Joaquin Miller narrates a story from the early days of the West.
A California John Brown In A Small Way.
JOSEPH De BLONEY, whom I first met on the head of the Sacramento River in the spring of 1855, was of the old Swiss family of that name—famous, you know, for being the first to renounce their high, rank of nobility and assume a, simple republican name. This was a learned man. Even in the mountains there he had many books. But I think few people ever knew his worth. Certainly but few ever sympathized with him. I believe he had first crossed the plains with Fremont. He is probably entirely forgotten now. And the world never heard of his feeble efforts to help his fellows. His ambition was to unite the Indians about the base of Mount Shasta and establish a sort of Indian republic, the prime and principal object of which was to set these Indians entirely apart from the approach of the white man, draw an impassable line, in fact, behind which the Indian would be secure in his lands, his simple life, his integrity, and his purity. Some of the many tribes were friendly; some were hostile. It was a hard undertaking at best, perilous, almost as much as a man’s life was worth, to attempt to befriend an Indian in those stormy days on the border, when every gold-hunter crowding the hills in quest of precious metals counted it his privilege, if not his duty, to shoot an Indian on sight. An Indian sympathizer was more hated in those days, is still, than ever was an Abolitionist. And it was against bitter odds that this little California John Brown, even long before John Brown’s raid, tried to make a stand in behalf of a perishing race. He, too, failed. The plastic new land was in a chaotic state. More men than he were trying to fashion something solid and useful out of the Republic’s new possessions. Walker was even trying to extend these possessions to Nicaragua. Fremont had hoisted the bear flag. It made him a prisoner. It ought to have made him President.
De Bloney gradually gathered about twenty-five men around him in the mountains, took up homes, situated his men around him, planted, dug gold, did what he could to civilize the people and subdue the savages.
Our neighbor, Captain Jack, in his lava-beds, was born of this man’s endeavor. Of course his motives were misconstrued by the few who took any notice of him at all. Some suspected that we had found gold-mines of great wealth. Others, again, said we were stealing horses and hiding them away in the hearts of the mountains. And I concede that property disputes with some settlers gave some grounds for suspicion. Yet De Bloney was as honest as a sunset and as pure as the snowy mountains around us.
But he had tough elements to deal with. The most savage men were the white men. The Indians, the friendly ones, were the tamest of his people. These white men would come and go; now they would marry the Indian women and now join a prospecting party and disappear for months, even years. At one time they nearly all went off to join Walker in Nicaragua. Only two ever lived to return. I, too, wandered away from him more than once, but at last kept close and always with him. He taught me much, and was good. Once the unfriendly Indians burned his camp. He raised a company, followed and fought them. This was the battle of Castle Rocks. I was shot in the face and neck, and was nearly a year getting well. By this time there was a war on the other side of the mountain, and I was drawn into that also. This was the Pit River war. Here I got a bullet through the right arm, and was laid up for another long season.
By and by he had his plans matured, and had armed his Indians in defence against the brutal and aggressive white men. I was sent on one occasion to Shasta City for ammunition. I had made similar raids before. My horse was shot on the return. I was dreadfully bruised by a fall, and the two Indians with me took me in turns behind them. Then we got, or rather captured, a fresh horse and kept on. But I was too badly hurt to go far, and they left me with some Indians by the road. Here I was captured by the pursuing white men. This was in 1859. I was in my seventeenth year, and small for my age. Of course, they had sworn to hang the renegade to the nearest tree. I was really not big enough to hang, and so they took me back to Shasta City, put me in jail, and my part in the wild attempt to found an Indian republic was rewarded with a prompt indictment for stealing horses. A long time I lay in that hot and horrible pen, more dead than alive.
God pity all prisoners, say I. Fortunately I could see and even smell some pine trees that stood on the hillside hard by. I know I should have died in those hot days, with the mercury up in the nineties, but for the friendship, the fragrance, the sense of freedom in those proud old pine trees on the hillside. Meantime, as always happens, I was left alone. All the men passed away like water through a sieve, and only the Indians remembered me. On the night of the 4th of July, while the town was carousing, they broke open the jail, threw me again on to a horse, and such a ride for freedom and fresh air was never seen before.
Poor De Bloney lost all heart and gradually sank to continued drunkenness on the border and ultimate obscurity. As for myself, I tried to inherit his high plans and spirits, and made one more attempt, for I had formed ties not to be broken. But the last venture was still more disastrous. Volumes only could tell all the dreadful story that followed—the tragedy and the comedy, the folly and the wisdom. And yet now, after a quarter of a century, I still fail to see anything but good and honesty and integrity in these bold plans for the protection of the Indians—the Indians, to whose annihilation we, as a nation, have become quite reconciled. Ah! how noble in us to be so easily reconciled to the annihilation of another race than our own! I never saw De Bloney after this final failure. I would not be taken again prisoner, and so an officer in pursuit was shot from his horse. We separated in the Sierras, and sought separate ways in life I made my way to Washington Territory, sold my pistols, and settled down in an obscure settlement on the banks of the Columbia, near Lewis River, and taught school. And here it was that the story of John Brown, his raid, his fight, his capture, and his execution, all came to me. Do you wonder that my heart went out to him and remained with him? I, too, had been in jail. Death and disgrace were on my track, and might find me any day hiding away there under the trees in the hearts of the happy children. And so, sympathizing, I told these children over and over again the glory of old John Brown there. And they, every one, loved, and honored and pitied him.
And now you can better understand why I was so resolved to make a pilgrimage to Harper’s Ferry on the anniversary of his execution. However, he does not need my sympathy, or any one’s sympathy. I am here simply because it is my sad pleasure to be here at this time.
It was an odd sequel to our failure to establish our Utopian Republic about the base of Mount Shasta, with the great white cone for a centre, that I should finally meet these same men who had fought and had captured me in California up in the new gold-fields of Northern Oregon. And singularly enough, they were very kind. I had received too many wounds fighting for these same men on the border of California to be quite the “renegade” they counted me once. And when the Shoshonee Indians now attacked our camp at Canyon City, Oregon, these same men chose me their captain to lead them in battle. And how they did wish for poor De Bloney now! But he had been buried away up in the golden fields of Idaho. A three-months’ campaign, and I was finally beaten, leaving many dead. But, as if still to convince me of their love and confidence, when we returned to Canyon City, they elected me judge of the country, and for the four years of my administration stood truly by me, as if to try to make me forget something of the sorrow and the shame of imprisonment. Yet for all that I was in some sense an old man from the time of our failure and flight. And how wretched the few remaining Indians there now! There are only now and then in all that splendid mountain region a few miserablc hovels of half-starved, dispirited beggars of the lowest sort to be met with. Captain Jack and his sixty brave rebels were the last of this race. But they made a red spot on the map which the army will long remember.
For Those Who Fail.
“All honor to him who shall win the prize,”
The world has cried for a thousand years,
But to him who tries and who fails and dies,
I give great honor and glory and tears.
Give glory and honor and pitiful tears
To all who fail in their deeds sublime,
Their ghosts are many in the van of years,
They were born with Time in advance of Time,
Oh, great is the hero who wins a name,
But greater many and many a time
Some pale-faced fellow who dies in shame
And lets God finish the thought sublime.
And great is the man with a sword undrawn,
And good is the man who refrains from wine,
But the man who fails and yet still fights on,
Lo, he is the twin-brother of mine.
—Memorie and Rime, 1884.