July 18, 2010

Nevada's Online State News Journal

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Nevada History:

 

[From Robert Welles Ritchie, The Hell-roarin' Forty-niners (1928)]

 

Chapter 13

THE SAGE BRUSH WAR

            ONE of the most joyous comedies of the Days of Gold was the Sage Brush War.

            Perhaps one had better justify a seeming solecism in that sentence; for, commonly, there is little of joy or comedy in war. Quite likely that sixty-five years ago, when a sterner generation's taste for the humorous had not been elevated by the comic strip and the movie's custard pie, practically no excuse for laughter could be discerned in the bitter struggle for sovereignty between the Never Sweats of Honey Lake Valley and the jealous authorities of Plumas County. But then, after the passage of so many softening years and with shots fired in Toadtown's anger now reverberating through the farthest ether, we unregenerates can review the serio-comic episodes of the Sage Brush War—and laugh.

            Like the crisis involving the French ambassador to the Republic of Texas and his landlord's hogs, this passage in the annals of the frontier is one of those rare and forgotten gems of history which never has been given adequate setting by the dry-as-dust chroniclers. Not one in ten thousand of California's boosters, climatologists and sunshine-fruit-and

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flower addicts knows that once Rebellion raised her gory head within the hallowed precincts of the Golden State or that a stern effort was made nigh three-quarters of a century ago to rend away a part of the sacred domain.

            Reader, meet Isaac Roop, the Aaron Burr of pioneer California, and his faithful henchmen Rough Elliott, Cap Hill, Whangdoodle Brannan, valiants of the sagebrush. Heroes of a footnote to history. Now for their story. . . .

            In the first mad rush of the gold seekers to California's fabulous placers the toughest stretch of the whole trip across the plains lay over the deserts immediately east of the Sierras and across the mountain barrier. New trails were constantly being pioneered in the hope of escape from the tortures of thirst in Humboldt Sink and the agony of lifting the great prairie schooners over precipitous passes. One of these was the Beckwourth Pass route, discovered by a shaggy old mountain man : the same corridor through the mountains that admits a transcontinental railroad to-day. On the eastern slope of the Sierras where the sagebrush of the desert climbs to meet the mountains' black timber the Beckwourth trail passed through one end of a broad and watered valley cradling a sizable lake of snow water.

            This was christened Honey Lake Valley. Its wild rye grass high enough to sweep the knees of a horseman was temptingly green to the gaunt-faced emi-

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grants just fresh from the terrors of the Sink. Its clear running waters were sweet music in their ears. Yet the lure of gold beyond the mountain wall was strongest. They pushed on.

            But one, remembering, turned back after all his luck in the new land had fallen to ashes. Burned out in his business in the hurly-burly gold town of Shasta, down to his last nicked dollar, Isaac N. Roop borrowed a stake to take him over the mountains to Honey Lake Valley and there on the emigrant trail he took up a land claim, built himself a log house—which served as a hotel and general store when the emigrant trains came through—and, all unconsciously, laid for himself the groundwork of what was to grow into interesting sedition.

            Quite a citizen, this Isaac Roop. A Marylander of German blood. Finding his likeness in steel engraving among the pages of an obscure book on local history, you are struck by the leonine head, the heavy jaw smooth shaven in a time when men were bearded to the eyes, a mouth as imperious as Andy Jackson's.

            Roop prospered. Others joined him to make a settlement : men who'd gone broke in the mines, men who'd quit their farms in the States at the prompting of a siren voice and then remembered, as did Roop, a valley on the emigrant trail which was aching for the caress of the plow. Roop had taken up his claim in 1853; five years later the valley was credited with a population of 250. About Isaac Roop's log house

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had grown a tiny settlement named Susanville-- some say Roop honored a daughter of his thus—and then there were Toadtown and Janesville, hamlets in the sage scrub.

