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The middle of a nightmare

After my Sept. 21 column (“Finding a way through it all”), a few readers were curious about the mention of Captain Stuart and the temporary Army camp in today’s Phoenix that briefly bore his name.

From the moment the captain was passing through the Rogue Valley in 1851, the “facts” of his story began to splinter and the real Stuart was nearly lost in the maze of his own legend.

There was only one common thread to all versions of his story. Stuart died, was buried at Camp Stuart, then exhumed and reburied somewhere else.

Captain James Reeve Stuart was born to a prominent family in Beaufort, South Carolina, July 12, 1825. He received an appointment to West Point and, in one of those ironic moments of history, Stuart, whose family would support the Confederacy in the coming war, became a close friend and roommate of the future commander of Union forces, George McClellan. They graduated in 1846.

Both would share a tent during the Mexican War, where Stuart was called the soldier who “volunteered for everything with total disregard for his life.” In six battles he was uninjured and praised by his commanders and his peers as always the first soldier to climb the enemy wall, and the first soldier to enter Mexico City.

He came west to Oregon Territory in 1849 as part of the 2,500-mile march of the Army’s Mounted Riflemen. Here he patrolled for Indians and helped construct Fort Vancouver.

In 1851, his regiment was ordered to the Army post in Benicia, California, and began marching south with Major Philip Kearny in command. In the area around Canyonville, settlers asked Kearny to help them against Indian attacks in the Rogue Valley.

Kearny split his command, the major sending the majority of his troops south through the canyon. He led the remaining detachment east, along the Umpqua Mountains, accompanied by an Oregonian newspaper correspondent.

The correspondent told how the detachment, which included Stuart, crossed the mountains and continued south until reaching the Rogue River at today’s town of Trail.

While camped the night before, Stuart had a premonition of his own death. In the middle of the night June 16, his friend, Captain John Walker, woke to the sounds of a terrified Stuart in the middle of a nightmare. As Walker would later tell Stuart’s mother, “he dreamt that an Indian came into his tent and killed him with an arrow as he slept.”

After reaching the Rogue, Kearny cautiously rode south toward the valley, hoping to surprise any of the Indians he suspected were in the area. He split the command, with Walker commanding troops on the left side of the river and Kearny and Stuart on the right.

As they reached the bend in the river near today’s Shady Cove Park, the troops received their own surprise and heard the yells of Indians rallying to attack. Walker’s troops crossed the river to aid Kearny and Stuart in the brief battle against the Indian people, men and women, armed only with bows, arrows and knives.

At least nine of the Indians died and the rest ran away, briefly followed by Kearny and Walker. The detachment was virtually unhurt — except for Captain Stuart.

With his pistol drawn as he approached an Indian, Stuart watched the man spin around and launch an arrow that buried itself in Stuart’s abdomen. He was still alive, but writhing in pain.

The next morning, with the arrow still in Stuart, Kearny crossed the river and headed south toward the 200-foot butte now known as Cemetery Hill in Phoenix.

Our story continues next week.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.