When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.
Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”
On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.
While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned up to 30,000** humans to punitive death with a dread order:
Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.
For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**
Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.
The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.
Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.
* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.
** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.
The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.
Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)
Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.
Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”
Lt. Bascom and Cochise.
The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.
Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.
Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.
But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.
Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.
Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.
At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”
Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,
After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)
A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.
A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.
Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”
* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.
In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.
During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.
The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.
The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:
Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.
In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.
The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)
They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.
Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.
* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.
On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajdukStarina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.
The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.
Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.
He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.
By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.
The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.
A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.
Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.
In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.
Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”
Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”
For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.
On this date in 1964, the last two members of a noble and doomed rebel movement against Papa Doc Duvalier were shot in a repellent carnival outside the Haitian capital’s national cemetery.
Thirteen young Haitian expatriates had alit from sea, Granma-like, early that August of 1964, weeks after Duvalier was “elected” President-for-Life with an entirely plausible 99.9% of the vote.*
Taking to heart Machiavelli’s maxim that it is better for a sovereign to be feared than loved, Papa Doc buttressed his rule with a vicious paramilitary force. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have been murdered during his 14-year reign, and many thousands of others fled into exile.
The Cuban example — a few plucky armed men in the mountain somehow toppling the ancien regime — must have inspired the U.S. exiles of the so-called Jeune Haiti. Certainly they did not want for the guerrilla’s raw courage and hardiness. In some alternate history their tramping through southern Haiti’s hills under the barrage of Hurricane Cleo is the stuff schoolchildren recite.
But in our world the rising Jeune Haiti hoped to spark did not materialize. Port-au-Prince brandished horrific reprisals against the rebels’ non-combatant family members in the city of Jeremie, and the men themselves were simply picked off in ones and twos in the bush. The last Jeune Haiti members still at liberty were killed in late October, leaving only the two whom the government had managed to captuure. Papa Doc had evil plans for Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.**
On November 12, a Thursday, government offices shuttered for the grotesque holiday, and schools were ordered to bring their pupils to this special lesson of the dictatorship. “No force will stop the invincible march of the Duvalierist revolution,” read a leaflet distributed at the execution. “It carries the strength of a torrent.” (Source)
Under the eyes of this curious throng and the whirr of cameras, Numa and Drouin were lashed to pine poles by the Tonton Macoutes. Un-blindfolded, they received the whispered last rites of a Catholic priest, and then were shot dead by a firing detail.
When the men’s bodies slide down the poles, Numa’s arms end up slightly above his shoulders and Drouin’s below his. Their heads return to an upright position above their kneeling bodies, until a soldier in camouflage walks over and delivers the final coup de grace, after which their heads slump forward and their bodies slide further toward the bottom of the pole. Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked lenses.
The next day, Le Matin, the country’s national newspaper, described the stunned-looking crowd as “feverish, communicating in a mutual patriotic exaltation to curse adventurism and brigandage.”
“The government pamphlets circulating in Port-au-Prince last week left little to the imagination,” reported the November 27, 1964, edition of the American newsweekly Time. “‘Dr. Francois Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.'”
* Actually a bit of a setback for Duvalier after winning every single vote (finaly tally of 1,320,748 to 0) in his 1961 “re-election”.
** Drouin, who was wounded in a battle and captured for that reason, openly lamented at his execution his failure to commit suicide.
Three Sierra Leone natives whose November 7, 1898 hanging we recall here might have had their fate written in the stars before time itself began, but a much more proximate document was the understanding concluded among European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.
“Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.” -Joseph Conrad
This summit aimed to regularize the so-called “scramble for Africa” among rival European empires by setting forth some rules about who got to plant what flags where. One of those rules was known as the Principle of Effective Occupation: as the name suggests, the Principle was that a colonial power actually had to be in something like control of the territory it proposed to call its own.
The Berlin Conference kicked off a generation of frenetic jockeying and conquest that carved up the continent.
Further to Effective Occupation, the British expanded their longstanding coastal presence at Freetown by, in 1896, annexing the inland regions into something now christened the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.
All that Protectorating didn’t come cheap. Who better to pay for it than the Protectorated?
