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Tule River War
Part of the American Indian Wars
Date 1856
Location San Joaquin Valley, California
Result United States victory
United States
Flag of California.svg California
Commanders and leaders
CaliforniaFoster DeMasters
California W. G. Poindexter
United States LaRhett Livingston
300–400 >700
Casualties and losses
some wounded >100 killed

The Tule River War of 1856 was a conflict where American settlers, and later, California State Militia, and a detachment of the U. S. Army from Fort Miller, fought a six week war against the Yokut in the southern San Joaquin Valley.[1][2]


The Native Americans living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains were relatively undisturbed by early Spanish colonization. During the late 1840s and into the 1850s, once gold was discovered in California, miners began encroaching on traditional lands. In late 1850, a trader named James Woods settled on the south bank of the Kaweah River along with a party of approximately fifteen men. According to a contemporary account, the entire party of settlers was killed by Native Americans the following spring. After the Kaweahs had imposed a deadline of ten days to clear out, when the settlers missed the deadline, they were attacked and Woods was skinned following the battle.[1][2] Other accounts come from survivors who state Woods was the lone victim, although the various accounts all agree Woods was skinned.[1]

Although a treaty was signed with the local tribes in 1851 (one of eighteen such treaties signed state-wide, setting aside seven and a half percent of California's land area),[3] defining a proposed reservation and two hundred head of cattle per year,[4] the US Senate failed to ratify any of the eighteen treaties in a secret vote cast on July 8, 1852, with every member either abstaining or voting no.[5] The result of the vote was not made public until 1905.[3]

In the fall of 1851, the Wingfield brothers settled and claimed the land near the cabin built by Woods. The Wingfields did not initially experience any trouble with the Native population.[1] On April 20, 1852, Mariposa County was subdivided, creating Tulare County, with the temporary county seat to be near the Woods cabin. Creating a new county brought new government positions, and during the preparation for elections to be held in July 1852, the Wingfield brothers were taken captive by Native Americans. They were later released when an armed expedition under Major James Savage approached the encampment.[1]

In 1851, William Campbell and John Poole set up a ferry across the Kings River on land reserved for the Choinumni in one of the un-ratified 1851 treaties. The nearby Choinumni village was raided in July 1852 by the newly-elected Judge Walter Harvey. After the skirmish, Judge Harvey shot and killed Major James Savage.[6][7]

Throughout the 1850s, settler-led militias would attack Native American villages, justifying their actions as retaliation for raids of cattle and horses. Although the Native Americans did steal horses and cattle, they were often motivated by subsistence, as their normal means of living were often cut off by settlers, and these raids generally did not threaten settler lives. In contrast, the militias would often indiscriminately slaughter Native people.[8]

In 1853, some of the Yokuts-speaking population were relocated to the Sebastian Indian Reservation by California's first Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Ned Beale.[8] Beale's vision was similar to the Spanish Missions, and he intended the Sebastian Reservation to be self-sustaining. Since the Sebastian Reservation was not located close to traditional Yokuts territories, though, the majority of the Yokuts population stayed in the newly-formed Tulare County.[8] In August 1855, citizens of Visalia petitioned Beale's successor, Superintendent Thomas Henley to prevent starvation amongst the Native populace.[8] The settlers reasoned that potential raids could be averted by establishing an agency to ensure Native welfare. Henley's plan was similar to Beale's: establish self-sufficient reservations. In preparation, Henley delegated scouts to identify suitable locations in the Tule Lake region.[8]


In the spring of 1856, a rumor that 500 cattle had been stolen by Native Americans began to circulate. Upon further investigation, a single yearling calf had been taken and slaughtered as a bridal gift during the wedding feast.[1] In addition, Orson Smith's sawmill burned, and the fire was attributed to Native American marauders.[9] Armed militias were organized to counter the perceived menace, and commenced raiding Native camps and killing their inhabitants.[8] In Visalia, some citizens took in a village of Native Americans upon overhearing a militia plan to ambush the village at night.[1]

One militia, under the leadership of Captain Foster DeMasters, ventured up the north fork of the Tule River, where they encountered a well-sited Native encampment. According to historical reports, the encampment had fortifications which consisted of a two- to four-foot high breastworks composed of boulders and brush, and the terrain made it difficult for an attacker to flank. In the initial attack, the militia under DeMasters failed to dislodge the numerically-superior Native force. DeMasters' militia was wearing makeshift body armor consisting of cotton-padded jackets, which proved ineffective against arrows.[1][2] A small detachment from DeMasters' militia under the command of John Williams had separated from the main force earlier in pursuit of the presumed cattle raiders, and encountered a small party of Native Americans. After attacking and driving off the party at daybreak, Williams' group returned to DeMasters, and it was decided to send for reinforcements. During the ride to Keyesville, Williams encountered what he thought was a bear, which he promptly shot. Later, when riding back with the Keyesville reinforcements, it was discovered that Williams had shot a large black mule owned by a local settler.[1]

