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‘Paulina’: What’s in a name?

Bill Miller

If you had to choose the most honored individual’s name given to geographic locations and features in all of Oregon, what name would you chose?

To be honest, I haven’t counted myself; however, those who did, a gathering of geographic-minded historians in 1949, were amazed with their answer — an answer that may still hold true today — Paulina.

If you ever traveled through Central Oregon you must have seen the name.

Ever hiked or photographed the Paulina Mountains, Paulina Peak, or Paulina Creek? Perhaps you’ve had coffee in the town of Paulina, fished Paulina Lake, maybe felt the mist of Paulina Creek Falls. And those are just a few.

Paulina was chief of the Walapi Tribe of the Northern Paiutes; sometimes known as the Snake Indians. They had lived in small groups across Central and Eastern Oregon for centuries. With the arrival of settlers, miners and ranchers in the 1850s and early 1860s, the Paiute people were left with just three choices — agree to give up their land claims and live in peace, hide, or join war leaders like Paulina and fight.

“Why did Chief Paulina hate the whites?” asks a 1966 Portland newspaper article, as if being forced on a reservation and surrendering claim to almost all of Eastern Oregon was nothing more than a simple real estate transaction.

To his people, he was Paluna, but terrified settlers knew him as Paulina “The Bulletproof,” “Attila of the Sagelands,” or “The Brutal Devastator.”

Legend says he was born in the early morning darkness of Nov. 13, 1833, on a night of terror for everyone in North America.

“Come to the door father,” said one of the Rev. Samuel Rogers’ children, “the world is surely coming to an end. See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!”

The Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833 is considered one of the brightest meteor showers in history. The night sky turned to daylight as a flurry of fireballs streaked across the sky.

From the terror of that morning was born the man who would bring hysterical fear to settler communities and Indian reservations throughout Central and Eastern Oregon.

The legend also says another child was born that morning. They called her Falling Star, and she would become Paulina’s wife.

In his rebellion against the whites, Paulina was a master tactician. He waged fierce guerrilla warfare with carefully planned and lightning swift attacks. After each assault, his men would elude capture and frustrate the U.S. Army by scattering in all directions. Then, many miles away, they joined together again for another attack.

Hostilities increased and violence on both sides raged until 1865, when Paulina put his mark on a treaty, the translator writing the chief’s name as Pah-ni-ne.

He had no choice. Army troops had captured a group of Paiutes near what is now known as Paulina Creek. Among those held hostage were his wife, their son and Paulina’s sister.

Paulina took his warriors and families to the Klamath Reservation, where the government promised farmland, food and necessary supplies.

Food was late during the hard winter of 1865-66, leading a nearly starving Paulina, his wife and his soldiers to escape the reservation and return to war.

In April 1867, in the John Day Canyon of Eastern Oregon, Paulina made a mistake. A posse of men tracking Indian cattle rustlers came upon Paulina and his seven hungry warriors roasting one of the stolen cattle.

Caught by surprise, four of the Indians escaped, but the other four, including Paulina, were killed. The ranchers scalped them and left their bodies unburied.

Why did Paulina hate whites? Why not ask why whites hated Paulina? Hate feeds hate in a vicious circle, and in the end no one really wins.

And yet, it was those same terrified settlers who perhaps showed their respect by bestowing Paulina’s name to so many places in Oregon.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.