Maxon's Massacre

Posted by: Richenda at Monday December 10, 2007 in

What a rotten day! Usually, I love to spend my time in research, and the bigger the nugget, the yummier! But today, I found out something I would have been gladder not to know.

It turns out my darling Hamilton J. G. Maxon, adventurer, entrepreneur, Capt. in the Cayuse and Rogue River Indian Wars, Major in the Yakima Indian wars, the one who sold half his land to the County Commissioners in 1861 (curious, curious: why? why? why?) that H. J. G. Maxon perpetrated a terrible massacre against unarmed Indians along the banks of the Mashel river in Nisqually in April of 1856.

I admit to shock. Something about researching your subjects makes you fall in love with them. You revel in their squabbles, their triumphs, the day they buried their youngest child—and you want to know more. And all that regular human stuff, their foibles, tragedies, and accomplishments…That crazy mistress. I don’t know, you just fall head over heels in love with the whole business.

And then this.

First thing I did was shake my head in denial. Couldn’t be true! Not my Maxon! Not the guy who built the sawmill and helped his brother after his wife died and left him with five small children. Not that guy.

Then I searched for the truth. And there it was. Reputable sources all confirm it. Maxon was spoiling for a fight. He always seemed like a guy who wanted to be in charge, one who could be a bit of a danger to get on the bad side of. When he ran for office in 1855 he was on the territory ticket for both the house and the council, for both the Democratic and Republican combined ticket! Here’s someone who wants to be the center of the power pyramid.

Make him arrogant, sure. Make him a bit of a butt-head, hey. Pretty sure that would be accurate. But a murderer? War crimes? How terrible is this!

So next I’m looking for reasons why. I’m trying to find some kind of excuse, some justification for his actions that will make him seem a little less terrible. I mean, witnesses said there were only two men at those camp sites, and all the rest women and children. When the Indians saw the soldiers, they all fled. They were shot down as they tried to flee across the river. A woman with a baby on her back was shot in the river and was swept away.

Why? Were these otherwise ‘good’ men? Can anyone who perpetrates such an act ever be considered a ‘good’ man no matter what else he might do or accomplish?

He was frustrated. He was the commander of the Southern Battalion and personally inspired the men who volunteered to serve under him. He resigned his post as a Territorial Legislator to serve his community. But it was complicated. He couldn’t ride like the king of the army like he wanted. He was arrogant. He was told he was subordinate to Col. Benjamin Shaw and that chaffed. As it was, power rivalries between Clark County and Puget Sound were sparking. For Maxon, that he was subordinate to Puget Sound’s Shaw must have been the final straw. He flat refused.

When one of Maxon’s men committed murder, why—WHY did they send Shaw in to make the arrest? As one of Maxon’s volunteers, wasn’t it Maxon who should have made the arrest? Was this one last intolerable sting to a man who wanted the charge of command? Or was Maxon so out of control by then they didn’t feel like Maxon would make his men accountable, even to himself?

But there is no excuse. Maxon and his men unleashed their fury on that helpless group of people. Thirty people died, maybe more. Women. Children. Old men. Babies. There is no excuse. And my heart is broken.

From the Washington State Archives:

They went up the Nisqually to near the canyon, where they discovered a large fishing camp, and here they murdered everyone—men, women and children. But Mr. Evans says, where is your record ? Such as it is, is on pages 37-8 of Governor Stevens’ war message which lies open before me. Here is all there is of it:

‘We [Maxon] continued our returning course next on the trail, being generally in a south and east direction. * * * * Again arrived at Michel prairie. * * * * Having no provisions, I have come to this place, where I await orders.
Signed, H. J. G. Maxon, Capt. Com’d‘g Mounted Rifles.’

“Now read those eight asterisks and you have the massacre. The record is mutilated—it is wanting in completeness. When Governor Stevens printed his message with appendix, he found it too vile in this spot and cut out the account of the massacre—-at any rate it should be in this very spot under date of April, 1856. But it is not there and we must supply it.”

“Under date of Sunday, August 21, 1892 , James Longmire’s account of early days was published in the Ledger and from that I quote one paragraph:

“About this time Governor Curry of Oregon sent a company of troops to our assistance, under Captain Miller. Indians were still stealing horses and killing cattle. A band of these robbers were followed by Captain Maxon to the Michel River, where the last one of them was killed.

“Robert Thompson, who now lives at 24th and South C Street, Tacoma, was present when Maxon’s company attacked this camp and I quote a letter from him on this subject:

“Tacoma, Oct. 29th, 1893.
“James Wickersham.—Dear Sir: I know about the killing of the Indians by Maxon’s company on the upper Nisqually. They killed about fifteen to seventeen, maybe more. I saw the dead ones—two in the river. but two men among them.

Comment from Abbi Wannacott:

I just finished writing a book about the whole thing. It’s called Where the Mashel Meets the Nisqually. In case you are interested. I have all of Maxon’s original letter. That excerpt of Meeker’s book you are quoting is actually a portion of Wickersham 1893 speech. He was wrong about the letter.

Commenting is closed for this article.