Lieutenant Gregg reached the trail and following it soon overtook the advance companies, which had moved under some restraint, expecting him to join them, and the whole command proceeded rapidly onward. Specter-like, they galloped over high ridges, presenting a chain of fleeting figures that loomed strangely on the starlit horizon. Sinking again into deep hollows fashioned among the hills by the Great Architect, they formed a mass of darkness more dense than the gloom through which they moved.
It was a hard ride, fatiguing alike to horse and rider. The unscathed soldier fought with his exhaustion to keep himself awake and alert. The wounded struggled with the pangs of his hurt to maintain his fortitude.
But few miles had been covered when the gallant Victor C. DeMoy, deeply wounded, was compelled to give up the flight and lie down by the wayside. He still had several charges in his revolver and declared that if overhauled by Indians all but the last should be used in his defense, while that one would suffice to end his own life. He was never seen by white man again.
Late in the night Sergeant William. C. Williams, of Gaston’s company, who had distinguished himself during the action by his cool bravery, and had been hard hit in the thigh, reached the limit of his endurance and could go no farther. He, too, was laid by the trail. 1
The dawn of the morning of the 18th found the retreating column at the Palouse River. After crossing to the southern side a short halt was made to allow the men to readjust their saddles, many having become so loose at the girth as to threaten injury to the horses through continuous shifting. A report was here spread that the Indians had been seen in the rear. Observations made from high points reached soon after and over which the trail passed failed to confirm the report; yet the broken contour of the country might admit of the hostiles approaching very near without being discovered. Lieutenant Gregg, whose companies occupied the rear, determined, therefore, to run no risk of being overtaken without preparation for his adversary and threw out a skirmish line. This wise precaution proved to be unnecessary for no Indians were seen and the anxiety caused by the report gradually subsided.
The column hurried on, galloping over favor able stretches and diminishing the speed for steeper ground. Had the movement been less vigorous, jarring less the physique of the riders, many would have slept in their saddles, or in their drowsy condition would have dropped out of the ranks.
About 10 o’clock on the evening of the i8th this weary band clattered down the long canyon through which the trail wound its way to Snake River. Some apprehension was experienced as they approached the river as to the possible reception that might await them at the crossing, but their fears were allayed when on reaching the bank of the turbulent stream they discovered only about a score of Nez Perce lodges whose occupants appeared in some confusion as the troops drew near.
It was not deemed advisable to undertake the crossing of the river that night. A heavy current characterizes its flow here as it does almost throughout its entire course in Washington, and the spring freshet from the melting snow in the mountains had filled its banks to a high stage. The exhausted, travel-worn soldiers were in no condition to attempt to breast it in the darkness. The command prepared to spend the remainder of the night on the north bank. The Nez Perce women in the camp found there attended to the wounded men, and a number of the Indians, under Timothy’s orders, clambered to the tops of the steep hills on either side of the canyon overlooking the trail by which the river was reached and there stood guard till daybreak. The horses were turned upon the grass and then, with scant covering, consisting for the most part of saddle blankets only, with their guns by their sides, the soldiers slept. The necessity for alertness of the faculties was no longer imperative. It mattered not that their couch was solid earth, for having taxed their endurance to the utmost, they were glad of the opportunity to lie down anywhere, possessed with a most gratifying sense of relief that the long, distressing ride was over a ride from the effects of which their commander never recovered.
The sun was well up over the eastern hills on the morning of the I9th when the men were aroused from their slumber. Many of the Nez Perce men, wrapped in their robes, were stalking silently about the camp. The women were busy about smoking campfires.
Stiff and sore from the ordeal of the previous day, the men performed their customary morning duties, leaving out, however, some of the niceties of discipline with which the post soldier is required to comply.
The Nez Perces prepared a meal for the half-famished men, which, though somewhat abridged as to the menu, being chiefly boiled salmon, was ample and was gratefully received.
Immediately after disposing of the breakfast, preparations for crossing the river were begun. The horses, also plainly evincing the effects of their extraordinary day’s work, were placed in charge of a company of Indians for swimming to the opposite shore. Other Indians manned the canoes with which the men were transported to the southern bank, several trips being necessary to complete the task.