The combined force, including reinforcements from Keyesville, now under the leadership of Sheriff W.G. Poindexter, were also unable to dislodge the Native encampment. After falling back, the militia then proceeded to move, by force, the Native Americans which had been previously protected by other settlers. In addition, the militias conducted a scorched-earth campaign by destroying Native American supply caches.[1] News of these engagements spread throughout California, exaggerating the degree of menace and misrepresenting its causes.[2] Finally, in May 1856, army soldiers and others under the combined command of Lt LaRhett Livingston were able to drive off the defenders. It had been decided the night before to divide the combined forces into four divisions to envelop and simultaneously assault the encampment at daybreak. However, during the preliminary scouting, Livingston was in the process of selecting the most advantageous ground for a howitzer he had brought along when he came under attack. Livingston then ordered a charge and drove off the encampment's defenders. The natives were pursued for a few days into the mountains but could not be found before the Livingston's force was compelled to return to the valley.[1] This was the last engagement in the war. After several more weeks of raids on cattle herds and settler houses, the Indian sub-Agent William Campbell, sought out the natives in the mountains and found they were willing to make peace. About 100 of the native people had died in the war. The Tule River War lasted approximately six weeks.[1]


In retrospect, George Stewart wrote "Thus ended the Tule river war of 1856; a war that might have been prevented had there been an honest desire on the part of the white settlers to do so, and one that brought little glory to those who participated therein. The responsibility cannot now be fixed where it properly belongs. Possibly the Indians were to blame. Certainly the whites were not blameless, and it is too seldom, indeed, that they have been in the many struggles with the aboriginal inhabitants of this continent."[1]

Historian Annie Mitchell later wrote in the Tulare County Historical Society bulletin (Los Tulares No. 68, March 1966): "Over the years it has been assumed that the Tule River War was a spontaneous, comic opera affair. It was not and if the Indians had been armed with guns instead of bows and a few pistols they would have run the white men out of the valley."[10]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Menefee, Eugene L; Dodge, Fred A (1913). History of Tulare and Kings Counties California. Retrieved October 7, 2014.  Chapter II, The Indian War of '56, pp.20–24
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Gorenfeld, William (June 1999). "The Tule River War". Retrieved October 7, 2014. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly (September 2002). "Early California Laws and Policies Relating to California Indians". California Research Bureau of the California State Library. ISBN 1587031639. Retrieved October 7, 2014. 
  4. Frank, Gelya. "The Un-ratified treaties of 1851". Tule River Tribe. Retrieved October 7, 2014. 
  6. Bulls, Jim (May 26, 2012). "Life on the Kings River in Days Gone By". Retrieved October 7, 2014. 
  7. "First Judge in Tulare County". November 3, 2013. Retrieved October 7, 2014. "Poole's Ferry: Most important of Kings River's earliest crossings, it was operated from 1851–1857 by William Campbell and John Poole 3 miles above this point. The ferry and its trading post served travelers and miners. In July, 1852, it became the focus of violence when an armed party led by Walter Harvey, Tulare County's first judge, raided a Choinumni Yokuts Indian Village. Yosemite discoverer Major James D. Savage, famed Indian trader and peacemaker, tried to ease tensions but was shot and killed by Harvey in an argument at the trading post on Aug 16, 1852" 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Frank, Gelya; Goldberg, Carole (2010). Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe's Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300120165. Retrieved October 7, 2014. 
  9. "Battle Mountain Marker". October 20, 1990. Retrieved October 7, 2014. "Battle Mountain: A long period of unrest between the settlers and Indians of Tulare County erupted in war during the Spring of 1856. Untrue reports that five hundred head of cattle had been stolen in Frazier Valley and the burning of the Orson K. Smith sawmill aroused the local settlers. A group of volunteers under the command of Foster DeMasters located a party of over seven hundred Indians in fortified positions on the cone shaped mountain in the valley below. Unable to breach the Indian defenses on their own, the volunteers sent for help. A second company of Tulare County Volunteers under Sheriff W. G. Poindexter, miners from Keysville on the Kern River, settlers from as far north as Merced and Mariposa and Army detachments from Fort Tejon and Fort Miller responded. Captain Livingston of Fort Miller assumed overall command of a combined force estimated at three to four hundred men. Unable to withstand assault by this combined force and their Army howitzer, the Indians disappeared into the pine forest above you. Reports indicate three settlers were wounded and several Indians were killed. Dedicated October 20, 1990; Dr Samuel Gregg George; Chapter 1855 of E Clampus Vitus" 
  10. Frank, Gelya. "The Tule River Indian War of 1856". Tule River Tribe. Retrieved October 7, 2014. 

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