Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife?

It’s always a pleasure to bump into Stock Whitley again.

I first saw his name many years ago when I read a memoir written by an Oregon cavalryman’s son.  At the time I did not understand that I had already met Mr. Whitley under the pseudonym “White Lily” in a story Thomas Lovewell’s wife wrote about the sacrifice of a noble Indian scout.  In the intervening years I’ve come to wonder whether Thomas Lovewell and Stock Whitley had a passing acquaintance while Thomas and his brother Solomon were working as teamsters in Oregon.

Since then I’ve written a few vignettes about Whitley’s death in 1864 from wounds received in battle with Paulina’s band of renegades, the historic tomahawk his widow presented to a local Indian agent, and a wedding celebration held at Whitley’s house in the 1850’s.  The latest story to surface is another memoir, this one a lengthy recollection from a veteran of the 1855-6 Indian war, contained in an 1878 Oregon newspaper, The New Northwest.

The writer was leading a column of Oregon volunteers on their return trip to Fort Mason after escorting a wagon train headed for The Dalles.   After crossing the Walla Walla River at dusk they were surprised to see a large body of Indians along the road ahead of them.  A few soldiers nervously touched their weapons before seeing the Indians unfurl a white flag and fire their rifles into the air.     

A parley ensued and we quickly learned that we were indebted for our lives to his Highness Stock Whitley, head chief of the great Deschuttes nation, who, with one hundred of his chosen braves, was making his way to Fort Mason to consider terms of peace between the august power he represented and the United States government.

The two parties continued on their way to Fort Mason together, intermingling “and in many cases merrily chatting with each other.”  The writer preserved a few samples of the speeches heard at the conference held the following day.  Some contained the bitter rhetoric we might expect from a vanquished foe.  A Cayuse chief said, “White man talk too much.  He open his lips, and smooth words fly out like pretty hornets from their nests, but they disappoint - they sting.  The credulous Indian hears, and if he believes, is misled, is ruined.”   He refused to be graceful even in acknowledging defeat.  “We went to war,” he said, “and were conquered;  we will fight no more;  we are women, and only ask to die at home.”

In contrast, every phrase uttered by the ancient and nearly-blind chief of the Columbia River bands was sheer poetry mixed with rueful wisdom.

I have shot my last arrow, my quiver is empty, and my bow lies broken at my feet.  I am of no use to my people, but will they hear my words?  You all know that I never loved the whites, but now we are few and weak, while they are many and strong.  We can never conquer them, and we must not fight longer.  We must smoke together - we must be friends.  And since we must live together, we must live as they live.  I love the wild, free life of the savage, am too old myself to be a white man, but our young should.  Why can they not cherish the virtues of our race, shun the vices of the whites, and at length become wiser than the former, and still remain better than the latter?

When it was Stock Whitley’s turn to speak, the portly Deschutes war chief substantially agreed with the previous speaker, but peeled off the poetry and got down to brass tacks.  The crux of the dispute had never been about land or the white man’s lies but a way of life that began to retreat into the distance the moment the “Bostons” moved into the neighborhood.  Some perquisites of the Indian way of life, Whitley lamented, were going to be harder to give up than others.      

But old Stock Whitley's grievances were of a different kind. His chief arraignment of the hated race was for overturning the Indians' social regulation.  He said that previous to the coming of the whites among them, the lordly buck enjoyed a life of luxury and ease, with horses, dogs and women in abundance; that the latter were contented with the sphere for which they were intended; that they did all the drudgery, and considered it the greatest honor to have a fat, sleek husband, and would exhibit the many scars they carried on their bodies with pride, as evidences both of the greatness of their masters, and of their own loyalty.

'But now,' he said, 'an Indian could scarcely chastise his spouse at all, as the women had become so demoralized by the examples of white women, that they had begun to believe that their masters bad no right to whip them unless they had committed some great wrong; that he had no right to imprint marks of his superiority upon their bodies when drunk and feeling good, just for his own gratification.'

It’s amusing to imagine Whitley, barred by his wife from practicing his tribe’s ritual of male dominance, consoling his wounded pride at a local tavern.  Far from shunning "the vices of whites,” Whitley liked sharing a bottle of whiskey with them, a practice that sometimes landed the chief of scouts in the guardhouse.  While there are no photographs of Stock Whitley, the descriptions of him, tall, noble-looking and paunchy, an affable man who took no guff without giving plenty back, offer a vivid image of the man, and an idea of what those nights at the tavern might have sounded like.

Whitley, you stopped beating your wife yet?

Beat her?  I hardly get to raise my voice anymore.  You Bostons ruin everything.        

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com