From his cell within the Mendocino County Jail, Dr. John Wheeler told Ukiah City Press editor A.O. Carpenter that he was innocent of any connection to the ambush murder of two Mendocino City citizens in October, 1879. In addition, Wheeler insisted an acquaintance named Bailey had framed him on a charge of stagecoach robbery eleven years earlier. That holdup took place in the summer of 1868, not long after Wheeler killed Bigfoot in southwestern Idaho (see the first two February, 2021 AVA editions for the specifics on that story).
Wheeler served as a deputy sheriff in Boise (he maintained he held the position for two years) during the 1860s as well as a special deputy U.S. Marshal in the early months of 1868. By that summer, mines throughout Idaho thrived. In the enriched economy, stagecoach runs proved the object of many a holdup.
The Pioneer Stage Line hauled Wells, Fargo & Co. strong boxes as often as three times daily between Boise City and Umatilla, Oregon. These shipments contained thousands of dollars worth of gold from the mines of Idaho and eastern Oregon. Northwest of the towns of Union and La Grande, not far from the community of Meacham, the stage route passed through the Blue Mountains. Lengthy stretches of laborious, uphill travel in that vicinity provided ample opportunity for armed robbers.
Sources vary as to who first hatched the plot to rob the stage line in the Blue Mountains, Wheeler or his brother-in-law, Dr. William Le Burr. Doctor LeBurr owned a ranch on the outskirts of Summerville, a few miles north of La Grande. The good physician possessed local knowledge regarding the comings and goings of the stage line owned by John Hailey, who later authored the first definitive history of the early years of Idaho.
As 1868 rolled into summer, Wells, Fargo & Co. employed a seasoned stagecoach driver, Seth “Doc” Austin, to watch for potential outlaws in southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon and, if possible, infiltrate their gang.
Doc Austin had made regular stage runs in the area for some time, familiarizing himself with practically everyone in the towns and stations along his routes. He focused his attention on a handful of individuals because “the manner in which they conducted themselves” made him certain they were achieving their livelihood by unlawful means... “I commenced watching every move they made, and I did all I could when meeting them to make them believe that I was friendly towards them.”
The stage driver took careful note of those who rode both sides of the law. “On the 16th of June, 1868, J.F. Wheeler arrived in La Grande in pursuit, as he said, of two thieves... representing himself as Deputy U.S. Marshal from Boise City. On the 15th of June, I quit driving for a short vacation, and on the 17th went on a visit to Walla Walla [Washington]. The second day after my arrival there, I found Dr. LeBurr and wife [Wheeler's brother-in-law and sister, respectively]. I have been acquainted with these people some nine or ten years, having first met them when they lived near Rock Point, on the Rogue River, Southern Oregon. I was anxious to have a private conversation with LeBurr, and took advantage of the first chance. I went with him to a watch and jewelry store, where he sold between four and five hundred dollars worth of dust, he stating to the storekeeper that it came from a camp near Shasta mines, giving it a name which I knew to be false, as there was no such place in that section of country. Before he had got the money for his dust I walked out of the store, and I again met him as usual. In the course of talk he asked me if I had quit driving. I told him that I had not quit entirely, but that I expected to soon; that I had been in the country nearly eighteen years and always worked for every dollar I got, and that I had become tired of hard work and intended soon to resort to some other means of making a living. He then asked me if I thought of taking unfair means to make a raise. I answered that I did... Whereupon he told me to ask John (meaning J.F. Wheeler) when he came up, for a few points, and he was satisfied that John would give them to me as he liked me very much.”
Doc Austin returned to his stage driving job in the last week of June, 1868. On the 28th, he drove a team and coach into La Grande, Oregon, on the east side of the Blue Mountains. There, he met Melville Bailey, who apprised him that John Wheeler would be amenable to a discussion the following day.
On that evening Austin and Wheeler engaged in a stroll around La Grande's dusty streets. According to Doc Austin, “He told me then that he wanted me to go in with them and become one of the band. I told him that was what I was on, but I did not like to go in with a man if he could not stand up for the work. He said I need not be alarmed for he had been in some tight places, and that he would be true to me to the last. I then accepted of the position and was considered as belonging to the band.”
