One Pioneer Family's Story of War in the White River Valley
By Stan Flewelling
[Last quarter's issue of the White River Journal featured the story of the Jones family as they journeyed to settle the White River Valley in 1854-55. It was based primarily on correspondence left by Harvey and Eliza Jane Jones. The following article concludes their tragic tale, and is based mostly on the memoirs of Dr. John Icilius King, Eliza's son (Harvey's stepson), who wrote of them some 50 years later. The manuscript was prepared for Ezra Meeker, who used much of it in his book Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. King's original manuscript is in the Washington State Historical Society archives.]
Olive Jones (4), Percival Jones (2), and John King (7), three children whose lives were forever changed by the war over lands and sovereignty in 1855.
Editor's note: As you read, you are cautioned to remember that this article is the account of one family's losses during a war concerning land and freedom. Losses occurred on both sides, the greater depravations suffered by Native Americans. The Jones/King family tragedy should be weighed against the taking of Native American lives and lands.
Through the grim summer of 1855, the fledgling White River settlement was rife with tension. Native American residents were distraught by the demands and limitations of new treaties that had been contrived by territorial authorities on behalf of the US government. Most of the pacts, including the Point Elliot Treaty which nominally included the "Stkamish" people of the lower White River, were still unratified. But pioneer settlers kept streaming into the region, claiming and developing vast plots of land as their own, in blatant disregard of those whose ancestors had inhabited the sector for generations. Already, clashes were erupting east of the Cascade Mountains.
It was no wonder, then, that many White River settlers foresaw trouble. They petitioned the command at Ft. Steilacoom for more protection, but when their request was forwarded to Olympia, officials took it lightly. From mid-July on, Allen Porter made a habit of sleeping in the woods away from his cabin, which was on the plateau near today's Enumclaw. On the morning of September 28, Porter charged down to William and Elizabeth Brannan's farm, his clothes and skin shredded. His place had been attacked, he shrieked, and he'd barely escaped with his life through the thorny brush. The entire settlement was alerted, and most of the White River neighbors fled to Seattle for protection. The Jones family was among the handful that did not go.
The people of Seattle were alarmed enough to begin work on a blockhouse, and were greatly relieved when the US Sloop-of-War Decatur arrived in Elliot Bay. Meanwhile, Acting Governor Mason decided to assess the situation in the farmlands himself, and set out from Olympia with a contingent of soldiers. He spoke with several Indian leaders in the upper White River region and concluded that it was all a mistake. He was reassured that there was nothing to be alarmed about, and went to Seattle to say so. Gradually, White River farmers filtered back to their claims in mid-October.
Indian neighbors often visited the settlers' homes, so it wasn't unusual when a local leader known as "Nelson" dropped in to see the Jones family on Friday morning, October 26, 1855. Harvey Jones was out working on the farm. That day Nelson stayed unusually long and was especially quiet, his cool demeanor evident even to young Johnny King, who hadn't yet turned seven. Eliza Jane Jones went about her household chores, skirting around the man as she worked, nervously trying to converse with him.
Nelson remained sullen. When he finally rose to leave, as Johnny later remembered it, he said in mixed English and jargon, "It would not be very long until Indian be gone and white man have all the land around here." The family shared the story of Nelson's visit with Harvey when he returned, and they spent an uneasy evening wondering what to make of the man's remark.
Two days later at sunrise, Harvey lay bedridden with pleurisy. The rest of the family sat down to breakfast along with their hired hand, Enos Cooper, who had worked for them along the Overland Trail. Cooper had filed a land claim of his own several miles downstream.
A noise at the door something like a guttural throat clearing, a Native way to request entry, announced the presence of an Indian visitor. As Eliza got up, all three of her curious offspring, Johnny, Olive and Percival, bounded to her side. She opened the door and they saw the visitor standing peculiarly to the side. He moved even further back as the portal widened.
Map drawn by John I. King and sent with his manuscript
to Ezra Meeker, July, 1903. Note his marks for
the Jones and King house locations.
