The Rest of The Story - A Cherokee Treasure

On the Roadshow we often just don't have the time in a three minute segment to tell the whole story, which sometimes for my money is at least as fascinating as the object itself. Last year in San Diego my good friend Dr. Gresham Bayne brought at my invitation one of his delightful patients. At this point I still won't reveal her name but she had quite a story to tell. On arrival she mentioned to me that she had an old Indian bag at home that had been acquired by her great great grandfather, Lt, Cave Johnson Couts.

"Cave Johnson Couts was born at his family's ancestral home near Springfield, Tennessee, on November 11, 1821. The third of twelve children born to William and Nancy Johnson Couts, Cave attended schools in Springfield, Tennessee and Hollowell Preparatory School in Alexandria Virginia; then received an appointment to West Point in May 1838, arranged by his uncle through James K. Polk. Young Couts was graduated from West Point in 1843, commissioned Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Regiment of Monted Rifles, and was assigned to frontier forts prior to the Mexican War. Lt. Cave Couts arrived in California in 1849 with an expedition sent out from Monterrey, Mexico to reinforce troops occupying California. Couts kept a day-by-day account of the six-month march to California.

The name of the man who built the first ferry at Yuma Crossing is a subject of controversy. Local legend has it that a raft-prairie schooner was built in Michigan and drawn across the country by oxen to a point on the Gila River in central Arizona, from where it was floated down to the Colorado and placed in service as a ferry in 1849. In October, 1849, a Lt. Couts reached the Colorado River at Yuma Crossing with Walker's Dragoons.The troop built a raft of cottonwood logs and pulled it back and forth across the river by rope. A sergeant was placed in charge of the ferry and it was made available to civilians for a reasonable fee--probably the first commercially operated ferry at this site.During the latter part of 1849, or early 1850, Lt. Couts established Fort Calhoun on the west side of the Colorado, on a hill overlooking Yuma Crossing,
to protect the hundreds of emigrants heading for the California gold fields. Even at this time, throngs of Mexicans who had struck it rich in California were returning to Mexico by way of the crossing.
It is said that a Col. Collier with the Couts party extracted a considerable fortune from the Mexicans by informing them that Congress had passed a law levying a 10 percent tax on all gold going out of the United States, and that if anyone attempted to conceal his gold) all would be forfeited. Col. Collier was
possibly the first to realize that travelers, both going to and coming from the gold fields, could be a rich source of income.Shortly after establishing Fort Calhoun, Lt. Couts left Yuma Crossing, abandoning the raft-ferry, which was then moved down the river a few miles to Algodones, on the Mexican side, and placed in operation by Yuma Indians. Their price for crossing the river was $3 per man and their trade was mostly
with Mexicans.

In May 1849, Lt. Couts reported to Los Angeles, then to San Luis Rey with instructions to prepare the old mission building for military quarters. After a month's duty there, Cave was ordered to San Diego to act as military escort for the American-Mexican Boundary Commission. While awaiting the survey parties in San Diego, Couts met his future father-in-law Juan Banding, distinguished social and political leader of San Diego. On September 3, 1849, Lt. Couts wrote in his Journal: "I have been living in the house of Don Juan
Bandini since we came to San Diego and can never forget the unbounded kindness of his wife Dona Refugia and Señorita Ysidora. Couts began a long careet of serving California when on August1, 1849, he was
elected a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention called by the military governor Brigadier General Bennet Riley. Early in 1850, the San Diego Ayuntamiento (Town Council) commisioned Couts to draw the first subdivision map of the Pueblo lands of San Diego, thereby opening the way for their legal sale. Couts gave the town's streets their present historic names.The young Easterner began investing in livestock with Juan Bandini and buying land in and around San Diego. In the city's first tax list in 1850, "Teniente Cave J. Couts" was assessed $11,740 for property located at La Playa, Old Town and Soledad. But it would be Cout's marriage to Bandini's daughter that would substantially enlarge his property holdings and bring him prosperity as a Southern California ranchero. Cave Johnson Couts and Ysidora Bandini were wed April
5, 1851, in Old Town San Diego amid a fiesta that lasted a week. Among the wedding gifts to the bride was the 2,219.4 acre tract of land known as Rancho Guajome presented by her sister Arcadia's husband Abel Stearns. Within two years Cave began construction of his residence at the ranch. Cave and Ysidora
resided in Old Town after their marriage in 1851 until Cave moved Ysidora and their two San Diego born children to Guajome in 1853. Eight more children were born at the ranch. For many years Cave Couts continued to serve his community in a number of official positions. He was a member of San Diego's first Grand Jury, assigned to the Board of Supervisors six times, appointed County Judge presiding over the Probate Court, one of the first chosen Judges of the Plains, and was elected to the office of Justice of the Peace, a role he held off and on for twenty years. As sub-agent for the Indians of San Diego County, Cave Couts frequently displayed a sympathetic and paternal attitude toward his wards. On the other hand, Guajome's cordial host was also a man with a violent temper who did not hesitate to take the law into his own hands if he felt himself wronged. Twice in 1855 he received indictments from the San Diego County Grand Jury on charges of whipping two Indians with a rawhide reata - one of whom died as the result of his injuries. Couts later won acquittal on grounds that one of the jurors was not an American citizen. On February 6, 1865, he shot and killed Juan Mendoza, who had threatened Couts' life on several previous occasions, came upon his ex-employer in Old Town's plaza. He apparently tried to avoid a conflict, but Couts fired twice and Mendoza fell dead in his tracks. Judge Benjamin Hayes, serving as counsel for Couts , pointed out that the murdered victim wasw known to be a robber and troublemaker and his client had merely acted in self defense. Couts secured another acquittal."

The accompanying letter indicates that this bag was a gift of the warrior Tucquo of the Tahlequah  Cherokee on April 20, 1846. Couts was on the Oklahoma border heading for Monterrey, Mexico and the beginning of the adventures described above. The fact that he kept this bag and document through all of his travels certainly indicates that he prized both .. which is our gain. I am working with the museum that acquired the bag and Gresh Bayne and his good friend to develop more oral history on Couts and maybe the bag. I will also certainly visit the San Diego History center may have the diary described above. Couts may have mentioned the bag in the diary.
I am grateful for the direct quotes and the many helpful internet resources based in California for this story.