John F. Randolph

Colonel Steptoe’s Report

On the day succeeding the return to Walla Walla, Colonel Steptoe dispatched the fol lowing report of the expedition to head quarters of the Department of the Pacific at San Francisco:

“Fort Walla Walla,
May 23, 1858.


John F. Randolph
Surgeon John F. Randolph

On the 2nd instant I informed you of my intention to move northward with a part of my command. Accordingly, on the 6th I left here with C, E, and H, First dragoons, and E, Ninth infantry; in all, five company officers and one hundred and fifty-two enlisted men. Hearing that the hostile Pelouse were near Al-pon-on-we, in the Nez Perces land, I moved to that point, and was ferried across Snake river by Timothy, a Nez Perces chief. The enemy fled towards the north, and I followed leisurely on the road to Colville. On Sunday morning, the i6th, when near the To-hoto-nim-me in the Spokane country, we found ourselves suddenly in the presence of ten or twelve hundred Indians of various tribes Spokane, Pelous, Coeur d’Alene, Yakima, and some others all armed, painted, and defiant. I moved slowly on until just about to enter a ravine that wound along the bases of several hills, which were all crowned by the excited savages. Perceiving that it was their purpose to attack us in this dangerous place, I turned aside and encamped, the whole wild, frenzied mass moving parallel to us, and, by yells, taunts, and menaces, apparently trying to drive us to some initiatory act of violence. Towards night a number of chiefs rode up to talk with me, and inquired what were our motives to this intrusion upon them. I answered that we were passing on to Colville, and had no hostile intentions toward the Spokane, who had always been our friends, nor towards any other tribes who were friendly; that my chief aim in coming so far was to see the Indians and the white people at Colville, and, by friendly discussion with both, endeavor to strengthen their good feelings for each other. They expressed themselves satisfied, but would not consent to let me have canoes, without which it would be impossible to cross the Spokane River. I concluded, for this reason, to retrace my steps at once, and the next morning (17th) turned back towards this post. We had not marched three miles when the Indians, who had gathered on the hills adjoining the line of march, began an attack upon the rear guard, and immediately the fight became general. We labored under the great disadvantage of having to defend the pack-train while in motion and in a rolling country peculiarly favor able to the Indian mode of warfare. We had only a small quantity of ammunition, but, in their excitement, the soldiers could not be restrained from firing it in the wildest manner. They did, however, under the leading of their respective commanders, sustain well the reputation of the army for some hours, charging the enemy repeatedly with gallantry and success. The difficult and dangerous duty of flanking the column was assigned to Brevet Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston, to both of whom it proved fatal. The latter fell about twelve o’clock, and the enemy soon after charging formally upon his company, it fell back in confusion and could not be rallied. About a half hour after this Captain Taylor was brought in mortally wounded, upon which I immediately took possession of a convenient height and halted. The fight continued here with unabated activity, the Indians occupying neighboring heights and working themselves along to pick off our men. The wounded increased in number continually. Twice the enemy gave unmistakable evidence of a design to carry our position by assault, and their number and desperate courage caused me to fear the most serious consequences to us from such an attempt on their part. It was manifest that the toss of their officers and comrades began to tell upon the spirit of the soldiers; that they were becoming discouraged, and not to be relied upon with confidence. Some of them were recruits but recently joined; two of the companies had musketoons, which were utterly worthless in our present condition; and, what was most alarming, only two or three rounds of cartridges remained to some of the men, and but few to any of them. It was plain that the enemy would give the troops no rest during the night, and they would be still further disqualified for stout resistance on the morrow, while the number of enemies would certainly be increased. I determined, for these reasons, to make a forced march to Snake River, about eighty-five miles distant, and secure the canoes in advance of the Indians, who had already threatened to do the same by us. After consulting with the officers, all of whom urged me to the step as the only means in their opinion of securing the safety of the command, I concluded to abandon everything that might impede our march. Accordingly we set out about ten o’clock in perfectly good order, leaving the disabled animals and such as were not in condition to travel so far and so fast, and, with deep pain I have to add, the two howitzers. The necessity for this last measure will give you, as well as many words, a conception of the strait to which we believed ourselves to be reduced. Not an officer of the command doubted that we would be overwhelmed with the first rush of the enemy upon our position in the morning; to retreat further by day, with our wounded men and property, was out of the question; to retreat slowly by night equally so, as we could not then be in condition to fight all next day; it was therefore necessary to relieve ourselves of all encumbrances and to fly. We had no horses able to carry the guns over 80 miles without resting, and if the enemy should attack us en route, as, from their ferocity, we certainly expected they would, not a soldier could be spared for any other duty than skirmishing. For these reasons, which I own candidly seemed to me more cogent at the time than they do now, I re solved to bury the howitzers. What distresses me is that no attempt was made to bring them off; and all I can add is that if this was an error of judgment it was committed after the calmest discussion of the matter, in which, I believe, every officer agreed with me.

