Bvt. Major James Carleton at Bitter Spring 1860

by William Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld. Originally published in Wild West, June 19, 2001.


After James Carleton was rejected in his quest to become Charles Dickens’s protege, he turned to a career in the military that found him pursuing an mission of obsessive and bloody collective punishment

James Henry Carleton is generally remembered as the fanatically loyal Union officer who saved New Mexico Territory from the Confederates. Hell-bent on keeping the territory safe against an invasion from Confederate Texas, Carleton called on the men in his California Column to crack down on suspected Southern sympathizers. Property was confiscated. Travelers were ordered to carry identification cards stating their destinations and were stopped at checkpoints. New Mexicans called Carleton a tyrant but, in the end, it was his iron grip that kept the Southwest in Union hands.

Carleton’s obsession with total victory turned brutal in his dealings with Native Americans. During his stay as departmental commander of New Mexico Territory, he was determined to crush the Navajo and Mescalero Apache, telling his officers: “There will be no council held with the Indians . . . The men will be slain whenever and wherever they can be found.”

Carleton’s men systematically destroyed the homes of the Navajo, burned their crops, and slaughtered their livestock. And in the infamous Long Walk, Navajo captives were forced to march over three-hundred miles of desert to the Bosque Redondo Reservation, a diseased and barren piece of land near the Pecos River. More than two thousand died from the effects of malnutrition and sickness.

His mismanagement of the reservation cost him the command of New Mexico Territory in 1866. But a few years earlier, there was a campaign that, when considered in conjunction with Carleton’s odd behavior, should have made his superiors uncomfortable placing him in command of New Mexico Territory: the Bitter Spring Expedition of 1860. It heralded Carleton’s ever-growing malevolence toward Native Americans. Certainly, a man with this attitude should not have been allowed to govern a vast region that was inhabited by a large population of Navajo, Apache, and other native peoples.

To punish killers who had struck on the road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, Carleton sent his men on a long chase through the desert after a group of native people who were unlikely culprits. Obsessively pursuing the enemy like a landlocked Captain Ahab, he posted the severed heads of slain Paiutes on stakes.

What kind of man was this? One not easily understood. On the one hand, James Carleton was a rigid martinet who, when it suited him, did not always obey the rules of military conduct. Carleton was court martialed in 1843 for aiding a fellow officer, who was facing murder charges to escape from custody. Carleton was later court-martialed for his mistreatment, and the resulting death of, a drunken enlisted man. Captain Thomas Swords, in 1845, wrote from Fort Scott, “We are to be cursed here with Carleton. I shall give him a pretty wide berth.”

But James Carleton was also a sentimental 19th century gentleman who loved to study nature and who wrote books about his travels. In fact, before Carleton became a soldier, what he really had wanted to be was a famous author in the mold of Charles Dickens.

Born December 27, 1814, in the state of Maine, Carleton was left fatherless at the age of 15. He briefly served in the Maine militia during a non-shooting border dispute with Great Britain know as the Aroostock disturbance. When the —œwar— ended, Carleton wrote a letter to Dickens in 1839 in which he didn—™t stop short of asking Dickens for tips on becoming a writer and asked whether Dickens would be his friend, if Carleton were to move to London.

Dickens replied, writing that he was a little embarrassed by the letter. For him to call a complete stranger like Carleton his friend, he said, —œwould be to prostitute the term.— Besides, he said, it would be next to impossible for Carleton to achieve success as a British writer. Instead, Carleton would be far better off looking for stories out in the West.

—œI cannot but think that good tales —“ especially such as you describe, connected with the customs and history of [America]—™s original inhabitants who every day become more interesting as their numbers diminish —“—“ would surely find some patrons and readers in her great cities,— Dickens wrote.

So, instead of going overseas, Carleton went West. He obtained an officer’s commission with the 1st Regiment of Dragoons. From army posts out on the Great Plains, he would write about animals, plants, geology, the stars, archaeology and the weather. In 1843, he befriended the naturalist John J. Audubon, another man fascinated with the uncharted landscapes of the West. Carleton mailed poet Henry Longfellow seeds that he had found on an expedition. Longfellow planted the seeds, and wrote a poem about the Western Compass Plant that sprouted: “This is the compass-flower, that the finger of God has planted/Here in the houseless wild, to direct the traveler—™s journey.—

In 1844, Lieutenant Carleton published The Prairie Logbooks, telling the story of two Dragoon expeditions. One was of a trip to Nebraska, mapping out the Platte River and meeting the Pawnee residents. Carleton said the Pawnee were thieves, even more wily than the street urchins of his favorite author—™s book, Oliver Twist. —œA Pawnee,— he wrote, —œwould have stolen Fagin—™s shirt off his back, and cheated such common fellows as the Artful Dodger—¦—

Installments of The Prairie Logbook were printed in the New York Spirit of the Times, allowing newspaper readers to picture the romantic West. Carleton calls for Easterners to imagine themselves at Fort Gibson, in present-day Oklahoma, lining up with the rest of the Dragoons under the oaks, and preparing for a grand adventure.