Britain’s proconsul accordingly dropped a Hut Tax on his subjects — a ruinously steep one that stoked an 1898 rebellion known as the Hut Tax War. The brief but bloody war (actually an amalgamation of two distinct rebellions, north and south) cost hundreds of lives on each side, not sparing civilians.
I had already sent to the chief of this town, giving him an ultimatum — that if he would not by a certain day, come up and tender his unconditional submission, a punitive expedition would be the result. He was a notoriously bad character and did some terrible things, for which he was afterwards tried and hanged. The disregarding of the ultimatum caused the present expedition. I was informed that when we arrived at the waterside he had cleared out with the people before we could get into the town. Presently a few people returned, and it was evident that he was in hiding near; but to attempt to hunt for men in the African bush is a waste of time, the bush being their natural stronghold.
I sent messages by the people, and had it loudly called out that if he would return to the town by 4 o’clock that I would not destroy the place, but that if he did not appear before me by that time it would be burnt. As he did not do so and I could get no information whatever, the straggling and outlying parts of the town were fired, and in the morning the town itself was destroyed.
Hangings like the one Alldridge references here for the chief of Bambaia were meted out in great number to rebel leadership, some 96 executions known in just a few months. Alldridge knew the country in peacetime and not just in war, and would eventually publish several studies of the country from his observations. (The text just quoted comes from one such.)
In this 1896 photo, Alldridge recorded the election by the chiefs of Imperri — a region of Sherbro Island — of a paramount chief (Sokong). He’s the rightmost of the two seated men, wearing a black top hat; beside him sits a counselor described by Alldridge as the Imperri Prime Minister (Lavari).
That would presumably make those two leaders also part of this portrait, taken just four months before the rebellion’s outbreak at a meeting of Imperri chiefs in that town of Bambaia which Alldridge would later put to the torch:
Identified beneath the print are the Sokong, the Prime Minister and ‘a principal Kruba’ (military leader) with the following remark: ‘all of whom were tried for murder and hanged at Bonthe, Sherbro, 7th November 1898′.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a version of this photo that actually reproduces in situ the identifications alluded to. Perhaps there is a reader who can identify the Sokong and Lavari from the first picture in the second?
On this date in 1868, the Ottoman Turks executed Bulgarian revolutionary Stefan Karadzha.
Karadzha was one of several nationalist cheta (guerrilla) leaders aspiring to father the future sovereign Bulgaria.
Operating from adjacent, and conveniently independent, Romania, around 1866-1867, Karadzha and others of his ilk — Hadzhi Dimitur Nikolov, Filip Totyu, and the dramatically mustachioed Panayot Hitov — slipped over the mountainous border to organize revolutionary cells and foment ill-feeling towards the Sublime Porte.
In Bulgaria’s late 19th century progress towards independence, these figures are transitional characters between the vanguard leadership of Georgi Rakovski, and the ensuing primacy of Vasil Levski.
Levski himself was a guerrilla in this period; after the cheta legions suffered some backbreaking defeats in the field — one of which saw our man Karadzha captured so badly wounded that he was “half-dead before the emergency Turkish court”* when condemned to hang — Levski set about honeycombing his country with the revolutionary network that would shape the future revolutionary struggle.
A national hero of lesser stature than Levski, which is sure no disgrace, Karadzha has a village named after him.
* The quote is from the unimpeachable source of Karadzha’s Wikipedia page.
The New York-born couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman* were two of the most notable figures among the hundreds, and then thousands, of settlers pouring into the territory every year. In 1836, they founded on the banks of the Walla Walla River a Christian mission to the nomadic Cayuse who roamed the territory. It’s in present-day Washington State, which was then part (with the current U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho) of a single frontier territory collectively known as Oregon.
The Whitmans’ early settlement, offering medicine, education, and (of course) proselytizing, proved a success at first; it would become for several years a waypoint on the developing Oregon Trail.
White diseases came with the settlers.
The Cayuse people had already dwindled (pdf) to just a thousand or two after the decimations of smallpox and other plagues swept the region in the decades preceding. Now, outbreaks of measles were ravaging those remaining.
