Coeur d’Alene War

A matter to be remarked is the variation in designations of the names of Indian wars of the Pacific Northwest. In some cases there is complete acceptance of a single designation. In those instances the fighting was entirely between the whites and a single tribe, or tribes which were blood relatives. Under other conditions the transition from one to another was not clearly defined, the blending of one series of hostilities often being overlaid by periods of inactivity or witnessing the passing of the warfare from the initiating tribe to some other tribe or combination of tribes.

Hence it has been rather common practice to call the final phase of the Yakima War, the Coeur d’Alene War. Actually it might just as readily have been known as the Palouse War or the Spokane War because the first major engagement was precipitated by Indian allies in which the Palouse predominated numerically and the more important battles were fought in the country of the Spokane. It is true that the Coeur d’Alenes were always among the warring Indian allies and were probably the most reluctant to treat for peace and that much of the diplomatic strategy hinged upon bringing the Coeur d’Alenes under treaty. So it is this author’s opinion that the so-called Coeur d’Alene War was, in fact, the final phase of the Yakima War, as shown in the chapter heading. All of which has no effect historically, except that the count of Pacific Northwest Indian Wars would become seven instead of eight.

In the spring of 1857 an economy wave struck the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The job of Isaac I. Stevens as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory and the similar position of Joel Palmer for Oregon, were combined under J. W. Nesmith of Oregon, who had back of him a fine record as Colonel of Volunteers. A change, welcomed generally, also occurred in the high command of the regular army, through the replacement of General Wool by General Newman S. Clarke, who arrived in the Columbia River in June, 1857.

The Dalles Mission - 1840
The Dalles Mission – 1840

General Clarke was, of course, familiar with the reports which General Wool had forwarded to the War Department from time to time and accepted them as factual. Clarke increased the number of regular troops and re-assigned them. Three companies of the 9th Infantry under Major R. S. Garnett were stationed at Fort Simcoe among the Yakima. Three more companies of the 9th were sent to The Dalles where Colonel Wright was in charge. Four companies were assigned to Lieutenant-Colonel Steptoe at Walla Walla. These four companies were a company each from the 4th and 9th regiments, a company of the 1st Dragoons, and a company of the 3rd Field Artillery. To Steptoe’s force another company was added in the fall, that of Captain A. J. Smith, which had been stationed in Southern Oregon.

General Clarke gradually became aware of the facts surrounding conditions, concluding at last that there was a side to the story which differed from that of General Wool and that instead of the peaceful attitude of the Indians as stressed by his predecessor, that it would be necessary to take aggressive action against the erstwhile hostiles.

Thus things drifted along during the winter of 1857-58. In April of the latter year Steptoe reported that an expedition into the Colville country was indicated. Two white men had been murdered by Palouse Indians while traveling to the Colville mining district. The Palouse had raided the Walla Walla Valley and had driven off government cattle and a petition signed by 40 settlers in the Colville district had urged that troops be sent there.

On May 6, 1858 Steptoe set out with 130 dragoons intending to make a leisurely trip here and there to impress the tribes with the fact that United States regulars were stationed in their country. Anticipating no trouble and not setting out as a punitive expedition, his troopers were armed only with light weapons. He first went to the Nez Perce country. There the Nez Perce chief, Timothy, agreed to act as guide and, with his tribesmen, assisted in ferrying Steptoe’s command across the Snake River. They soon came across a party of Palouse who reportedly were the murderers of the two white men on the Colville road, but those Indians fled. Proceeding northward Steptoe received word on the 16th that the Spokane were gathering to intercept him. He gave little credence to the report and kept going until he discovered that he had been surrounded by 600 Indians stationed close to a ravine through which his line of march would take him. These Indians were Palouse, Spokane, Coeur d’Alenes, and a few dissident Nez Perce. Steptoe halted and held a parley with the Spokane who told him that they understood that he had come to make war and that they would not permit him to cross the Spokane River. Steptoe believed that the Indians meant what they said and concluded that no matter what he did he was in for trouble. He avoided the ravine and camped on the shore of a small lake. The Indians traveled at his flank and tried by abusive language and signs to provoke a fight. No shots were fired, each side waiting for the other to commit the first overt act. Steptoe was unwilling to start anything because of the light armament of his troopers.