During the conversation Wheeler bragged about taking part in a many highway robberies. All that remained was for Wheeler to pick out a place to rob Wells, Fargo & Co.'s Express in the Blue Mountains.
Melvin Bailey, the bookkeeper at Our House in LaGrande, informed Austin on July 25th that at least four members of the robbery gang had arrived at LeBurr's ranch. John Billings, George Savage, Tom Corey and a fellow named Johnson left the ranch late that afternoon, secreting themselves in the mountains near a locale Wheeler had chosen for the robbery.
Eventually, due to too many campers in the original spot, the planned holdup moved two miles up the road. Austin sent word to Wells, Fargo's division agent, suggesting the best course of action would be to let the robbery go ahead then afterward proceed with arresting the whole band.
At 5 o'clock in the morning on the 2nd day of August, Doc Austin drove the stagecoach north through the Blue Mountains with Wells, Fargo messenger A.J. Sheppard riding alongside. While Sheppard set his gun down to strike a match against his boot, the stage passed over four or five dead limbs, snapping each of them, and in the next instant two masked men stepped onto the roadway.
Austin recounted, “[B]efore I could put my foot on the brake, I was staring down the muzzle of a double barreled shotgun, within six feet of me. The robbers cried out, 'Halt,' each one repeating it, which I did; they then ordered the messenger, Sheppard, to throw up his hands, which he did; then they told him to throw his gun down. He said he did not have his gun. They told him a third time to throw it down, and also remarked that they would not tell him again, when I reached over and took his gun and threw it to one side of the road. They then ordered the messenger to get down, and passengers (of whom there were three) to get out of the stage, and marched them, with their hands above their heads, to about twenty yards in front of the team, where two of the robbers stood guard over them. I remained in my seat. One of the robbers told me to throw out the treasure box and then to throw out everything in the boot, which I did. I next heard them at work breaking open the treasure box in the rear of the stage, and as I knew there was nothing but rocks in it [the Wells, Fargo division agent took the treasure out earlier]; I was afraid they might suspicion that I had given some information, and if they did I had concluded my time had come, but, as luck would have it, they did not suspect anything was wrong. They then opened the mail and the passengers' baggage and took such things as they considered valuable. Next, they went through the passengers' pockets. After this I heard one of them remark, 'this was the d---dest poorest crowd he had ever struck.'“
From information Austin provided, law enforcement arrested John Billings and Melville Bailey at Walla Walla on the 26th of August. On the night of the 27th and morning of the 28th, local officials in Grande Ronde Valley, handcuffed Dr. LeBurr and four others, including Wheeler's younger brother, James.
Rube Robbins, the same U.S. Marshal that Wheeler served under while calming warring mine companies in Silver City, Idaho, affected the arrest of Wheeler near Olds Ferry on the Snake River. Robbins handed Wheeler and George Savage, handcuffed together, over to fellow U.S. Marshal J.H. Alvord for transport to La Grande. In the middle of the night, somewhere in Oregon, with the coach rambling along at its highest speed, Wheeler and Savage jumped from the stage. By the time the driver halted his team, the duo scampered from sight. The next day Marshal Alvord posted a reward offer of $500 for the arrest of both or $300 for either one.
Wheeler didn't elude authorities long. They recaptured him the next day near Summerville.
Of course, the facts of J.F. Wheeler's past in Oregon and Idaho differed from the picture the Mendocino dentist presented to A.O. Carpenter. After listening to Wheeler at length, one of the most respected men in the county, Carpenter, summed up his thoughts on the matter at hand. “We presume no stone will be left un-turned to show his connection with the outlaw band, and if it shall be conclusive, then is he a plausible villain. If it is not, then should society make him amends by lending him a helping hand.”
Mendocino Outlaws Cross the Sacramento River
On the same day Dr. Wheeler escaped the Mendocino County jail in Ukiah, the other fugitive outlaws, John Billings, Harrison Brown, and George Gaunce made their way to the bank of the Sacramento River. They passed the daylight hours lying low in brush about four miles north of Tehama. The three wanted men had walked over thirty miles the night before, so a day of rest in the willows proved a welcome break.
In the late afternoon they commenced lashing branches around pieces of wood that might float them across the wide waterway on a raft. However, a sheepherder settled close by to watch his flock and the threesome abandoned their work to take cover.
