- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

RIDDLE, Ore. (AP) - A 19-year-old soldier in Southern Oregon’s Indian Wars was shot and killed 159 years ago as he entertained his fellow soldiers in a wrestling match with a soldier from another company.

His body was taken to Riddle Cemetery and buried there in an unmarked grave.

Just recently, Riddle’s Unknown Soldier finally received a new marble headstone, engraved with his name.

Steven Gardner, a retired nurse from Jacksonville, brought the headstone to his great uncle John Lucian Gardner’s grave on Memorial Day.

Gardner later returned to the grave with his neighbor Marshall Lango and brought bags of cement. The two planned to build a frame and pour a foundation for the gravestone.

Gardner said that his uncle’s recognition is long overdue.

“I thought to myself, here’s a young guy, he’s 19 years old, and that’s all his life was. He gave his life to this cause that he believed in,” Gardner said.

John Lucian Gardner was a teenager when he traveled the Oregon Trail in 1853 with his parents and four brothers. The family settled in Lane County.

They took the Elliott Cutoff, following the “Lost Wagon Trail” into Eugene. Two years later, John Gardner and three of his brothers - Aaron, William and Steven - signed up to fight in Oregon’s Indian Wars. John Lucian Gardner joined the Company A 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment of the Oregon Mounted Volunteers - information that is displayed on his new gravestone.

In 1856, the young soldier was camped on the Middle Fork of Cow Creek. Company A was joined by Company B, and one man from each company was chosen to wrestle for the men’s entertainment. John Lucian Gardner was chosen to represent his company. His opponent was named Thomas Gage. Unbeknownst to them, the camp was surrounded by Indians armed with rifles. Both men were shot and killed.

John Lucian Gardner was interred at the Riddle family cemetery, now known simply as Riddle Cemetery, west of the modern town of Riddle. Even though John’s parents were just 60 miles to the north, there’s no indication that they visited the grave or placed a headstone there. For many years, it has been marked by a stone with a bronze plaque marked Unknown Soldier.

Steven Gardner’s parents began looking into the family history decades ago and, in the 1970s, thought they had identified the grave as belonging to John Lucian Gardner. However, they decided not to pursue it any further.

The evidence the family accumulated about John Lucian Gardner’s life included letters to family members, a letter from his commanding officer to his family, detailing the circumstances of his death, and a roster of the soldiers who fought in his company.

Most convincing to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which created the headstone, was a description in George Riddle’s autobiographical book “History of Early Days in Oregon,” about the third soldier buried at his family’s cemetery. Riddle identified his last name as Gardner.

Steven Gardner said feelings about who was at fault over the Indian Wars have changed in the past century and a half. Still, he said those who fought believed they were on the right side.

“Society at that time, their thinking was this was the right thing we should be doing. So he got caught up in it. I think his youth and his innocence - he stepped right into it along with a lot of other young men,” he said.

John Lucian Gardner died for the cause, but his letters home make it clear he expected to survive.

“Take care of yourselves and I will do the same if possible. Tell some of the girls to wait for me, as I intend coming back again,” he wrote to his parents the day after Christmas in 1855.

Less than one month later, on Jan. 24, 1856, his commanding officer, D.W. Keith, wrote to John Lucian’s parents about his death.

About 9 p.m. the night before, Keith wrote, the Indians had attacked the camp.

“They fired in our midst killing two and wounding a third, one of which I am sorry to inform you is your own beloved son, J.L. Gardner. He was shot through the head and sank to the ground dead and never made a struggle,” he wrote.

In 1896, Riddle wrote that he “well remembered” the fallen soldiers’ return.

“The two dead boys were carried upon litters and were left at our house. Gardner was interred in our cemetery. His was the third grave made there and is now unmarked,” he wrote.

“What I think is sad is he was hoping to have a future,” Steven Gardner said of his great uncle. “I have the letters that he wrote to his family, and he talks about getting back home, maybe meeting a girl, getting a life started for himself, and then this tragic thing happens.”

He said he has enjoyed rediscovering Uncle John through family letters, books on local history and old newspapers.

“It’s been a really interesting journey for me to put together this story,” he said.

Gardner recommends others seek out their own family histories, too.

“If your family along the way has left some trace, then it’s up to the individual to open up the door and do the research,” he said. “If and when you have the opportunity you should take advantage of it and open up as many doors as possible and find out as much as you can.”

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The original story can be found on The News-Review’s website: https://bit.ly/1IG8W6i


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