Fort Colville
Fort Colville

About four o’clock in the afternoon several chiefs rode up to the soldiers’ camp and asked Steptoe what his business was in their country. He told them that he was on his way to Colville to look into recent depredations there. The Chiefs departed leaving the impression that they believed the explanation but actually pointing out to each other and to Father Joset, their priest that Steptoe was off the regular route to Colville. While that was a fact, Steptoe was unaware of it, having trusted his guide to lead the way.

Steptoe considered his situation. He was sure that should he attempt to cross the Spokane River that the Indians would fight. He knew that he was not equipped for a battle so he decided to retreat. On the morning of May 17th, he started for Walla Walla. But the Indians had ideas of their own. Before starting Father Joset had talked with Steptoe offering to explain the hostile attitude of the Indians, but Steptoe wanted to get started and in-vied the priest and the principal chiefs of the Spokane and the Couer d’Alenes to ride along and talk as they rode. None of the Spokane chiefs accepted the invitation but the head chief of the Coeur d’Alenes, Vincent, joined Steptoe and Father Joset. Then some Palouse began firing at the dragoons and Chief Vincent was called to his people. Immediately firing became general.

The battle followed an old pattern. Troops guarding the sup-ply train as they rode; Indians dashing up or riding by and firing; troops returning the fire. The soldiers reached a creek and-prepared to ford. The Indians closed in on the head of the column. Steptoe ordered Lieutenant Gregg with one company to occupy a hill. This was done but the Indians took a position on a higher hill. Gregg divided his company, one platoon driving the Indians from their hill. The fighting became general and more intense; Company A tried to reinforce Gregg’s position. The Indians decided to prevent that effort. Lieutenant William Gaston saw this maneuver and though 1000 yards away dashed to intercept the Indians. He was joined by Gregg’s platoon from the hill and the Indians lost nine killed, one of whom was Chief Vincent’s brother-in-law. Chief Victor of the Coeur d’Alenes was mortally wounded and many others less severely. Instead of stopping the Coeur d’Alenes or slowing them up, they fought harder. Captain Oliver Taylor and Lieutenant William Gaston were killed. With the loss of these officers the troopers became confused but succeeded in carrying off the bodies of their dead.

By this time it was noon. The nearest water was the Palouse River, many hours away. Steptoe occupied a broad hill, since known as Steptoe’s Butte. The dragoons picketed their horses and then, from prone position, defended their hill. Toward evening the ammunition began to run out. The men were tired and very thirsty. Six would never fight again; eleven others were wounded. Darkness came. The dead were buried. The best horses were selected and stealthily Steptoe and his dragoons slipped away. On the morning of May 19th they crossed the Snake River, thence to Walla Walla. The regular army had lost face.

When Steptoe’s retreat started Father Joset told him that for three years the Coeur d’Alenes had sworn that no white settlers could stay in their country and that no road could be built through it. They had heard of the road to be built by Lieutenant John Mullan, the report of which project enraged them and they then determined that they would oppose any troops sent to Colville. General Clarke, through Father Joset, offered to treat with the chiefs. The Coeur d’Alenes were elated over the defeat of Steptoe and refused to listen to overtures of peace. The other tribes followed the lead of the Coeur d’Alenes.

In June, 1858, General Clarke held a conference with his officers, Wright and Steptoe being present. The General decided that he would settle the issue at once and for all time. He brought three companies of artillery from San Francisco, a company of infantry from Fort Jones in California, and another infantry company from Fort Umpqua in Oregon as additions to his existing force. Two expeditions were prepared. The main force, under Colonel Wright, trained at Walla Walla. Most of the artillery was instructed in infantry tactics, the rest as mounted artillery. The second expedition was commanded by Major R. S. Garnett. That force numbered 300 men and was to move on August 15th through the Yakima country to Colville and drive the hostiles it encountered southward toward Wright’s force, which strategy would catch the Indians in a pincers movement.

Colonel Edward J. Steptoe
Colonel Edward J. Steptoe

On August 7th Captain E. D. Keys was sent ahead with a force of dragoons to erect a fortification where the Tucannon River empties into the Snake. The place Vas named Fort Taylor in memory of Captain Oliver H. Taylor killed during Steptoe’s retreat. On the 18th Wright arrived at Fort Taylor with his command. He had 400 artillerymen trained as infantry, a rifle brigade of 90 infantrymen, and 200 dragoons. Moreover, the riflemen were armed with the new Sharp’s rifles, which the Indians knew nothing about and which were to cost them dearly because of the increased range of this new weapon.

