Ball Brothers

Indian Attack on the Oregon-California Trail

A few years ago, a librarian at the University of Oklahoma, descendant of an emigrant family, contacted OCTA with a problem. Her ancestor had been killed in an Indian attack “somewhere” on the Oregon-California Trail. Was there any way we could help her learn more?


The challenge seemed daunting but, in the end, it provided wonderful confirmation of the value of the work done by all our volunteers in compiling the database of emigrant documents. A search of the Emigrant Names Database turned up the account of a survivor of the attack in which the Ball brothers had been killed. Mary Ann Smith was an elderly woman in 1908 when she told her experiences to the San Francisco Chronicle. This is her story. Exactly where it occurred remains unknown.

Mary Ann Smith’s Account

In 1862, James P. Smith, husband of Mary Ann, formed a company to cross the trail and was elected captain. The party of 42 left Warren Co., IA on 12 May 1862. Of these 42, 16 were small children, five were nursing babies and the remainder adult men and women. The families were “well-to-do, having droves of cattle and splendid ox teams, with provisions and outfit sufficient for several months.” They had started by what was known as the Oregon route, as part of the train were intending to locate in Oregon and the remainder in California. On the way, they met some Mormon campers, who informed them that they would not get over the Oregon route. On hearing this, Captain Smith decided to take the cut-off to the California route.

“No Indians had molested them, and all were well and happy. One day, beside the road, they came upon several freshly made mounds; the headboards with the grewsome (sic) words, ‘Killed by Indians,’ gave mute testimony to the deadly nature of the attack which those preceding them had encountered. On the third day’s travel on the cut-off, they came upon the wreck of an emigrant’s train. A fearsome sight for this small train to meet. There were several bodies, only partially covered as though their friends had been forced to seek safety before they could complete the burials. These they gave decent internment although fearful that each moment might bring a return of the enemy. A short distance away they came upon half burned wagons. The little handful of people was becoming each moment more apprehensive, fearing that the Mormon campers whom they had met, and who had directed them to take this route were decoys; for as they afterward found, the Oregon route was the regular stage route and was well guarded. Several days passed without further signs of Indians …

“On the 26th day of August, very early in the morning, they were attacked by a band of Indians, who shot at the guards who were protecting the stock, stampeded the cattle and succeeded in capturing their outfit and provisions and drove off all their stock with the exception of four head of oxen, which, being fagged out with the journey, were lying down in some willows and were overlooked by the Indians. No one was killed during the early morning skirmish but several had very narrow escapes… One surprising feature of the attack was the apparent wish of the Indians to capture the stock and outfit rather than to kill the members of the party.

“…the now thoroughly frightened emigrants waited until the Indians disappeared in the distance. Then Captain Smith ordered the four oxen yoked to one wagon and again they started on their way, traveling until evening when they stopped beside a stream to rest, intending to travel all night for they knew there was a train a few days’ travel ahead of them and it was their wish to overtake this party. …the hungry little children…had pulled off their shoes and stockings and were wading in the shallow stream.

“Suddenly the pickets saw the willows on the bank moving, and again they were at the mercy of the Indians. They fled for their lives to the nearest timber, which consisted of a bunch of willows farther up the stream. This they were prevented from reaching by a band of Indians about 100 strong who, mounted on ponies, surrounded them. Cut off from reaching this retreat, they were forced to seek shelter in the sage brush, which grew waist high. …A fierce battle ensued during which several Indians were killed and wounded. The emigrants had plenty of guns and ammunition, but with such scanty shelter were practically at the mercy of the enemy.

“Of the unfortunate Smith party, four were killed and five wounded, among them Captain Smith, who was seriously injured, being shot through the arm and both legs. Mary Ann Smith, the Captain’s wife, was also seriously wounded, being shot through the back as she sat nursing her little baby, the bullet dropping into the bosom of her dress. Another bullet passed through her right hand… The baby nestling in its mother’s arms was uninjured. Their little three year old girl was not so fortunate, being shot through the back. The little one lingered for six days… Of the three Ball brothers, two were killed, one being shot over the right eye and one over the left, the wound in both instances being the same distance from the eye. …

“The plight of the emigrants was now desperate indeed. Robbed of the four oxen… without food, with five members of the party seriously, perhaps fatally wounded, and three dead… Under cover of darkness (the demoralized party) fled, without food, conveyances or clothing, other than what they wore. Captain Smith now ordered the stronger members of the party to go on and if possible overtake the train ahead. If this was impossible they were to try and reach Salt Lake City and procure food and conveyances. …the Captain’s (severely wounded) wife… carried her little eight-month-old baby nearly all the time for seven days…

“On the sixth day, Mrs. Smith’s little girl was relieved of suffering. They buried the little one on the plains, digging her grave with a short piece of iron which they picked up on the way. They piled immense rocks in a pyramid to mark her grave. …For nine days, they traveled without food of any kind except the seed of the wild rose which grew in great profusion on the plains. …Sometimes they found a few late berries and the root of the fern, which was sweet and palatable. Often they were without water, for they had nothing in which to carry it… Added to their suffering were the mirages. Clear running water with willows dipping into the stream was constantly before their eyes.

“Captain Smith encouraged the disheartened ones with the hope of being overtaken by some emigrant train. This seemed a forlorn hope, as day after day passed and no help came; but the strong ones ahead were rejoicing. On the ninth day they had come upon a train of emigrants with 100 wagons who were also headed for California. When they heard the sad story…a party was sent back with food and conveyances. They came upon the straggling little group upon the banks of the Bear river. …there was a good doctor in this train who dressed their wounds and advised the injured to go to Salt Lake City and remain there until they recovered. They, however, gladly welcomed all members of the Smith party who were able to travel to join them…”

The rest of the article tells of the men who came out from Salt Lake to rescue the injured. They were taken to Salt Lake, but charged $2 each for their transport and also charged for their supplies during their recovery. After five months, “they went by stage to Carson, where they remained four months; from Carson, they went to Georgetown, El Dorado county…it having been in Georgetown that Mrs. Smith’s brother, Milton Woodside, had located.”