The forenoon was far spent when the final trip was made and the last of the command set over the river. The troops began at once to prepare for moving on and while this work was in progress Captain F. T. Dent, with a part of the force which had been left at Walla Walla, came up. The faith ful Nez Perce had borne the message with which he had been entrusted on the evening of the i6th safely to the fort, and on receiving the intelligence of Colonel Steptoe’s situation, Captain Dent hastily prepared to march a part of his force to Snake River. By forced marches he had succeeded in reaching the river, traversing a distance almost as great as that covered by Steptoe’s troops on their retreat from the scene of the battle, only about twelve or thirteen hours later than the arrival of the latter.
The Indian messenger must have crossed the river some miles west of Red Wolf’s crossing, thereby shortening his route. The Indians found at the crossing had seen nothing of him. When it is understood that Colonel Steptoe traveled seventy to eighty miles in reaching Snake river from the north, and that Captain Dent had to cover about the same distance in his route from Walla Walla, and the route pursued by the Indian must have been, assuming that he took a course practically straight, near one hundred and twenty-five miles in length, one may well wonder at the rapidity of the movements which brought about this meeting of the two detachments.
The arrival of Captain Dent was hailed with gladness by Steptoe’s weary troops, for he brought an abundance of rations, without which much suffering from the pangs of hunger would have characterized the journey to Walla Walla. Not only was he provided with rations for the men, but a supply of forage for the animals was also carried and proved to be a boon to those overworked creatures.
No time was taken for further rest of men or animals, though when under way the column moved deliberately, gauging its advance to suit the convenience of the wounded. There was now no danger of pursuit from the Indians north of Snake River, and the necessity of an early report of the engagement, and the conditions met with, now embodied solely the reasons for haste.
On the evening of the 20th, soon after the column had halted for the night, and while the animals were being picketed, a large company of horsemen were observed approaching rapidly. Through the fog of dust put in motion by their steeds they were seen, as they drew near, to be Indians, but their intentions could not be determined and Colonel Steptoe began at once to make ready for defense in case they proved to be hostiles. Seeing these preparations, the Indians displayed an American flag as a token of their friendly disposition. They were Nez Perces and as they approached a few of their head men, one of whom was Chief Lawyer, came forward for a talk. The chief had heard, either from a messenger or through the Indian system of signaling, of Colonel Steptoe’s defeat and had hurried to offer to him the services of the warriors whom he led. He proposed that the two forces return and punish the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, expressing the belief that they would be easily successful.
The offer was most generous, worthy, in its set ting, of a place in the annals of knighthood, yet, withal, an offer which Colonel Steptoe could not at that time entertain. His command was in no condition to enter at once into an aggressive campaign and he explained to the chief that it was now necessary for him to return with his soldiers to Walla Walla. He expressed his appreciation of the generous tender of assistance and his regret that he could not at that time go back to administer proper punishment to his enemies.
Seeing thus the futility of his proposal, Lawyer and his band passed on toward Snake River.
On Saturday, the 22nd of May, Steptoe arrived at Fort Walla Walla. As his troopers marched into the grounds there was that demeanor about them which forbade any loud acclamations of greeting that may have been framed on the lips of those who had remained at the fort and were there to greet them’. It was not the homecoming of victors. The absence of the pack train and the howitzers, the bandaged wounds in evidence in the line, the officers missing from the staff of the commander, effectually dispelled the desire to cheer.
When the returned soldiers were again domiciled in their quarters, knots of men were gathered here and there, in the buildings and around the grounds, where the experiences of the expedition with all their said details were related by those who had taken part to those whose task it had been to remain behind. But the saddest duty performed by any was that which fell to the lot of the officer who detailed to the wife and children of Captain Taylor the circumstances surrounding that officer’s tragic death. But little over a fortnight before, the Captain had taken leave of his family and as the column marched away he turned in his saddle to wave a silent farewell in answer to the mute adieus that were signaled him by the loved ones who gazed after the receding soldiers.
The wife of a soldier may school herself to know the great element of peril that constantly con fronts man in the performance of the duties of actual war, but she cannot still the abiding hope that, through it all, he who goes out from her side may pass unharmed and return to her in safety.
