and Robert Brown headed with their families, where 30 families — an estimated 224 men, women and children — took shelter during the Indian War, according to Arthur Dwelley, author of “Prairies & Quarries: Pioneer Days around Tenino, 1830-1900.” The fort was never attacked.

“It wasn’t very long before we were on our way to be forted up at Grand Mound,” Brown wrote. “But when we got to Judge Ford’s place three miles northwest of Centralia, Judge was Indian agent and had little or no protection, so Father and my husband decided to move in and stay by Judge Ford. We lived there that winter, and I can tell anyone it was a scary time for me.”

Sidney S. Ford, with his wife, Nancy, their six children and a hundred head of cattle, had crossed the Oregon Trail in 1845. After a year in the Willamette Valley, the Fords along with Joseph Borst moved north of the Columbia River and, in March 1846, settled in present-day Centralia. Sidney Ford Sr. and his sons built a two-story cabin that served as the Lewis County courthouse and a stopping place for travelers heading to Puget Sound. He served as a justice of the peace, judge, county commissioner and county clerk. Like John R. Jackson, he was a delegate to both the Cowlitz and Monticello territorial conventions. Ford also was an Indian agent, Washington Territorial legislator and, during the war, a lieutenant colonel in the militia.

As Indian agent, he worked with members of the Cowlitz, Chehalis and Quinault tribes, many of whom lived on his homestead.

“Although the governor had taken all the Indians’ guns away from them, it looked to most of the people like they couldn’t hurt us, but I was afraid of those big bows and arrows,” Brown wrote. “They could kill grouse and pheasants with them, and I was afraid they would shoot the whites with them.”

Although the government had captured many Native Americans and relocated others, Brown wrote about a plot to kill her family and the Fords.

“At the time, the Indians were in quarantine by the government, and no hostile Indians were allowed to enter the camp, so they hatched up a lie and said there were hostile Indians lurking around the Ford Camp, and if Judge Ford would give about fifteen of the red men a gun apiece loaded, they would catch those ‘Naheoa Sixash’ (sp) or bad Indians,” Brown wrote.

“At about eleven o’clock that night, they shot off the guns and all came running to the house.”

One of the natives told another, “We kill Mr. Ford first,” but Sidney Ford’s son Tom was married to a Native American, Maskeefe, who understood what was said, according to Brown, “and called out that they came to kill us all, just as Mr. Ford was in the act of handing them some more ammunition. Tom said, ‘Father, your life’s in danger.’ I tell you, there was an exciting few minutes in that house.”

She said Tommy Ford held a revolver in each hand and shouted, “I will shoot every one of you if you don’t get out of here.”

“Judge Ford was a brave man,” she recalled. “He commanded them to leave the house. My father punched a half dozen of them in the stomach and shoved them out through the door. My husband was busy, too. They certainly got those Indians well scared out. There wasn’t much sleep in that place the remainder of the night.”

The gunshots alerted Harry Stearns, who was visiting Peterson Luark that night, so he rushed to Fort Henness to report the trouble.

“Captain Goff was stationed at the blockhouse at the mouth of the Skookumchuck on the Joe Borst place with seventy or eighty volunteers,” Brown recalled. “They all came to the agency in the morning to see what had happened, fearing we had all perished. But for Tommy Ford’s Indian wife, we would have all been killed.”

She noted that her uncle, William Mills, and her cousin, Nathaniel Mills, were militia volunteers. When Nathaniel was wounded in the neck while drinking water from the Green River, Brown said, his father, William, “took a shot at the big fellow and thought he made a hit the way he hopped away out of sight.”

“After they captured the leaders, their war was soon brought to a close,” she said.

The final battle in the Puget Sound Indian War took place in March 1856, when about 150 Nisqually, Klickitat and Yakama warriors ambushed about a hundred Washington Territorial Volunteers under Major Gilmore Hays at Connell’s Prairie near the White River west of present-day Puyallup.

Chief Leschi, captured in November 1856, stood trial for the murder of Abram Benton Moses. The first jury split, with 10 favoring conviction and two opposed because they questioned the legitimacy of trying him for murder for actions that occurred during a war. After a second trial the following year, a jury convicted him of murder. Although he was hung Feb. 19, 1858, he was exonerated in 2004 after the state Legislature asked the Washington Supreme Court to vacate his conviction.

With peace prevailing by late 1856, most of the blockhouses and forts were abandoned, and few remain today.

Centralia is fortunate to still own a piece of Northwest history in the blockhouse at Fort Borst Park.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.