Translator, traitor: Col. Benjamin Shaw

There’s an old European concept: in Italian, traduttore — tradittore; in Hungarian a fordítás ferdítés; in English, “translator: traitor”. The concept that you’re putting your life in the hands of the person who conveys your words to outsiders takes another twist with the life of Benjamin F. Shaw.

Benjamin F Shaw obituary

If you skip over his pedigree and sanctification, this obituary from the Portland Morning Oregonian (of February 4, 1908, page 7, column 3, with apologies for any inaccuracies of OCR) is jammed with lots of great background information on a figure of Chinuk Wawa history who was pivotal in an unexpected sense, but not well-known to posterity: Benjamin F. Shaw.


Col. Benjamin F. Shaw in 1907, visiting the site of the massacre of Cayuse he led at the Grand Ronde River in 1856. Credit: Washington State Historical Society

I certainly hadn’t realized how young and ambitious the man was, seeking his fortune in sparsely-settled North Oregon (Washington) at 16, in business within a year, owning a ship at 20, putting 10 years of frontier experience to use officially — and by his explicity account conscientiously — interpreting both sides’ wishes in Indian treaty negotiations at age 25, but then, tragically, transforming into a high-ranking military officer who conducted a mass killing of Native civilians at 27.

Well, read on. Know your Jargon history.


Colonel Benjamin F. Shaw Had
Prominent Part in North
West History.


Sole Survivor of the Yakima War,
Above Rank of Captain, Passes
Away In City of Portland,
Aged 79 Years.

Colonel Benjamin F. Shaw, the last sur-
vivor of the volunteer force in the Yakima
Indian War of 1855-’56, above the rank
of Captain, died suddenly yesterday morn-
ing at 8 o’clock at the family home, 1003
Rodney avenue, as a result of a hem-
orrhage of the lungs. His ancestors were
of Scotch, Irish, English and Norman
blood, and were among the foundation
builders of the American Republic. One
of his grandfathers, James Shaw, was a
soldier of the Revolution; his father, Wil-
liam Shaw; served under General Jackson
in the War of 1812, and also in the Cayuse
Indian War in Oregon in 1848; while an
uncle, Cornelius Gilliam, was a Captain
in the Black Hawk and Seminole Indian
wars, and chief in command in the Cayuse
War up to the time of his death.

Colonel Shaw was born in Missouri May
8, 1829, and crossed the plains with his
parents in 1844, and first settled on Howell
prairie, Marion County [Oregon]. In 1845 he went
to Puget Sound, and in company with
Colonel Michael T. Simmons and George
Bush, also pioneers of 1844, built a saw
mill, at Tumwater [‘waterfall’ in Chinuk Wawa] New Market, it was
then called [later Olympia] and two years later assisted
in building a gristmill at the same place,
these being the first mills built by Ameri-
can settlers north of the Columbia River.

First Ship From Sound.

In the Winter of 1849-’50. Colonel Shaw
was one of a company of five persons, the
other four being Colonel Isaac N. Ebey,
Edmund Sylvester, the founder of Olym-
pia, George Moore, and Colonel M. T.
Simmons, to buy the brig Orbit in San
Francisco, sail the vessel to Puget Sound
and. load her with piles, it was the first
American vessel to take a cargo out of
those waters.

Upon the arrival of Governor Isaac I.
Stevens, early in 1854, Colonel Shaw was
selected by him for special duty in the
Indian service, a duty for which he was
well fitted, owing to his sound judgment
and excellent knowledge of the Indian
dialects as well as the Chinook jargon.
On this account he accompanied the Gov-
ernor and Colonel Simmons, Indian Agent,
throughout Western Washington, visit-
ing every tribe and making treaties, act-
ing in the capacity of interpreter. It is
believed that if the Government had kept
faith with the Indians in the spirit of
the treaties thus entered into, largely
through the influence of Colonel Shaw,
whose knowledge of Indian character was
second to that of no other man, it is not
likely that the subsequent Indian wars
would have followed. Being a man of
the strictest integrity himself, his theory
was that Indians should be dealt with
justly, a principle which he sought to
carry out to the fullest extent in his

Promoted in Service.

At the beginning of the Indian outbreak
in the Klickitat country in October, 1855,
Colonel Shaw was still in the Indian
service, but early in 1856 was commis-
sioned Lieutenant-Colonel by Governor
Stevens, and placed in command of a
battalion. After several months’ active
service in the Puget Sound distract, he
was ordered by Governor Stevens to lead
an expedition against a combination of
tribes in Eastern Washington and Ore-
gon. In obedience to this order, with
nearly 200 mounted men, and adequate
supply trains, he left Camp Montgomery,
only a few miles from Tacoma of the
present day, on June 12, 1856. and went
through the almost impassable Natchess
Pass to the Walla Walla Valley. After
much scouting and a number of skirm-
ishes Colonel Shaw decided to go to the
Grande Ronde [the eastern Oregon one], and he arrived in the
vicinity of the present city of La Grande
on the morning of July 17. The account
of that expedition is best given in the
words of Governor Stevens:
Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw, learning that
the hostiles were in the Grand Ronde, de-
termined to march against them, and mov-
ing in the night by an unused trail, he fell
upon the main body the third day, and
struck the hardest and most brilliant blow
of the war. The enemy were pursued some
18 miles, nearly all their provisions and
ammunition were captured, over 200 horses
fell into his hands, and the loss of the
enemy could not have been less than from
40 to 60 killed and mortally wounded.

Battle Ended the War.

This action was the last of any con-
sequence in the Yakima War, although
the volunteers were not mustered out of
service until late in the Fall. For a num-
ber of years thereafter, Colonel Shaw
lived in Marion County, but about 1870
removed to Clark County, Washington,
where he followed farming and stockrais-
ing until about three years ago, when he
sold out and bought the present family
home in this city.
In 1871 Colonel Shaw was married to
Mrs. Cynthia Switzler Nye, by whom he
had two sons, Benjamin F., now living in
Spokane, and J.W., whose home is in
Portland. A number of years after his
first wife’s death he was married a second
time to Miss Agnes Baker, in May, 1890,
by whom he has had one son, Frank
Shaw, of Portland.

Colonel Shaw served in the Upper House
of the Washington Territorial legislature,
and during the administration of Presi-
dent Cleveland he was Register of the
Land Office at Vancouver. The funeral
arrangements have not yet been made.