            Life was pretty primitive there in Honey Lake Valley under the white eaves of the Sierras. The mining towns to the south and west held the Honey Lakers in fine scorn because they were farmers; and in the golden lexicon of the gold seeker there was nothing lower than a farmer, not even a snake. In compliment to their own toil over Long Tom and flume—for these Argonauts fancied themselves terrifically hard workers—the lordly miners dubbed the farmers of Honey Lake Valley Never Sweats : fine Anglo-Saxon scorn compacted. The humble rutabaga came to be known as "Honey Lake currency." One tale going the rounds of the aristocratic mining camps tells the story of a gold world's contempt for mere earth grubbers :

            Orlando Streshly, a Never Sweat, had traces made of buckskin on his plow horse's harness. One day he plowed in the rain. His buckskin traces stretched. Stretched so consarned far that when the horse had come to the end of the furrow the plow hadn't moved from the opposite side of Orlando's field. So what does Orlando do but unhitch his horse and hang the harness on the snake-rail fence over yonder. Next day, which is sunny, Orlando comes back to his field and finds that, with the drying of the buckskin harness, his plow's been drug in a straight furrow smack

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up to where the harness was anchored to the fence!

            The Never Sweats of the Valley might have withstood the taunts of their mining town neighbors over the mountains with equanimity—probably they did —had it not been that before long what appeared an effort to sting them in their pocketbooks was launched by the authorities of Plumas County. Tax assessors and tax collectors rode their mules over the heights to diddle around and profess themselves competent to collect tithes for the support of the sovereign State of California.

            An eye-opener for the Never Sweats !

            They didn't believe their valley was in the State of California. The boundary line never had been run ; no, not since California was admitted to statehood in 1850. Honey Lake Valley lay within the jurisdiction of Utah Territory—if within any at all —and they'd be dam'd if they'd pay taxes to Plumas or any other county.

            See our worthy Rough Elliott standing off the Sheriff of Plumas who has come with his deputies, either to collect overdue taxes or run off stock of the delinquent in equivalent. Rough, with his boys behind him each armed with a shotgun; Sheriff Pierce with his deputies sitting their horses light and with trigger fingers light under the guards.

            "If any So-and-So starts to cut my cattle fer any This-and-That California County, there's goin' be somebody so dead that God A'mighty won't even reckernize his ghost!"

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            Obscure historians attest that just at the shooting moment Mrs. Rough Elliott appeared at the cabin door and sounded the triangle to announce that hot biscuits, honey and beef were ready for all comers, whether from Plumas over the mountains or not. And hunger triumphed over passions.

            This tableau duplicated the length and breadth of Honey Lake Valley—perhaps not always with the diplomatic intervention of a Mrs. Rough Elliott and her grub call.

            It was on August 4, 1857, that the supervisors of Plumas County California, organized Honey Lake Township and appointed justices and constables. Four days later a mass meeting of the citizens of Carson Valley, Utah Territory, was held in the little settlement of Genoa in the desert east of the Sierras; its avowed purpose was to organize the new "Territory of Sierra Nevada" out of the western tag-ends of the vast Utah Territory, including "that portion of California lying east of Sierra crest and never defined by proper survey." The worthy Isaac Roop and a handful of the Never Sweats were in attendance and helped draft a memorial to Congress. As witness :

            There are some portions of the Great Basin of this Continent claimed by the State of California in which reside a considerable number of people who in the winter time can have no connection with it. This is the case with those

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who reside in the Honey Lake Valley, east of the Sierra Nevadas. They can have no intercourse with other parts of the state during the rainy season of nearly four months of every year.

            If they are forced to remain with California they cannot know anything about the affairs of their state during the whole time the Legislature is in session. [Fifteen feet of snow over the passes in midwinter.] It is, therefore, folly and worse than folly to attach the people of this valley to a state about which they know nothing and care nothing for one-third of the year.

            That looks as if the Never Sweats admitted the sovereignty of California, which they emphatically did not. Maybe the seeming admission was for diplomatic reasons.

            Fact is that not since the California Constitutional Convention carved out for itself an empire in the fine free-handed way of pioneers in a wilderness had any state official bothered himself with the exact location of the eastern boundary. If folks didn't know exactly where new county lines ran—and they didn't—what the hell difference did it make about a shadowy eastern line somewhere away off from the gold diggin's in a shriveling desert?

            In retrospect there is something gloriously grand and free about that Genoa memorial to Congress.

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            "We, the citizens—" Why, outside of Isaac Roop and his packed delegation from Honey Lake Valley there were no citizens to speak of in that Great Basin marked all the way from the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake to the Truckee River by bones of draft oxen and skeletons of abandoned prairie schooners. A few storekeepers catering to the wagon trains; a few tough birds driven out of the gold camps t'other side of the Sierras; here and there a grubby prospector living on hopes and salt horse. . . .

