Battle of Spokane Plains

For three days after our last fight we remained in camp, to recruit the animals of the command, exhausted by their long march. The Nez Percés were sent out to reconnoiter, but returned reporting no Indians to be in sight. During this time the weather entirely changed, growing damp and cold.

September 5th. We left camp at six o’clock ih the morning, and after marching about five miles, saw the enemy collecting in large bodies on our right. They rode along parallel to us for some time, all the while increasing in numbers and becoming bolder. We had just emerged from the rough broken country and entered on a prairie, when they were seen occupying the woods on the right side of us, evidently about to make an attack.

We had nearly reached the woods when they advanced in great force, and set fire to the dry grass of the prairie, so that the wind blowing high and against us, we were nearly enveloped by the flames. Under cover of the smoke, they formed round us in one-third of a circle, and poured in their fire upon us, apparently each one on his own account. The pack train immediately closed up, guarded by Captain Dent’s company of rifles, a company of the Third Artillery under Lieutenants Ihrie and Howard, and Lieutenant Davidson’s company of dragoons, while the command prepared to repulse the enemy.

It was curious to witness the scene, the dust and smoke, and the noise and shouting of the Mexican muleteers driving forward to the centre four hundred overloaded animals, while the troops were formed about them with as much order and far greater rapidity than if no danger threatened. Then on the hills to our right, if we could have had time to have witnessed them, were feats of horsemanship which we have never seen equaled. The Indians would dash down a hill five hundred feet high and with a slope of forty -five degrees, at the most headlong speed, apparently with all the rapidity they could have used on level ground.

Four companies of the Third Artillery, under Captains Ord and Hardie, and Lieutenants Gibson and Tyler, were at o nee deployed on the right and left. The men, flushed with their last victory, dashed through the flames, charged and drove the enemy before them. As soon as they took refuge in the timber, the howitzer under Lieutenant White opened upon them with its shells. Then the foot charged them again, driving them from cover to cover, from be-hind the trees and rocks, and through the ravines and canons, till the woods for more than four miles, which lately seemed perfectly alive with their yelling and shouting, were entirely cleared. Then they drove them over the rocks and scaled the walls of pedigal, dislodging them wherever they had collected. It was at this time that among those who fell was a chief, killed by Lieutenant Tyler’s company, upon the saddle of whose horse was found the pistol used by Lieutenant Gaston, when killed in Colonel Steptoe’s fight.

At length they were driven into the plain, when the dragoons under Major Grier and Lieutenant Pender, who had been slowly following the foot, rode through the intervals of the skirmishes, the charge sounded, and they swept the enemy before them. Among the incidents of the fight was one which happened to Lieutenant Pender. Firing his pistol as he charged, just as he dashed up to the side of an Indian he discovered that his revolver had caught on the lock and was useless. He had not time to draw his saber, and was obliged, therefore, to close with his enemy. He grappled the Indian and hurled him from his horse, when a soldier behind dispatched him.

Yet our enemy could not thus leave the field, but groups gathered, and the flying stragglers again united in the woods which surrounded us on every side. Lieutenant Tyler’s company was therefore ordered to sweep a hill to the right, while the companies of Captain Ord and Lieutenant Gibson charged the woods till they drove the enemy out, after a sharp contest. Towards the close of the engagement, Lieutenant Ihrie’s company cleared a hill to the right and in advance of the column. A part of the troops then rejoined the column, flankers were thrown out, and the command continued to advance until we reached the Spokan River, where we encamped. Skirmishing continued all the way, the howitzer scattering the enemy whenever they collected in large numbers in the woods, and the foot soldiers then advancing and charging them. We had marched during the day twenty-five miles, the last fourteen miles fighting all the way. No water could be procured for the whole distance, and the men by the time they reached the river were entirely exhausted. Nothing kept them up but the excitement of the contest.

We have again had a proof of the efficiency of the new rifles, and the thorough discipline of the command, as but one man was slightly wounded.

Some five hundred Indians are supposed to have been engaged in the fight. How many were, killed and wounded we cannot tell, from their custom, which I have mentioned before, of carrying off their dead at once. They were removed generally before the troops could cross the ravines to get at them. We learned afterwards that Kammiaken, the great war chief of the Yakimas, was almost killed. A shell bust in a tree near him, tearing off a branch which struck him on the head, inflicting a wound.

