Protecting country and Indians: The records of Junius Wilson MacMurray (1843-1898)

How likely is it to find Civil War letters and diaries among the papers of politicians, journalists, and diplomats that are kept at Mudd Library? Or Colum­bia Plateau Indian pictographs? Meet Junius Wilson MacMurray, whose records are kept among the papers of his son John Van Antwerp MacMurray, a diplomat most of our blog readers will know from his films of China (1925-1929) which have been discussed extensively in our audiovisual blog The Reel Mudd. As few people know about his father Junius Wilson MacMurray’s papers, we will be sharing some particularly interesting records below.

photo of Junius Wilson MacMurray, October 1862

J.W. MacMurray, 1st Lieutenant at the 1st Missouri Light Artillery, October 1862

Junius Wilson MacMurray was born in Missouri on May 1, 1843, the son of Irish immigrant and blacksmith John Dennison MacMurray and Eliza Wilson. According to a detailed handwritten and typescript description of his military career, which includes a list of all battles in which he participated during the Civil War (find it here) he trained as an engineer and volunteered for Engineer Battalion “B” of the National Guard of Missouri from October to December 1860. When the Civil War broke out, two weeks before his 18th birthday, he did not join the Confederates like most young men he knew, but started recruiting volunteers for the Union army instead. His battery was sworn in with the 1st Missouri Volunteers and reorganized into the 1st Missouri Light Artillery.

Junius Wilson MacMurray’s papers consist of his personal and business correspondence, as well as his army correspondence and papers, his  account papers and ledgers,  and his diaries and notebooks, and writings. For researchers in Civil War or Native American history MacMurray’s army correspondence and papers are the most interesting. They document his career as a volunteer in the Army of the Republic during the Civil War, and subsequent service in the regular army from 1866 until his death in 1898. The records include copies and drafts of his reports concerning the Vicksburg campaign (1863) and the Powder River Indian expedition (June-November, 1865), as well as his investigation into land disputes of the Lower Columbia River Indians (1884), when he met their leader and prophet Smohalla (c. 1815-1895).

Image of the back of letter from MacMurray to his mother, November 6, 1863

Back of the letter from Junius Wilson MacMurray to his mother, November 6, 1861

Of additional interest is MacMurray’s personal correspondence, which includes two letters to his mother, written on November 6, 1961 and July 14, 1863. The letters contrast sharply. In the first, written in Springfield, Missouri in barely legible pencil, he reassures his mother that he is very well fed: “Live on butter, biscuit, Turkey. Fresh beef, honey-chickens, potatoes, &c.&c., so you see I’m not starving but on the contrary am getting fat and will some of these days make a fine mess for the buzzards of Wilsons Creek,” he wrote (view first page). Despite the chilling reference to the battlefield where Union General Nathaniel Lyon had been killed only three months earlier, he added on the back: “Now for Lords sake don’t write me a sorrowful letter as I don’t think of anything sorrowful since Freemont [John Charles Frémont] has been superceeded–and there is a possibility of a fight in view. Send me papers!”

Junius Wilson MacMurray to his mother Elisa Wilson MacMurray, July 14, 1863 (view full page)

The second letter, however, has a very different tone. It was written on July 14, 1863 in a camp near Jacinto, Mississippi, one day before the end of the Siege of Jackson.

The nights are cold (not cool) sometimes, there are no mosquitoes, but any amount of snakes and bugs. The timber is mostly yellow pine, the soil poor and [word missing] the most miserable and downtrodden people I ever saw. Nothing scarcely to eat, dirt and filth predominate although the wealthy (cotton dealers, judges, and civil officers) have good clean houses.  Early Spring chicken 50 cts, late (smaller than your fist) ones 25 & 30. Milk 25 cts per quart (very poor) eggs–they laugh at you–In fact, Southwest Missouri after all [Sterling] Price did to it is a paradise to this dessert. (view second page)

MacMurray’s papers include two diaries kept in 1863, of which only one appears to be MacMurray’s. The diary contains daily entries in ink or pencil with occasional mechanical drawings of what look like transportation devices, and includes descriptions of the battle of Vicksburg. Shown below are the pages for the last two days of the Vicksburg Campaign, with a transcription of the entry for July 4, the day of the final victory.

