War with the Spokan, Coeur d’Alene, and Pelouse

While the commissioners were negotiating with the Mormons, an extraordinary outbreak occurred in the eastern part of Washington Territory, which hitherto had been a scene of peace between the red man and the white. It had been the boast of the Spokanes and the Coeur d’Alenes that they had never shed the blood of a white man. In the winter and early spring of 1858, however, it was represented that there was much restlessness among the northern tribes, especially in the neighborhood of the Colville mines, and Brevet Lieutenant colonel Steptoe, who commanded at new Fort WallaWalla, determined to make an excursion in that direction. The new fort, which had been established as a military post after the last war, was on Walla Walla Creek, thirty miles east of the old fort, the latter being now used as an agency by the quartermaster’s department. In addition to looking after the northern inquietude, Colonel Steptoe also desired to investigate the recent murder of two American miners by a party of Pelouse (Paluce, Galousse) Indians, and, if possible, to bring the murderers to justice. These Indians lived just to the north of the Snake River, and were directly in his line of travel. Steptoe left Fort Walla Walla on May 6th with one hundred and fifty-seven men, dragoons and infantry, the latter acting as runners for two howitzers which were taken. They marched across the rolling prairies between the WallaWalla and the Snake to the mouth of the Pelouse, where the crossing of the Colville road was located. From this point they proceeded northward and eastward to the divide between the Snake and the Spokane, and over the Grand Plateau of the Spokane, the Pelouses keeping out of their sight.

While winding through the prairie hills that skirt Ingossomen Creek, on Sunday, May 16th, the command was suddenly confronted by about twelve hundred warriors, Pelouses, Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes, Yakimas, and others, hideous in their war paint, armed and defiant. This was a complete surprise, for no hostilities had been expected, except there should be some little altercation with the Pelouses. The little command moved on slowly, menaced by the hooting and yelling savages, who seemed desirons of provoking an attack. It approached a small ravine that led around the base of some hills, which were covered with Indians, when, seeing their intention to attack at that point. Colonel Steptoe turned his troops aside and encamped on one of the little watercourses common to this section, which are flowing in the spring and in pools during the drier season. The dragoons remained in the saddle until dark, an attack being expected at any moment from the howling mob, which continued to heap insults upon them. Towards evening several of the chiefs came to the camp to talk, and asked the reason of this invasion of their country. Colonel Steptoe assured them that he had no hostile feeling towards the Spokanes or any other of the friendly tribes; that they had always been our friends, and he desired them to so continue; that he was on his way to Colville to have a friendly talk and preserve peace there. The chiefs said they were satisfied with this, but they would not consent to let him have canoes at the Spokane, without which the crossing could not be made. The colonel therefore decided to fall back to the fort, and, having passed the night without molestation, began his return march in the morning.

On the evening of the 16th, Father Joset, one of the Jesuit missionaries, had arrived at the camp of the Indians from the Coeur d’Alene Mission. In the morning he came up with the troops and talked over the situation with Colonel Steptoe, the Indians having assembled again and being massed on the flanks and rear of the column in a threatening manner. He proposed a talk with the chiefs, to which the colonel replied that his pack animals were too wild for him to stop long. Father Joset said they could talk while marching, and the colonel responded that he would see them in that way willingly. Joset then went for the chiefs, but could find only Vincent, the head chief of the Coeur d’Alenes. They came back together, and Vincent received an assurance that the troops were desirous only of returning to the fort in peace. He returned to the Indians, who, according to Father Joset, agreed to go to their homes, and the priest with several chiefs did so, but a few minutes Liter the Indians fire on the rear guard, just as they filed into the valley of a small tributary of Ingossomen Creek. The firing was caused by Mil-kap-si, a Coeur d’Alene chief, who became infuriated, probably because he was not consulted, and struck Victor and Jean Giene, two other chiefs, who were in favor of going home.  One of his relatives said to him, “What are you doing?” You strike your own people! There are your enemies,” pointing to the soldiers, whereupon the Indians commenced firing. The troops fell back for three miles more, under a constant fire. They were hampered by their pack train. The country gave every advantage to the Indians. The stock of ammunition was low, and the raw recruits, of whom there were a number in the command, were firing wildly. It was decided to fall back to Ingossomen Creek, where a good position, with wood and water, could be had, and there make a stand. Two companies under Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston were thrown out as flankers, between whom and the Indians a succession of charges and countercharges was kept up, with loss to both sides. About noon Gaston fell, and his company was driven back in confusion. Half an hour later Captain Taylor was brought in, shot through the neck and mortally wounded. The troops were now close to the crossing of the creek, and Colonel Steptoe at once took position on a small hill, to hold the Indians at bay until night.

