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'My best and oldest friend'

Last week I wrote about how Army Captain James Stuart came to Oregon Territory in 1849 and two years later, while traveling with his regiment through the Rogue Valley, was wounded during a battle with local Indians.

After struggling through a painful night, lying somewhere near today’s Shady Cove Park, Stuart was loaded into a wagon for what must have been an agonizing 25-mile trip to today’s city of Phoenix.

Stuart’s commander, Major Philip Kearny, set up camp in an area roughly around Jared Court and Colver Road Park in Phoenix. His troops would stay for a short time, looking to stop conflicts between settlers and the local Indians.

Captain Stuart barely held on to life after that arrow struck his abdomen. When Kearny asked him how he felt, Stuart replied, “Like someone put a hot poker in my gut.”

Stuart wondered aloud why he was dying now after all those successful battles in Mexico. Then he turned his face to the tent wall and tried to hide his agony. He was 24 days short of his 26th birthday.

In the afternoon of June 18, 1851, after suffering for 30 hours, Stuart died. Captain John Walker buried his friend between two oaks on the east side of the road, across from where the Colver House once stood in Phoenix. They named the temporary camp and the nearby creek in Stuart’s honor.

In his diary, George McClellan remembered his friend. “On the 18th June, 1851, at five in the afternoon, died Jimmie Stuart, my best and oldest friend.”

Within a few weeks, the regiment was back on the road again, riding to the military post at Benicia, California. There, Kearny sent a letter to the quartermaster at Fort Vancouver asking that a party be sent to retrieve Stuart’s body. Walker and fellow soldiers took up a collection to pay for James Stuart’s return to his South Carolina family.

As the years passed and Stuart’s story was retold, like a parlor game of Telephone, one retelling after another began to make subtle changes. What we may have believed we knew about the story was twisted, and often wrong.

It wasn’t until nearly 160 years after Stuart’s death that, after contacting a Beaufort, South Carolina, historian, I could finally tell valley residents where Captain Stuart was actually buried — as he had requested — next to his grandmother’s grave in Beaufort’s St. Helena’s Episcopal Churchyard. Not next to his mother’s grave.

Here are some of the most common myths and misinformation surrounding Captain Stuart.

He was not buried in Arlington Cemetery, in Washington, D.C. Arlington wasn’t established until 1864.

He was not buried at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

He was not buried at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina. This is probably a misreading of a biography written by Stuart’s brother, Benjamin, with a very long title that begins, “Magnolia Cemetery.”

The reported location of the fight where Captain Stuart was shot with that arrow has also moved around the valley.

Comments recorded from early pioneer Lindsay Applegate (who initially was Major Kearny’s guide), and from early settler and Phoenix newspaper publisher Welborn Beeson, confirm that Stuart was wounded near the Rogue River in today’s Shady Cove — not near Central Point, where some believed Camp Stuart was also located.

Neither was Stuart’s fight near Evans Creek, where shortly after Stuart died, Kearny led troops and volunteers against the Indians.

Definitely not at Fort Lane. The fort wasn’t constructed until 1853.

They will still say Stuart’s friend, George McClellan, was with him in Oregon to say goodbye; however, until June 1851, McClellan was an instructor in military engineering at West Point, and was being transferred to Fort Delaware, on the Delaware River.

Perhaps we should forgive the frequent misspellings of Stewart for Stuart and Kearney for Kearny. And it’s too late to return Bear Creek to the Stuart Creek remembered by those early soldiers.

Time has a way of altering our collective memories and shaping how we remember our world.

Once again, I close with one of my favorite quotes from historian Simon Schama:

“History is understanding who we THINK we are,

By remembering what we THINK we did.”

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.