Thus was the unfortunate expedition ended. The setting of the battle of To-hoto-nim-me furnishes much on which one may ponder. Neither the Coeur d’Alenes nor the Spokane at that time had a tribal head which could compel obedience to its mandates. Each tribe had several chiefs, members of a sort of royal strain among them, and each chief exercised what authority he could without much regard to his fellow chiefs. Before the beginning of the fight there was, as it afterward appeared, a conflict of opinion among the head men of those two tribes as to whether they should make an attack. The Palouse, for reasons heretofore mentioned, were strongly in favor of fighting, and being too weak in numbers to offer successful battle alone, were determined to force the Coeur d’Alenes and Spokane into the conflict, and there can be no doubt but that it was through their persistent efforts that the balance of sentiment among those tribes was finally tilted toward active hostility, though it required a day and a night in the presence of the troops to bring it about. In their anxiety for the fray the Palouse began the attack.
Chief Vincent, a man of good parts, at that time held the highest place among the Coeur d’Alene, but no chief, within the knowledge of the white man, was ever able to wield absolute control over the tribe until Seltice became its leader.
Had Colonel Steptoe and his officers decided to remain on the surrounded hill, the fate of the command would have embodied to a large degree the elements of a massacre, notably distinguished in this respect from the fight on the Little Big Horn many years afterward in which General Custer’s command went down. In the latter event the Indians were sought and attacked and the battle which ensued might be said to have been a fight to the finish.
In a letter written by Father Joset to Father Hoecken, who resided among the Flathead Indians, under date of May 24th, only a few days after the fight, and at a time when, in the absence of any news of the troops he feared they had all been slain at the “Nez Perces River” (Snake river), after describing the events of that day, he said: “At midnight the Indians rushed on the camp but found it deserted.” This letter, evidently written in French, was translated by Father Hoecken and a copy of the translation forwarded to Dr. Garland Hurt, agent for the Ute Indians, at Spanish Fork, Utah, and by him handed to Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the “Army of Utah,” who forwarded it to Army Headquarters. By this it will be observed that Steptoe had been gone from the hill but about two hours when the Indians charged his deserted position intent upon the annihilation of his command.
Such an event could have been expected; it would not have been a surprise had it occurred the previous night while the troops were lying at Lake Williamson.
Some of the events in the history of our country seem to bear the imprint of especial providential care, not alone in respect to the actors in the events, but in the widespread influences and results which have hinged upon them. Whether or not the hand of God may be seen in the delivery of the command either for itself or as the starting point for the things that have been accomplished through succeeding years in the land that bore witness to its trials, the escape of Colonel Steptoe from an army of savages sufficiently numerous to overwhelm his own force, and who possessed every advantage which the situation could offer, with no force that could attempt a rescue within a hundred miles, has not a parallel in the history of American Indian warfare.
- Several stories concerning the fate of Williams have gained circulation. One is, that he and a wounded soldier by the name of Sneckster, both riding one horse, after much difficulty reached Snake River and there falling into the hands of hostile Indians they were told their liberty would be granted them if they could swim the river. This they attempted to do, but after entering the water they were fired upon by the Indians and Williams was killed. Sneckster succeeded in reaching the opposite shore, swimming the river with a broken arm. This story has never been given much credit and the writer is unable to verify it.
It is improbable that Williams, suffering too intensely to ride further and dropping: out of the column during the first night of the retreat, twelve to fifteen hours’ ride from Snake River, could yet have reached the river with a wounded comrade, who, too, must have abandoned the flight on account of his suffering, at a farther point than that at which the command crossed; and that Sneckster could still have reached the fort with the return of the command to answer to roll rail on the 23rd. for on that date Colonel Steptoe forwarded a report of killed, wounded and missing and the only man reported to be missing was Sergeant Ball, while Sneckster was reported severely wounded.
John O’Neil. a survivor of the expedition with whom the writer was acquainted, stated that while engaged with a surveying party, running the northwest boundary, a few years later, it was related to them by Indians that Williams had been found on the trail by a party of Coeur d’Alenes. He was very ill and begged the Indians” to shoot him and thus end his suffering. That they declined to do, but an old squaw of the party nursed him until he died. From the account given by the Indians it was presumed that he died from what is now termed blood poisoning.
Colonel Steptoe fully believed that both De Moy and Williams expired soon after being left and so reported them. Notwithstanding this Colonel Wright hung a Palouse for the murder of Williams at Snake River as above described.