On the 20th of October, 1878, a hero was laid to rest in Pendleton’s pioneer cemetery. The remains of J.C. Lamar (also reported as William Lamar) were interred with a large number of Pendleton residents in attendance, and many in the crowd swore vengeance on those responsible for his death and subsequent mutilation.
Lamar came to Pendleton in the winter of 1877 and soon established himself in Pendleton society. When the news came in July of 1878 that hostile Indians were encroaching on the John Day River, Lamar was one of a large scouting party that decided to go to Camas Prairie to find out what the Bannock and Paiute warriors were up to. Frightened settlers had flooded into Pendleton, and were camped in every available vacant spot, including the courthouse lawn.
The scouting party arrived at Camas Prairie July 4, and met the advance guard of the Indian warriors. After killing one of the Indians, the scouting party fell back and held a meeting, deciding to return to settled territory because about half of the men present had less than 10 rounds of ammunition apiece. But before the meeting was over, a band of 100 well-armed Indians suddenly appeared on three sides of the party. A handful of men, including Lamar, decided to stay put and fight. The rest of the scouting party panicked, “and were not particular upon the order of their going.”
Lamar and his few supporters were finally forced to flee, and Lamar took up his place at the rear of the retreat but continued to urge his companions to make a stand. He did what he could, however, returning fire shot for shot for eight miles as often as he could load and shoot his rifle.
Upon arriving in Pendleton, Lamar enlisted Captain Sperry’s Company of Volunteers and returned to meet the Indians the next day. The company camped at Willow Springs on July 6 and, while at dinner, were surprised by the hostiles. About a quarter of the company was separated from the rest and fled; Lamar was among those who stayed and fought. One of two men killed in the battle, Lamar’s body was mutilated and burned by the Indian combatants.
The first news to reach the outside world was when 13 survivors of the battle arrived in Pendleton July 7. Major Throckmorton, just arrived from Umatilla with a company of U.S. cavalry, sent Captain Bernard with a small force to aid the volunteers and the Indians were routed by the use of mountain howitzers. The war was over.
The conflict was short, but disastrous: Altogether, more than 50 stockmen, ranchers and sheep herders were killed and $500,000 in damage was sustained in burned buildings, unharvested crops and dead or stolen livestock. Much of the blame was placed on Snake River Indians, but reports that local Umatilla Indians were involved caused an uproar and censure of the federal agent in charge of the reservation, J.C. Cornoyer.