Before starting his march, Colonel Wright had concluded a treaty with the Nez Perce, signed by himself for the United States, and by Chiefs Timothy, Richard, Three Feathers, and Speaking Eagle for the tribesmen. Thirty Nez Perce warriors volunteered for service as scouts and were outfitted in army uniforms and placed under the command of Lieutenant John Mullan, whose road-building had been interrupted by the war.

Wright moved northward. On August 3 1st he was within 20 miles of the Spokane River. Bands of hostiles appeared along the hillsides and exchanged shots with the Nez Perce scouts. The hostiles tried to set fire to the grass but without much success.

Concluding that the main force of the enemy was not far distant Wright decided to rest his men and camped at Four Lakes. Again the Indians had ideas of their own. On the morning of September 1st they assembled on a hill about two miles from the camp of the troops. Wright wasted no time. He left one company of artillerymen and 54 infantrymen with a howitzer in camp under the command of Captain J. A. Hardie. The rest of his force advanced. It consisted of two squadrons of dragoons under Major W. N. Grier; four companies of artillerymen armed as infantry under Brevet-Major E. D. Keyes; two companies of rifle-men under Captain F.T. Dent; and the Nez Perce scouts commanded by Lieutenant John Mullan. Major Grier took his dragoons around to the northeast of the hill. The foot soldiers advanced by the easier slopes to drive the Indians toward the cavalry. No one knows how many Indians had assembled but they were every-wherein the ravines, in the woods, on the hills, on the plain. One officer later reported that “they seemed to cover the country for two miles.” They were gaudily painted, their horses were decorated with strings of beads and eagle feathers. Most of them carried muskets, but some of them were armed only with bows and arrows or spears. They rode about, brandishing their weapons and yelling defiance.

The troops advanced. When within 600 yards they opened fire. The Indians would ride forward, fire, and ride away. But they had not reckoned with the Sharp’s rifles and minie balls. Their warriors began to fall, only to be picked up and carried away as was the Indian custom. The soldiers kept advancing and firing with telling effect. The Indians broke toward the plain. The dragoons charged and in the best tradition of trained cavalry-men, cut the hostiles down with their sabers. The Indians fled for the wooded hills, this time leaving their dead. In the woods they were in less danger from the cavalry and besides the dragoons’ horses were worn out, not only from the furious charge but also because of almost a solid month on the march. The foot soldiers came up; passed through the ranks of the cavalrymen and drove the Indians for two miles, until the soldiers, too, were exhausted.

Kamiakin - Yakima
Kamiakin, Head Chief of the Yakama, was opposed to the treaties, and spoke passionately against signing them prior to the Council. Drawing by Gustav Sohon, 1855

The troops lost neither a man or a horse. They stayed in camp for three days and on September 5th again resumed their march toward the north. After moving five miles they came upon the hostiles who had taken a position at the edge of the timber and evidently were prepared to attack. As Wright’s men approached the Indians set fire to the grass, the wind carrying the flames and smoke towards the troops. In great numbers the Indians came out upon the plain, forming a huge semi-circle. Wright assigned a strong guard to the supply train; the foot soldiers deployed to the flanks, dashed through the burning grass and drove the Indians back to the woods. Then the howitzers cut loose driving the hostiles deeper among the trees. The soldiers followed. These tactics were repeated several times until the Indians had been driven four miles. The forest ended there and the braves were chased out into the plain again. It was once more the cavalry’s turn. The dragoons charged. Their sabers ran red with the blood of red men. The hostiles were driven back but they courageously fought at every backward step. Again they reached trees. From this advantageous cover they harassed the troops from many points of concealment but the soldiers were not to be denied. Again the howitzers went into action. Again the chase was resumed. This running battle continued for 14 miles until the Spokane River was reached. The river was welcome. The troops had been without water since morning. The only soldier casualty was one man slightly wounded. The Indians suffered heavily but, as was always their custom whenever possible, they carried away their dead to prevent their enemy from taking scalps. However it was known that two Coeur d’Alene chiefs were killed as were two chiefs of the Spokane and the ring-leader, Kamiakin, Chief of the Yakima, was injured when a tree-top, dislodged by a howitzer shell, fell on his head. The Indians also burned one of their villages rather than permit it to suffer that fate at the hands of the soldiers.

