Blanche Bunting Perkins and Lorenzo Perkins are murdered at Rattlesnake Springs en route to Yakima City on July 9, 1878.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 3/30/2006
  • Essay 7666
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On July 9, 1878, newlyweds Blanche Bunting Perkins (1856-1878) and Lorenzo Perkins (1836-1878) have the extreme misfortune of crossing paths with a small group of renegade Bannocks and Paiutes (sometimes spelled Piutes) at Rattlesnake Springs 40 miles east of Yakima City. The Indians, enraged at the recent shooting deaths of some members of their party by whites, kill the Perkins couple.

The Bannock and Paiute War

The Perkins murder was an indirect result of the hostilities known as the Bannock and Paiute War. During the Nez Perce War of 1877, General O. O. Howard (1830-1909), who was pursuing the band led by Nez Perce Chief Joseph (1840-1904) as it retreated toward the border of Canada, had several Bannock scouts, one of whom was Buffalo Horn (d. 1878). The Bannocks were assisting Howard because the Nez Perces were their historical enemies. Buffalo Horn, impressed with General Howard's accounts of Chief Joseph's bravery and leadership and disenchanted by the lack of thanks Howard was according him for his services as guide, decided that rather than help the whites he would lead an uprising against them. This uprising ultimately failed: Buffalo Horn and his successor, Chief Eagan, were killed, and their band of 500 warriors and more than 1,000 women and children began a retreat.

Sinkiuse Chief Moses (ca. 1829-1899), meanwhile, was near the mouth of the Wenatsha River gathering together Indians who were deserting this larger group. Cowboy, state senator, and seminal Yakima Valley historian Andrew Jackson Splawn (1845-1917), who knew Blanche and Lorenzo Perkins, Chief Moses, and the men who captured the accused killers, and who served as translator at the trial of the accused, wrote extensively on the subject of the Perkins murder in his memoir Ka-mi-akin, first published (posthumously) in 1917. Splawn states:

"When this deserting band reached the lower end of Long Island, in the Columbia below Umatilla, and began to cross, a steamer which had been converted into a gunboat for the purpose of preventing just this thing, appeared and began firing, killing several Indians and keeping the larger portion from crossing at this time. A small party, however, had succeeded in making the landing on the north side and it included some of the most desperate renegades of the Northwest tribes, Has-sa-lo (Star), How-wil-lis, Til-la-toos, Wi-ah-na-cat [Wi-ah-ne-cat], Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne and others. They were greatly angered at the killing ... a band including Wi-ah-ne-cat, Shu-lu-skin, Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne, Te-wow-ne, Chuck-chuck, Moos-tonie, and Ki-pe started north at once" (p. 311).

Blanche and Lorenzo Perkins

At Rattlesnake Springs (located about 10 miles south of the present-day Vernita Bridge in Benton County, now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument), they happened upon Blanche and Lorenzo Perkins. The couple lived on the east side of the Columbia near White Bluffs and had been ferried across the river that morning en route to Yakima City (now Union Gap) to visit Blanche's mother. They had paused at Rattlesnake Springs to rest and water their horses. According to Splawn, Wi-ah-ne-cat and Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne suggested that the couple be killed in revenge for the murder of the Indians from the gunboat.

Blanche and Lorenzo, alarmed by the Indians, began to saddle their horses. Wi-ah-ne-cat and Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne drew guns and ordered them to stop. Lorenzo Perkins had by this time saddled and mounted his horse. Splawn states:

"Mrs. Perkins, who was a splendid horsewoman, did not wait to saddle, but mounted her mare bareback, and with only a rope around her neck to guide her, they started on the run. A shot from Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne's gun wounded Perkins, but he kept on till a shot from Wi-ah-ne-cat reached him, when he fell from his horse and soon died. Mrs. Perkins' mount now began to run and was outdistancing her pursuers, when a deep ravine appeared, which the brave little mare failed to clear. The animal fell, throwing her rider, who lay stunned until the Indians came up. She raised her hands, they said, as if in prayer, then begged them, if they must kill someone, to let it be her, and to spare her husband, she not knowing that he was already dead. While the Indians who had come up with Mrs. Perkins sat on their horses, undecided, Wi-ah-ne-cat rode up and asked why they sat there like women, instead of killing her. He promptly drew his gun and fired" (p. 312).

W. D. Lyman's History of the Yakima Valley Washington, Vol. 1, written in 1919, quotes Mrs. Louise Heiler Cary's account continuing the event: "They were both dragged a short distance and there made fast to the ground by huge stones thrown upon them until they were buried beneath the mass. Mrs. Perkins was still alive, but death soon delivered her from this awful torture" (p. 257).

The Search

An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties ..., published in 1904, implies that the Perkins were not specifically expected in Yakima City, but that the question of their whereabouts was raised by a number of stockmen "who visited Yakima City from White Bluffs country (and made inquiries) concerning the Perkins couple ... John McAllister, uncle of Mrs. Perkins, and Adam Duncan made a trip to White Bluffs to investigate. They found no traces" (p. 166).

