In March 1890, in Chico, Californian, Butte County District Attorney Francis Dupré reluctantly opened a grand jury investigation into whether certain citizens – widely regarded as local heroes – had committed illegal acts by massacring whole villages of Mill and Deer Creek Indians, for the crimes of a few.
Assistant District Attorney Morris Bailey deposed Mr. Stephen Hicks for events he took part in at Kingsley Cave in 1871, where four men, plus Hicks, shot 30 women and children they had trapped in a cave. When news of the grand jury leaked out, the court received death threats, and the proceedings were halted.
Common knowledge at the time were the murders of the three Hickok children in June, 1862, and of the two Carson children, in July 1863, presumably by Mill Creek Indians. In the latter case, nine-year old Thankful Carson – the third child – managed to escape and testify to the murders of her two brothers, Jimmy 11 and Johnny 6.
It did not seem to matter that the incidences were limited, or that the Carson children are also referred to as the Lewis children, in different and possibly mythical accounts. The murder of white children overwhelmed any concept of innocent until proven guilty. It also did not seem to matter that whites already had a long history of taking hundreds of Indian children as permanent captives, and of killing countless others.
The following testimony appears in Appendix I of “The Mill Creek Indian Wars: Collective Punishment or Justice?” by Elinor Hicks, the daughter of Stephen Hicks, Chico, 1920, published four years after the death of her father.
Text – Day One: Testimony of Stephen Hicks
My name is Stephen Hicks. Yes, I swear the testimony I am giving you is true. It is for the Grand Jury of Butte County. I am testifying from my deathbed so that my conscience is clear before I leave this world. I am giving this testimony to Mr. Morris Bailey, who is the Assistant District Attorney of Butte County. As I understand it, because it hurts me to speak, we will do this only five minutes at a time. No more than once a day.
Mr. Bailey is very kind and asks few questions. He never has an accusing tone. I appreciate that. I have been accusing myself enough for over 20 years. You’d have thought I’d have learned something since the events in question. My wife Betsy said I did not. She said I did not understand that savages were people, just like the slaves were people. I resisted all her talk, but when she lay dying, when she gave birth to our daughter Elinor, she made me promise to talk to Indians that still live in Butte County.
(Pause) I know I’m not supposed to side track but I miss Betsy very much. I hope it is true you meet the people you love in the next world. It is curious that the Yahi savages believed that, too.
(Pause) Elinor is nineteen now. She will not talk to me because she says I am an Indian killer. I am hoping this testimony will help her, if she sees that her father says he committed terrible sins and he wished he’d never done it. For more than twenty years I have lain awake at night trying to understand how I did what I did. (Pause) What did I do? You’re asking me what I did? I already told you. I was a bounty hunter. What does that mean? I think you damn well know what that means. (Pause)
I would like to continue tomorrow.
Text – Day Two:
This is the second day of my testimony. I am Stephen Hicks. And I am talking to Morris Bailey, Butte County Assistant District Attorney. This is some more of my testimony. I will say it right out. I killed Indians. Why? I don’t really know. That’s what we did. The government gave us bounties. So it wasn’t really a crime, I think, if the government gave us bounties. No, I never received any bounties. No, I have no records.
Which places? I was at Campo Seco – this was Mexican territory, you know – Three Knolls, and Kingsley Cave. Before that? I tracked Yahi and Yana Indians from Red Bluff to Chico and east of there, in the hills. Those were The Hill People. Maybe for five years I did that. I learned some of it from the Union Army, how to trap the enemy, attack at dawn. At first they didn’t really have weapons. They had bows, but the thing was not to get so close they could hit you. Later they had rifles. If you were above them, they could hit you. The trick was to run up hill right at them. When they fired downhill, they always fired too high. Plus, running at them rattled them. But first there was the tracking, observation, planning, careful to wait for daylight. Crawling through brush and water. Lying still for hours. We had shooting patterns, so we didn’t hit each other. Plenty of ammunition, which you dragged along with you in a pouch made of canvas. We wore clothing the color of rocks and grass. We left the horses at least two miles away, so the Indians could not smell them, and the other way around.
