During a bitter cold winter in northeastern Nevada, a family of hungry Shoshone/Bannock non-reservation Indians from nearby Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho rustled a few head of cattle for food.
They also killed four ranchers to get them, and then fled into the mountains.
Newspaper headlines screamed “Massacre!” and ranchers in remote areas panicked. Women and children sought safety in towns and men who stayed behind were armed and on full alert.
Then a posse on horseback tracked the suspected killers for 200 miles before cornering them. A shootout ensued, ending with nine dead.
That tragedy happened in 1911 and is remembered as the Last Indian Massacre, or the Battle of Kelley Creek.
The previous “Last Massacre” was at Wounded Knee, S.D., on Dec. 29, 1890, when U.S. Army 7th Cavalry troops opened fire on a band of Sioux Indian Ghost Dancers, killing 146 of them (casualty estimates vary). Twenty-five soldiers were also killed.
Cause of the battle according to one report was that “Many Sioux believed that if they practiced the Ghost Dance and rejected the ways of the white man, the gods would create the world anew and destroy all non-believers, including non-Indians.”
The Army was worried about an uprising.
Bringing tensions to the breaking point was the death of famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull 19 days earlier. He was killed when reservation police tried to arrest him — even though he wasn’t a Ghost Dancer.
Shoshone Mike’s Native American name was Ondongarte, but he was known as Mike Daggett on farms and ranches where he worked. He was either Shoshone or Bannock — the two tribes having merged in 1868 when they were forced together onto the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
He was also known as Rock Creek Mike and Indian Mike.
The rest of this story may not be entirely accurate because so many versions have been written about him that it’s almost impossible to sort fact from fiction.
Nevertheless, it’s worth telling because even in the dawn of a new era of cars, movies and airplanes, there was still lingering violence between Native Americans and whites.
Shoshone Mike had reopened old hatreds.
Here’s how it all happened:
Mike Daggett had disliked white settlers for 20 years because in 1890 he and his family were driven off their farmland on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation by settlers who claimed they’d bought it.
After simmering for all those years over the perceived injustice, Daggett and his family finally decided to leave the reservation and return to the old Indian ways of living off the land, though also taking on occasional odd jobs at ranches.
One report said Daggett “was generally well-liked by the ranchers and trading post operators with which he had dealings. He was considered fair, honest, and hard-working and mostly stayed to himself and his family.”
Daggett led his band of 12 family members and two other men south across Nevada and then west to Oroville, Calif., before returning to Nevada to winter at Little High Rock Canyon in Washoe County, 135 miles north of Reno.
With him were his wife, Jenny; sons Charlie and Gnat; daughters Snake and Toad, 17; and two young males and four children. (One confusing report says “Jim, Jake, Willie, 29, Pete, 12, and Jack, 10.”)
Youngest was the Daggetts’ granddaughter Mary Josephine “Mary Joe” — Snake’s daughter — who reportedly was 10 to 18 months old.
In 1910, Mike Daggett was accused of killing a man in revenge for the shooting death of one of his sons by a gang of horse rustlers, so the family decided to flee to the Duck Creek Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border.
They never made it.
That winter was the worst in 20 years. The band was running low on food, so they decided to steal and slaughter some cattle from a local rancher.
Basque sheepherder Bert Indiano saw them do it and alerted other locals.
Four men — Englishman Harry Cambron and three Basques, Peter Errammouspe, John-Baptiste Laxague and Indiano — went to the ranch to investigate.
On Jan. 19, they ran into Daggett and two sons who suspected they were being tracked and waited in ambush.
They killed all four investigators, mutilated their bodies and left them in some willows — their clothes and weapons stolen. Then the killer band quickly fled east.
A search party found the frozen bodies of the four men on Feb. 8 (some say 10th).
Further complicating the search for accuracy in this story is a report that “some of the cowboys on the Miller-Lux ranch were rustling cattle and sheep and …killed these stockmen and mutilated their bodies to make it look like an Indian attack.
“Indeed, a survivor of the subsequent massacre told authorities that the Daggett band had heard the shots and gone to investigate, finding the four men dead.”
The overblown reporting of local newspapers in those times alarmingly called the killings an “Indian uprising” by “barbarous Shoshone renegades.”
On horseback, a well-armed posse of about 20 officers from Nevada and California State Police and citizen volunteers headed by Capt. J.P. Donnelly went out in the deep winter snow to track the killers down — with the help of Paiute tracker Skinny Pascal. Other posses likewise joined the hunt.
