By R. Gregory Nokes
Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History
Before Robert McMillan dies, he will make a deathbed confession to his father of his involvement in one of the most horrific crimes in the American West.
The 1889 photograph, yellowed with age, reveals a thin, unsmiling boy smartly dressed in jacket, sweater and tie, his left hand resting on the back of a chair, either because he’s posed that way, or maybe because he needs it for support. His hair is cut short, although a little long over the ears. He appears much younger than eighteen. Today, he might be a Boy Scout. He doesn’t look like a member of a gang of killers.
It is the last known photograph of Robert McMillan of Walla Walla, who would be dead within the year, a victim of rheumatic fever. But before he dies, he will make a deathbed confession to his father of his involvement in one of the most horrific crimes in the American West, the 1887 massacre of nearly three dozen Chinese gold miners in Oregon’s remote Hells Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America.
I was sent the photograph by Beverly Schlegel of Montvale, Virginia, a descendant of the McMillans. I had written about Robert McMillan’s confession in my 2009 book about the killings, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. But until seeing the photograph, McMillan was just a sad name in a trial record. The photograph and other new information make possible a more complete portrait of the sickly boy described by a sister as “lovable,” and how he came to be involved with a gang of horse thieves and killers. McMillan would testify he was scared to speak out against the leaders of the gang, probably one of his few truthful statements at the time.
The killers of the Chinese miners had acted without remorse, firing down on the men from surrounding cliffs at a mining camp at a bowl-shaped cove on the Snake River on the Oregon side of the canyon. They threw the bodies into the north-flowing river, some of which, bloated and mangled, turned up days later at Lewiston, Idaho, 65 miles down river. Lewiston, which had a sizeable community of Chinese miners, had been a jumping off point for the murdered men.
The site of the massacre was known in 1887 as Deep Creek, but in 2005 the U.S. Board of Geographic Names officially designated it Chinese Massacre Cove. A memorial to the victims was dedicated in 2012 by a group of volunteers. The stone marker stands on a cliff high above the Snake River near a rock shelter used by the miners.
Only about a dozen of the victims would ever be identified; most were from Punyu, a district in the port city then known as Canton, today called Guangzhou. Their leader was an experienced miner -named Chea Po, who was among those killed. The miners worked for the Sam Yup Company, a Chinese-owned business headquartered in San Francisco. The men probably had been in the American West for years, possibly first employed as la;borers building the region’s railroads.
Following an investigation, a member of the gang, Frank Vaughan, turned state’s evidence, implicating six others. All were indicted for murder by a grand jury. Among the accused was 16-year old Robert McMillan, the youngest member of the group. The others were Bruce “Blue” Evans, J.T. Canfield, Omar Larue, Hiram Maynard and Hezekiah Hughes. Most of the men were small-time ranchers and ranch hands, working on ranches clustered around the tiny northeast Oregon town of lmnaha.
Blue Evans, age 32, the gang’s leader, escaped, as did J.T. Canfield and Omar Larue. Evans had been held under guard in a hotel room-Wallowa County lacked a jail-after being arrested for rustling before the massacre was even discovered. He escaped by faking a need to visit an outdoor privy, where another gang member had stashed a revolver. Evans overpowered his guard and rode off on an awaiting horse. He already had blood on his hands from an earlier killing for which he’d never faced justice. After busting out of the makeshift jail, Blue Evans was never caught again.
Robert McMillan, Hiram Maynard and Hezekiah Hughes were taken into custody. In August 1888, a three-day murder trial was held in Enterprise. An all-white male jury declared the trio innocent after Frank Vaughan changed his grand jury testimony, pinning the blame on those who had escaped.
Two years later, as he succumbed to rheumatic fever, a remorseful McMillan made a deathbed confession to his father.
Hugh McMillan later shared his son’s near-final words with a newspaper in Walla Walla where the McMillan family then lived. In a written account of his son’s confession, the elder McMillan told the Walla Walla Statesman:
My son and Evans, Canfield, Larue and Vaughan went to the Chinese camp on the Snake River. There were thirteen Chinese in the camp and they were fired on. Twelve Chinese were instantly killed and one other caught afterwards and his brains beaten out.
Hugh McMillan further quoted his late son as saying 21 additional Chinese were killed the following day, eight who came to the same camp, and 13 at another nearby camp. “My son was present only the first day,” Hugh McMillan wrote, “but was acquainted with the facts as they were talked over by the parties in his presence.”