Wright rested his troops for a day. They were not attacked but many Indians appeared on the far side of the river. About to resume his march on September 7th, the Indians let it be known that they wished to hold a parley to which Wright consented. The Indian delegation was headed by Chief Garry of the Spokane, Garry always having been known as a peace man but who had been overruled by the majority of his people in their decision to wage war. Again let it be emphasized that Indian chiefs were not absolute monarchs, at least in the Pacific Northwest country. Their tribesmen could overrule their decisions by popular vote. While Wright knew Garry’s reputation for peace he nevertheless was stern and unrelenting. He told Garry that the soldiers were there to fight, not to talk; that as often as the hostiles chose to fight, just that often would he defeat them; that whenever they tired of fighting the surrender would be on Wright’s unconditional terms, namely, the surrender of all arms and property, and all the women and children. Otherwise, said Wright, he would continue to engage the hostiles until they were exterminated.

Chief Garry
Chief Garry

Garry took the ultimatum back to the tribes but he did not return with an answer. Instead, another chief of the Spokane, Polatkin, appeared with nine warriors to argue for terms. Wright told him the same conditions as had been outlined to Chief Garry. Knowing that Chief Polatkin had helped to defeat Steptoe, Wright kept Polatkin in custody and sent some of his braves back to tell the hostiles to come in to surrender. This brought no affirmative result so Wright took up his march on the 8th. After nine miles the Indians were to be seen driving all their live stock toward the mountains. Wright engaged them and captured 800 horses which were taken into camp 16 miles above Spokane Falls. There one of Polatkin’s braves was tried for certain murders, convicted and hanged. Most of the captured horses had never been saddled, so Wright determined to kill all the animals not immediately useful and this was done on September 9th and 10th. Thus the Spokane Nation was largely dismounted and the Spokane chief, Big Star, surrendered with his people on Wright’s announced terms. The Coeur d’Alenes decided to do likewise and they were instructed to assemble for their surrender at the Catholic Mission on Lake Coeur d’Alene, where a council was held on September 17th. Father Joset was present and Chief Vincent was the official spokesman for his tribe. Wright demanded the surrender of the warriors who started the attack on Steptoe, they to be sent to General Clarke; one Chief .and four warriors, with their families, to be sent to Walla Walla; the return of all property taken from Steptoe’s command; agreement that white people could pass safely through the country; that they for-ever refrain from hostilities against the whites; and that they re-main at peace with the Nez Perce. These terms being accepted, the treaty was reduced to writing and signed. The peace pipe was smoked and Wright next called another council, this time for the Spokane for September 23rd, to which he also invited Kamiakin. But that wiley Chief of the Yakima failed to appear. Next day the Yakima chief, Owhi, came into camp. Wright had him arrested for breaking his agreement made two years earlier and ordered him to send for his son Qualchin, warning that if Qualchin did not appear that Owhi, himself, would be hanged. Before Owhi could send for his son, Qualchin rode into camp and was promptly seized and hanged.

Wright started his return march taking Owhi with him. Near the Snake River Owhi tried to escape and was shot by Lieutenant Morgan, the chief dying in a few hours. The only high chiefs of the Yakima who were now left were Kamiakin and Skloom. Kamiakin abandoned his people and fled to British Columbia. Skloom, having lost his prestige, was gradually forgotten.

Colonel Wright refused to make a treaty with the Palouse. He considered them to be incapable of living up to the terms of a treaty. Instead he hanged several of them. Wright ordered Fort Taylor abandoned on October 1st and its garrison, together with the rest of Wright’s command all returned to Walla Walla on October 5th.

On October 9, 1858, Wright ordered the Walla Walla assembled. They came in and the Colonel ordered all who had participated in the recent fighting to stand. Only 35 arose, but from that number Wright selected four, who were delivered to the guard, and peremptorily hanged.

This Walla Walla episode closed the war. By military order the Yakima country was closed to settlement until the following year, 1859, when General Harney succeeded General Clarke and reopened the Columbia country to settlers.

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