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The Eliza Bowman Story (Part 2)

In this space last time we covered the early life of Eliza Durbin Bowman. Additionally, the previous piece contained some history of the relations of Indians and whites in Humboldt County in the 1850s and 1860s as well as events in Hoopa Valley in the same time period.

Recently widowed, with a handful of children, Mrs. Bowman moved to a farm along the Eel River in 1867. During the first months of 1869 newspapers reported attacks on white settlers, including the death of a Mr. De Lassaux at Hydesville, thirty miles from the Bowman place.

In the pre-dawn hours of March 25, 1869, Mrs. Bowman noticed one of her cows acting in an agitated manner. The nervous cow mooed incessantly and turned its attention to a nearby hillside.

On that hill, Mrs. Bowman thought she could make out the figure of someone partially hidden behind a manzanita bush, but she couldn't be sure in the dim light. She allowed her oldest daughter, Malinda (known as Lindy), to walk to the muddy corral. There the girl completed milking chores and turned the milk cows out to pasture. They browsed and grazed calmly and quietly, but that one cow ran to her calf, bellowing all the way.

Eliza Bowman opened the front door and called to her daughter to run to the house of their nearest neighbor, David Ward, a distance of 2,000 feet or so. A rifle round hit Eliza just left of her navel, traveled through her, and fractured the top of her hip bone.

She slumped against the door jamb, but held tight to her shotgun, hollering to the five children to run for the upper trail to Ward's cabin. Those inside sprinted from the back door, joining Lindy who'd abandoned the milk buckets. Eliza headed out the front door, heading for their plowed field, intending to keep herself between the attackers and her children.

The youngest child, five-year-old Emma, raced back to her mother. Barely able to put weight on her left side, Mrs. Bowman clutched the gun in that fist and hurried Emma along with her right hand.

More yelling Indians appeared to her left side. Walking backward so she could keep an eye on them, Eliza cocked the shotgun. Not seeing the terrain she limped over, Eliza stumbled and fell. One of the Indians came near and spoke in clear English, “Damn you now, I've got you.”

He dropped to a knee, aiming a rifle at Eliza, but her finger on the trigger of the shotgun proved quicker. The blast of nine buckshot (a relatively light charge) hit him straight in the face, but the discharge came from far enough away that it did not kill the man. He stumbled away and the rest of his band also scattered into the brush.

Mrs. Bowman got to her feet. Bleeding and burdened by Emma clutching to her side, she managed to make her way to the trail leading to the Ward cabin. Eleven-year-old Andy had lingered behind the others with an enormous Russian pistol in hand to provide cover.

Another Indian rallied his allies into the open field once again, dodging from side to side to avoid being an easy target. From Mrs. Bowman's perspective, looking behind her, the Indian contorted his face as he broke into a chant, unintelligble to her. He zigzagged forward with a large Newfoundland dog at his side. The Newfoundland would later be identified as one who'd gone missing from the De Lassaux place earlier that month.

Mrs. Bowman could have emptied her other barrel into the chanting Indian, but she resolved to hold it back until she was sure all the children, including Emma, reached the Ward cabin. Andy and the others had moved up the trail, but Eliza could hear their steps. In front of her several other Indians reached the fence at the edge of the field. One rested a rifle on a wooden post and fired. The round passed nowhere near Eliza, but buzzed inches from the fleeing Lindy.

The lead Indian kept dodging from side to side and chanting as he followed Mrs. Bowman and Emma. Without looking over her shoulder, Eliza could hear nine-year-old Nellie calling to David Ward, so she knew they were nearing his cabin. The lead Indian drew so close he finally fired on her. Eliza flinched to one side, but the bullet had already passed by. A score of rifle and pistol rounds whizzed through the air without striking any of the fleeing Bowmans.

Nellie's yells brought Mr. Ward from his front door, gun in hand. He fired twice, wounding one of the Indians and precipitating a temporary retreat on their part.

Ward followed the Bowmans back into his two-story log house. It had been constructed with defense in mind, built of heavy logs, fitted together. There were no windows on the ground floor. The heavy doors had bars swung across them on the inside.

Eliza fell upon a bed where Andy had rested the Russian pistol. She loaded it with seven buckshot, to be used as a weapon of last resort at close quarters should the Indians breach the cabin doors. Bleeding and faint she fell into a brief sleep.

About nine o'clock, a gunshot outside roused everyone inside to full alert. One of the Ward's dogs yelped then crawled under the house, whimpering in fatal agony. What sounded like laughter from the Indians was followed by a fusillade, a dozen and a half shots struck the cabin wall. Only one or two penetrated. The remains of a bullet rolled to a stop next to Andy Bowman. Referring to the man who'd built the cabin, the boy whispered, “I do wish Milt had made these walls a little thicker.”