Time: 10 o—™clock. You are on the parade under those grand old trees. On three sides of the great square that surrounds you, are the quarters of officers and men —¦ Men in military garb moving hither and thither —“ some packing effects —“ some arming themselves —“ some shaking hands with, and apparently bidding good-bye to comrades who are to remain behind!

—¦Did you hear that bugle! — it blew what is called a signal, —˜boots and saddles.—™ Now look at the different quarters —“ see the men pouring from them like bees from so many hives. Don—™t you hear the clang—”clang—”clang of heavy sabres as they descend the steps —“ they are all completely armed and equipped.

Carleton also reckoned himself a keen observer of human nature. When an —œIndian dandy— tries to put on a calico shirt, and finally puts it on backwards, Carleton —œcannot suppress a smile,— for —œwith all the airs of an empty-headed exquisite, he strutted off with his new garment, occasionally looking slyly to the right and left—¦Human nature is the same everywhere.—

The Indians fascinated Carleton, as much as the compass-flower. In his writings he admires the Pawnees as noble, if deceitful, adversaries: —œsplendid specimens of the Prairie Indian—¦with eyes like Eagles,— he writes. —œThey were not of that dingy brown color—¦but of that red, so peculiar to all the full-blooded savages of the West.

In 1860, Captain James Henry Carleton, hints of gray in his thick mutton chops, stood with fine posture, proudly watching his Dragoons assemble on the parade ground at Fort Tejon, Califo
rnia. His pale eyes now glimmered with a new wrath. A few years later, the editor of a Santa Fe paper would later sneer at this pose:

Behold him! His martial cloak thrown gracefully around him like a Roman toga, his military cap worn precisely six inches from the extreme tip of his nose, his chin drawn gracefully in, his teeth set firm, his Jove-like front, his eyes like Mars, that threaten and command with slow and measured tread, each step exactly twenty-eight inches, he rules the land.

The long years of campaigning out West had hardened his heart. In 1857, a hundred and twenty unarmed travelers had been slain by the Mormons and their Paiute allies at Mountain Meadows, Utah. Carleton, in May of 1859, had escorted the paymaster up the Salt Lake Road and, while encamped at Mountain Meadows, conducted an investigation of the slaughter, where he discovered the bleached bones of victims projecting from shallow graves.

His once-romantic vision of the West had now been stained by the sight of —œWomen—™s hair in detached locks and in masses—¦[p]arts of children—™s dresses—¦the skulls and bones of those who suffered . . . a sight which can never be forgotten.— Carleton had written that the Mormons were an —œulcer upon the body politic . . . an ulcer which needs more than cautery to cure. It must have excision; complete and thorough extirpation before we can ever hope for safety or tranquillity.— The impression upon Carleton that day at Mountain Meadows, and the rage it surely awakened within him, would not pass.

The Paiutes allegedly were attacking travelers and stealing stock along the road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake. In January of 1860, a cattleman had been killed at Bitter Spring, reportedly by Paiutes; a couple of months later, two teamsters had been felled near the same spot.

The Southern Paiutes of the Mojave were not one tribe, but rather several small scattered groups that spoke in the Shoshonean language. They called themselves the Nuwu, Shoshone for —œThe People—. For centuries, the Nuwu struggled to survive in the desert that lay between Utah and California. They sustained themselves on a diet of desert plants–pnon pine nuts, roots, and msquite seed–and fresh game (rabbits, mountain sheep, reptiles, and kangaroo rats.)

The Vanyumes, an impoversihed tribelet, lived in the vicinity of the Bittle Creek. Their population was small. Father Garaces, who visited the region in 1776, mentioned villages ranging in size from 25-40 souls.

For decades, tribesmen from as far away as southern Utah would cross Cajon Pass to plunder the vast herds grazing near the pueblo of Los Angeles. Major Lewis Armistead, writing from Fort Mojave, remarked:

My opinion as to the treatment of the Whalupi and Paiyte [sic] is to shoot them whenever you can, as I believe it impossible to keep them from stealing horses, mules, or anything else, when a good opportunity offers. These Indians, the Payutes [sic] especially, are generally in a half-starved state—”they steal to eat—”sometimes to live—”They will always be troublesome and difficult to manage, not from their numbers, but from the character of the country they inhabit.

