The Death of Amos Frye

Close-up of John Bidwell with native and other employees in front of his store c. 1852

. . . shot in artery and died instantly. One man killed, had to bring him on a horse and he was the 1st man buried in Chico Cemetery. Great indignation that I let a white man be killed and did not kill all the Indians.

from Annie Bidwell’s notes to John Bidwell Dictation, John Bidwell Papers, California State Library

That one man was Amos E. Frye. The record for “Internment No. 1” in the Chico Cemetery states, “This grave must be located in Section 4; site otherwise unknown; the monument has not be found.” There may have been a marker at one time, if so it has been lost.

Frye’s death occurred in June 1852, during Bidwell’s only excursion against natives. As Bidwell recounted in 1891:

I never went on an Indian killing expedition except on one occasion. The Indians came to my place and stole cattle. I had a few domesticated cattle of better breed, bought from emigrants, and they were very valuable and of course they were easily driven off. I wanted to punish the Indians and communicated the fact to my neighbors. They were all willing to help me, but I did not want to kill. I wished to arrest them and have them punished according to law. For some time I was unable to get any one to assist me unless I would, as they expressed it, “wipe them out.” Finally about a dozen men volunteered and promised to do just what I said.

I waited a month perhaps before I made my move, for I wished to find out as near as possible who took the cattle. Finally two mountain Indians came down. I seized them and locked them apart so that they could not talk to each other. Asked each one if he knew who stole the cattle, and one of them replied that the Indians had, and gave me the exact names. The other did likewise, withholding his own name. I said we would go and get those Indians. I thought we could surround the village and wait until daylight. We had the two Indians with us, and had agreed that their lives would be safer if they helped us to catch the others.

John Bidwell Dictation 1891, pp. 20-21

American cattle were of higher quality than the local Spanish cattle and were thus more valuable. The county sheriff was willing to deal with Indians in town, but had no desire to go after natives in the mountains. That left Bidwell or other settlers on their own if they wanted to retaliate against Indian theft and depredations. There was little sympathy for the natives among most settlers. They expected the indigenous people to give way to the newcomers, and punished those natives who did not. The Indians took livestock because they had seen game and other food resources destroyed by the influx of miners and farmers.

Bidwell desired to work within the law. As Michele Shover states in her book California Standoff, “he was determined to be deliberate, show restraint, and model a peaceful resolution to the problem.” (58) But this was a problem that neither side could solve.

After the loss of his cattle, Bidwell waited until late June to make his move. With an armed band of ranch Indians and white employees, including Amos Frye, he proceeded up Chico Creek Canyon with the aim of surprising the Indians village at dawn.

Just as it was getting light, one of our men accidentally discharged his gun. Then the Indians were roused and they ran in all directions. I had stationed one man on the outside to see that none of the Indians escaped. In the excitement he was shot. The men were greatly excited and wanted to kill the Indians. I would not allow it, and we returned home, without the thieves. I was blamed for the loss of a white man’s life in comparison with which 1000 Indians were as nothing. That was the only Indian expedition I ever engaged in.

John Bidwell Dictation 1891, pp. 21

Michele Shover suggests that it may have been one of the ranch Indians who deliberately fired his gun to warn the mountain natives. Whichever it was, the shot destroyed the element of surprise.

Amos Frye was shot in the neck with an arrow and died instantly. John Bidwell regretted the incident for the rest of his life. His decision to go against the mountain natives had caused the death of his friend. He had not retrieved his property and he had not been able to set an example of his ideal of American justice. His neighbors blamed him for Frye’s death, but he felt that the death of native men was just as great a loss.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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