Then Johnny and his mother simultaneously saw a second Indian at the corner of the family's log storehouse, about thirty feet away. He was pointing a gun straight at them. Eliza screamed and slammed the door, securing it as she shoved the children away. An explosion of gunfire followed at the front of the house, skewing and splintering its wood siding and glazed windows. Glancing out one of the windows, Johnny saw at least a dozen Native men involved in the siege.
Eliza grabbed her husband's seven-shooter and attempted to return fire. But it was futile, and she soon turned all her energy toward sheltering the children. Hustling them into the back bedroom, as far from peril as possible, she made them huddle under a feather mattress. It was protection from the force of a flintlock musket-ball. Eliza left the room to join Cooper's defense as bullets continued to rip all around.
Feeling too confined, Johnny King crawled from beneath the mattress to the main part of the house. His ill stepfather leaned weakly at the doorway of the other bedroom. The man suddenly staggered, uttering, "Oh God, I am shot!" "Oh, Harvey, don't say so," cried Eliza as she rushed to support him while he slumped to their bed. Johnny scurried back to his hiding place and heard a horrifying scenario through the room partition. "His prayers and advice were mingled with her sobs," he wrote years later. "After a time his moans ceased and I knew that he was dead."
John I. King's 1903 sketch of the Jones family home
at the White River settlement.
Eliza Jones and Enos Cooper were now desperate. She advised him to try to escape. Cooper retreated to the back room where the children were hiding, pried open the window, leaped out cautiously, and was gone.
Soon the firing waned and the children heard strange footsteps inside the house. They were discovered by the intruders and taken outside. Their mother was nowhere in sight. Nelson sat on a tree stump just a few feet from the door, and by Johnny's observation, he was directing the activities of the others.
What happened next is somewhat in question. One version, widely circulated in its day, held that Johnny placed himself between his step-siblings and Nelson, boldly defying the Indian to fire. "I will, and kill you all," was the supposed retort, and though Nelson aimed his rifle at the boy three times and pulled the trigger, it would not shoot. Johnny, so goes the tale, "quailed not" and Nelson finally told him, "Take your brother and sister over to Mr. Thomas, that they be cared for, as I cannot kill you."
The more likely rendition-and the one John King told later in life-was that Nelson was sympathetic, quietly assuring Johnny he would protect them. The assailants went about torching the Jones home, then Nelson ordered all but one of them to move on. He placed the three children in this man's care, telling Johnny that they would be taken safely to the Thomas home, where the boy had attended school the previous summer.
Nelson left. The unknown Indian, apparently disgruntled with this duty, eventually started out toward the southeast with the three children in tow. Johnny was alarmed-the Thomases lived to the north. He protested and tried to pull away. After a brief struggle of wills, the man suddenly let go of Johnny's hand, muttered something in disgust, and stalked off. The children were now alone in the wild.
Appraising things as well as he could, Johnny decided to go to closer neighbors for help. The Thomas home was at least two miles away, but the Brannans lived about a mile to the south. Starting in that direction, Johnny called out pleadingly for Mr. Cooper. The echo of his own voice resounding through the woods spooked him. Afraid that hostile Indians might still be nearby, he trudged on as quietly as he could. But it wasn't so easy to quiet the younger ones, who were just under age four and two respectively. They could hardly keep up, and were understandably whimpery. Johnny hid them under some low brush, told them to stay put, and went on by himself.
As he approached the clearing around the Brannan home, he was disheartened to see another catastrophe. The cabin door was open, windows broken, and smashed furniture strewn about. Feather beds and pillows had been ripped open, the remnants swirling around in the breeze. Observing no one, Johnny retreated to the children's hiding place without closer investigation.
The three returned to the smoldering ruins of their home. Their breakfast had been interrupted and they were hungry. Johnny soon found a solution. Inside the log storehouse were potatoes and tubs of butter that had not yet been taken to market. The storehouse, too, had been burned, which roasted some of the potatoes and melted the butter in its charred containers. Johnny made a crude but satisfying meal out of the potatoes, spreading them with the streaming butter.
