In early February, 1911, in a winter so cold across northern Nevada that temperatures dropped to ‑40°, four men rode quietly into the frozen maw of Little High Rock Canyon to investigate the carcasses of cattle recently killed and left in the snow.
Little High Rock Canyon, in 1911, was as it remains today: a long way from anywhere. Closest to Eagleville, California, LHR is situated in the remote sagebrush, alkali, and basalt country of northwest Nevada. It is home to bighorn sheep, many species of raptors, deer, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, chukar, quail, coyotes, horned toads, and wild horses. Summers are blazing hot, and winters are unremitting. It is also situated near its cousin, High Rock Canyon, slightly to the east, where pioneer families following the Lassen-Applegate trail drove their wagons on an appallingly difficult route through rock, sand, and precipitous cliffs, on the way to California.
The trail through the High Rock country was notoriously challenging, and a journey of only a few miles often took weeks, as the men were forced to disassemble the wagons, lower them off of cliffs with block and tackle, reassemble them, drive a short distance, and repeat the process. Peter Lassen, a Dane who would later be murdered under mysterious circumstances on the Black Rock desert to the south, tarnished his own reputation among the pioneers by insisting it was the fastest route off the uncompromising and brutal Black Rock.
The men who rode quietly into Little High Rock were a mixed lot. Bert Indiano was a single shepherd in the employ of prominent sheepmen Peter Erramouspe and John Laxague, Basques who ran their cattle and sheep across wide swaths of the desert. The fourth man was Harry Cambron, from Eagleville, who was due to be married in two weeks and had left his bride-to-be behind in town while he joined the others to investigate the dead cattle. Erramouspe was married and the father of two boys. Laxague was married and the father of four children. As the four men stepped their horses into the cold canyon shadows they could not have known, and likely did not suspect, that Shoshone Mike and his family were living deep in the rocks, in a natural and nearly impenetrable palisade, desperate, starving, and terrified that they would be hanged for a crime they did not commit.
Before tucking into Little High Rock, Shoshone Mike (known variously as Mike Daggett and Indian Mike) and his family had been on an epic journey for their survival. Mike was not designed to live the life of a reservation Indian, and early-on took his wife and 12 children away from Fort Hall in southern Idaho, to live a life as close to his natural inheritance as he could. Wandering the desert country near Rock Creek, Idaho, and south to Gollaher mountain and San Jacinto in northeastern Nevada, the family followed the seasons digging camas roots, hunting pronghorn and deer, running wild horses, and occasionally trading with friendly white settlers. Mike was an accomplished rawhide braider and was famed for the quality of his reatas, and for the gloves he made to trade for coffee, salt, and other basics at settlement stores. By all accounts, for those white settlers who knew him personally and often let him and his family make their camps on their ranches, Mike was a decent and fundamentally peaceful man who paid his debts, asked for little, and would often repay generosity with the gift of a deer he had hunted out of the rocks.
It’s possible Mike’s life might have gone on this way for many more years, but he and his family had the misfortune of crossing paths with the Tranmer gang near Rock Creek, in southern Idaho. Concrete details are scarce, but the gist is easy enough to follow. The Frank Tranmer gang had been rustling cattle, running horses, and altering brands in the vast and stony canyon country of Rock Creek, when they were encountered by one of Mike’s sons — Jack. During the encounter Jack was shot in the leg, a vicious wound from which he later died. Mike’s remaining sons then attacked the Tranmer gang in revenge and killed Frank Tranmer’s nephew, Frankie Dopp.
But the case wasn’t nearly so simple. After Dopp was killed, the remaining Tranmer gang then killed the horses, and buried Frankie Dopp in a mass grave, as a way of covering the evidence of their own crimes, and blamed the entire episode on Shoshone Mike which, owing to ongoing troubles at Fort Hall among the Shoshone and Bannock Indians confined there, was swallowed whole by the majority of people living in the country. News spread widely in the country that Indians were breaking out of the Fort Hall reservation and on the warpath. Mike, knowing full well what future would await him should he be arrested, gathered his family and their meagre possessions and began an epic trek across the whole of northern Nevada, across the Warner Mountains, and finally across the northern Sierras where they reached Oroville on the Sacramento River, and then finally across those forbidding mountain ranges and back into Nevada in the dark winter of 1911. They made their camp in Little High Rock where it was likely they could sit out the winter without fear of being discovered by whites.