There were now wild rumors that the Mormons—”-still smarting from the invasion and occupation of their homeland by federal troops in the Mormon War of 1857—”-had encouraged Paiutes, their Indian allies, to attack settlers. The April 12, 1860 issue of the Los Angeles Star echoed the feeling of many Californians:

The murders [at Bitter Spring] were perpetrated by Indians we have no doubt. Yet there are Danites, who can paint, talk, and act Indian as well as any red-skin in the Territory–and the late murders, as at Mountain Meadows, if not actually perpetrated by such, were directed by them and executed for them.

A group of prominent citizens and businessmen from Los Angeles petitioned the government to chastise the Paiutes in order to make the Salt Lake road once again safe for the flow of commerce into their town.

There were voices of moderation in the army protesting that these people were more often blamed than blameworthy. In 1859, Captain John Davidson, assigned to hunt Paiutes accused of stealing cattle from ranches in the San Fernando and Santa Clara vallies, led a troop of Dragoons from Fort Tejon into the upper reaches of the Owens Valley. He found no evidence that the Paiutes had stolen livestock. After holding several meetings with them, Davidson concluded that —œthese Indians are not only not Horse thieves . . . their true character is that of an interesting, peaceful industrious people, deserving the protection and watchful care of the Government.—

Lt. Colonel Benjamin Beall was Carleton’s immediate commanding officer. “Old Ben”, a hard-drinking 24-year veteran of numerous campaigns, believed that those responsible for the recent attacks likely came from Utah and had left the area. He thought it unjust for the army to chastise those persons who, by pure chance, lived in the vicinity of Bitter Spring.

Brevet General Newman Clarke was not to be deterred by the opinions of Beall and Davidson. The general sent an order, dated April 5, 1860, to Carleton to —œproceed to Bitter Springs [sic] and chastise the Indians you find in the vicinity.— Since the killers—™ identity was unknown, any nearby people must pay the price for the crimes of their race. Clarke specifically instructed Carleton that —œthe punishment must fall on those dwelling nearest to the place of the murder or frequenting the water course in its vicinity.—

Not pleasant orders. Nonetheless, Carleton, thinking of Mountain Meadows and of the chance for retribution against allies of the Mormons, might have felt a quickening in his blood. He now had orders to punish the Paiute, and intended to unleash punishment worthy of a god of war.

* * *

Ten minutes more—“—“another bugle; that was the signal—“—“-‘to horse.’ Now they come out—“—“what a crowd! Each man has his hand near the bit leading his charger. They form in two ranks on foot, each company on its own parade in front of its stables—”at the same time, the officers mounted, come dashing along from their quarters to the several companies. The commands are given: the men are in the saddle at once, and the ranks are closed and dressed. Another bugle, still—“—“that was the ‘assembly’—“—“the fine brass band of the regiment, also mounted, commences a lively march. . . The adjutant now forms the parade, after which the commanding officer proceeds to make a final inspection of men, arms, horses, and equipage—“—“all found to be in excellent order. The inspection over, the command is given, and in a moment the long line is broken into column and on its way —¦”
— The Prairie Logbooks

And so the regimental band struck up the traditional Irish aire, —œThe Girl I Left Behind Me— (—œThe hope of final victory within my bosom burning/Is mingling with sweet thoughts of thee and of my fine returning—¦—) as three officers and eighty-one enlisted men, surgeon Jonathan Letterman, two civilian guides, an interpreter, and a rumbling train of four army wagons departed the post. The column took the salutes of Lt. Colonel Beall, splashed across the Grapevine Creek, and then turned south onto the dusty Los Angeles Road.

Carleton rightly took considerable pride in the men of K Troop of the First United States Dragoons. Since his return to the West in 1858, he had drilled, drilled, and again drilled this unwieldy group–many of them recent immigrants from Ireland and Germany–such that they were skilled at riding, shooting, care of their mounts, and skirmishing.
In early 1859, Inspector General Mansfield witnessed a firing exercise by Carleton’s company K at Fort Tejon. He reported that half of Company K’s shots hit a 6′ x 22″ target at 100 yards. For the antebellum army, this was excellent marksmanship.