As they finished eating and wandered around the property, still hoping to find Mr. Cooper, a friendly sign of life appeared. A half-grown puppy, their favorite pet, emerged from behind the barn and bounced noisily toward them. The children were elated and played with him for a while, but Johnny soon realized that the pup would eventually give them away. Reluctantly, he grabbed a stick and scared the animal off.
What followed was even more difficult, the greatest dilemma of Johnny King's life. Wandering about a hundred feet southwest of the house, he found his mother crumpled on the ground. She was still alive, but weak and badly injured. He dropped hopefully beside her as she gasped her gratitude that all three children were still safe. Then, mustering her remaining strength, she chided him for not yet escaping. She told him to take the younger ones and go to the Thomases at once. No, he wouldn't leave her, Johnny retorted. She insisted that he must. She couldn't live, she said, and he might save himself and his siblings if he went. Tearfully he rose, turned resolutely away, and led Olive and Percival back into the dark forest.
By the time the threesome reached the Thomas farm, the afternoon was fading and they were all exhausted. No one was home. A little further beyond was the Moses and Nancy Kirkland family farm. Again, no one was there except for a furious dog that wouldn't let them near the house. To the homeless orphans wandering through a hostile wilderness, the cold night at hand, it seemed like everything familiar, caring, and protective had vanished.
Tom Wiletchtid in his now famous portrait. He holds the walking stick sent to him years later, as an honorific gift from the then-grown boy he saved, Dr. John King.
Lacking any other option, Johnny retraced their steps. His sister understood the need to stay quiet, but the baby couldn't be consoled. He was tired and cranky and fussed constantly. Johnny knew that the noise was a constant jeopardy, and tried to carry his brother piggyback as far as he could. Stumbling back along the path, he saw a lone Indian coming in their direction. He pushed the younger ones into hiding, returned to the path, and then recognized the man. It was Tom Wiletchtid, a friend and occasional hired hand of the Thomases. Johnny shared his story of the day's events, but Wiletchtid already suspected what had happened. He led them to the safety of his shelter-probably a temporary campsite not far from the Thomas place.
There, Tom's female relatives offered the children food and tried to comfort them. The youngsters ate eagerly, but wouldn't let the women come near. A bear skin was spread on the ground for them to lay on, and they were soon asleep. When "the moon was high," as Tom reportedly expressed it, he woke Johnny, helped him load his sleepy siblings into a dugout, covered them over, and paddled toward Seattle, some 30 winding miles downstream. Wiletchtid's sister, who accompanied them, said later that Johnny bravely "stood up and warned all [white] persons whom he saw not to shoot." At the mouth of the Duwamish River, the children were given over to another Indian known as "Dave," who was a more familiar figure around Elliot Bay. He delivered them to the Decatur.
Word of the siege on the White River settlement had already reached skittish Seattle citizens the previous evening. The Kirkland family, their daughter and son-in-law (William and Elizabeth Cox), and Joe Lake (who had been visiting them) arrived in two canoes, worn out from a frantic flight from White River. They, too, had been attacked on Sunday morning. The warning bays of their dogs saved their lives. Shots chased them as they escaped, and a bullet blew through Mr. Lake's coat, grazing his arm. Everyone assumed that all the other White River settlers were dead, or nearly so.
Johnny King's eyewitness account riveted and shocked the community. That same afternoon, a regiment of 40 volunteer soldiers and four Native American guides, all commanded by Captain Christopher C. Hewitt, started up toward White River to investigate. They returned four days later with gruesome reports of the devastation. The Cox home had been vandalized. The Jones home was indeed burned down, Harvey Jones' charred remains found inside. Eliza Jane Jones' body lay nearby, shot and disfigured. Enos Cooper was gunned down just 150 yards from the house.
More atrocities were found at the Brannan home, and at the King home, which lay east of the Jones property and was also burned. Altogether, seven adult settlers and two infants (three, in some reports) had been killed. There was evidence of several Native American casualties as well. The dead settlers were identified, autopsied, and buried. Once everyone was accounted for, the mystery remained what had befallen 6 year-old George A. King, son of George E. and Mary King (and occasional playmate of Johnny King, though they were not related). As it turned out, the boy had witnessed the awful deaths of his parents, then was spared and sheltered by a Puyallup Indian. Once this was known, authorities at Ft. Steilacoom launched fervent negotiations for his return.
