The month of May, 1858, was a disastrous one for the army on the Pacific. On the 8th, Colonel Steptoe set out from Fort “Walla Walla, with a small command of one hundred and fifty-nine men, to make a reconnaissance of the country, to examine into affairs at Fort Colville, and to seize some marauders belonging to the Pelouze tribe, who had stolen cattle from the Fort. As this is a feeble tribe, his force was considered quite sufficient to overawe them, while the more powerful tribes through which he was to pass had always professed friendship, and there had been as yet no reason to distrust them.
On the morning of the 16th, however, after passing Snake River, he found himself unexpectedly in the face of a force estimated at from one thousand to fifteen hundred Indians. They were Spokans, Pelouzes, Coeur d’Alenes, Yakimas, and warriors of the smaller tribes, all painted and in their war dress, evidently meditating an attack. The hills around were covered with them, and it being evidently impossible under such circumstances to penetrate into the country, it became necessary for his little command to return, and endeavor to make good its way back to Snake river. The train was therefore closed up, and a retrograde move begun. The moment this was done, the attack commenced, and the fight was kept up through the whole day. Most of the men, too, were new recruits, who had never before been under fire. Yet everything that could be done by the officers was accomplished. It was a series of gallant charges, driving the Indians back with loss, to have them after a brief interval close up again around the troops.
Night at last settled down upon the battle field, and found the little command perfectly exhausted, and with their ammunition almost gone. Two officers, Captain Oliver H. P. Taylor and Lieutenant William Gaston, both of the First Dragoons, had fallen, with a number of the men. The remainder were gathered on a rising ground, while every hill around swarmed with their exulting enemies, who seemed to have them now completely in their toils. A consultation of the officers was hastily held by Colonel Steptoe, at which there was but one opinion. The force against them was overpowering, and by the next morning would undoubtedly be still further increased: without ammunition they would be almost defenseless, and it was evident, that long before the close of the next day, not one of the command would be left to tell the story of their fight.
Nothing remained, therefore, but to attempt a retreat during the night. The bodies of the fallen, which were within their reach, were buried, the two howitzers were cached, 1 and the command mounted and struck off in the direction of Snake river. Fortunately the Indians did not make a night attack, and their retreat was unimpeded.
Still, they knew that the morning would bring their foes upon their track, and therefore they pressed on. They rode seventy-five miles by ten o’clock the next morning, and succeeded in crossing the river without the farther loss of a single man, or even of an animal belonging to the command. Here Colonel Steptoe was met by Captain Dent, who, having received intelligence of the ambush, was advancing by forced marches from Port Walla Walla to his rescue.
Among those who were reported as “missing” after the fight, were two non-commissioned officers. They were both wounded, but escaped from the Indians; and finding that the command had retreated, commenced their own return on foot. Fortunately the Indians next day did not follow them, being probably engaged in the division of plunder, and their attention directed to the main body of the retreating command. After several days they reached the river, where they were seized by the Indians on its banks. One of them, Sergeant Williams, they killed, but permitted the other to cross the river, and he finally reached Walla Walla in safety.
Such is a brief history of this unfortunate affair. I have recurred to it, because it is appropriately the opening chapter of the campaign, and indeed the cause and origin of all our operations through the ensuing season. In the newspapers, too, many of which are always ready to decry the regular army, the greatest injustice has been done to this gallant little party. Surprised by an over-powering hostile force, they fought it out gallantly as long as fighting was practicable, and then made their retreat without any additional loss.
The Indians of these northern tribes are the most bold and warlike on the continent splendid specimens of physical humanity, they are skilful in the use of arms, and accustomed from childhood almost to live on horse-back. There have seen but little of the whites, except a few straggling miners who during the last year may have passed through their country, and the employees of the Hudson Bay Company, from whom they purchase “their muskets and ammunition. For years it has been the object of the latter to inculcate upon them reverence for themselves and a proportionate contempt for the Americans. The fight with Colonel Steptoe of course confirmed this impression, and brought out all the smoldering feeling of hostility which had before been excited by their fears of the future encroachments of the whites. In fact, the attack on Colonel Steptoe was probably produced by the news they had received of Lieutenant Mullan’s party being on their way to survey and lay out a military road through their country. This they regarded as the first step in taking possession of their lands.
The result was natural. At once a league was formed of all the most powerful tribes, the Spokans, Coeur d’Alenes, Pelouzes and Yakimas, with a portion of the Nez Percé; a general outbreak took place, small parties of whites were cut off in every part of the country, and even the safety of Fort Walla Walla was threatened. The Indians became everywhere bold, defiant, and insulting.
With the limited force on this coast, scattered in small parties over fifteen hundred miles, it was of course difficult to meet the exigency. Troops had to be withdrawn from posts at the South where they really were needed. Yet every possible step was promptly taken by General Clarke. As soon as expresses could reach them, companies were converging to the hostile country from every part of the Pacific coast, even from Fort Yuma on the far distant banks of the Colorado, and from San Diego on the borders of Mexico.
- This is a word introduced by the first Canadian (French) voyageurs and trappers. Pits were dug, where they deposited provisions, or other things, and they were carefully covered so as to conceal all traces from the Indians. They thus often remained for months till reopened by their owners.