We discovered that some of the hostile Nez Percés were united with the enemy in this fight. A portion of the tribe has not acceded to the alliance which the rest have formed with us. . The Indians apparently retreated but a few miles, as after dark we saw their camp fires in the distance, and also a great light which proved to be one of their villages they were burning.

September 6th. We remained in our camp on Spokan River today, to let the men and animals rest, and to have a reconnaissance made on the river. Indians were seen on the opposite side, and in the afternoon some few came over to our camp and professed friendship, showing us where we could find a good crossing.

September 7th. Hearing that the enemy was in force above on the Spokan, we broke up our camp this morning at seven, and moved up the river about seven miles, when we again encamped. Most of our way lay through the wood skirting the river, the scenery around being very beautiful. Just before reaching our camping-ground, we passed the great Spokan falls. It is a high, narrow, basaltic canon, where the whole river passes over an inclined ledge of rocks, with a fall of between forty and fifty feet. The view from every point is exceedingly picturesque. As high up as the falls, salmon are found in great abundance, while above them trout are very plenty.

Soon after leaving camp, we observed a small party of Indians on the other side of the river, riding in the same direction with us. When we had marched about three miles, they stopped and had a talk across the narrow river, when we found one of them was Gearry, one of the head chiefs of the Spokans, who has received some education from the priests in the Bed River country, and talks English tolerably well. He expressed a wish to have a “talk” with Colonel Wright, and was told by the Colonel to meet him at the ford two miles above the falls. It is evident their spirit is broken by the two lessons they have received.

Soon after we had halted at the ford Gearry crossed over and came into camp. He said, “that he had always been opposed to fighting, but that the young men and many of the chiefs were against him, and he could not control them.” This, we have reason to believe, is true; for Dr. Perkins, in his narrative from which I have already quoted, when at Fort Colville, attended the Spokan council, and makes the following mention of Gearry: ” He says ‘his heart is undecided; he does not know which way to go; his friends are fighting the whites, and he does not like to join them; but, if he does not, they will kill him. During the whole time that we were in the council, Gearry never said a word, but merely looked on.”

The “talk” administered by Colonel Wright, in reply to his excuses, was very plain, but by no means pleasing. It was thus: “I have met you in two battles; you have been badly whipped; you have had several chiefs and many warriors killed or wounded; I have not lost a man or animal. I have a large force, and you, Spokans, Coeur d’Alenes, Pelouzes, and Pend d’Oreilles may unite, and I can defeat you as badly as before. I did not come into the country to ask you to make peace; I came here to fight. Now, when you are tired of war and ask for peace, I will tell you what you must do. You must come to me with your arms, with your women and children, and everything you have, and lay them at my feet. You must put your faith in me and trust to my mercy. If you do this, I shall then tell you the terms upon which I will give you peace. If you do not do this, war will be made on you this year and the next, and until your nations shall be ex-terminated.”

The Colonel ordered Gearry to communicate to all the Indians be should fall in with, what he had said, and also to tell them, if they did as he demanded, their lives should be spared. He also directed him to send a messenger at once to Moses and to Big Star, (other Spokan chiefs,) to bring in their people, and to return himself to-morrow with his people, at one hour after sunrise. All this he promised to do. Schroom, we hear, is at Gearry’s lodge, and Kamiaken is believed to be not far off.

At noon, the son of Big Star came, in the name of his father, to ask for peace. After going into camp, nine warriors arrived to “talk” with Colonel Wright. He sent two over the river to bring in their arms, which they had left on the other side. After crossing, one mounted his horse and rode off, probably not having nerve enough to meet the Colonel again. The other returned, bringing the guns, which were found to be of British manufacture, marked London 1847, and had evidently been purchased of the Hudson Bay Company, at Colville. Colonel Wright retained as hostages, their leader, who proved to be Pokantken, the head chief of the Spokans, who had been in the fight against Colonel Steptoe, and was the leader in the battles against us on the first and fifth, and also another Indian, who is believed to have been engaged in the murder of the miners in May last.

