On September 9, 1860, the Elijah P. Utter wagon train was attacked by Indians along the
South Alternate of the Oregon Trail northeast of the present day town of Murphy, Idaho.
The 44-member wagon train was composed of four families with 21 children, some single
men, five recently discharged soldiers, and an army deserter. The two-day encounter
resulted in the deaths of 11 emigrants and an estimated 25-30 Indians.
The first attack occurred on the high ground just west of Castle Creek when the Indians
attempted to stampede the stock. The strong position of the hurriedly circled wagons and
the distribution of food to the Indians discouraged additional aggression. The train was
allowed to continue on toward the Snake River where the emigrants intended to fill their
water barrels. The train kept to the high ground but was attacked again while passing
down to Henderson Flat. The wagons were circled and the fight continued into the next day.
Toward sundown on the second day, each familiy hitched up a wagon and left the
remaining wagons and loose stock for the Indians. But the hungry, thirsty, and wounded
oxen could not advance. The attackers pressed their advantage and forced the emigrants to
abandon their property and flee. A wounded Elijah Utter was shot down, and his wife,
Abagel, and three of his children refused to abandon him. All were killed.
The survivors escaped with only the clothes they were wearing, some firearms, and a few
basic necessaties. For over a week they worked their way down the Snake River, hiding in
the daytime, walking at night. They traveled over 75 miles to the Owhyee River crossing
until they were physically too weak to go on. Some were wounded and all were hungry and
exhausted. Here 18 children, 6 surviving parents, and a young man waited to be rescued.
Two weeks later, the camp was visited by a few Shoshoni Indians. They traded salmon for
what few possessions the survivors still harbored, and forcefully took their firearms.
After receiving some salmon, the Van Ornum family, a young man named Gleason, and the
two surviving Utter boys left the camp in hopes of finding a relief party. A short distance
northwest of Farewell Bend, they encountered Indians. The three Van Ornum girls and
their little brother were taken captive. The bodies of the others were discovered by soldiers
in an old crater near the site.
Captain Frederick T. Dent, leader of the Army Relief Expedition, reported that a party led by
Lt. Marcus A. Reno discovered, "gleaming in the moonlight, dead, stripped, and mutilated
lay the bodies of six persons. . . . Mrs. Vanorman had been whipped, scalped, and otherwise
abused by her murderers; the boys, Charles and Henry Otter, were killed by arrows, Mr.
Vanorman, Marcus Vanorman, and Gleason had their throats cut, and besides were pierced
by numerous arrows. They appeared to have been dead from four to six days, the wolves
had not yet molested them, decomposition was going on however, and Lieutenant Reno
The bodies were buried where they were found. Mrs. Van Ornum's body was laid to rest 4
1/2 feet deep, separate from the common grave containing the five remains of the men and
boys. Local historian P. D. Wood rediscovered the graves and placed a small metal cross to
mark the site.
At the Owyhee River camp, Mr. Daniel A. Chase Sr. died on October 13, Libbie Trimble
passed away, and five days later her baby sister died. The next day, Danny Chase died,
followed two days later by his brother, Albert. All four children died from starvation. After
much discussion and prayer, those who remained resolved to eat the flesh of the recently
departed with the hopes of preserving their own lives until a rescue party arrived.
On October 24, an Army relief expedition led by Captain Frederick T. Dent rescued ten
survivors. They were the Joseph Meyers family of seven, Elizabeth Chase and daughter
Mary, and Emeline Trimble. Captain Dent reported: "found the remains of Christopher
Trimble, who had been murdered by the Indians; his body had been much disturbed by the
wolves, but sufficient remained to identify it. . . . This boy of eleven years of age, deserves
special mention. He had killed several Indians in the fight . . . he then became a prisoner
voluntarily with the Indians, in order that he might get some salmon taken to the camp. . . .
Two weeks had elapsed since his last visit; it must have been at that time he was killed."
Zacheus Van Ornum became an Indian Scout for the Army in an effort to recue his nieces
and nephew. The captive children were traded or stolen by other bands. Reuben Van
Ornum was rescued by California Army Volunteers in November 1862 in the Cache Valley
of Utah. Unfortunately, he could not adapt to civilized life again. The youngest sister,
Lucinda, died soon after being rescued from the Indians by Northern Utah settlers. Eliza
and Minerva either died of starvation or were killed while captives.
No other Oregon Trail wagon train suffered greater losses than the Utter wagon train of
Portions taken from OCTA commemorative signs for the Utter wagon train.