|Three Forks of the Owyhee.|
Photo posted on flickr.com by L. A. Price.
The Army had sent the Regulars west in response to what the newspaper called the “Snake War” [blog, Nov 25]. This generally low-level conflict with tribes in southwest Idaho, Nevada, and southeast Oregon had flickered off and on since 1862. Released from the East by the end of the Civil War, the troops arrived in Boise City in late 1865. Totally unused to Indian warfare, the soldiers had little early success.
From Boise, Major Marshall led his infantry across the Snake River and south to Camp Lyon. This Army outpost straddled the Idaho-Oregon border, 16-18 miles west and a bit north of Silver City. From there, the troops moved south and west into Oregon. Around the 23rd, a troop of Oregon Volunteer cavalry had joined Marshall. They soon discovered fairly fresh Indian sign and followed it south, using trails over the plains high above the Owyhee River.
Marshall and the cavalry commander suspected that the Indians at Three Forks were those who had massacred about fifty Chinese a week earlier. They hurried to attack despite the obstacles and dangers. At Three Forks, the river twists through an 800-foot canyon, where the walls are practically vertical in places.
The soldiers had to clamber over loose rocks and through shifting gravel in their descent along a ravine. Heavily outnumbered (about 85 versus 250-300 warriors), they deployed along the west bank and began exchanging fire across the river. They inflicted a few casualties in four hours of fighting, but even some shots from their mountain howitzer failed to create an opening to advance.
|Battle diagram, soldiers entered initially from left.|
Overlaid on U.S. Geological Survey relief map.
Marshall finally realized the futility of trying to attack a superior force in such rugged country. He later wrote that “Ten men can hold a hundred in check and prevent their ascent.”
He ordered a risky night withdrawal. Although they had inflicted more casualties than they took, Marshall’s force had lost its artillery piece and been forced to retreat. Their performance surely did little to inspire fear or respect in their adversary.
Within a week after the battle, Indian raiders struck at three widely scattered spots and ran off over 120 cattle and horses. All told, they made seven or eight attacks in about a month after the debacle.
|"Battle of Three Forks and the Owyhee Cannon," Reference Series No. 239, Idaho State Historical Society.|
|Gregory Michno, The Deadliest War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868, Caxton Press, Cakiwell, Idaho (2007).|
|"The Snake War: 1864-1868," Reference Series No. 236, Idaho State Historical Society (1966).|