The Eliza Bowman Story (Part 1)

Eliza Durbin was born to Theresa Fugate Durbin and her husband Daniel in Missouri during the last month of 1828. Daniel was a native of Maryland and Theresa stemmed from a pioneer family of Kentucky. He was thirty-two years his wife's senior and sixty-eight years of age when Eliza came into the world.

The Durbins were 49ers. They came west to California with other Show-Me-Staters, though Daniel was in his late eighties. Eliza moved on quickly to Oregon where she wed fellow Missourian John Bowman at the end of 1849. They moved back to California, first to Napa County then Sonoma. Both Daniel Durbin and John's mother died before Eliza gave birth to her first child, Mary. Between 1851 and 1862 Eliza successfully brought four daughters and three sons into the world of early California.

In Sonoma County the Bowmans settled at what was then known as Analy Township, west of Santa Rosa. Tragedy struck in 1866 when Mary died at age fifteen. A year later John Bowman died at forty-two, leaving Eliza with six children ranging from fourteen to five. Eliza found a place to homestead, 160 acres of bottom land near the Eel River. The Humboldt County ranch was thirty miles distant from Hydesville and about three miles north of Camp Grant (an army post). The nearest neighbors, the Ward family, lived about a half mile from Mrs. Bowman and her children.

Camp Grant had been established in 1863, three miles from the confluence of the South Fork of the Eel River and Bull Creek. In the spring and summer of 1864, troops from Camp Grant under the command of Captain John Y. Simpson captured more than 160 Indians then transferred them to the reservation at Round Valley. By the end of the following spring, Simpson and his company left the post to civilians who continued to occupy the spot. An official post office took hold in 1868.

How much of the local history Mrs. Bowman was aware of is unknown, but its background extended north to the land of the Hoopa. In 1851 the United States Congress sent Commissioner Redick McKee to establish treaties with the Hoopa, Yurok, and Karuk. Congress did not ratify a single one of McKee's treaties, in part because public opinion clamored for keeping land open for white settlement.

By 1860 dozens of white farmers and their families had settled in Hoopa Valley. The Hoopa resisted attempts aimed at removing them from the area. White settlers feared that Hoopa men had procured rifles from miners passing through the region. Their insistence on government protection brought about the establishment of Fort Gaston within Hoopa Valley. Years of armed skirmishes, in which the Hoopa won many a victory, followed until an 1864 treaty banished white settlers from the valley. The eviction took effect in mid-February 1865; however, by this time the number of Hoopa villages had shrunk from at least eleven to four, due to disease, slave trade of children, death in battle, and consolidation of villages for protective purposes. The Hoopa (spelled variously, including Hupa) population shrank by 2/3 in the decade and a half after Redick McKee's attempts at making peace treaties. The eviction of whites from Hoopa Valley did not sit easily with Anglo-Europeans in the surrounding region who clamored for more settlement, mining opportunities, timber cutting, as well as other commercial and agricultural ventures. Writing in a January 1, 1869, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle one white man observed, “For the past six or eight years portions of Trinity, Klamath and Humboldt counties have borne with equanimity all the terrors and uncertainties attending a country beset by savages... The Indians, instead of being trained to docility and obedience, have been allowed to roam at large, and have exhibited a predatory, savage and terribly malicious character. When outrages have been committed the savages have uniformly fled to the sheltering and friendly cover of the Hoopa valley, thereby preventing the citizens from wreaking a retributive vengeance upon their merciless and relentless foe.”

Considering who was there first, that writer had a backward view about who was acting in a predatory manner. Nevertheless, white settlers were being attacked farther and farther south from Hoopa Valley. Whether or not the attacks were actually made by the Hoopa or other groups is unclear, but at least some undoubtedly were.

In early March, 1869, on the outskirts of Hydesville, a young fellow named Albert De Lassaux was killed while plowing the field adjacent to his house. His sister and two of her children witnessed what they described as Indians at the scene. After they fled to a nearby home, an alarm was sounded. According to the Eureka Times of March 13, 1869 and the Sacramento Daily-Union of March 15th, “A party started in pursuit of the Indians, but they had made good their escape, having first plundered the [De Lassaux] house of all the clothing and provisions they could get hold of, and trying to set fire to the house by piling combustible matter on the stove, which was not hot enough to create a flame. Two rifles were behind the door, which being open concealed them from sight. De Lassaux was found in the field pierced through the heart by two bullets. The place where the Indians were concealed (in some low brush) was about twenty-five or thirty feet distant from where the deceased was when he was shot. De Lassaux was a young man much esteemed by his neighbors and acquaintances, and who, by his moral and upright conduct, had won the confidence and respect of all.”

The Humboldt Times of March 20, 1869, adds to the story, “We learn that the Indians who have of late been raiding so fearfully upon the lives and property of citizens in our county, paid a visit to Uncle Sam a few days since, destroying property of the value of $10,000 or $12,000. It seems that a short time previous to the murder of De Lassaux by the Indians, the authorities at Camp Gaston had sent out a detachment of ten or twelve soldiers and an equal number of friendly Indians in search of the Indians engaged in committing the depredations we have of late had occasion to record.

“This detachment had arrived in the district of country where these hostile Indians were supposed to be ranging, and established their camp. We have not heard what the movements of the detachment have been, but we are informed that, a few days after the killing of De Lassaux, the Indians made an attack upon the mule transportation train belonging to the detachment, while the same was being taken to camp, killing ten of the mules and wounding a number more.”

Apparently, this particular band of mule killing Indians was in the vicinity of Camp Grant. White witnesses put their number at eight or ten men along with “several squaws.”

Eliza Durbin Bowman

The rumors of Indians in the area had filtered down to Eliza Bowman at her place. Her oldest son was away from home, taking with him the family's only rifle. Even before dawn on March 25th Eliza noticed one of their cows acting unusually nervous. She hurried inside, waking her remaining children, and telling them to get dressed as rapidly as possible. Meanwhile she grabbed her best means of defense, a double-barreled shotgun, and took up a watchful position at the front window. The nervous cow mooed and turned its attention to a nearby hillside.

On that hill, Mrs. Bowman thought she could make out the figure of someone partially hidden behind a manzanita bush, but she couldn't be sure in the dim light. She allowed her oldest daughter, Malinda (known as Lindy), to walk to the muddy corral. There the girl completed milking chores and turned the milk cows out to pasture. They browsed and grazed calmly and quietly, but that one cow ran to her calf, bellowing all the way.

Eliza Bowman opened the front door and called from the front door for her daughter to run to the house of their nearest neighbor, David Ward, a distance of 2,000 feet or so. A rifle round hit Eliza just left of her navel, traveled through her, and fractured the top of her hip bone.

Next time: What happened at the Bowman place along the Eel River on March 25, 1869.

(More tales of times long gone by at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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