MacMurray’s diary opened for July 4, 1963, the last day of the Vicksburg campaign (full view)

Today, usually a glorious one–was more so than any of its predecessors. Vicksburg surrendered and our army marched in at 10 AM. Men & officers appeared in their best. I went in and met Sam Carlisle, Charlie Hitchcock, Larry Hutchinson John Sadd & John Newmann, old friends. I also met Booren (?) at dinner at dinner–visited the river and saw the river fleet all decked out with the flags of all nations. The transports came down and filled the levee (?) for some distance. Everything went merry as a marriage ball. For  few [illegible] will ever forget this day who were in Vicksburg.

Although MacMurray took obvious pride in his army career, he also had ambitions to teach and be a scholar. He served on detail as professor of military science and tactics at the University of Missouri (1872-1873) and  at Cornell University (1873-1875). His last post of service on detail was at Union College at Schenectady, New York, where he was in charge of sanitary and landscape engineering and taught photography (1879-1883). That he ended up in Schenectady was not accidental: in 1873, he had married Henrietta Wiswall Van Antwerp, daughter of the banker John H. Van Antwerp of Albany. Their son John Van Antwerp MacMurray was born there in 1881, the third child, after two daughters. In Schenectady MacMurray edited  A History of the Schenectady Patent by J. Pierson at al. (Albany, 1883). He tried to use his connections to stay longer, but in vain. He was sent to Vancouver Barracks, WA to serve under Nelson A. Miles (1839-1925). It was Miles who ordered him to investigate land disputes of the Lower Columbia River Indians in 1884.

J.W. MacMurray, circa 1890

One of our researchers, Richard Scheuerman from Seattle Pacific University, the author of Finding Chief Kamiakin: The Life and Legacy of a Northwest Patriot (WSU Press, 2008), worked with several of the region’s Indian tribes. According to him MacMurray was a remarkably enlightened thinker among military officials for his time.  “I have found that he was significantly responsible for arranging applications for title to many properties along the Columbia and Snake rivers under the terms of the Indian Homestead Act,” he wrote us in 2009. “This work did not endear him to many of his contemporaries, but thanks to his selfless service much of this land remains today under Indian ownership and surely would have been lost to them otherwise.” After spending considerable time with their leader and prophet Smohalla. MacMurray shared his observations about the “Dreamers” of the Columbia River Valley in a lecture to the Albany Institute, which was published in 1887.

Page with Native American writing, folded into MacMurray’s notebook (view full page)

Among MacMurray’s diaries and notebook is one he labeled “Col(umbi)a Indians 1884,” which he kept during his investigations. According to Scheuerman, who transcribed the notebook, it provides significant information on Columbia Plateau religion beliefs. Folded inside the notebook is an intriguing piece of paper (shown right). When we asked Scheuerman if he could tell us something about it, he turned out to have wondered about it himself. About two-thirds of the images seem to be Columbia Plateau Indian pictographs, while the other third may be Indian horse brands. “Plateau Indians widely used branding in the 19th century as they maintained enormous horse herds along the Columbia, Yakima, and Snake rivers, all places we know that J.W. MacMurray visited at that time,” according to Scheuerman. If there is anybody out there who is able to enlighten us further, we would love to hear from you!

MacMurray stayed in touch with Nelson Miles, with whom he appears to have been quite friendly. His personal correspondence includes several original letters that he wrote after Miles was promoted to general in 1890, including two letters about Smohalla (the correspondence can be viewed here). The correspondence does not include replies, and it is not sure if the letters ever reached Miles, or whether he possibly returned them to MacMurray or to his widow at a later stage. The correspondence does contain copies of letters of recommendation, however. Miles recommended MacMurray for a promotion to major on June 15, 1892. Sadly, MacMurray received this only in 1897, only two months before he died of yellow fever, which he contracted when in command of the Post of Fort Barrancas, Florida during an outbreak in 1897. When Junius Wilson MacMurray died, his son John Van Antwerp MacMurray was a freshman at Princeton University. That is why his papers, hence those of his father, have ended up at Mudd Manuscript Library.

(With thanks to Richard Scheuerman).