Robett McMillan told his father that the gang came away with fifty thousand dollars in gold. This was a far higher amount than other estimates, and was probably an exaggeration. In the confession shared by his father, there was no suggestion that Robert McMillan had personally killed any of the Chinese. The Statesman story was published on August 3, 1891, two years after McMillan’s death, three years after his trial, and four years after the massacre.
A father’s shock and disappointment in his son may explain why it took Hugh McMillan two years to publicly disclose the confession. The boy had testified in a pre-trial deposition that he went to the river with Evans and the others believing they simply wanted to borrow a boat from the Chinese miners. But the boy’s confession to his father made it clear that the gang was after gold, not a boat.
Until McMillan’s confession, the word ‘gold’ hadn’t appeared in any of the court records: not in the grand jury indictment; not in the suspects’ depositions; and not in what remains of the trial record-though most testimony has disappeared, if it was ever taken down in the first place. Gold may not have been mentioned, possibly because no one wanted to ask about it. If the gang’s true motive for attacking the Chinese was made known-and it probably was known to many in the small community-it would have been more difficult to portray the accused as innocent bystanders. And, of course, it would raise the wide open question of where was the gold, and who had it. Over the years, there were rumors the gang buried the gold and that relatives of ] .T. Canfield, who lived undetected in Idaho, had dug it up. This truth will likely never be known.
Following the trial, the massacre was forgotten— or covered up — for more than a century until the partial trial record was found tucked away in a long-abandoned county safe.
Chinese at the time of the massacre were widely unpopular in the American West, in part for the perception that they were taking jobs from white workers. Responding to anti-Chinese sentiment, Congress had enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting additional Chinese laborers from coming into the country, although allowing those already in the country to remain. In the 1880s, violent and sometimes deadly expulsion of Chinese workers took place in Seattle, Tacoma and other communities around the Pacific Northwest.
While the Hells Canyon massacre was the deadliest of the many crimes committed by whites against Chinese, an earlier massacre in 1885 had claimed 27 Chinese lives at a coal mine at Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory. As in most of these racially motivated attacks, no one was held accountable.
When Beverly Schlegel read in my book of the confession
of young McMillan-her grand uncle—she had previously assumed his innocence. “The knowledge of Robert’s participation in this murder rampage has made us sick at heart,” said Schlegel, who has researched the family’s history along with her cousin Patricia Campbell, a Tacoma attorney. Robert McMillan’s younger sister – Eve was their grandmother-to Beverly on her father’s side, and Patricia on her mother’s side.
Conversations and emails with Schlegel and Campbell point to a proud and accomplished church-going Catholic family of modest means, tightly protective of its reputation and privacy. But family stories told over the years haa puzzled Schlegel, including a story that Hugh McMillan had been shot in the leg while Robert was being chased. There was also the mystery of what Eve meant in a poem that referenced a tragedy “that tore your heart out and left it sore.”
The cousins have struggled to incorporate “the horrible family secret” of McMillan’s role in the massacre into their knowledge of the family history. The sadness endured by the family over the years tugs at the heart, not only because of Robert’s role in a crime and his subsequent death, but for other losses that followed.
According to the cousins, the family blamed its troubles, in part, on the decision to settle in the Wallowa Valley, which in the 1880s fit the popular concept of the lawless Wild West. The valley is named for the Wallowa Band of Nez Perce, led by the legendary Chief Joseph, which was expelled from its valley homeland by the U.S. Army in 1877. The town of Joseph, now largely a tourist destination, is named for the chief.
Small-time ranchers in the Wallowa Valley and nearby Imnaha Valley were plagued by cattle rustling and horse thieving, and sometimes responded unmercifully when perpetrators were caught. One suspected horse thief was shot dead by vigilantes who opene.d fire on his tent during the night, no questions asked.
The McMillan family had arrived in the Wallowa Valley in 1882 from Ely, Nevada. Hugh McMillan had worked as a blacksmith in Nevada’s silver and gold mines, repairing equipment and supplying miners with such items as tools, nails and horseshoes.
Hugh and his wife Catherine were emigrants-he from Nova Scotia, she from Ireland-who met in Nevada after separate journeys to the American West. The couple married in 1869 in a Catholic ceremony in Virginia City, a boomtown near the famous Comstock Lode where silver had been discovered in 1859. They had eight children, six girls and two boys, all born in Nevada. Robert, the second eldest, was born March 7, 1871. Others were Mary, the eldest; Janet 0anie); Elizabetl1 (Lizzie); Catherine (Katie); Anna (Annie); John 0ohnnie), and Evelyn (Eve), the youngest.
