MOSES SPLAWN, A Pioneer Portrait

1996 by The Idaho State Historical Society Reproduced by permission

2000 by Sherry Horton (revised edition)


When asked who discovered gold in Boise Basin, most of us would probably say "George Grimes." But Grimes was only one member of a party that investigated the area northeast of Boise in 1862, and he did not survive the exploration. Moses Splawn, on the other hand, survived and lived another sixty-three years. The author of this portrait of Splawn recently completed her degree in creative writing at Boise State University. She is working both on a novel and on the elusive story of Grimes's life.

Moses Splawn entered the future Idaho Territory as a young miner possibly as early as 1860, when gold was discovered on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation by E. D. Pierce. He followed the gold discoveries at Orofino, Warren, Elk City, and Florence during 1860 and 1861. Then, in the summer of 1862, Splawn was one of twelve men who made the largest gold strike in Washington Territory, at the Boise Basin. His life bridged a time of great change in America. He arrived in the West when it was still wild and pristine and stayed to watch the impact of advancing white settlement.

Family history indicates that Splawn's heritage was rich in exploration and settlement of untamed lands. Both sides of his family, the McHaneys and the Splawns, were among the first families to explore the wilderness regions of northwestern Missouri. The first cabin erected in the county was by a Splawn family, near Rock Island depot. Later, they moved near the cities of Gallatin and Millport to a location known as Splawn Ridge.1

The earliest known family member to immigrate to the United States was a John Splawn, who arrived from Scotland in 1765 with a land grant signed by King George III that gave him 200 acres in South Carolina. The Splawns eventually migrated into parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas.2

Splawn was born December 20, 1835, in Cravensville, Ray County, the third of eight children born to Nancy McHaney Splawn and John C. Splawn, Jr.3 Although photographs were rarely taken of him, the few available pictures suggest that as an adult he was a handsome, robust, and virile man who stood over six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds.4 His long-shaped face was heavily bearded. Small, evenly spaced eyes peered seriously below a wide forehead. His nose was straight between prominent cheeks, and his lips, though partially hidden by a dark-colored and bushy mustache, appeared to be thin. In his late eighties, a photograph shows that he had a full head of white hair and wore a beard and mustache, neatly trimmed.

Sometime before 1845, the family moved to Holt County, Missouri, where his father worked as a farmer and a teacher until his death in 1848.5 In 1850 Nancy Splawn married a man named Calvin Pell, who had six children from his previous marriage. The next year, Splawn's older brother, Charles, crossed the plains and settled in Linn County, Oregon. He probably wrote his family about the 160 acres per person of fertile lands that could be homesteaded for free in Oregon Territory.6

In 1852, when Splawn was seventeen, his family left Missouri for Oregon. Nancy's sister, Bethena; her husband, Mayberry Splawn; and their family also made the trip. Nancy packed her large family and possessions into three ox-driven wagons. The family's jump-off point was Forest City, Missouri, where on May 7, 1852, they crossed the Missouri River and headed for the Willamette Valley. In Kansas the two families became part of a fifty-wagon train.7

According to family stories, around the end of May - just after the wagon train had circled for the night - a band of about two hundred "whooping and yelling Indians" rode down upon them. Splawn's cousin Francis Marion Splawn volunteered to go out and meet with the Indian leader. When he returned to the train, Francis told the emigrants that the Indians were not going to bother them. They had just returned from attacking the Sioux, who had invaded their hunting grounds.8

No journal or diary has yet been found to tell about their journey or what other perils they encountered along the Overland trail. However, by the time Splawn's family arrived at Laurel Hill, south of Mt. Hood, in early October, it was obvious that the trip had been hard on them. They had lost their last wagon and oxen on the treacherous Barlow Road, but local settlers rescued them. Nancy made a home for herself and her family in Brownsville, Linn County, Oregon. She resided there until sometime after 1872, when she moved to Ellensburg, Washington.9