Carleton had written adulatingly of Dragoons on the march with —œtheir arms and equipments sparkling in the sun, their sabres clanging against their heavy spurs and stirrups, their horses neighing and prancing.— How smartly his troopers sat in their Grimsley saddles, their Sharps carbines slung over the right hip and Colt’s Navy revolvers tucked into the pommel holster—“—“ready for whatever struggle or hardship that might lie ahead. Carleton rode at the head of the column, exulting in the flourishing of whips that cracked on the behinds of mules, in the bugle calls and shouts of the officers to halt or move forward, in the clatter of hundreds of hooves.

After a week’s casual march of 170 miles, Carleton—™s troops reached a site just to the east of the junction of the Mojave Road and the Salt Lake Trail. It was here, just slightly northeast of the present-day town of Barstow, the cool waters of the fickle Mojave River bubbled to the surface. Carleton set his men to work building a base camp which he called Camp Cady, after his friend Major Albemarle Cady, the commander of Fort Yuma. From this encampment he sent out his patrols to locate the Paiutes. It did not take long to find one of them.

On the morning of the 19th of April, 2d Lieutenant B. F. —œGrimes— Davis took a portion of K Troop out on a patrol. Davis, a graduate of the West Point Class of 1854, was a promising officer in the mounted arm. In June of 1863, this capable officer would lose his life while leading a federal brigade of cavalry at the Battle of Beverly Ford.

At about twelve miles to the southwest of Camp Cady, at a place near the Fish Ponds on the Mojave River, Davis came across two Native Americans who were hunting for game. These men, being “in the vicinity of Bitter Spring— were to be chastised. Davis rose in his stirrups and ordered K troop to “draw pistols and forward into line as skirmishers.”

The Dragoons smartly wheeled into line, advancing at a fast trot, firing as they came. One of the hunters, though outnumbered, outgunned, and facing certain death, was not to be cowed. His arrows found their mark and two troopers were seriously wounded. During the attack, a trooper wounded a comrade with a .36 caliber ball from his pistol.

The soldiers, charged with adrenaline, were not about to be deprived of the chance to exact revenge. —œThe men all seemed to vie with each other who should kill the rascal and all were perfectly fearless,— later wrote Surgeon Letterman. When the dust had finally settled, the hunter was dead and his companion taken prisoner. Subsequently —“—“ military reports do not record exactly when—”-the captive was killed when he reportedly attempted to escape. The body of the dead men were taken back to Camp Cady.

As Davis’ detachment marched slowly back to Camp Cady with its three wounded men, they heard a distant echo of gunfire. The command of Lt. Milton Carr had come upon another band of hunters. In the second clash of the day, two tribesmen were killed and one Dragoon was wounded.

On April 22nd, the bodies of the two men slain by Lt. Davis’ detachment were taken by the Dragoons to the crossing of the Salt Lake Road at Bitter Spring—“—“the site of the attacks upon travelers. It was at this spot that the bodies were hung from an improvised scaffold.

Although having twice chastised the local inhabitants, Carleton was hardly finished with his duty. On April 30th, he sent out three patrols. Taking command of a patrol, Carleton soon discovered a recently abandoned native encampment located at about twenty miles to the south of Camp Cady. As the natives ineffectively shot at the troopers from rocky terrain afar, Carleton’s men destroyed the camp.

Meanwhile, 16 troopers under Lt. Carr scouted the Mojave Road. On May 2nd, Carr encountered a band of seven natives who were busily gathering lizards, roots, and worms at the base of Old Dad Mountain. He sent a detachment consisting of a sergeant and four men to cut off any possible retreat and then ordered his remaining men to —œunsling carbines, dismount, forward as skirmishers.— Taking advantage of the fact that their powerful, breach-loading, .52 calibre Sharps carbines outranged any of the weapons carried by the Native Americans, the Dragoons opened fire.

It was a one-sided affair. Carr would report, —œ. . . owing to a high wind, their arrows did no damage.— Within the space of a half-hour, three of the natives were slain, one wounded, and an elderly woman taken prisoner. The Dragoons suffered no casualties.

After taking the evening’s supper, Lt. Carr, likely acting upon orders from Carleton, had the heads cut off of the three dead natives and placed them into a sack. A few days later, these grisly items were mounted for display upon the gibbet at Bitter Creek.

Carleton released the captive woman and instructed her to tell her people that they would be hunted down unless they agreed to cease hostilities. By this time, as one might imagine, most of the terrified native inhabitants had fled the area.

Still itching to fight the Paiutes, Carleton believed that he might be able to lure them into attacking if he were to send out a decoy of three supply wagons. Dragoons were hidden inside of these wagons. Carleton followed within supporting distance with a troop of twenty-five men. Owing to the broken terrain, two of the wagons soon broke down. Neither command discovered any fresh signs of Native Americans.