            Well, somebody at that Genoa convention raised the wind to send to Washington one James E. Crane, chosen for his "candor, fidelity and ability"; Crane to carry the precious memorial and institute a little lobby for the "Territory of Sierra Nevada." He killed himself working at his job.

            The tight-lipped Roop and his clan got back to their valley just in time to learn of the action of Plumas supervisors in organizing a Honey Lake township. Forthwith pony riders went up and down the Valley and on August 29 a mass meeting was held at Thompson's ranch.

            Whereas, we the citizens of Honey Lake Valley, entertaining a reasonable doubt of our being within the limits of the State of California, and believing that until the eastern boundary of the State is determined by the proper authorities no county or counties have a right to extend their

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jurisdiction over us, therefore be it resolved by the citizens of Honey Lake Valley in mass meeting assembled that we consider the action of the Board of Supervisors of Plumas County an unwarrantable assumption of power. . . .

            Therefore, be it further resolved that we will resist any action of the authorities of Plumas, and individually and collectively pledge ourselves by all we hold sacred to assist and aid each other in resisting any infringement of our rights.

            There was a gesture for you! Two hundred-odd one-gallus men over the mountains on the rim of nowhere—snow peaks behind them, desert before—telling the sovereign County of Plumas where it got off . . . . .

            But Plumas, which was a mining county and which said in scorn that the Never Sweats of Honey Lake Valley bought bale rope chiefly to keep their pants up, was not going to tolerate any secession. Moreover, there were in 1858—according to the Plumas Argus—lands in that valley assessable in the sum of $76,777; and that was something!

            Wherefore tax collectors, with sheriffs riding hard on the tails of their mules, climbed the passes from Plumas into the Valley to collect taxes or sequester property in lieu of unpaid taxes. They collected more fights than taxes. The worthy Rough Elliott hung up his brag in the Magnolia Saloon at

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Susanville that if any son of a gun ever could prove he, Rough, had paid a cent of taxes to Plumas or given up a single head of stock, he'd eat his bald-faced shirt beginning with the studs.

            So while life went roaring through the gold camps on the Sierra's western slope; while the Vigilantes hanged Sydney ducks in San Francisco and posses chased Joaquin Murieta, the bandit, in the mountains, a lively little ghost of sedition was growing in this quiet backwater between desert and mountain which was the home of the Never Sweats, a stiff-necked generation.

            Gilbert and Sullivan were born a decade or so too late to seize upon the made-to-order plot that was ordered by circumstances in the year '59. Then a second convention was held at Genoa in the Carson Valley, perhaps inspired but certainly dominated by Isaac Roop, at which a "Declaration of Cause for Separation" was solemnly adopted—the separation being, presumably, from the unwieldly Territory of Utah—and a constitution for the Territory of Nevada, not "Sierra Nevada" this time, drawn and ordered submitted to an election on September 7.

            At that election the constitution was carried and Roop elected governor of the "Nevada Provisional Government."

            A citizen of California, which he had been all the time, elected governor of a seceding territory. . . . What anvil firing was there in Susanville when Governor Roop returned to his residence; what

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decorating of the mahogany in the Magnolia Saloon! The Never Sweats had put Plumas County to scorn and had a territory and a governor for their own.

            Straightway Honey Lake Valley constituted itself Roop County of Nevada Territory and sent word over the mountains to Quincy that if any two-bit sheriff or tax collector so much as showed his shirt tail over the line of the new territory he'd get his tail burnt.

            Next Fate shook something out of her sleeve. A fabulous gold strike on a bare mountain in the desert was followed by the location of the Comstock group of silver and gold workings. Virginia City leapt full-born out of a wilderness. A tide of madmen from the California diggings swept back over the mountains to this new El Dorado. Governor Roop's provisional territory suddenly bulged into the eye of all the world—and that before he'd ever got his legislature really started.

            Alas for the hopes of the shadow Aaron Burr of the West! Congress could no longer permit a handful of one-gallus men to play at having a government in a bleak sage brush desert. In March of '61 it created the Territory of Nevada and President Lincoln appointed a veritable governor to come out and supplant Isaac Roop.