Enclosed is a list of the killed and wounded. The enemy acknowledge a loss of 9 killed and 40 or 50 wounded, many of them mortally. It is known to us that this is an underestimate, for one of the officers informs me that on a single spot where Lieutenants Gregg and Gaston met in a joint charge twelve dead Indians were counted. Many others were seen to fall.

I cannot do justice, in this communication, to the conduct of the officers throughout the affair. The gallant bearing of each and all was accompanied by an admirable coolness and sound judgment. To the skill and promptness of Assistant Surgeon Randolph the wounded are deeply indebted.

Be pleased to excuse the hasty appearance of this letter; I am anxious to get it off and have not time to have it transcribed.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel United States Army.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco.”

In due course this report reached the Lieutenant General of the armies of the United States, who transmitted it to the Secretary of War after in scribing upon it the following endorsement:

“This is a candid report of a disastrous affair. The small supply of ammunition is surprising and unaccounted for. It seems that Brevet Brigadier General Clarke has ordered up all the disposable troops in California, and probably will further rein force Steptoe’s district by detachments of the Fourth and Ninth infantry; and, on the 29th ultimo, I gave instructions for sending the Sixth or Seventh regiment of infantry from Salt Lake valley across the Pacific and via Walla Walla, if practicable, in preference to any route south of that.

Respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War
Winfield Scott
July 15, 1858.

Accompanying the foregoing report was the following:

Fort Walla Walla
May 23, 1858

I take the liberty to recommend as the very first step in prosecuting the war with the northern tribes, the establishment of a post on Snake River, near the mouth of the Pelouse a temporary work, from which the garrison can fall back to this point upon the approach of winter. The road to Colville crosses there, but the great advantage of having such an advanced post will be in thus obtaining a sure ferry. I had vast difficulty in getting the dragoon horses over Snake River, which is everywhere wide, deep, and strong, and without the assistance of Timothy’s Nez Perces it would have been utterly impossible for us to cross, either going or returning. Besides this, the Pelouse tribe ought to be the first one struck at, as it is the most hostile, and was guilty, a few weeks since, of murdering two white men on the Colville road.

A few companies of infantry could construct a kind of entrenchment there in a few days, which one company could easily defend, and at the same time guard the ferry-boat. There is absolutely no other way of crossing the stream with certainty.

I hope the general will send us as strong a force as possible, and with all the dispatch possible. The tribes around this post are watching eagerly to see what they can gain by joining the hostile party. One of my keenest regrets growing out of the late affair is the consciousness that our defeat must, until something is done to check it, encourage the wavering to active hostilities.

All the companies here are now busily drilling as skirmishers, in which branch of instruction the dragoons, although very gallant, showed themselves not at all proficient the other day, and they will soon be ready to take the field again; but I hope the force here will not, for manifest reasons, be reduced before the arrival of other troops from below.

There is a band of Nez Perces, perhaps fifty or seventy-five, at present here, who took their arms as soon as they heard of my difficulty, but met me on my return. Their services can easily be secured, I think if the general desires it, and no doubt they would be valuable auxiliaries if in no other way, certainly as instructors to our soldiers in the mode of Indian warfare.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe, Brevet Lieut. Colonel U. S. Army, Commanding Post.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco.


Fort Walla Walla
May 23, 1858

I received by last mail the order to furnish Lieutenant Mullan an escort of one officer and sixty-five soldiers.

Of course the present state of our relations with the northern tribes will make it impossible for Lieutenant Mullan to proceed with his survey.

In this connection I may inform you that the fight with my command only committed the Indians to hostilities a little earlier, and probably under more fortunate circumstances for us. A few minutes before the attack upon us, Father Joseph (Joset), the priest at Coeur d’Alene mission, joined me and stated to me that most of the excitement among the tribes was due to mischievous reports that the government intended to seize their lands, in proof of which they were invited to ob serve whether a party would not soon be surveying a road through it. He added that the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Flathead had bound themselves to massacre any party that should attempt to make a survey. I do not doubt in the least the truth of this statement, and make no question that Lieutenant Mullan’s party has been saved from destruction by late occurrences.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel U. S. A., Commanding Post.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco.

Manring, B. F. Conquest of the Coeur d'Alene, Spokane and Palouse Indians. The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2, 1912.

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