Instead of becoming a farmer or a cattle rancher, Splawn spent his entire life traversing the Pacific Northwest in search of precious metals. In 1853, he left home to work in the gold mines of southern Oregon.10 He joined another gold rush in 1859 to the Similkimeen River region of British Columbia and, when a road was built, he drove ox teams from Priest Rapids to Similkimeen for the Jacobs Brothers.11

In May of 1861 Splawn filed a claim along Canal Creek at Pierce. By summer he had drifted through Elk City and he was among the first miners to find gold at Florence in September. He filed two claims on October 5; one on Miller's Creek, the other on Nason's Gulch.12 While he worked his claims, he became acquainted with an Indian known as Bannock Louie, who watched him clean up his sluices and pan the streams. It is possible that Splawn made up to $2,000 per day in gold.13 Sometime after filing his claims, he apparently took a promissory note for $5,000 from two men. Although he never saw or heard from them again, Splawn probably had panned out that amount or more before he quit his claims.14

Despite severe winter weather, hundreds of men flocked to the area. According to James W. Watt, a pack-train operator, fifteen inches of snow were on the ground by the end of October.15 Splawn left to spend the winter months at Walla Walla. On his way there, he camped along Slate Creek near the Salmon River - and encountered Bannock Louie again. Splawn invited him to share his campfire.16

While sitting around the fire, Bannock Louie told him about a basin to the south that contained large quantities of the yellow mineral. He drew Splawn a map of the mountains surrounding the basin and described the area's features in great detail. The next morning Splawn bade the Indian good-bye and continued to Walla Walla. He probably worked odd jobs through the winter, saving money to buy supplies in order to begin his search for the basin.17

In the spring of 1862, Splawn joined a party of fifty men at Auburn, Oregon - near present-day Baker City - led by a man named Tom Turner. Turner organized an expedition to search for the legendary "Blue Bucket Diggings" that reportedly existed in a tributary of the Snake River near the Owyhee Mountains. According to the legend, in 1845 emigrants on a wagon train stopped along the Snake on their way to Oregon. Children took blue water buckets to get water from the river. They also brought back shiny pebbles in their buckets. Their families were not interested; they were tired after crossing the scorching Snake River Plain and evading hostile Indians.18

Splawn told Turner about the basin. Turner said he was interested, but he wanted to look for the "Blue Bucket" gold first. If nothing were found, he said, he would help search for the basin. The prospectors left Auburn on horseback with enough supplies for two months.

The men searched several creeks and streams that emptied into the Snake near the Owyhees, but they did not find much gold. Splawn reminded Turner of their deal, but he was talked into looking further east before leaving the area. They did not find much gold there, either. Turner still did not want to leave. He was as sure of his gold as Splawn was about his.

Eventually, Joseph Branstetter, David H. Fogus, and four more of Turner's men joined with Splawn to search for the basin. When they reached the mouth of the Owyhee River, they met a party of seven men led by George W. Grimes. Grimes was en route to Turner's location. Splawn told him that they had not found much gold and were now headed for the basin.19

Once Splawn assured the Grimes party that he would recognize the mountains surrounding the basin, the two groups joined in the search. The whole party consisted of Splawn, Grimes, Branstetter, John Reynolds, Jacob Westenfelder, John Casner, D. W. Miller, Wilson, Silvi, Martin, two Azores Portuguese men - Antoine and Phillipi - and two others.20

A year or two earlier, the Washington territorial legislature had issued a permit to George W. Anderson and Sanford Owens to build a ferry on the Snake River at the site of the old Fort Boise trading post. Whether a ferry was actually established at the site is unknown.21 If there was one, it was likely destroyed by high water in 1862.

In the vicinity of the post, three major rivers - the Owyhee, Payette, and Boise - flow into the Snake. Apparently, there had been record snowfall accumulations in the mountains in the winter of 1861-62. Spring thaw caused all of the rivers to overflow their banks, forming a lake at least two miles wide. Even in June, the runoff had not lessened.22 In order to cross the flooding waters of the Snake River, the miners had to build a vessel to carry them and their supplies. Not much timber was available, but the men did the best they could using wood from the cottonwood trees growing along the river banks.