The provisions were placed in the centre of the top of the hill, which was flat, and around them the horses and pack animals were picketed in a circle. In a much larger circle, along the crest of the hill, in skirmish line, were the dismounted men and the howitzers, one at the front and one at the rear. The situation was growing more desperate every minute. The Spokanes were massed on the north, the Coeur d’Alenes on the east, and the Pelouses on the west, covering all the neighboring heights. They took advantage of every hillock, depression, and tuft of grass to work along closer to the hill. The soldiers lay flat on the ground, having no other protection, while the Indians crept closer and closer, and two or three times made ineffectual attempts to charge the hill. The officers crawled from one point to another on their hands and knees, giving orders and encouraging the men. Two of the companies were armed with musketoons, which were of no use for this sort of work, and the cartridges of the remainder were nearly all gone. The wounded were constantly increasing in number. The soldiers were becoming dispirited. At length darkness came, and brought them some relief; but they could not relax their vigilance, and they had before them the certainty that another day’s fighting would result in the destruction of the entire force. A hurried consultation concluded with a decision to retreat with all expedition to the Snake River, and make sure of a crossing before the Indians could reach the same point. Everything that could impede flight was abandoned. The howitzers were buried; the supplies, except such as each man carried, were left on the ground; the disabled animals were left picketed; and between nine and ten o’clock, stealthily, but in good order, the force moved down the hill at the rear, across the creek, and away. Most of the night they rode at a gallop, nor did they stop till they reached the Snake, ninety miles below. There they were met by Timothy’s band of friendly Nez Perce, who assisted them in crossing the river. They could not have crossed without their aid. In this affair they lost two officers, five men and three Nez Perce Indians killed, thirteen wounded, and one missing. The Indians admitted a loss of nine killed and forty wounded, but there must have been more; there were twelve dead ones counted at one point where the two flanking companies met in a cross charge.

The attack on the troops caused much excitement in the West, for war by these tribes, hitherto so peaceable, seemed certain proof of a general outbreak. The expectation of a great war was the more reasonable because no cause could be given for the attack on Steptoe. To this day, with all investigation made and reasons suggested, it is impossible to say certainly why the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indians joined in this assault. It was known that there was discontent and dissatisfaction among them, for some cause, but no one anticipated open hostilities, except, it may be. Father Joset. He stated that he had anticipated trouble, and had started several days before to warn Colonel Steptoe of it, but returned because Chief Vincent feared that the Pelouses would kill the young men who went with him, and charge the Americans with the deed, after which it would be impossible to restrain the Coeur d’Alenes. This priest was accused of furnishing powder to the Indians – a quite improbable story, but believed by many who had not forgotten the Whitman massacre, and explained all Indian disturbances by the influence of the Jesuits and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He did give some color to this report by attempting to put the blame of the outbreak on the Protestant Nez Perces, who were the best friends the whites ever had in the Northwest. He circulated every tale the guilty Indians invented concerning them, and related some experiences of his own which, to say the least, are improbable. In a letter to Father Congiato, of June 27, 1858, he says, “Towards the beginning of April it was learned that an American had been as assassinated by a Pez Perce. Immediately rumor commences to circulate that the troops were preparing to cross the Nez Perce to obtain vengeance for this crime.” In a letter to Father Hoecken, of June 17th, ten days earlier, he says Vincent told him the Pelouses and Nez Perce killed the two miners, who were the only Americans killed by the Indians in that locality. As a matter of fact, it was well known all through the Indian country that the Pelouses killed them. Again he says, in his account of his attempted journey of warning to Steptoe, “In the mean time I saw several Nez Perces. Their conversation was generally against the Americans. One of them said in my presence, ‘We will not be able to bring the Coeur d’Alenes to take part with us against the Americans; the priest is the cause; it is for this we wish to kill the priest.'” Does a would be assassin usually notify a desired victim thus? Was an Indian ever known to do such a thing? Aside from its unreasonableness, the Nez Perces were not at war with the Americans, but were acting as auxiliaries to them. Again he says, concerning his visit to Colonel Steptoe with Vincent just before the tiring began, ” One of the Indians [Nez Perces] who accompanied the troops gave Vincent a blow over the shoulders with his whip, saying to him, ‘Proud man, why do you not tire?’ then accused one of the Coeur d’Alenes who had followed Vincent of having wished to fire upon a soldier.” Such a thing would be very unnatural for a member of a small command, surrounded by an enemy that outnumbered them ten to one. Besides, nothing of the kind occurred. Every effort was made by the entire command to avoid a fight, and the soldiers did not return the fire of the Indians for several minutes. Finally, he taxes credulity by this: ” The Coeur d’Alenes say, also, that it was cried to them from the midst of the troops, Courage! you have already killed two chiefs;’ that one of the Nez Perces who had followed the troops came back to say to his people, ‘ It is not the Coeur d’Alenes, but, indeed, the soldiers who killed the two Nez Perces.'” The intended presumption is, of course, that one of the Nez Perces made the encouraging call from the hill, but the fact that one-third of the killed, on the side of the troops, were Nez Perces, is sufficient evidence of the feeling between them and the attacking party. The offence of Father Joset may be summed up in this, that in trying to get his wards out of a bad scrape, in which they were placed by their own fault, he strained facts a little in their favor and became a trifle mixed. The hostile Indians took the same line of defense. Milkapsi sent word to General Clarke concerning a proposed talk: “Tell your friends, the Lawyer’s band, to be quiet; if you come with a good mind, let none of them be along. I want to have a good talk with the soldiers, but I can’t when they are along; I don’t want to hear any more of their lies.” The Lawyer was celebrated for his constant friendship to the Americans, and was known all over the Northwest as an unusually reliable Indian. This talk deceived no one, though it made people distrustful of both Indians and Jesuits, but there is no ground for supposing that the Jesuits, or any of them, used any influence to bring on hostilities. There is no doubting that Joset tried to prevent the attack, or that he and the other priests were of much service in finally adjusting the difficulty.

