“Uncle Dan” Drumheller, Spokane’s beloved Murderer?

How a Spokane icon got away with murder--perhaps?

Charged with the Murder of an Indian man in 1883, Dan Drumheller was never found guilty—but there's more to the story than meets the eye.

Daniel Drumheller, A pioneer of the Northwest and early Mayor of Spokane was perhaps one of Washington’s most iconic pioneers. Traveling across the plains from St. Joseph, Missouri, all the way to Sacramento, California, at age 14 in 1854, “Uncle Dan” Drumheller had already seen more of the new world than most kids would ever imagine seeing.

Drumheller was an adventurous young man, and luck was often on his side. After arriving in Sacramento, young Dan quickly became a full-time cowboy in northern California and eventually eastern Washington. He fought in the Pyramid Lake Indian War and allegedly served in the Pony Express covering a section known as the Carson Sink in Nevada, a notoriously dangerous stretch of “road.”

In 1860, at the ripe old age of 20, Dan decided it was time to move his roots to Walla Walla country. There he began to run sheep and cattle, and provided meat to a rapidly growing white population. In 1880 he made his way north to the pioneer village of Spokane Falls, becoming one of its earliest and most prosperous citizens.

Sometime shortly after the construction of the first bridge across the Spokane river in 1883, an apparently inebriated Indian man thought it would be funny to spook Drumheller and his sheep while Drumheller was crossing the bridge. An enraged Drumheller struck the Native man with a stick, and the Indian left and returned with a gun. At that point, a police officer intervened and arrested the Indian, whose name is not given in any of the surviving accounts.

The Indian was placed in the town's makeshift jail, a rude timber structure with wide gaps between the logs. Like most prisoners in the unsecured and unguarded jail, he was chained to a large rock to prevent escape and left for the night.

The next morning it was discovered that the man had been shot. "Atrocious! A Dastardly Deed!" cried The Spokane Falls Review. It was reported that the killer had place a stub of candle on one of the logs and shot the Indian with a shotgun.

A week later, the Review reported that the wounded man was in pain and dying. “There is no one in this community who excuses the crime,” the paper said. An update at the end of the article read, “P.S. We understand that the Indian died Friday evening.”

Suspicion immediately fell on Drumheller as the possible murderer. Even before the victim died, it was reported that "Friday evening Mr. Dan Drumheller was arrested on a warrant sworn out by an Indian named Lewis, and released on his own recognizance. Of course, no one believes that Drumheller was implicated in the shooting, but as he struck the man on the bridge the Indians have an idea that he must have desired the death of the prisoner."

Drumheller was quickly acquitted of the murder; a report on the proceeding claimed that: “A number of witnesses were examined but nothing new was elicited.”

Did Dan Drumheller murder the Indian man? We cannot say for sure. This brief run-in with the law in no way slowed the rise of Daniel Drumheller. He build a slaughterhouse on the northern edge of the growing city at a site that today is known as Drumheller Springs. One of the largest cattle ranchers in Eastern Washington, he had a herd of as many as 14,000 cattle. He organized the Traders National Bank in 1885, which eventually became a part of Seattle-First National Bank. Drumheller was elected Mayor of Spokane in 1891.

In the early 20th century, an elderly Dan Drumheller was a beloved reminder of Spokane's frontier past. He was often a participant in parades and ceremonies, and in the 1910s he told his life story to a newspaperman, whose columns about Drumheller were combined into a popular book, Uncle Dan Drumheller Tells Thrills Of Western Trails In 1854.

When he died in 1925, Daniel Drumheller left an estate of $118,000 to his seven children. In the newspapers, he was lauded as "one of the real pioneers of the Inland Empire." But no one ever mentioned that time in 1883, when he was charged with murdering an Indian man.