But they were also beginning to starve, due largely to the severity of the cold and snow, and Mike took the risk to kill four cows who had been left out on the range to overwinter on their wits.
The Little High Rock camp was established at the mouth of a cave, some 300 feet above the canyon floor. There was a rock pillar nearby that provided a natural lookout for any traffic coming up the canyon, and the women in Mike’s party — his wife and daughters — created sagebrush paths that muted any noise of their movement. They were able to survive in that place in a condition of near perfect camouflage, but they had been careless with the remains of the cattle, which would prove their undoing.
When Indiano, Erramouspe, Laxague, and Cambron rode into the canyon they likely expected to find a couple of outlaw rustlers, but it is unlikely they expected to find Shoshone Mike’s entire desperate and terrified family band. The four men were lightly armed. Only Cambron carried a firearm, a .38 caliber pistol. Mike and his sons were armed with black powder guns, spears, and short bows. As the hapless four rode among the cathedral walls of the canyon, where the sagebrush often grew to a man’s height, they were suddenly cut down by gunfire from multiple directions. Cambron was able to fire two rounds in the direction of the ambushers as he came off his horse, but the shots were wild and Cambron died quickly. When his body was discovered the Indians had cut off his mustache. The four men had been stripped of their useful clothing and stacked like cordwood in the snow and sagebrush.
It took more than a month for the bodies to be discovered by a search party, and it was then that the alarm went up. News of the incident involving the Tranmer gang had long since travelled west, and the men who discovered the bodies in Little High Rock, and subsequently Mike’s camp on the canyon walls, concluded quickly that the same roving band of renegades had perpetrated both deeds. A large posse was shortly formed, composed of men from the Eagleville and Cedarville areas, a wagon full of supplies was put together, and the search for Shoshone Mike in the snow and ice began in earnest.
Ironically, as this was happening, Frank Tranmer and one of his associates, the aptly named Nimrod Urie, were sitting in jail for the robbery and murder of an Italian saloon keeper, and his wife, in Imlay, Nevada, about sixty miles southeast. They had been arrested by Sheriff Lamb, of Humboldt County, who was highly thought of for his skill in keeping the lid on what was still then a wild frontier country with plenty of outlawry. Tranmer would eventually hang, and the truth of his involvement in the original Idaho incident would be revealed, but the damage had already been done.
Also of interest is that one of the posse members was a man named Mort West. Mort West had been nine years old during Oregon’s deadliest fire in 1898. His father handed him out the window to safety shortly before the building collapsed in the flames, killing his entire family.
Mike and his band had a considerable head start. Their route took them out of Little High Rock and down to Soldier Meadows in the east, around Mud Meadow at the base of the Black Rock Range, and then east again across Paiute Meadow and the Quinn River Crossing. But their travels were slow, often no more than six miles a day, made difficult by the extreme cold, deep snow, failing horses, and their own dwindling physical condition. It has been speculated that Mike, who never really wanted anything but to be left alone, was making for his home country, generally east and back toward Gollaher Mountain. But in spite of the terrible conditions, Mike’s party kept chugging eastward, mostly at night, with his sons sent forward to scout the country ahead and keep them safe from curious eyes.
The posse was beset by internal troubles. Captain Donnelly, of the Nevada State Police, had arrived by train and assumed nominal command of the outfit, but the cowboys and sheepmen among the posse were loathe to take his instruction, and held the other officers in disdain. They uniformly refused to be deputized because there was a large bounty hanging over the enterprise of catching Shoshone Mike, and swearing-in would forfeit their ability to collect. Tensions between lawmen from different jurisdictions are as old as law enforcement, and Captain Donnelly was in no hurry to share his command with Sheriff Lamb, who was thrown off the trail by a mysterious phone call to the one phone in Winnemucca later in the chase.