The Mormons were a disturbing element, and in all probability gave active assistance to the Indians, as well as incendiary instructions. On November 27, 1857, George Gibbs, Esq., whose name is sufficient guaranty of the truth of his statements, wrote: “A very curious statement was recently made me by some of the Indians near Steilacoom. They said that the Klickitats had told them that Choosuklee (Jesus Christ) had recently appeared on the other side of the mountains; that he was after a while coming here, when the whites would be sent out of the country and all would be well for themselves. It needed only a little reflection to connect this second advent with the visit of Brigham Young to the Flathead and Nez Perce country.” Between the Oregon Indians and Utah were the Snakes, who were in so close connection with the Mormons that the first knowledge of Utah affairs at Fort Walla Walla was usually through the Indians. On December 1, 1857, Captain Kirkham wrote from that point: *’ The Snakes tell our Indians that they are well supplied with ammunition, and that they can get from the Mormons any quantity they wish; and they further tell our Indians that the Mormons are anxious to supply them – to wit: the Nez Perce, the Cayuses, and WallaWallas, with everything that they wish. I would not be surprised if the Mormon influence should extend to all the tribes in our neighborhood, and if they are determined to fight we may have trouble among the Indians on the coast again.” These, with numerous similar complaints from other

points, caused General Clarke, commanding the Department of the Pacific, on January 1, 1858, to recommend that all Indians be detached from Mormon influence and control. A singular confirmation of Captain Kirkham’s report was made in the following summer, when a band of Bannocks committed some depredations on the Mormons of Northern Utah, and gave as a reason for this extraordinary proceeding that the Mormons had sold arms and ammunition to their enemies, the Nez Perce; that the Nez Perces had stolen their property; and that now they were getting reparation from the original source of the evil. It was learned positively that the hostile Indians had large supplies of ammunition, which they could have obtained only from the Mormons or the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Colville. The company’s agent exchanged ammunition with the Indians for some of the property abandoned by Colonel Steptoe, but on complaint at their head quarters both the purchase of plunder and the sale of ammunition were stopped.

The chief basis of discontent was in the treaties agreed on by Governor Stevens with the various tribes, but which had not yet been ratified. The exact nature of the discontent was in controversy. One set of officials kept insisting that the Indians were angry because the treaties were not ratified and carried out, while another set, equally numerous, insisted with equal vehemence that the Indians were angry because they feared that the treaties would be ratified. On October 19, 1857, Colonel Steptoe reported from Fort Walla Walla, ” It is my duty to inform the general that Mr. J. Ross Browne, acting, I believe, as agent of the Indian Bureau, did, in a recent conversation with Lawyer,’ the Nez Perce chief, assert that Governor Stevens treaty of Walla Walla would certainly be ratified and enforced. I will simply add that in my opinion any attempt to enforce that treaty will be followed by immediate hostilities with most of the tribes in this part of the country.” This information was received with some indignation by General Clarke. He had taken command of the department in June, and soon after had a consultation with Indian Superintendent Nesmith in regard to this very matter. Nesmith told him there were two causes for the hostile feelings then existing. One was that while the Indians understood that amnesty had been granted to the murderers of agent Bolen by Colonel Wright, there was still an endeavor on the part of some civil officers to apprehend them. The other was a fear that the treaties with Governor Stevens would be enforced, although they held them void, on the ground that the chiefs who made them had no authority to do so. On this information the general used his influence to have the treaties left inoperative, and permitted the Bolen murderers to remain at large. ‘ It is under these circumstances,” lie wrote, in complaint to army head quarters, “that Mr. J. Ross Browne makes (with what authority I know not) the declaration to the Indians that the treaties will certainly be ratified and enforced.”