McAllister and Adam Duncan then set out for Rattlesnake Springs, choosing to start the search there because it was the first watering spot between White Bluffs and Yakima City. They found only a torn piece of a quilt and a broken dish. Upon their return to Yakima City someone, probably Blanche's mother, identified these as belonging to the couple. They formed a larger search party that included McAllister, Duncan, John A. Splawn (Andrew Jackson Splawn's brother), John M. Edwards, J. H. Conrad, Andrew Chambers, and three Indian scouts that A. J. Splawn identifies as Stick Joe, Joe Enas, and Dick. The 1904 Illustrated History ... states:

"Mr. and Mrs. Perkins were found by Stick Joe in the bottom of a shallow ravine a mile below the upper springs. A heavy flood had passed down this draw at some time, creating a washout several yards in width ... On one side of this island the body of Perkins was interred, and on the other that of his wife, both being covered with rocks and cobblestones. The remains of the lady gave strong evidence that her spirit had not yet deserted its prison house of clay when she was laid to rest, for one knee protruded through the rocks as if raised up in spite of the heavy burden upon it, while one arm was thrust outward and above her head. It was impossible to examine the corpses with much minuteness, as decomposition was in an advanced stage" (p. 166).
In 1922 Yakima Valley historian Lucullus V. McWhorter (1860-1944) visited the site of the Perkins murders with John Edwards.  Edwards had been part of the search party that discovered Blanche and Lorenzo Perkins's bodies.  Edwards pinpointed for McWhorter the vicinity where the bodies were found and then, with McWhorter, drove a heavy spike into the ground to mark the spot.  On March 6-8, 2007, scholar Michael McKenzie, Ph.D. located this marker.  McKenzie describes the location as follows:
"2 1/2 miles south of the larger [Rattlesnake Springs] complex (where a corrugated metal building now exists), slightly north of what is now called Snively Gulch and Lower Snively Spring, and next to a dependable water source.  This site has a long record of use by both Natives and settlers, and it lies on the old road between Yakima and White Bluffs, in the SE quarter of Section 6, T11N, R25E" (email communication, Michael McKenzie to Paula Becker).
Splawn states, "John Splawn rode back to Yakima City for a conveyance in which to take the remains to Yakima, while the rest of the party stood guard over the dead. They were laid to rest in the little graveyard around which Blanche Bunting had gathered flowers in her girlhood" (p. 313). This cemetery is now (2006) known as Pioneer Cemetery in Union Gap. A monument marking their graves lists the date of death as July 10, 1878, but all other sources use July 9, 1878.

Finding the Killers

Over the following weeks every effort was made to find the killers. By November 1878 it was widely rumored that they were hiding under the protection of Chief Moses. Chief Moses denied complicity in the crime and sent 10 of his men, along with Indian police from Fort Simcoe and white volunteers, to the Crab Creek lava beds where he knew the renegades were hiding. Moses and his band joined the search party. Upon their capture the renegades were returned to Yakima City for trial. The question of Chief Moses's possible complicity enflamed white settlers but Chief Moses, Splawn states, "always told me the same story. Moses said he had driven the Indians away from his village when he learned what they had done" (p. 306). Chief Moses remained as a guest (not a prisoner) at Fort Simcoe until February 1879. Soon after he was called to Washington, D.C., and negotiated a reservation for his people.

One of the accused murderers, Chuck-Chuck, committed suicide. One, Moos-tonie, turned state's evidence. Wi-ah-ne-cat, Shu-lu-skin, Te-won-ne, Kipe, and Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. They escaped, were recaptured, and escaped again. Wi-ah-ne-cat was shot and killed during a second attempt to recapture. Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne evaded capture. The remaining three were briefly recaptured but once again escaped by hitting their jailer over the head with a stone-filled moccasin, rendering him unconscious. The three were recaptured almost immediately in a fight in which Te-wow-ne received wounds from which he soon died. Shu-lu-skin and Kipe were hanged at the previously appointed time. In July 1880 Blanche Bunting Perkins's brother Bob Bunting and James Tigard hunted down and killed Ta-mah-hop-tow-ne.

W. D. Lyman calls the Perkins murder "one of the cruelest events in all the long and cruel history of Indian warfare. It produced a profound horror in the minds of people living in Yakima at the time, for both Mr. Perkins and his wife (Blanche Bunting) were well known and greatly loved by the people living in Yakima at the time" (p. 255). From the perspective of the settlers, although certainly not the Indians who suffered the vastly disproportionate share of cruel events during this period, this was the case. Few if any pioneer-era histories written by whites omit recounting the event. For Yakima County's white settlers, the killings of Blanche and Lorenzo Perkins calcified a previously held dislike of and distrust for Indians in general, giving their fears a personal face: young Blanche, barely living, begging mercy for her husband just before the rifle shot cracked.

Sources: W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley Washington, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919), p. 255; An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With An Outline Of The Early History of The State Of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977); A. J. Splawn, Ka-mi-akin: The Last Hero Of The Yakimas (Portland: Bindords & Mort, [1917] 1944); Maurice Helland, They Knew Our Valley (Yakima: Maurice Helland, 1975), p. 68; "Pioneer Cemetery, Union Gap, Yakima County, Washington," Rootsweb website accessed March 1, 2006 ( yakima/cemeteries/pioneer.txt); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With An Outline Of The Early History of The State Of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977); Carl Waldman, Who Was Who In Native American History (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1990); Michael McKenzie, Ph.D., "Summary Report of Finding Perkins Marker," email to Paula Becker, March 20, 2007, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.
Note: James Tigard's name was corrected on June 22, 2011.

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