Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Packer Lloyd Magruder and Others Murdered on Nez Perce Trail [otd 10/11]

On the night of October 11, 1863, conspirators murdered packer Lloyd Magruder and four other men. The killings took place on the South Nez Percé Trail. The Trail – now also called the Magruder Corridor – twists crazily through the deep Central Idaho wilderness to cross a regional divide into Montana at Nez Percé Pass.
Magruder Corridor segment. U. S. Forest Service.

Scion of a prominent Maryland family, Lloyd Magruder had fought in the Mexican War and earned a promotion from private to second lieutenant. He resigned that commission to try his hand in the California gold fields. Bad luck reversed his initial success, so he moved to Lewiston, Idaho in July, 1862.

Within a year, the hard-working and intelligent Magruder owned both a pack train and a store. In August, Magruder’s string of mules headed east from Elk City on the South Nez Percé Trail, which provided the most direct route across the Bitterroot Mountains. Their initial destination might have been Bannack, the first gold camp in the area. But rumors had reached Lewiston of a new, richer strike at Alder Gulch, 40 to 50 miles further east.

So Magruder took his train straight there to a brand new Virginia City, where he soon profitably sold his goods. He returned by way of Bannack, where he bought more mules at bargain prices. Then he headed home, leading a train of six horses and about forty mules. Eight other men accompanied him.

About fifteen trail miles into Idaho from Nez Percés Pass, the party encamped on a side stream at the base of a ridge. They released the stock on a good forage area about a half mile up the slope. Magruder and a man named Christopher Lower drew the sundown-to-midnight watch over the animals.

When they left camp, Lower carried an ax, purportedly to clear some brush intruding on the pasture. Before midnight Lowe, or another conspirator who had joined them, split Magruder’s skull from behind with the ax. Those two and a third conspirator then slaughtered four other innocent bystanders. Hunter and guide William “Billy” Page knew about the plot but kept quiet through fear or greed. He later turned state’s evidence.

The men disposed of the evidence and headed surreptitiously for Lewiston. A few days later, they waited until after dark to enter the town. Page arranged to corral the animals out of sight. With no steamboat scheduled any time soon, they decided to take the early morning stagecoach to Walla Walla.

Luna House, ca. 1868. Illustrated History.
The nearest ticket office happened to be at Luna House, the hotel operated by Hill Beachy, a friend of Lloyd Magruder. Beachy, schooled on Mississippi River steamboats and in California gold camps, knew how to read men, and situations. When a conspirator bought tickets for four men, his furtive manner caught Beachy’s attention: Perhaps they planned a stage robbery.

Beachy passed a warning to the other passengers and watched them leave the next morning. That’s when he realized the strangers had considerable gold themselves. That induced other suspicions: Where had that gold come from? Investigation soon uncovered some of Magruder’s animals and gear that had been stashed with a friend of one of the conspirators.

Beachy's pursuit of the men became the stuff of legend, as he just missed them when they sailed from Portland on a coastal packet. Beachy had to race overland to apprehend the killers in San Francisco. He then returned them to Idaho for trial and execution.
References: [B&W], [Illust-North]
Julia Conway Welch, The Magruder Murders: Coping with Violence on the Idaho Frontier, Falcon Press Publishing, Helena, Montana (© Julia Conway Welch, 1991).


  1. I wondered if you had read any sources other than Julia Welch on the Magruder murders since her timeline of events differs from those of both Baily (1963, not to be confused with 1935 River of No Return Bailey) and Hamilton 1994. Welch has several errors including misnaming Buckskin Bill as Sylvan Wood, whose name was Sylvan Hart. I have been interested in the Magruder murders since 1963 and have visited the marker placed by the Forest Service, which location does not jibe with the record in time or place, Magruder Mtn., and the Little Clearwater from Bargamin Creek.

    Otis Maloy
    Moscow, Idaho

  2. Besides Welch and the other two accounts I referenced, I have read quite a few others. Those include Dimsdale's "The Vigilantes of Montana," Langford's "Vigilante Days and Ways," the "History of Idaho Territory" (1884), and others.
    The problem is, of course, that the stories are often incomplete, contradictory, biased, etc.etc.
    I probably stuck closest to the account in the "Illustrated-North" and then stayed rather "generic" when there seemed to be no consensus.
    Thanks for your interest in the blog, and I hope this helps, somewhat.

    1. I have hiked to the "site" of the massacre above the Selway. It really doesn't make sense that they camped about a mile from the river where the best sites and grass were located. Your account doesn't make sense either that they would camp on the Selway and then graze their horses a mile or two up the ridge where grass was not as abundant. I would sure like to know the truth.

      I made a YouTube video showing what I found on my hike and giving some background of the story:

    2. As you can tell from the text, there's a good deal of uncertainty about the exact sequence of events, and each subsequent writer made what he/she could of what was written at the time. There did seem to be some agreement that the first murders took place away from the main camp site. I have not visited the area, but I studied it closely using the relevant USGS maps. Of course, we do not know how the vegetation – and even the terrain – has changed in the 150-plus years that have passed. As a matter of fact, the description of how they disposed of the bodies was also puzzling when I looked at the topo maps. In the end, those conflicting reports are all we have to go on. We all just have to do the best we can.