Marcus Whitman, a doctor as well as a spiritualist, proved unable to check the new epidemic. Rumors went abroad that the missionaries were bewitching or poisoning the Cayuse, as the vanguard of a coming territorial conquest; the Whitmans themselves were very keen to the hostile feeling the situation had engendered and had even heard whispers that they were the targets of assassination plots. Bravely, they stayed.
“Perhaps God thought it for the best that your little child should be called away,” Narcissa Whitman said in strange consolation to the grieving mother of an Anglo child who also succumbed to measles in 1847. “It may calm the Indians to see a white child taken as well as so many natives, for otherwise we may all be compelled to leave within two weeks.” (pdf source, op. cit.; this document also reconstructs a detailed narrative of the unfolding tragedy)
But that remark was only days before the terrible November 29, 1847. On that cold autumn Monday, a small party of Cayuse led by a chief named Tiloukaikt fell on the mission and slaughtered both Whitmans plus another 11** inhabitants of the little compound.
Some 54 surviving women and children were taken hostage, and several of these died in custody as well. A Canadian official of the Hudson’s Bay Company hurried to ransom the captives at the price of 62 blankets, 63 cotton shirts, 12 muskets, 600 loads of ammunition, 37 pounds of tobacco, and a dozen flints.†
This quick response might have forestalled a worse tragedy for the missionaries — but as far as the Cayuse went, the die was already cast. A volunteer militia of Oregonians under Cornelius Gilliam soon mobilized to retaliate, driving many Cayuse into the Blue Mountains.
By mid-1848, spurred in part by the Whitman bloodbath, Congress officially incorporated the region as the Oregon Territory; arriving early in 1849, the new territorial governor Joseph Lane immediately opened negotiations with the Cayuse to hand over the perpetrators of the massacre. With federal troops arriving later in 1849, the Cayuse at last capitulated and gave up five warriors: Tiloukaikt, the leader; Tomahas; Kiamasumpkin; Iaiachalakis; and Klokomas. (There are numerous alternative transliterations of these names.)
They were tried in Oregon City, the territorial capital at the time — a town of 500 or so on the Willamette River Falls — in a landmark case: the first proper death penalty trial in the young territory.‡ This would fall a little short of modern standards, and not just because it was held in a tavern for want of a regular courthouse. The prosecution was not especially rigorous linking all the defendants to specific violent acts, but the defense’s recourse to Cayuse cultural practices that held shamans liable for the failure of their medicine conceded the point by implication. The judge‘s final instructions simply directed his jury to “infer” the defendants’ culpability by virtue of “the surrender of the Defendants by the Cayuse nation as the murderers, the nation knowing best who those murderers were.” So why even have the trial? Kiamasumpkin, against whom no evidence was ever individually presented, went to the gallows insisting that he didn’t even arrive to the Whitman Mission until the day after the massacre.
All five were condemned in the end, and executed by prominent early pioneer and lawman Joe Meek.§ “On the 3d of June an election and a hanging match took place at Oregon City,” ran the Aug. 22, 1850 story in the New York Tribune — for the Whitman massacre had been a matter of national interest. “The town was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.”
“Their tribe, the Cayuses, gave them up to keep peace with the whites. Much doubt was felt as to the policy of hanging them, but the popularity of doing so was undeniable.”
Fears that the quintuple hanging would stoke a running conflict with the Cayuse were not altogether misplaced, but over the subsequent years the dwindling tribe was simply dwarfed by over 30,000 newly arriving settlers lured by a congressional grant of free land. By 1855, the defeated Cayuse were forced onto the small Umatilla Reservation, ceding (along with the Umatillas and the Walla Wallas) 6.4 million acres to whites. The Cayuse tongue was extinct by the end of the century.
** Figures of both 13 and 14 (inclusive of the Whitmans) are cited in various places for the Whitman Massacre’s body count; the discrepancy turns on whether one’s tally includes as a casualty Peter Hall, who escaped from the mission, fled to Fort Walla Walla, and then made a panicky attempt to reach The Dalles. Hall disappeared into the wilderness, and was never heard from again.
† Ransom covered gratis by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
‡ The Espy file‘s index of U.S. executions lists only a couple of undated executions many years before under informal frontier justice.