How did we choose targets? Well, everything was a target. We fired at the targets farthest away. We would talk to a man shooting, telling him where his shots were landing. So when he levered out the shell and hand cocked the hammer, he would look up and know where to point. We would call “Range!” That meant he had the right distance and could concentrate on lining up on his target. When you’re excited, you can’t tell how far away someone is.
Did we always hit them? No, we didn’t. But a bad shot that just stopped them was good enough. Then you could finish later, when you had time. Did they run? Yes, some braves did. Others did not. They would shake their bows at us and curse us in their savage voices. We signed to the squaws to squat down and we would not shoot them. So they could be captured and taken home alive. The braves generally defended their families. How is that different? You mean, like us defending our families? Well, yes, we did defend our families. That’s what we were doing there: defending our families. They defended their families. They helped them take cover, or told them to run. So, we took anyone who was outside the center and running.
Did we kill the squaws? Well, we did at Kingsley Cave. It was named after Norman Kingsley. He was there with us. Everyone for fifty miles knows about the cave. The children? They tended to crouch down like young deer that think you can’t see them. They didn’t move so much as a muscle. It is a strange thing to see. Young savages frozen. Squatting right next to a rock, in plain sight.
What weapons? I used the Spencer .56 – caliber. That’s from the Army. I kept mine from the war, even though it was forbidden. We just took our pay and walked away – with the Spencers. It knocked them down, stopped them running. It put them in shock. They couldn’t even cry out, I mean cry, with tears and all. We got them contained, then half of us reloaded the Spencers. The magazine was through the butt of the stock. Seven cartridges. The rest of us used Smith & Wesson .38 – caliber revolvers. That was the best side arm back then. I carried two of them. Both long barrels.
How long did it take? You get in a kind of daze. Time seems frozen. You think it’s ten minutes, but you look at your pocket watch afterward and it’s an hour. Or more. You sweat a lot. I was always completely wet afterward. I don’t know why. Same thing when you slaughter a steer or a pig. You work fast to change the thing from something alive to something you’re just butchering. It affects you somehow. Taking scalps took another whole hour, to get it right. Thirty scalps, that’s not fast work. And then you have to string them on your saddle.
The eighteen children? Yes, I was the one – not Norman Kingsley – who did the children at Kingsley Cave. (Pause). I will tell you just one thing. I worked as quickly and mercifully as a person possibly could. Though it’s really no one’s business, I will also tell you that I was crying while I was doing it. (Pause) I guess that should account for something. Yes. I want Elinor to know that. That her father was not some kind of monster. You have to remember the Hickok and the Carson children.
Did I know them? No, I did not. But I felt terrible for them. I did it to keep other children like them safe from the Mill Creeks.
Why did we track them down? They had taken a steer and butchered half of it. We found the blood, and we followed the trail until it got dark, then we turned around.
Did we already know they were at the cave? I’m not sure. Maybe we knew. I don’t remember. We could have. But I don’t think so. We came back the next day with dogs. We found them two miles down the watershed. The cave is more like a vertical bowl, a hollow in the cliff. We approached on foot, from the east, over the bluff above the cave. So they couldn’t see us. It was early. The sun wasn’t starting up yet. Maybe five thirty, going on six. That’s the most fragrant time of day. I never knew exactly what it was. The smell of manzanita, scrub oak, pine. Maybe the grass. I don’t know. They hadn’t even started cooking. Two of us fired from up on top. To keep them pinned. The rest of us worked our way down so we could fire directly into the cave.
No, I didn’t see any braves. (Pause) I used the Smith & Wesson’s. (Pause) The Spencer’s were too powerful. (Pause) It must have been early, because we were finished before the sun was up.
Do I want to stop for today? Yes, I think so, if you don’t mind.
Day Three: In brackets, there is a note from Assistant District Attorney Morris Bailey. “I arrived at the Hicks house at 9:30 AM. Mrs. Hicks said Mr. Hicks had died about a half hour earlier. I returned to the Court House in Chico but did not enter, as there was a large crowd outside protesting the grand jury investigation, some of them drunk and calling out in ugly terms for the impeachment and I think even the lynching of Judge R.S. Benton, District Attorney Francis Dupré, and myself.
Assistant District Attorney Morris Bailey.
The 11th of June in the Year of Our Lord 1916