September 8th. We left camp at sunrise, and march up the river on the Coeur d’Alene prairie. After advancing about ten miles, the Nez Percé (our usual scouts on the march,) came in to say they had discovered Indians on the right. At the same time we saw clouds of dust between us and the mountain, as if some large bodies were in motion. The column was halted, the train closed up in the rear, and the artillery companies of Captain Ord and Lieutenant Gibson, together with Lieutenant Gregg’s company of dragoons, were left to guard it. The rest of the command then moved rapidly on, the dragoons under Major Grier at a trot.

We found it difficult to advance as fast as we wished, there being a very high hill to climb. The dragoons and Nez Percé therefore, outstripped us, and we soon saw them passing over the hills. They had discovered that the Indians were driving off their stock to the mountains, which they had nearly reached. Our horsemen were obliged to dismount on account of the nature of the ground, and, after a sharp skirmish, succeeded in capturing the whole band, consisting of nine hundred horses. The Indians who had charge of them escaped to the mountains, after exchanging a few shots with the Nez Percés. These horses belonged to Tilkohitz, a Pelouze chief, and a notorious freebooter, who has stolen a large number of cattle, at different times, from the whites and from Walla Walla. They were captured near a wide lake, to the right of the great Coeur d’Alene trail, a place where large numbers of the four tribes winter. When the foot passed the first range of hills, they met the captured animals returning, under charge of Lieutenant Davidson, with his dragoons dismounted, and the Nez Percé.

When we resumed our march, as we had gone several miles out of our road, an express was sent to Captain Ord to march with his command and train along the river and The Nez Percé having reported that there were some cattle on the prairie above us, and some lodges filled with wheat, after sundown. Colonel Wright dispatched two companies of artillery and one of dragoons, to burn the lodges and grain and drive in the cattle. They returned in the night, reporting that the cattle proved to be so wild that they could not be captured, but took to the mountains. The lodges were burned. We had marched today twenty miles.

In the evening, the case of our Pelouze prisoner was investigated, and it having been proved beyond doubt that he was engaged in the murder of the miners in May last, he was hung.

On leaving camp in the morning, we saw two Indians on the opposite bank of the river, who were watching our movements. During the morning they came down to the river, where the train and its guard were waiting for us, shouted over and demanded that the old Spokan chief whom we had detained should be sent back. The answer was a volley, wounding both of them, killing one horse and wounding the other. The Indians, however, both managed to escape. They were the sons of our Spokan prisoner, and one of them was in our camp yesterday, when his father was arrested. He then seemed very much excited, but we did not know of his relationship until he had gone.

September 9th. This morning at daybreak, three companies of dragoons were sent out, and destroyed seven lodges used by the Indians as storehouses of wheat. Some were filled; from others the contents had been carried off and probably cached.

At nine o’clock, Colonel Wright convened a board of officers to determine what should be done with the captured horses. They decided that one hundred and thirty should be selected for our use, and the rest shot. It was a disagreeable necessity, but one which could not be avoided. Most of them being wild, they could not be taken with us on our march, and must be prevented from falling again into the hands of their former owners. Nothing can more effectually cripple the Indians than to deprive them of their animals.

Two companies were therefore ordered out to perform this duty. A corral (enclosure) was first made, into which they were all driven. Then, one by one, they were lassoed and dragged out, and dispatched by a single shot. About two hundred and seventy were killed in this way. The colts were led out and knocked in the head. It was distressing during all the following night, to hear the cries of the brood mares whose young had thus been taken from them. On the following day, to avoid the slow process of killing them separately, the companies were ordered to fire volleys into the corral.

During the afternoon, our herders shot five of the wild beef cattle on the plains.

In the evening, two Indians, one of whom claimed to be a chief, came into camp with a white flag. They said they came from Big Star, and belonged to his party, that he had started to overtake Colonel Wright, but found the command had moved on, and as they had lost their horses they were obliged to travel on foot. Colonel Wright told them to remain in camp tonight and return early in the morning to Big Star, to inform him that he should remain where he was, and when we came near his village he should come in with his women and families.

In all these offers of submission, we see the effect of the last battle on the Spokan plains. Defeated in the open country, at the Four Lakes, they determined to try it once more, where they had the shelter of the forests from which to annoy us. They had again the selection of their own ground; and this second lesson seems to have broken their spirit, and it is doubtful whether they can again make head with any force against us.

Kip, Lawrence. Army Life on the Pacific: A Journal of the Tribes of the Coeur d'Alenes, Spokans, and Pelouzes, in the Summer of 1858. Redfield, 1859.

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