            In carving Nevada out of the wilderness, Congress, which didn't know any too much about Western geography, gave Nevada all lands east of the "dividing ridge separating the waters of Carson

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Valley from those that flow into the Pacific," thereby including Honey Lake Valley. The enabling act stipulated, however, that if any of this territory was claimed by California it should lie with that State until the latter should consent to yield it to Nevada.

            Which left the fat right in the fire where it had been for ten years.

            Under the new dispensation an election was held in the Valley. At each polling place were two ballot boxes : one representing the sovereignty of California, the other that of Nevada. With a delicate sense of humor the Never Sweats dropped ballots in both—aye, stuffed 'em!

            Ensued what some master of brevity first summed in the classic compound, hell-to-pay. . . .

            In January of '63 Judge Mott of Nevada came to Susanville and swore into office the officers elected for the territorial county government. John S. Ward, Nevada probate judge under that election, immediately issued an injunction prohibiting William J. Young, duly elected justice of the peace for Plumas County, at the same balloting, from serving his office. Young refused to heed the injunction. Ward fined him $100. Young refused to pay.

            Then, over the mountains in Quincy, reprisals started. County Judge E. T. Hogan issued an order restraining Judge Ward and Sheriff Cap Hill—both of Roop County, Nevada, remember—from exercising jurisdiction in Plumas County, which meant in Honey Lake Valley. On their refusal to

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abide by his order, Hogan issued warrants for their arrest and put them in the hands of Sheriff E. H. Pierce and his deputy, J. D. Byers.

            This was in February and the two peace officers from Quincy had to fight their mounts through ten feet of snow on the summit. They came to Susanville and promptly arrested Judge Ward and Sheriff Hill. Before they had taken their prisoners more than four miles on the road back to Quincy ex-Governor Roop, Rough Elliott, Whangdoodle Brannan and three other loyal Never Sweats were upon them.

            Shooting words were indulged, but there was no shooting because someone discovered that everybody involved in the quarrel was a Mason; and the Square and Compass were potent symbols in pioneer California. Sheriff Pierce bowed to superior force, left his prisoners in the hands of the Never Sweats and took his deputy back to Quincy.

            First overt act in the Sage Brush War.

            Hell popped when the discomfited sheriff got back to his own side of the mountain fence. Those Never Sweat clodhoppers would be shown something. Sheriff Pierce swore in a posse of ninety-three men, got together a string of pack animals and—final dramatic gesture—limbered up a little brass cannon that stood before the Quincy courthouse for Fourth of July salutes, packed it on the back of his strongest mule; then waved his rifle at the forbidding line of snow mountains hedging off the valley of rank secession.

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            "Forward, brave men l"

            This was to be an invasion, no less.

            Follow a line of black dots threading upward over dazzling snowfields where February storms have packed the stuff higher than a mule's ears—twice as high. Floundering, falling into hidden streams, risking broken necks in crossing the trash of avalanches; up and up to five thousand—to seven thousand elevation: Napoleon over the Alps; Sheriff Pierce over a Sierra divide!

            The army of invasion camped, after four days, at the Lanigar ranch four miles from Susanville. The little brass cannon had bogged down somewhere behind in the drifts and was following more slowly. The sheriff and a few of his most trusted men rode into the sprawl of log and board shanties that was Susanville; boldly and with rifles across their pommels. There he sought out Judge Ward and Cap Hill, the offending sheriff of Roop County, and gravely rearrested them.

            You can conceive the excitement that boiled down Susanville's main—and almost only—street when the enemy thus boldly made his appearance, prepared to snatch two stalwart Never Sweats from the community hearth. Perhaps the Plumas officer wished to avoid an immediate clash at arms; perhaps discretion weighed with him. At any rate, with his prisoners right in his hands Sheriff Pierce paroled them on their promise to give themselves up when wanted, and he and his escort retreated from

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Susanville to the main body of the invaders at Lanigar's ranch.

            Now the Sage Brush War entered upon what strategists would call its second phase.

            See Sheriff Pierce and his whole force, saving only that menacing cannon, ride down upon Susanville the following morning. The vanguard comes to a rope laid across the street just before a small and tight log house, which was the original dwelling-store-hotel built by Isaac Roop in 1853. Scouts with rifles stand back of the rope and warn the Plumas men that the first to step across it will go straightway to his Maker.

            Yes, these doughty ones admit, Judge Ward and Sheriff Cap Hill are in that log house with a hundred rifles to defend them—the place held a bare thirty with crowding—and let any dad-blistered outsider try to get 'em!