At nightfall, with the sheepherder having moved on, George Gaunce waded into the river, urging his comrades to follow, but Billings and Brown balked. First they asserted that the water was too cold, then they gauged the river too deep and swift at its center. Finally, the reluctant pair admitted they did not know how to swim.
Instead, they all scrambled along the edge of the riverbank, staying out of sight as much as possible, walking the four miles south to the trestle at Tehama. They waited for a freight train to steam by then Gaunce set out striding broadly from tie to tie. Billings and Brown, unnerved by the rushing waters beneath, dropped to their hands and knees on the wider planks between the tracks. Gaunce crossed quickly to the east side, but with the other two still crawling along, he heard the express train approaching.
Billings and Gaunce heard it too. Their crawl turned to a crab sprint. The pair leaped off the eastern end of the bridge to a hiding spot beside Gaunce as the express roared by. From there they headed down river another four miles in the dark. When the sun peeked through the clouds at dawn, they sought refuge in the brush. Rain spattered their covering and dripped down on the three fugitives, growing hungrier by the hour. Brown longed for the overcoat he'd left behind at Rattlesnake Gulch. The same warm overcoat he'd seen Doc Standley wearing two days before. Perhaps he should have let Billings shoot Standley. Of course, the precious coat would be blood-splattered then.
The pursuing posse had tracked them all the way to Tehama. However, the footprints of the trio washed away alongside the riverbank above the Tehama trestle.
The posse walked their mounts across the same bridge Billings and Gaunce crawled over. On the other side they divided into two search parties, one following close to the river, the other heading east then south to the community of Vina before returning to Tehama. In the meantime, the outlaws moved from the riverbank to the railroad, traveling south. By doing so they inadvertently avoided both posses, who passed by them on either side going south then again while returning to Tehama.
Sheriff Moore re-crossed the Sacramento and joined with Sheriff-elect Donohoe's party, searching the foothills west of Paskenta. Standley's small posse continued the pursuit near the Sacramento. The fugitives followed the Southern Pacific tracks south and east, heading for Chico, hiding out when trains passed, grabbing what sustenance they could without being discovered.
As the searchers recaptured Dr. Wheeler in Ukiah, Billings, Brown, and Gaunce skirted around Chico. On November tenth and eleventh they headed into Butte Creek canyon, camping beside the creek on the latter day. To avoid leaving any trace from their campsite, the following day they waded into Butte Creek. Heading northeasterly, they spent much of the day in the water, stepping out when absolutely necessary to avoid deep pools, trying to step only on rocky ground that would leave no trace.
Before nightfall they stumbled upon a sympathetic Chinese fellow who led them to a house where he believed the threesome could seek refuge. The homeowner refused to keep them, but did convey them to Whiskey Flat where lodging for the night was provided.
Beyond the change from stealth to showing themselves, the outlaws now possessed a plan. Harrison Brown's half-sister, Elizabeth Brown Striker and her husband, Fred, lived at Nimshew with their four children. Ahead of the outlaws lay the Centerville Road, which led directly to Nimshew. At that trail's junction with Helltown Road, Brown, Billings and Gaunce followed a middle path up Butte Creek five to six miles then cut east a mile or so to Nimshew.
On November 14th, they made it to Brown's relatives at Nimshew. With two teenage boys and two younger daugthers, the Strikers displayed hesitancy to harbor the fugitives within their own home. Instead, Mr. Striker showed them a vacant cabin outside the village. With Striker provisioning the desperadoes, they settled in on November 15th, precisely one month after ambushing the Mendocino posse. How many hundreds of miles they had traveled, they could not rightly guess, but as a night, and another day and night, passed a sense of security sunk in for the first time since the days leading up to the Mendocino killings.
Doc Standley remained on the trail for several more days without further clues as to the outlaws whereabouts. All three posses, Moore's, Standley's, and Donohoe's, ran out of supplies and the money to pay for them. One by one they gravitated to the railroad, taking trains south then north back to Ukiah. Andy Bowman led his horses and one mule back through Glenn and Lake County to his Mendocino County home. Those three posses combined to cover a thousand miles on horseback and on foot, but Billings, Brown, and Gaunce were somehow further from their grasp than they had been a month before.
*Coming soon: Doc Standley refuses to give up.