Several sandbars and bushy islands offered a stepping-stone crossing. Silvi could not swim, so he rode in the vessel. With one horse and a couple of men swimming alongside, the vessel was pushed, pulled, and guided in the current. The men traded places often because of the icy water and strong current. Soon, the vessel started to leak and Silvi had to bail water continuously. The men guided it to the first sandbar and hauled it up onto the sand. They rested for several minutes before attempting to cross the next channel.

Then, as they began the next leg of the crossing, the vessel filled with water and sank. All of the supplies were saved, but now the men were stranded. While they rested, a debate arose about whether to continue trying to cross the river or turn back.

In the end, they decided to try again. The men retreated back to the south bank. They built a second vessel. It sank. As a third was built, four men - Silvi, John Casner, Martin, and one other - decided they had had enough and turned back to Auburn. By the time the remaining eleven men finally crossed the river successfully, the entire effort had taken twenty-one days.23

The men followed the south bank of the Boise River upstream until they saw granite formations. Their route is not clear, but granite formations occur above the basalt canyon adjacent to present-day Lucky Peak Dam. The men may have travelled across the top of the southern basalt mesa and, upon seeing the granite cliffs, realized that crossing the river at that point was hopeless. The channel is deep and the slopes on both sides of the river below the columnar basalt are steep. The men probably back tracked to an area between present-day Diversion and Barber dams, where the land opened into a wide valley. Here they had to construct another vessel to cross the river.24

They soon encountered Bannock Indians - among them Bannock Louie, who again told of the basin of gold. He advised the miners to go north across the ridge, because hostile Indians were further ahead on the trail they were following.25

The Snake River as it appears now approximately where the Splawn and Grimes parties struggled to cross it. Photo courtesy the author.

As the miners followed a northerly route up through the foothills, an argument arose as to whether they should head for the Payette River instead of the basin. According to Splawn, after much grumbling and a near fist fight between Westenfelder and Grimes, they voted to go to the Payette. Splawn was troubled by Grimes's strange behavior; he had thought him one of the bravest men he had ever known. Apparently, Grimes feared for his life. He had been told by a fortune teller that he would be killed and scalped by Indians.26

This was no idle threat, as regional Shoshoni and Bannock Indian tribes had become increasingly hostile toward white emigrants travelling the Oregon Trail. With the continued stream of emigrants across the Snake River Plain, the Indian's ability to depend upon the environment for food had been greatly diminished by the wagon trains. Not only had the buffalo been killed out of the area by the 1840's, but tall desert grasses, one of the Indian's primary food sources, had been destroyed by excessive emigrant livestock grazing.27

The miners' precarious situation can only be assessed by a look at history. Each day, they risked death as they searched for the gold. About the time of George Grimes's death, Indians attacked emigrants along the Snake River at Massacre Rocks below American Falls. When the first rush of gold seekers swooped into the Boise Basin in the latter part of 1862, another emigrant party travelling along the Snake River was attacked by Indians.28

As the miners travelled toward the Payette River, Grimes decided to go to the basin instead. North of Shafer Mountain the men camped on Clear Creek, and the following day they saw another group of Indians in a gully. The miners circled past them, ascended a nearby mountain, and dropped into a draw on the other side. They followed the creek (present-day Grimes Creek) to a point near what would become the town of Centerville. The date was August 2, 1862.29

The men dug a prospect hole. Prospect hole depth varied depending upon where the bedrock was in the creek. Fogus shovelled some gravel into his pan and in a few minutes uncovered about fifteen cents' worth of gold. They worked that stream for a few more hours before moving on. The nuggests got bigger and better as they panned up the draw. Within a short time, they had panned fifty to seventy-five dollars' worth.30

They halted and made camp for a few days near later Pioneerville. From the campsite, Splawn rode a horse up to the head of Granite Creek. He climbed a tall fir tree near what is now known as Pilot Peak, and while at the top, carved a cross into the bark. After he climbed down from the tree, he noticed an abundance of Indian and bear tracks around the tree. In his haste to return to camp he rode through brush and trees so thick that his pants and shirt were ripped to shreds, and cuts criss-crossed the exposed skin of his back, legs, and arms. After he arrived at camp some of the men dressed his lacerated back with mustard plasters and applied pitch to the cuts on his arms and legs.31

