The Life of Jeff Standifer, Part 4: Snake War

This is the fourth part of our blog series on the life of Jeff Standifer. If you missed them click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.


On March 1st, 1863 Standifer's Rangers rode from Placerville to Idaho City and down Moore's Creek to Warm Springs. They camped there before heading east the next morning to Indian Creek and followed that into the Mayfield area. Several years later there would be a townsite there but is now a ghost town. The Rangers were guided by a man referred to as Mountain Jack. Jack, real name unknown, was a white man that had been captured by and raised by natives. He was as comfortable using a bow as he was a rifle and could track in the pitch dark. There was some speculation that Mountain Jack was really Reuben Van Ornum, who had been taken by natives during the Utter Wagon Train Massacre near present-day Grand View, Idaho. Rueben had been found by his uncle and returned to society, but found he could not cope and disappeared.


Was Rueben Van Ornum, the child pictured here, the real identity of Mountain Jack?


The party set up camp and set a guard to watch for any signs of natives. This area is where the flatlands begin to slowly rise into the hill country and is covered with lava rock formations and sagebrush. Near midnight, the guard roused the rest of the camp after spotting some natives moving near some rocks nearby. Most of the men in the camp jumped on their horses to give chase, capturing one of the natives and scattering the rest into the hills to the north. The men returned to camp and ate breakfast. Standifer then ordered 16 of the rangers to move to the east to cut off any escape to the Dankskin Mountains, while Standifer and the remaining men chased those who escaped that morning. The group of 16 reported coming across a native camp and getting into a firefight where they killed 18 men and took the women prisoner.


Rock formation in the general area where the first skirmish between Standifer's Rangers and the "Snake Indians" occurred


When they met back up with the main group, Standifer was scouting a large encampment to the northwest. As the rangers approached a short firefight broke out, in which John Dobson was hit in the jaw by a rifle bullet. He was later taken back to Idaho City where he eventually died from his wound, the only casualty suffered by Standifer's Rangers. The rest of the men surrounded the native camp and waited for three days and nights before Standifer was able to get the natives to agree to peace talks and entered the camp, probably with the help of Mountain Jack to translate.


Standifer demanded that the murderer of George Grimes (for more see part 2) be turned over in exchange for the rest of the band to go in peace. He was refused and retreated to his men. The following night, Standifer assigned several men to crawl through the dark to cover each of the native rifle-pits surrounding the camp. When dawn broke, one of the native warriors stood up from his pit and looked around. The crack of a rifle shot ended his life. As the other natives in their rifle pits stood up to see where the shot came from, they were each killed in their own turn. The outer defenses dispatched, the Rangers had free reign to enter the camp. 60 natives were counted among the dead, but Dobson remained the only casualty amongst the Rangers. 80 horses were also captured and returned to the Boise Basin.


Probably feeling quite victorious, the men returned to the Warm Springs but found that all of the livestock had been stolen from a nearby ranch. They tracked the animals but found they had to split up once they reached the Snake River. A group led by Standifer went west and ended up on the Malheur River in Oregon. The other group was led by Lieutenants Thatcher and Greenwood, and they went east to Salmon Falls. There they surprised a group of natives driving a herd of cattle across the river and opened fire. The natives escaped, but the men found large footprints on the river bank, a tell-tale sign that Chief Bigfoot was in the area. (We will do another post on this mysterious native chief, but he did mention that his family had been killed by Standifer's men in his supposed dying confession.) This group of Standifer's Rangers chased the natives into the Owhyee Mountains near Silver City where another battle occurred. Meanwhile, Standifer and his contingent cleared out another camp near the Malheur. Poorly provisioned from the start, both groups almost starved to death as they made their way back to the Boise Basin, sometimes having to survive on horse meat to get home.


When they returned, Standifer's Rangers were hailed as heroes, the saviors of the Boise Basin, but rumors started that Standifer was a monster who commanded his men to kill women and children. This rumor probably came from an incident that happened while the Rangers were in the Owhyee Mountains. During the fight, two women were captured and asked where more native camps could be found. They refused to say, so the Rangers gave them some provisions and set them free. Soon after, two gunshots were heard in the distance, and a man named Yankee Bob claimed he had been shooting rabbits, but the two women were found dead nearby. The feeling was that Yankee Bob killed these women to avenge the deaths of two sisters at the hands of natives a few years earlier.

The only known photo of Jeff was taken in the Boise Basin about a year before he was forced to leave.


Standifer did bring back two children from the Malhuer that had been orphaned in the fighting. The girl, like Nina, was given a job and home in the Basin, while the boy was adopted by noted violinist John Kelly. Kelly taught him to do tricks and dressed him up in a Confederate Soldier's uniform, and the two toured Europe together. Prominent men in Idaho's history such as John Hailey refuted these rumors by emphasizing Standifer's intent not to kill women and children. Standifer's Rangers paved the way for the further development of the Boise Basin mines, which allowed the City of Boise to flourish. His status as one of the "builders of Idaho" is now marked only by a street that still bears his name in Placerville. His actions also may have played a part in a much larger conflict called the Snake War, which was said to have been the deadliest indian war in the West.



The author of this rag standing on Standifer Street in Placerville, Idaho


On the next post, Standifer is forced to leave Idaho, but that is where things get really interesting. Stay tuned, and leave a comment to tell us what you think so far. Was Jeff Standifer a good guy or bad guy?

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