Travel for the posse was no easier than it was for Shoshone Mike. Frank Perry, who was a member of the posse, wrote of the Quinn River Crossing:
When we reached Quinn River, it was partly frozen over. On our side ice was thin, but gradually thickened toward the other. The opposite bank was nearly perpendicular. We went up and down the river for some distance, but could find no better crossing, so decided one place was as good as another. It was bitter cold, a blizzard blowing from the north. Jim Tahem rode his horse in and broke the ice by stamping with his feet. Newguard (of the Nevada State Police) said that he would undress and try it. We gave him a Riata which he put around his body. In he went with his rifle. Up to his neck in water. He broke considerable ice, but with the intense cold he turned blue and hollered “Pull me out.” I then rode my horse in, and with my rifle kept pounding and breaking ice. My horse was swimming as we neared the bank. I jumped off with “McCarty” in hand and up we scrambled to the opposite bank. The other boys were soon across in wet frozen clothes, nothing to build a fire with. Barren desert. I took off my chaps, overalls, and socks to wring out water, for I was wet to my waist. Came damn near not getting dressed, for they were freezing solid. It was getting late, and we did not know where we would get any shelter. If we could get to where there would be sagebrush we could at least get thawed out. That was about three o’clock in the afternoon. The day was waning fast. We went on following the trail. Along towards evening we sighted a tent in the distance, pitched on a road leading from Sulphur to Lay’s ranch, Jackson mountains. There was a small pile of hay, we figured someone left there for an overnight stop. Any port in a storm, we took possession, it was getting dark, and we did not know where we were. But we were still on the Indian trail. We had hay for our horses, a tent for a windbreak, sagebrush for a fire, so we were happy.
What followed, days later, as newspapers around the country began picking up the story, was a tale of woe that those of us interested in the history of the west find all too familiar: desperate Indians, falsely accused, harried through terrible conditions to their final slaughter. But we don’t often think of those wild west happenings in the year that Ronald Reagan was born, the 1911 was adopted by the US Army, and Chevrolet entered the automobile market to compete against Ford. Elsewhere in America, the train bandit Elmer McCurdy was being chased by authorities — another tragic tale that would only end at The Pike in Long Beach, California, in 1976. (For more on McCurdy, I highly recommend Mark Svenvold’s Elmer McCurdy: The Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw.)
Almost a month after setting out after Shoshone Mike (who was not even a Shoshone, but rather a Bannock) Captain Donnelly’s posse would corner them on a flat near Rabbit Creek, northeast of Winnemucca, Nevada. What followed was the predictable slaughter. Charging into the family, the posse shot wildly, gunning Mike and his sons down, until only three young girls and a small boy were finally captured. The boy, when he was hoisted into a saddle, repeatedly smashed his face into the saddle horn. The young girl called Snake attempted to fight off the posse with a spear. In the bloodlust, posse member Ed Hogle was shot and killed by Cambron’s stolen pistol. Another posse member took a spent arrow in the chest, likely fired by Mike’s wife but out of energy when it struck. When Sheriff Lamb, who had been chasing the ghosts provided by Captain Donnelly, finally arrived, he was outraged by the carnage.
But the community at large hailed the posse as heroes, having spared the west of Shoshone Mike and his horrible band of cutthroats. They were never that, of course, but memories of the hard frontier lived hard in those still alive, and the attitude toward Indians remained unmerciful, regardless. The posse were feted in Golconda, in Gerlach, and finally at home in Eagleville. They showed off the relics they had looted from the dead, and in the caboose of the train that carried them home they sat in the cupola shooting at coyotes and antelope, laughing and war-whooping and forcing their way into the passenger cars despite the protestation of the conductor, who thought them rowdy, overzealous, and obnoxious.
The children, known as “Snake and the snakelets”, were eventually taken to Reno and into the custody of Washoe County Sheriff Charlie Ferrel, who put them into the Carson Indian Training School. Two years later only one girl, Mike’s granddaughter, was still alive. Her name was Mary Jo Estep. Mary Jo was adopted by the superintendent of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, attended Central Washington University, and was a schoolteacher for over 40 years. She died in 1992, when given the wrong medicine, and is buried on the Yakima Reservation in Washington.
Next week I am heading back to Little High Rock, where I once lived as a cowboy on that country. Although I have ridden into Little High Rock many times, much like those hapless herders, I was largely unaware of the events surrounding Shoshone Mike in those days, and so this trip will be a pilgrimage of sorts to find his final holdout in the canyon, and to see what needs to be seen. I’ll have that report, and many pictures, for you when I return.
Recommended Reading: Shoshone Mike, a novel by Frank Bergon, The Last Free Man, by Dayton O. Hyde. The Last Indian Uprising in the United States, by Frank Vernon Perry.