According to Splawn's own story, the next day - August 9 - he rested in camp while the other men sank prospect holes and panned. About three o'clock in the afternoon, Grimes awakened Splawn to report that Antoine and Phillipi said Indians had shot at them.32

Splawn could see no hint of trouble, so he went back to sleep - only to be awakened suddenly by the sound of gunshots and voices. As he stood up, Grimes ran past him, shotgun in hand. Splawn grabbed his rifle, and together they charged up the hillside in the direction of the shooting. At the top of the hill, they were hit with a barrage of gunfire. In the heat of the shooting, Grimes fell, mortally wounded in the chest. Splawn ran to his aid. As Grimes lay dying in Splawn's arms, he reportedly said, "Mose, don't let them scalp me."33 After his death, Grimes's body was wrapped in his blankets. Antoine and Phillipi stood guard while he was buried in a prospect hole and Splawn spoke a few words for him.34

Since they were low on supplies and obviously unable to defend themselves, the remaining party decided to return to Walla Walla. They retraced their steps, careful to avoid any Indians that they saw. The men soon ran out of food and, because they probably feared further encounters with the Indians, they did not shoot any game. They had been without food for two days when they came upon Tim Goodale's emigrant wagon camped along the Boise River. The miners travelled with the wagon train as far as Walla Walla. The discovery of gold north of the Snake River was reported in the Walla Walla Washington Statesman at the end of August, but according to the article the discovery parties would not give the exact location.35

About September 11, 1862, Splawn, Fogus, Branstetter, J. Marion More, and forty or fifty other men left Walla Walla for the Basin. A few days later, as they passed near Burnt River, they were raided by Snake Indians who got away with six of their horses. The party continued on to Boise Basin and staked claims for themselves. By the next spring, thousands of veteran miners converged in the region like a swarm of hungry locusts. Additional camps sprouted up instantly.36

After an undetermined amount of time, Splawn apparently sold his claims. A short time later, he discovered that his claim would have made him very rich. Such is the way of life for a man who could not settle down long in one place.37

It is reasonable to believe that Splawn journeyed to other mining camps in the newly formed Idaho Territory. No documents have yet been located to support such a conclusion, but he may have searched for gold at Rocky Bar and Atlanta. He may have gone to Silver City as well, as both gold and silver were discovered there in November of 1862, shortly after the Boise Basin discovery.38 He might have prospected east of the Rockies at such gold strikes as Virginia City, Deer Lodge, or East Bannack - mining camps initially in Idaho Territory but later part of Montana.

Splawn was apparently a natural leader, able to take control of any situation. His knowledge about Indians no doubt saved his life on numerous occasions during his travels. Though he seems to have been a quiet and sensible man, he was not afraid to speak his mind, and his outspokenness occasionally plunged him into potentially disastrous situations.

Sometime after the Civil War had ended in 1865, Splawn travelled to Texas to visit cousins. As in many southern towns following the war, the town he visited was occupied by Union Army troops. Being of southern descent and sympathies, as were the town's citizens, Splawn did not like the soldiers' presence. Soon after his arrival, he apparently had a difference of opinion with the officer in charge. After a heated argument with the officer, Splawn left and walked to a cousin's house outside the town. According to the cousin, who had witnessed the incident and wrote family members about it, the Union officer ran ahead of Splawn on the trail in order to ambush him. He crouched behind a log that lay across the trail. As Splawn approached, the officer jumped up. He aimed his pistol at Splawn's head and started to cock it. But Splawn slapped the weapon aside and drew his own pistol, killing the officer. After the shooting, the cousin accompanied Splawn back to town. He was arrested for murder and for interfering with the business of the Union Army.39

No trial was held, but authorities decided to hang him. As Splawn stood on the scaffold, noose about his neck, the citizens gathered to watch this mockery of justice. Minutes from death, Splawn used his wits and incited them to rebellion. The citizens greatly outnumbered the soldiers. The acting officer realized the peril of the situation, stopped the hanging, and ordered Splawn out of town.40