Back in Seattle, the Jones children were placed in the temporary custody of a series of families, including the Russells and Neelys from White River. Virtually every King County family had taken refuge in the town, counting on its blockhouses and the warship anchored in its harbor for protection. Olive and Percival Jones stayed close to their guardians, but much of the time, Johnny King was given the freedom to bunk on board the Decatur, coming ashore each day. Callous crewmen hailed him as a little hero, and as their story spread, the children were admired and pitied by everyone around. John Smail, Eliza Jones' brother who had accompanied them part-way on the Overland Trail, was contacted in California, and asked to come take custody of them.
Long before his uncle's arrival, Johnny saw the town mourn the death of Lt. William A. Slaughter, the popular soldier whose company was ambushed in early December at the Brannan property, adjacent to the Jones farm. On January 26, 1856, he witnessed the celebrated "Battle of Seattle." [A one-day battle fought between combined Native American forces and Seattle settlers - decisively won by the fire of the Navy sloop of war, Decator, carrying Johnny King.] It was a traumatic day for the already shell-shocked youngster. In early February, news arrived that young George King had been returned to Ft. Steilacoom. He, too, was put in the custody of other families (including Ezra Meeker's) and eventually sent east to be raised in Connecticut.
In late May, John Smail arrived in Seattle. Puget Sound area hostilities, at that point, were mostly over. On the 31st, Smail went upriver to the scene of his sister's death. Two days later, he and the children were on board the Decatur as it embarked for San Francisco. The voyage became an adventure in itself when the ship was thrashed by a storm off the Oregon coast. But they arrived safely on June 12, staying in a hotel until another ship could take them on the next stage in their long journey to the Midwest.
A local newspaper got hold of the children's story and ran it as a big feature article. "No one can look young King in the face without feeling that he is a noble and gallant boy," exclaimed the writer, suggesting that the government should give him a West Point education. The least the local population could do, said the article, was to throw a benefit for the young orphans. This was arranged at the American Theatre for the night of July 3, 1856, and after the usual program of short plays, songs, and dances was over, the children were brought on stage. Once they were introduced to the crowd, many miners among them, "a perfect storm of gold and silver coin was showered upon the stage." The kids proceeded to gather up the treasure while the delighted audience cheered. The cash, combined with box office profits, amounted to $185, a significant gift in those days. The story of "The Oregon (Territory) Orphans" continued to spread from city to city across the country.
On July 5, the travelers left for Panama, then on to New York and an emotional reunion with their kinfolk in Wisconsin. The two younger children remained with their dad's relatives there. Johnny King was taken to northeastern Ohio to live with his own father's relatives. Eight years later, he received the heartbreaking news that both his half-siblings had died of diphtheria.
King eventually studied medicine, married, and took up a practice near his home. Dr. John I. King was always eager to share stories about the paramount adventure of his life, and occasionally wrote letters to the Washington State Historical Society and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
He seemed driven to connect with people who would remember his family's saga and want to hear more. At last, in 1903, Ezra Meeker contacted him, requesting the manuscript on which most of this story is based.
In letters to Meeker, King said he held no grudge against the Indians. "Then as always, many innocent ones suffered with the wrong doers on both sides," he observed. "[Indians] resisted what they considered to be encroachments upon their territory. . . . It was at that time, as it would be now, if some more powerful people should come along and say to us 'Your farms suit us well, move on.' Wouldn't you fight! I think so."
In 1905, nearly 50 years after their wartime encounter, Dr. King and Tom Wiletchtid regained contact through extraordinary coincidence and a mutual friend. The grateful doctor sent letters to Tom, and the gift of a cane that John Smail had purchased in Panama. Throughout the years, White River Valley settlers still revered "Indian Tom" Wiletchtid as a friend and hero, even as they developed a modern community near his home.
King died in Ohio in 1912. Wiletchtid died near Auburn in 1914, the last known survivor of the White River conflict. The gift cane, which he treasured, eventually came into the White River Valley Museum collection, where it remains on display.