A $15,000 cash bounty was promised for the fugitives — DEAD or ALIVE.
With excellent tracking, the posse made good time. On Feb. 25 after a 200-mile search, Donnelley’s posse found Shoshone Mike’s band at Kelley Creek in a wide valley near Winnemucca, Nev.
One report said Shoshone Mike was given the opportunity to surrender but answered by firing at the posse.
Others say the posse fired first.
It was a one-sided battle — even though it lasted about three hours. The Indian band couldn’t compete with its limited and outdated arsenal of a shotgun, rifle, repeating rifle, the pistol taken from Harry Cambron’s body back at Little High Rock, a makeshift spear, tomahawks and several crude bows and arrows.
One source said the band had 300 arrows — which seems highly unlikely.
When the shooting finally stopped, Shoshone Mike was dead, along with his wife, Jenny, five sons and one daughter.
Posse member Ed Hogel was killed with the band’s last bullet.
A second daughter and three grandchildren were taken to Washoe County jail and months later transferred to the Stewart Indian School near Carson City.
Evan Estep, superintendent of the Indian agency at Fort Hall later took the children back to Idaho and adopted baby Mary Jo, who had been taken off the cradleboard strapped to her dead mother’s back. She would be the only survivor. Sadly, within a year all the other children died of tuberculosis.
Mary Jo Estep never married or had children, but she had a good life. She graduated from Central Washington College with a degree in music and then taught elementary school for 40 years.
She died in a nursing home in Yakima in 1992 at age 82, surrounded by friends who had come to take her to a party.
A nurse had mistakenly just given her an overdose of medication, putting her in distress. Doctors declined to reverse its effects because paperwork said she didn’t want extraordinary resuscitation if there was an emergency.
She lingered for hours. The nurse was crying and stayed with Mary Jo to the end.
They could have saved her.
There was a lot of political incorrectness about the Shoshone Mike story — not really surprising because of the culture in America in those days.
Historians still debate the “massacre.” Some say it was an American Indian revolt; others that it was simply an Indian family suffering hard times, struggling to stay alive in a harsh winter and trying to escape the law.
A Reno Gazette story suggests Shoshone Mike was framed.
Regretfully, this story is also a dark footnote in the otherwise bright history of the Basques in Idaho and surrounding areas, because four of the men killed were Basques.
There was another footnote:
The previous “Last Massacre” at Wounded Knee did not end in 1890. A protest on various issues drew 200 Oglala Sioux back to Wounded Knee in 1973. Law enforcement stepped in.
One U.S. marshal was shot and paralyzed; two tribal members killed and a civil rights protester taking part disappeared and was possibly murdered.
Some wars don’t end easily.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘Look for History Popcorn every Wednesday brought to you by Ziggy’s.’
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About survivor little Mary Jo
“Although her adoptive parents told her about the massacre, she never asked for details and they never talked much about Shoshone Mike, she said. She was treated as a white person and noted: ‘Most of my friends are non-Indians.’”
— Ed Vogel, “Shoshone Mike’s story endures after a century,” Las Vegas Review Journal (Mar. 1, 2014)
“It was a very large story, a lot of newspaper accounts of it. If nothing else, they were denied due process and were shot down, not a triumph of American justice… It’s a tragic piece of Nevada and American history, not much to be proud of. Given current sensibilities, I doubt we’d see much about the triumphant posse killing ‘evil Indians.’”
— Peter Bandurraga, Nevada Historical Society Museum, Reno
After the battle
The posse found Shoshone Mike’s war bonnet and murdered rancher Harry Cambron’s watch as evidence linking the killings to the Indian band. The bodies were taken by wagon to Golconda, Nev., and buried together in a hole blasted out by dynamite, with a pole erected as a grave marker. Another report however says they were buried where they fell.
In the 19th century, massacres involving Indians and whites were common events that shocked the people at that time, but for a massacre to happen in the “modern” 20th century was even more shocking, according to Vassar professor Frank Bergon, author of “Shoshone Mike.”
Shoshone Mike epilogue
“Indian uprising? That’s what the press and a lot of people called it but it was more like a family that panicked and fled from the law knowing that they would have to pay a deadly price if caught. Yes, they committed a terrible crime and cannot be excused. In the end, though, it wasn’t an uprising. Just an Indian family who got into a heap of trouble.”
— Howard Hickson, historian, museologist
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