Splawn travelled on to Missouri to visit other relatives. While there, he fell in love with a young woman and set a wedding date. According to family lore, the night before the wedding, some of the local young men threw him a bachelor party. They were said to be jealous of Splawn's western-flavored charisma; they drugged him and threw him into a boxcar of a westbound train. Splawn awakened the next day, greeted by the vast Kansas prairies flashing past the open boxcar as the train chugged west. Ashamed and embarrassed for himself and his love, he continued west. Sixteen years later, when he visited his mother in Ellensburg, Washington, he found a letter from his sweetheart. She had forgiven him for the incident and begged him to return to her. He was so overcome with grief at his loss that he wrote a poem in her honor called To My Sweetheart In Heaven. No known copy of this poem exists. The last line - "where they would be reunited beside a diamond-pebbled brook" - is all that his nephew, Homer Splawn, can remember of the poem.41

Though a wanderer, Splawn was self-educated and enjoyed reading poetry such as Robert Burns's "Cotter's Saturday Night." He also read Greek and English classics, and he carried such books in his pack on his wilderness travels. When in the company of his family and friends, he often recited lengthy poetry - his own creations or those by other authors - with great drama and emotion. They might have been lost forever had it not been for his sister-in-law's influence. She wrote them down and had them published in the Yakima Herald. Hi-O-Lit-Sa was a lengthy poem based on central Washington landmarks and legends. An excerpt of Hi-O-Lit-Sa illustrates Splawn's lyric style. An excerpt follows:


From the high set vale of Kittitas,

how often have I gazed;

On yonder cold, gray granite peak, and

once I was amazed.

When the sinking sun shot back a

reddish gem that blazed

And played against a shift of rock

that stands there just below

The scalloped rent in Stuart's brow

where lies perpetual snow.

I was standing on Thorpe Prairie when

the wondrous sight I saw,

That master artist flamed the cheek of

Yacksom's faithful squaw

The beautiful Hi-o-lit-sa who back in

some age unknown

Pleaded for a lasting life on earth, and

low, she's there - a stone

With the centuries heaped upon her

forever looking down

On the battlefield where Yacksom fell

near Wen-de-wall town.42

Splawn spent the winter of 1870 with his youngest brother, A. J. (Jack) Splawn. Jack and his partner, Ben Birch, had a store in central Washington's Kittitas Valley humorously called "Robber's Roost." While in the company of his brother, Splawn spent some of his time arguing certain Biblical passages with various settlers who stopped in. The store's location later became the site of the city of Ellensburg. One can gain a sense of Splawn's shrewd business instincts from an incident that occurred when minded the store for an afternoon. A man came in to purchase a box of pills that cost twenty-five cents. Splawn charged him $2.00. The customer complained to Jack. Splawn, when questioned about the incident, replied that when a customer needed an emergency supply of pills, he should pay an emergency price.43

Although Splawn appears to have spent the rest of his life in central Washington, he never appears to have acquired his own house - though he did own various mining properties north of Cle Elum during the early 1880's. He apparently had sufficient amounts of money to purchase a house on and off throughout his life. If friends or relatives needed money, he was glad to loan it to them without worrying about prompt repayment.44 And he remained curious about the land and people around him.

John Splawn at right, probably his cousin Moses standing, in the mid-1880's. Photo courtesy the Yakima Valley Museum.

In the fall of 1872, an earthquake jolted central Washington. Sizable damaged occurred just above the mouth of the Entiat River: part of a mountain broke off, slid into the Columbia River, and dammed it for a short while. Splawn rode over from the Moxee Valley to find out why the local Indians were excited. While investigating the east side of the river, opposite the slide called Ribbon Cliff, he found a dark substance oozing from a crack. He gathered some of the substance and sent it to Portland for analysis. Later, it was found to be oil.45

