What’s With Whitley?

One of my chief faults is not explaining myself thoroughly.  I probably won’t do it this time, either.

A few readers were left scratching their heads when I launched into a pair of entries about a Deschutes war chief in Oregon and a pipe-tomahawk his family gave to a white friend who was superintendent of the Warm Springs Reservation.  In the first installment I did note that the chief of scouts was probably the inspiration for the very brief tale about an Indian called "White Feather" in Roy Alleman’s The Bloody Saga of White Rock.  In Gloria Lovewell’s volume of genealogical lore The Lovewell Family, he’s known as "White Lily."  What I didn’t mention is that the scout, whose real name was Stock Whitley, may be the key to Thomas Lovewell’s whereabouts during one of the lost years he spent in the West.

Thomas was discharged from the Army in February of 1864, when he caught a stagecoach headed from Fort Churchill to Dayton, Nevada Territory.  The next firm date we have for him is May 12, 1865, when he passes through Dan Smith’s Station along the Platte River Road in Nebraska on his way to Fort Kearny, narrowly missing out on a day-long skirmish with Indian marauders.  After the fight several soldiers had their wounds bandaged, one was laid in his grave, and another received the Congressional Medal of Honor, a few months before deserting from the Army and returning to his Nebraska farm.

Where and how did Thomas spend the fifteen months between those two dates?  We can be fairly sure about his activies leading up to his enlistment in September of 1861.  According to the stories Thomas told his family, he must have gone prospecting in Death Valley in the spring of 1860, shortly after arriving in California following a disappointing tour of the gold mines on the outskirts of Denver.  His oral history has him meandering from Carson City to Virginia City in time to be counted among members of a mining combine in the 1860 census that August.  Virginia City is also where the census found his brother Alfred living in a miner’s shack with a few partners of his own.

Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, the Lovewell brothers seem to have split up to seek their fortunes separately, increasing the chances that one of them might hit the jackpot.  Since Thomas’s stories never mention his companions by name, we can’t be completely sure whether Stoneburner, Lord and Livermore, the men sharing his miner’s shack in Virginia City in August, are the same men who had ventured into Death Valley with him a few months earlier, barely staggering out of the scorching death-trap with their lives.  It's also possible that the brothers decided go their separate ways that summer because they had stumbled upon one of the chief drawbacks of family togetherness in the West:  All three may have been flimlammed by a grizzled con artist who sold them a worthless treasure map, and gulled them into tramping through Death Valley where they all nearly died of thirst together.

Thomas’s stories about his early travels mention Deadwood and Vancouver as stops on his itinerary.  Writing about his father’s adventures, Thomas’s son Stephen assumed that his dad had been talking about the notorious boomtown in South Dakota and an island in British Columbia.  However, Deadwood was not established in the Black Hills before the mid-1870’s, while a lively mining town by that name lured thousands of miners to Tuolumne County, California, in the early 1860’s.  And although Thomas could have ventured into British Columbia, according to the census, by the close of 1860 his brother Solomon was living near Vancouver, Washington Territory, supplementing his prospecting career with the steady pay of a teamster.

Thomas had come west with two brothers in 1859.  After his younger brother Alfred’s death from eating poisonous greens at Fort Churchill in May of 1863, Thomas’s own health slipped into a downward spiral.  When the Army cut him loose with a medical discharge in February 1864, where would he have headed after a few weeks spent recuperating at Dayton?  Probably to Washington Territory to reconnect with his remaining brother Solomon.  

In the spring of 1864 Captain John Drake led the 1st Oregon Cavalry on an offensive against the renegade Paiute Chief Paulina whose men were raiding settlements along the Crooked River.  First-hand accounts of the expedition mention the great number of teamsters driving supply wagons in support of Drake’s cavalry.  When we read about cavalry going to war along the frontier, we usually picture a scene from a John Ford Western, a file of horse soldiers outlined against the sky.  The reality probably looked more like a circus headed to its next engagement, or a scene from “Wagon Train.”  One of the busy teamsters working for the Oregon Cavalry in those days may have been Solomon Lovewell, whose home was only a few miles from the Army’s Headquarters for the District of Oregon at Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory.   

Was Thomas also doing some contract labor for the Army in 1864?  In a brief memoir recited to a reporter from the Courtland Register in 1916, Lovewell mentioned that after his Civil War era stint with the California Volunteers, he was “a scout in the latter part of the war.”  He may have been talking about a time spent in southern Oregon, which is where he would have picked up the story of the death of Stock Whitley, renamed “White Lily” in Orel Jane Lovewell's monograph about her husband's military service in the Northwest.  One detail in her account, that the fallen scout was “buried with military honors,” may not be completely accurate, but could still be significant.  It is a detail not contained in any of the newspaper reports about Whitley’s final battle and its aftermath.  

Only ordinary soldiers who were there at the time would later recall that Whitley had received regimental honors.  It may have been nothing more than a volley fired in salute as Whitley’s scouts left Fort Dalles to take their chief's body home to Warm Springs, but as Mrs. Lovewell wrote, some ceremonial tribute seemed due, because of the “deep sorrow at the loss of such a brave and true soldier.  The loss of his valuable assistance to the company was gravely felt."   


© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com