            Once again the Sheriff of Plumas wavered. Instead of rushing the log fort, he retired his force to a barn north of Cut Arnold's log hotel and about 150 yards distant from the Roop shack which the Never Sweats had barricaded. The walls of this bar were thin whipsawed board; Pierce set his men to ripping up the floor and reinforcing the wall facing the log fort.

            Some great foot-square hewn timbers lay in the lot between barn and fort. Pierce needed these in his engineering work and sent a party of four with ropes to drag them across the snow. Crack! went a

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rifle through a loophole in the log house, and a Plumas man went down with a bullet in his hip. That started general firing. The invaders aimed at the chinking in the logs. The beleaguered Never Sweats took changes on driving through the barn boards indiscriminately.

            Judge Ward, the paroled prisoner about whose defense the battle raged, caught a bullet in his collar bone when he dodged out of the fort down the hill to a spring to fetch water. He was carried to Whangdoodle Brannan's hotel, where also lay the wounded invader; and a sister of Isaac Roop's constituted herself a war nurse to care for both men.

            So nearly a day of almost bloodless battle. And here is a specially choice morsel which a Sullivan could set to a Gilbert's tinkling lyric :

            Susanville filled with folks from the near-by sage scrub who'd "come in to see the fun." Not all of Susanville, either, felt the mighty partisan spirit that fired the fort's defenders; for the men behind log walls were the old time Never Sweats with hatred of Plumas in their hearts, and more than half of Susanville's population were newcomers who just didn't care which side triumphed.

            So while rifles cracked at one end of the straggling village the Magnolia Saloon at the other end did a roaring business. Fighters from the barn and fighters from the fort sneaked around the zone of fire and met at the bar, there to engage in personal combat with nothing barred except weapons not

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given them by Nature. Gory combats much more maiming than the official one in progress down Main Street.

            And what of that stalwart empire dreamer, ex-Governor Roop, all these hours of hypothetical carnage?

            Well, the good man soared above partisanship. He took no active part in the defense of the log fort; rather, he was busy keeping his coat tails free of bullets as he dodged from cabin to barn and back to cabin again on errands of peace. He was for arbitration rather than bloodshed. His friends, so he told Sheriff Pierce, would burn the whole town before they permitted Ward and Hill to be carried away to Plumas. Finally he won the agreement of both sides to an armistice.

            While high talk between representatives of the warring factions was going forward all night in Whangdoodle's hotel, Rough Elliott, captain of the Never Sweats, smacked the spirit of that armistice squarely on the nose. He sent couriers to Toadtown and to Janesville to bring in more men, powder and bread baked by farmer's wives. He threw up rifle pits on both sides of the Plumas barn so as to outflank it. He planned that with the coming of morning his men would shoot red hot ramrods from these rifle pits onto the roof of the hay stuffed barn wherein the enemy was ensconced.

            Sheriff Pierce hoped and hoped for the coming of his little brass cannon upon which he pinned reliance

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to breach the walls of the Never Sweat stronghold. Vain hope! That cannon did not reach Susanville until the following Fourth of July when it was crammed with powder and exploded with more attending danger to citizens than the whole day of battle.

            With the morning, Pierce seeing himself outgeneraled came to terms. Both sides agreed not to press attempts at jurisdiction over Honey Lake Valley until a joint committee, chosen with deep solemnity, could lay the respective claims of Roop and Plumas counties before the governors of Nevada and California.

            Then a mighty wassailing at the Magnolia, with no biting and knuckling out of eyes as of yesterday. And the sheriff of Plumas with all of his men—save the one with a bullet in his hip—marched out of Susanville headed for the great white spikes of the mountains.

            The sheriff went with his dignity, perhaps, but not with the two prisoners whose arrest had precipitated the battle.

            Some time later a joint boundary commission of Nevada and California confirmed the latter's possession of Honey Lake Valley. Whereupon the recalcitrant Never Sweats put screws on the California Legislature and had their valley cut off from the hated Plumas. It became part of the new county of Lassen.

            Go to the Valley to-day and you'll find it little

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changed from the day when Isaac Roop looked upon it with the flaming eye of a free spirit resisting oppression. The full tide of our present-day life never has lipped over the edge of its purple sage plateaus. It is still aloof from the world.