During Washington's settlement, heated battles erupted sporadically as knots of rebel Indians defied their tribal leader's attempts to maintain peace with the whites. These renegades attacked and killed isolated and small groups of white settlers and miners. In 1878, such an attack occurred against a couple who were travelling from White Bluffs to Yakima City. They were ambushed at a place called Rattlesnake Springs. Splawn, always quick to come to the aid of his neighbors when he could, joined the posse that hunted down and caught the perpetrators. The Indians were tried and executed.46

By his eighties, Splawn spent a large part of his time as a companion to his nieces and nephews. Because he did not have a home of his own, and he had outlived all of his brothers, he migrated between the homes of their widows. He took care of the children while the adults tended to farming or ranching chores. But Splawn loved nothing better than stealing away alone or with a few companions to explore and mine in the mountains. Two of his favorite Washington places to explore were Rimrock and Chelan. He was often accompanied by his friend Nanumkin, an Entiat Indian. He continued these excursions even after Nanumkin died around the turn of the century, right up until his own death at the age of eighty-nine.47

In July of 1925, Splawn attended the dedication of the newly completed Tieton Dam at Rimrock, Washington. This basin had been special to him. He had prospected its nooks and crannies and located several gold or silver finds.48

The following untitled poem he wrote describes his emotions and his connection to the basin about to be covered forever by millions of gallons of water.

How often we have ridden up this trail,

which will soon be under water,

to catch a glimpse of a smile from the

morning rose, fair Maude, John Russell's


The old corral,

which used to hold the wildest steer or


has vanished from our sight at last,

and what are we thinking now?

A thousand years hence and

none of the living will then know

the joy-giving place this was,

back in the long ago!

Standing here, not all unmoved,

we bid a last farewell

to the last log cabin of the Tieton,

once home of John and Dell.

We hoped that it might long remain,

but it is not to be,

for the engineers are backing up

a deep fresh water sea.

Only we will note, with feeling of regret,

when steaming to and fro,

the absence of the sheltered nooks,

where, in the long ago,

we used to camp in hunting trips

when all the wild was free,

and singe and shrink our venison

and hold our jubilee.

It brought the songsters of the world

down from the hills to sing.

And nightly, round our camp,

they'd make the basin ring!

The deep hooting of the owl,

out over the clifty brink,

would sometimes rouse us from our sleep

and we'd take another drink.

Now, living o'er these days again,

we can't suppress a sigh,

nor down the tears now welling up.

Good-bye,old scenes, Good-bye!49

Moses Splawn and his niece Lallooh, in about 1921. Photo courtesy Homer Splawn.

Other changes had more significant effects upon him. At the turn of the century the automobile was introduced, bringing Americans into a new frontier: industrialization. Although Splawn bitterly despised automobiles and everything associated with them, he rode in them as the occasion demanded. But he never got used to them.50 One could often find him on the Yakima street corners waving his cane at passing motorists, demanding that they slow down lest they kill someone. Ironically, the automobile, a symbol for the end of an era as he knew it, was the instrument of his death. On July 7, 1925, at the age of eighty-nine, he died from shock due to fractured ribs after being side-swiped by a slow-moving truck. He had stepped off the curb from between two parked cars and into the path of the vehicle, which had just turned the corner.51 Splawn might not have died from his injuries from this accident had it not been for his previous injuries he sustained when he fell about ten feet in the basement of the Michigan Motel. He had been hospitalized in serious condition for several weeks with several broken ribs and a broken collar bone. But he recovered quickly and finished his convalescence at the home of his sister-in-law, Margaret Splawn. He had just started to get around when he insisted upon going to the Tieton Dam dedication and to celebrate July 4th with his friends in Yakima. Concerned family members attempted to locate him on the day that he was killed to ascertain if he was all right. They could not locate him until the authorities notified them of the accident.52

A simple flat cement stone, bearing only his name, marks Splawn's grave at the Tahomah Cemetery in Yakima. But there is a larger monument as well. The United States Forest Service has named a 7,450-foot mountain in honor of the Splawn family. Splawn Mountain is located northeast of the northern tip of Lake Chelan in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Access into the area is by a toll ferry on Lake Chelan and by hiking trails. This restricted area is a splendid memorial for Moses Splawn, a man who lived in and loved the wilderness.53



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