Carleton was now convinced that —œthe Pah-Utes driven from the south had gone northward to the impenetrable fastness about Mountain Spring, and there joining numerous Indians in that region.— Intent upon finding these elusive warriors and bringing them to a battle, he continued his trek ever and deeper into the vastness of the Mojave.

Carleton continued to pursue his prey without regard to the obstacles nature had lain before him. Marching at the rate of thirty miles a day across hot desert wasteland, his weary command, many of its troopers on foot, arrived at a remote desert oasis located in present-day Nevada that was known to travelers as the Vegas. While his men would occasionally see a few fleeing natives in the distance and come across several recently abandoned rancherias, the natives refused to meet with Carleton. On May 28th, the troops, having covered over three-hundred miles of desert landscape, returned to Camp Cady.

During the ensuing weeks, several more patrols were sent out in all directions. Carleton came to believe that his prey had fled into the distant Panamint Mountains. On June 9th, he sent a detachment of thirty-five Dragoons under the capable command of Lt. Davis to pursue these natives.

The company was guided by an incompetent scout named Joel Brooks, who at the time was being sought by the authorities in Los Angeles on charges of murder. During the 1850’s, Brooks had participated in a number of massacres inf Indian villages in the western foothills of the Sierras. It was said that this Arkansan ruffian had been run out of every town in the Tulare Valley.

With Brooks leading the way, the detachment blundered into the blistering wastelands of Death Valley. Over the next few days, the command nearly perished in its futile search for water and Indians. In his report for the 12th of June, Davis wrote, —œ[t]he day was intensely hot and the men began to suffer for water. Brooks returned at 2 O’clock but without success.— Having used up most of the rations, with horses spent, and being virtually out of water, on Jun
e 14th, Davis wisely decided to return to Camp Cady.

A perturbed General Clarke, at headquarters in San Francisco, had read Carleton’s dispatch which proudly touted the display of severed heads at Bitter Spring. The San Francisco newspapers also reported this incident. In an order dated May 28th, Clarke firmly instructed Carleton to cease mutilation of the dead and to —œremove all evidences of such mutilation from public gaze.—

By the latter part of June, Carleton was convinced that his campaign had made Salt Lake Trail again safe for travelers. This view was confirmed when, just prior to his departure for Fort Tejon, a delegation of Native Americans arrived in camp. After being repeatedly threatened by Carleton, they promised never again to take up arms against the settlers.

On July 3, 1860, the Dragoons—“—“their dusty clothes in rags and their mounts jaded from the months of harsh campaigning in the unforgiving Mojave Desert—“—“abandoned their base at Camp Cady and began the long return march to Fort Tejon. “I have lost no man, nor a horse on the whole campaign” proudly wrote Carleton in his report to General Clarke.

During their three-month absence from Fort Tejon, the Pony Express had initiated the carrying of mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento. Meanwhile, back in the East, the infant Republican party had nominated as its candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown attorney from Springfield, Illinois. That November, Lincoln would be elected as the sixteenth President and, by April of 1861, the nation would be engaged in civil war.

In the fall of 1861, Confederate troops boldly invaded New Mexico Territory. To counter this threat, volunteer troops were raised in California and placed under the command of Carleton. In the spring of 1862, Colonel Carleton and his California Column would boldly march eastward from Los Angeles, across the Mojave Desert, and into the annals of history.

Afterword: The Other Pah-Ute War of 1860

At the time of Carleton’s Bitter Spring expedition, a much greater conflict with the Paiutes was taking place in western Utah Territory. This struggle resulted when two Northern Paiute women were kidnapped and raped by agents of the Pony Express. On May 7, 1860, Paiute warriors destroyed the Pony Express depot at Williams Station, killed five whites, and rescued the women.

A force of 105 boisterous volunteers boldly marched to attack the Paiute villages. On May 12th, the Paiutes, under the able leadership of Numaga (Young Winnemucca) ambushed the column at the Big Bend of the Truckee River, killing over 40 of the volunteers.

Suffice it to say, this military disaster produced intense agitation. Federal troops (144 men of the 3d Artillery and 6th Infantry) and 550 California volunteers (soon placed under the command of former Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays) were rushed over the Sierra Nevada mountains to the seat of war. On June 3d, these troops clashed with and defeated the Paiutes at the battle of Pinnacle Mountain. The next day, Hayes’ men occupied the site of the Paiute village on the shores of Pyramid Lake.

During the summer of 1860, Lt. Stephen Weed of the 4th Artillery met with Numaga and other members of his band. Weed reported that they all “expressed a strong desire for peace.” He was right–peace had been restored to the region.

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