Eve wrote in the family history that they moved often. “It was a free and abundant life. Mining strikes were frequent and new towns boomed,” she wrote, “we followed the gold strikes and the silver strikes and father contracted in many places around the state.”
By the early 1880s, the Coinage Act of 1873 had begun to deal setbacks to silver mining. In 1882, the McMillans decided to move to Oregon where Hugh intended to settle into a farm and ranching life, even though he had no agricultural experience.
Hugh built what Eve described as “a very substantial home” east of Joseph, in open range land known as the Buttes. But wind and winter cold argued for a better location, and they moved the following spring into a home in the more sheltered lmnaha Valley, a smaller valley immediately east of the Wallowa Valley. They bought a 160-acre farm and aimed to raise cattle and grow crops.
But Hugh didn’t take well to farmipg, and it was Catherine who made the farm a success. “She planted, cultivated, irrigated, harvested and marketed the crops,” Eve wrote. “As the cattle increased and in seasons when there were an unusual number of fresh cows, mother made butterfat into excellent butter, packing it into wooden tubs for market.”
Schooling for the children was limited, just two months in a one-room school in lmnaha where basics were taught to students ranging in age from small children to adults in their twenties. The lack of good schooling in the community was a sore point with the parents from the start.
Both Robert and younger sister Janie became good riders, and both found jobs herding horses and cattle for nearby ranchers, including Blue Evans. As restless teenagers with time on their hands, trouble was easy to find. Robert went to work for Evans, who at some point lured him into the gang.
The McMillan’s first dwelling was known as “Mackies” and is actually mentioned in a contemporaneous folk song about the massacre called “Old Blue.” The home was said to be a gathering place for the gang and their stolen livestock.
One passage in the song goes like this:
The round house at Mackies, is filled every night. With cow thieves and bummers, with lips sealed tight.
They run in wild horses, Nodines N Makes an M. They drive to the Basin, known as Old. Blue’s den.
The late Wallowa County historian J. Harland “Harley” Horner said the gang had stolen about one hundred and fifty horses belonging to a rancher named Fred Nodine, changing the brand from “a running N to a bar OK.” Horner, who knew the McMillans personally, also offered a different version of the family’s arrival in the region, in which they came from Idaho rather than Nevada, and rented rather than owned their ranch.
A thirty-page family history written by the cousins’ grandmother Eve makes no mention of young McMillan’s role in the massacre other than the vague reference to a family tragedy. But soon after the trial, the family left Wallowa County and moved one hundred miles north to Walla Walla. The family history said they moved to seek better medical treatment for Robert, who had suffered from rheumatic fever since age eight, and which was becoming much worse. But the cousins said the move was as much a desire to get away from the Wallowas as anything else.
Hugh and Catherine were wary of bad influences on their children. “They didn’t want them to be associated with ruffians … some were horse thieves and rustlers, way too tough for our family,”
Patricia Campbell said. “People romanticize the open West. A lot of it is harsh and ugly. This family learned this in spades.”
Campbell says Robert probably fell under the influence of Evans. While she said his involvement in the crime “can’t be excused,” his young age left him vulnerable to being easily influencedand possibly threatened by-the older men in the gang “who clearly were not of the best character.” She said in today’s justice system, Robert would have been prosecuted as a juvenile. He claimed in his pre-trial deposition he was fifteen at the time of the crime, but was actually sixteen.
“I want to believe that Robert’s parents likely believed in his innocence and that this is why they supported him, not because they did not believe that the lives of the [Chinese] miners had no value,” Campbell said.
What their grandmother didn’t write, the cousins say, was that Robert’s involvement in the massacre contributed to an unraveling of the family. There were other disappointments as well.
Janie, just sixteen, had married into the Vaughan family over her parents’ objections. She married one of Frank Vaughan’s cousins, Haseltine Bean of nearby Asotin, Washington Territory. Vaughan’s signature appears on the marriage certificate attesting to the competency of the couple to marry, which was required for someone her likely age. The marriage license was dated September 26, 1888, scarcely a month after the trial.
Campbell said Janie’s choice of a husband estranged her from some family members for many years.
Janie prob ably met Vaughan at the lmnaha school they both attended. She also knew Blue Evans.
According to historian Harley Horner, Janie delivered food to Evans at his hideout following his escape from the hotel privy. Homer, who apparently knew most of those involved, suggested a connection of some kind between Hugh McMillan and Evans.
