During autumn 1857, troops under the command of Gen. George Cook killed 10 Tolowa and captured more than two dozen others when the Indians refused to stay on a reservation far from their Smith River home.
After Crook's massacre, the general ordered all Tolowa to return to the reservation. The free Tolowa sent word that if Crook wanted to fight, he knew where to find them.
Federal Indian Agent H. P. Heintzelman agreed with Crook that pursuit was necessary. With Tolowa and Chetco Indians in the mountains, and reports that the two might fight together against the Rogue Valley settlers, Heintzelman wanted them brought to the Wau-Kell reservation and taught that it "is their home."
But Federal Indian Super-intendent Thomas J. Henley, who had been reading both men's reports and newspaper coverage of the events, decided the outbreak came because of Heintzelman's "injudicious management."
Henley wrote in his evaluation of Heintzelman that the people of Crescent City had pushed "constantly" for removal of the Tolowa to the reservation. He concluded that the lack of food and dissatisfaction with housing at Wau-Kell had sparked the fight.
Henley gave the Tolowa permission to return to their villages on Smith River, but some whites in Crescent City leaked his directive to the Tolowa.
At the same time, the Indians who decided to stay on the reservation were told they would be harassed by the Yurok. They quickly crossed the Klamath and headed to Crescent City and Smith River.
At the bottom of the trouble were a number of "low-principled whites" who had lain in ambush to assassinate Heintzelman.
Relaying the information to department headquarters, Crook warned that if the Tolowa were allowed to remain on Smith River, those whites would cause a war. He also warned that the Tolowa had not laid in a winter's supply of food, and thus would either steal or starve.
High federal authorities agreed with Henley, thus tying the hands of the military in early 1858. The Tolowa then were allowed to return to Smith River.