Those were the only words spoken inside for a prolonged period. The ground floor of the house contained but two rooms, connected by a crude hallway. The Bowmans and Wards had sheltered themselves into the bigger of the two rooms. Two Indians, male and female, stepped into the hallway just beyond a barred door, perhaps believing that the silence meant everyone inside was dead. One of the Indians jammed a knee against the outside of the door. Inside, Mrs. Bowman and Mr. Ward crept close to the door and fired their weapons. Six buckshot pellets wounded the female Indian while David Ward's rifle shot clipped a pants pocket and backside of the male Indian. A double handful of U.S. government caps, a pair of bullet molds, and a knife fell to the hallway floor as the wounded duo raced outside.

Afraid of further attack if they ventured outside the Bowmans and Wards stayed put in their one room fortress for the remainder of the day and on through the night. At noon the next day, with David Ward on guard on the porch, Lindy Bowman raced out to the well to fetch water for the besieged families.

Around four in the afternoon, eleven-year-old Andy volunteered to make a break for one of the Ward horses in an attempt to reach the cattle range where his older brother, Dick, was working. He bolted barefoot at dusk, catching and mounting a horse out back then racing it into the shadows.

He rode swiftly for eight miles without sighting an Indian, though he did spot many tracks he thought must belong to the same band that had attacked them. Waving a bandanna over his head, Andy rode into a camp containing his brother and three older men. One rode north for Hydesville to bring more help and a doctor for Eliza Bowman's wound. The other two men mounted up and rode with Andy and Dick Bowman toward the Ward cabin.

The Indians had vacated the premises around the Ward house after the wounds inflicted by Mrs. Bowman's buckshot and Mr. Ward's rifle. They did, however, plunder then burn the Bowman house, taking or destroying one ton of butter, ammunition, coal oil and other provisions. The latter included clothing, bedding, furniture, silver, jewelry, books, and a sizable amount of cash.

Dr. Raymond Felt reached the Ward house three days after Eliza Bowman was shot. By then she was already mending on her own. After news of the attack spread around Humboldt County, gifts of cloth and other needed goods arrived quite often for a month or more. One of those gifts was a brand new rifle. Eliza spent much of her time in bed at the Ward house into the summer, sewing new clothes for her children. The Ward family could not bear to stay in the bullet riddled cabin, so David Ward built a new home in open ground alongside the river. The walls were constructed double wide this time.

In the summer of 1869, Mrs. Bowman moved her brood south to Mendocino County. They settled nine miles from Laytonville. The Indians who were identified as Hoopa, were captured, but their punishment or ultimate fate was not reported, as was so often true in events concerning the people native to the land.

Eliza Bowman bore with the suffering that accompanied her hip wound up until her death in 1907. Her son Andy proved to be a renowned hunter and tracker. His tracking skills played a large factor in the successful posse that hunted down the “Mendocino Outlaws” in the autumn of 1879.

Andy's hunting skills didn't stop with the turn of the 20th century. He was employed as a county or state hunter well into his 60s and 70s. In 1936 the district superintendent for eight northern California counties of state hunters described Andy Bowman as the best man in his employ. “There is not a young man nor one of any age in the district who can hunt as Bowman can, who is as faithful, as untiring in the service, as reliable under any conditions as this pioneer ranger who is still a valuable employee in the state which has been his home all his life.”

It is likely that no person ever traversed more of Mendocino County than Andy Bowman. At 81 years young, in the line of his state hunter duty, he tracked down and killed a 450 pound bear that had wantonly destroyed domesticated pigs and sheep. A year later he got the best of a 350 pound predatory bear near Big River.

Andy married Ada Pinches in 1894. She was nearly 20 years his junior. They were the parents of ten children born between 1896 and 1918. The youngest, Andrew Bowman Jr., enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He attained the rank of Second Lieutenant and assistant field supervisor at the Mira Loma Flight Academy. In the first fatal mishap involving an Army Air Corps trainer since 1939, Lt. Andrew Bowman Jr. died instantly when his plane crashed into sand dunes west of Oxnard Airport in mid-October, 1942.

Andy Bowman lived until 1948, almost 80 years after his ride for help near the Eel River. Ada Pinches Bowman died the following year.

Many of the details about the March 25th incident were first chronicled in an article written for the San Francisco Call (Sunday, August 9, 1891 edition). The author was Anna Morrison Reed. More about her in the January 23, 2019 issue of the AVA.

(Bows and arrows, bears and Bowmans at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

One Comment

  1. George Hollister February 21, 2019

    Boy, what a great history. One thing about the early European settlers to California, they were tough. There is Bowman Gulch in upper Big River, across the river from Clark Opening, and the mouth of Meddick Creek. I wonder if it is named for Andy Bowman?

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