When Evans got away, he went to lmnaha and camped in the brush by a small spring creek on the west side of the river, opposite Hugh McMillan’s place [sic) who was father of Robert McMillan, and the family carried provisions for him for several weeks to this camp. From there he had a full view of the lmnaha road and up and down the river for a ways. During this time Vaughan and some others of the bunch kept McMillan posted on what was going on and [Hugh] McMillan through his daughter, Janie, who carried food to Evans in his camp, would tell Evans … When it was learned about the killing of the Chinamen, Evans skipped for parts unknown.
Beverly Schlegel says her father, Frederick Hugh Einhaus, Eve’s son, told of hearing from his mother that one reason the family left the Wallowa Valley was because of a violent episode involving one of her brothers. An armed man on horseback pursued one of Eve’s brothers, probably Robert, and chased him all the way home. Later, this same armed man shot and wounded Hugh McMillan. “Grandma always told my dad that her father was shot in the leg and this event precipitated their move,” Schlegel said.
Schlegel says that while she couldn’t attest to the validity of some of the family stories, she wanted them told. “I find the truth far more interesting than secrets and suspicions,” she said.
The cousins had different sources for some of their knowledge of family history: Schlegel from her father; Campbell from Janie’s daughter, Auralee, who lived in Portland. Campbell also said she once met Janie at Auralee’s home and found her to be “a sweet old elderly aunt:’ Janie and Bean had divorced many years earlier. Campbell sald Janie mentioned the massacre, but not Robert’s involvement.
As if Robert’s entanglements and death weren’t enough, another devastating blow struck after the family moved to Walla Walla. A daughter, 14-year-old Katie, died April 15, 1890 of what was described as influenza. Only two months earlier, on February 16, she had written to Janie, then living in, Asotin, that she had been “sick all night last night” with a bad cold, and lamented missing church that morning. “I haven’t missed church but twice since we came here.” She still hoped to attend catechism later that afternoon,
In that same letter, she said she liked Walla Walla, and, “I would not care to go back to Wallowa any more.”
But Katie did not recover. Hugh McMillan wrote Janie on April 15 that Katie had died during the night,
Poor Katie was taken sick with the influenza last January. Got well but went to school too soon and was taken down the second time. She got partly over it this time, but went out again too soon and was taken sick the third time which she never got over.
Prior to her death, Katie was a chronicler of the family’s joys and sorrows. In a letter to Janie on September 8, 1889, she said her father hadn’t yet opened a planned blacksmith shop, and had quit his job, suggesting he might be in the grip of depression. She said the children were attending Catholic schools.
Eve and Annie and Johnnie and I are going to school now. We go to the sisters’ school. Johnnie goes to the brothers’ school,” Katie wrote, also indicating that she deeply missed Robert and had gone with her mother to visit his grave the day before. “You can’t imagine how lonesome it is after poor Dear brother. It seems so hard to think we have to give him up .. .I never get tired of writing about him.
Katie’s death seems to have dealt a final blow to the marriage of Hugh and Catherine. “I think this tragedy, the horrible events in Wallowa Valley-the death of Robert and the death of another child-tore the family apart, and they never lived together again,” Patricia Campbell said.
Catherine moved with the children from Walla Walla to Portland in 1903, and later to Tacoma, while Hugh went to Idaho in search of work. Though they would never again live together, the couple didn’t divorce and they remained in contact with each other until Hugh was killed in a wagon accident while looking for farmland near Calgary, Alberta in 1911. He was 66. Catherine died in Tacoma in 1939 at age 95. The couple was reunited in death, buried side-by-side at Tacoma’s Calvary Cemetery.
Before Catherine’s death, the famiiy held a reunion in 1933 at Janie’s home Portland. At least three of the McMillan children were there: Eve, Janle and John, along with other family members. “I always recall that reunion with a sense of joy and satisfaction,” Eve wrote.
She concluded her personal history recollections with a prayerful statement on the value of family:
It is my hope that the coming generations cling to a tender feeling of family relationships, and maintain a high sense of family pride and honor. We have a goodly heritage, let us cherish, sustain and perpetuate it. This is what I understand to be the essence of Pride in Family.
For Beverly Schlegel, knowledge of her grand uncle Robert McMillan’s involvement in the crime resolves the mystery of the meaning of an earlier piece of her grandmother’s writing, the line in Eve’s poem which read:
Still printed on my mind, as deep
As when the day he dropped to sleep
is that first tragedy that tore
your heart out and left it sore
“We had always assumed the poem referred to Robert’s death, but what was that ‘first tragedy?”‘ Schlegel said of her and Patricia Campbell’s long struggle to understand their family history. With their young ancestor’s confession in hand more than 130 years after his untimely death, the cousins now had their answer.