Mr. Browne was a special agent of the Interior Department, who was sent into Oregon and Washington to inspect the condition of the reservations, and who incidentally reported on the causes of the wars of 1856. He believed that the Mar resulted from the irrepressible conflict between savagery and civilization. He said, “The treaties were not the cause of the war. I have already shown that the war had been determined upon long before. If Governor Stevens is to blame because he did not so frame the treaties as to stop the war, or stop it by not making treaties at all, then that charge should be specifically brought against him. My own opinion is, that he had no more control over the course of events than the Secretary of War in Washington.” Mr. Browne was a pleasing writer and a man of discernment, but like most men who have a fixed idea, to begin with, he was inclined to bend everything to it. Still there was much of truth in his views, as, indeed, there is in everything he has written on the Indian question, but he is at times carried away by enthusiasm. It is not to be supposed that he was alone in his views of the treaties. A large party in the Northwest had the same opinions, and so had several persons who reported specially on the subject. For example Lieutenant Mullan, who accompanied Colonel Wright in the campaign of which an account follows, after personal investigation, wrote the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on September 5, 1858: *’ To this day the labors of Governor Stevens are disregarded and uncared for, and the treaties containing the solemn promises of the Indian on the one side, and binding obligation of the government on the other, lie among the dusty archives of Congress, while a war rages in every quarter of the Northwest coast. The Indians feel that their rights have been trifled with by promises made by agents armed and vested with authority to act, which the government has not ratified. And will it, I ask, longer remain in this passive mood? Will it longer act inertly [!] while lives are sacrificed and millions squandered, and still longer hesitate to act? For one, I trust not. Let these be ratified.”

The cause of this conflict of opinion is found in the fact that the Indians were not agreed as to the treaties. The more friendly Indians, chiefly Nez Perces, wanted the treaties ratified, partly because they thought the whites desired it, and partly because they were ready to adopt a quasi-civilized life. These Indians were more often seen by “visiting statesmen,” and were more communicative; in consequence of which their ideas were more apt to be taken as an expression of Indian sentiment by casual visitors. The military, on the other hand, were largely in contact with the Indians who desired to retain their wild life, and were acquainted with their views. The objections of those who opposed the treaties were not to a continuance of friendship, or a surrender of part of their lands, but to the surrender of the entire country of certain tribes and a removal to other locations. Unquestionably those who opposed the treaties were much more numerous than the others. Their view was thus set forth by Garry, the Spokane chief, in a message carried to General Clarke by Father Congiato: ”When you [Clarke] meet me, we walk friendly, we shake hands. Two years after you met me, you, American, I heard words from white people, whence I concluded you wanted to kill me for my land. I did not believe it. Every year I heard the same. Now you arrived, you my friend, you, Stevens, in Whitman Valley; you called the Indians to that place. I went there to listen to what should be said. You had a speech – you, my friend Stevens, to the Indians. You spoke for the land of the Indians. You told them all what you should pay them for their land. I was much pleased when I heard how much you offered; annual money, houses, schools, black smiths, farms, and so forth. And then you said, all the Cayuses, Walla Wallas, and Spokanes should emigrate to Layer’s [Lawyer, or Hal-al-ho-sote, the Nez Perce chief] country; and from Colville and below all Indians should go and stay to Camayaken’s [Kamiaken, the Yakima chief] country; and by saying so you broke the hearts of all the Indians; and hearing that, I thought that you missed it. Should you have given the Indians time to think on it, and to tell you what portion of the land they wanted to give, it would have been right. Then the Indians got mad and began to kill the whites. I was very sorry all the time. Then you began to war against the Indians. When yon began this war all the upper country was quiet. Then every year we heard something from the lower Indians. I told the people here about not to listen to such talk. The governor will come up; you will hear from his own mouth; then believe it. Now this spring I heard of the coming of Colonel Steptoe. I did my best to persuade my people not to shoot him. He goes to Colville, I said, to speak to the whites and to the Indians. We will go there and listen to what he shall say. They would not listen to me, but the boys shot at him; I was very sorry.”

This difference of opinion among the Indians naturally resulted in perpetual misunderstanding. One Indian would tell a special agent that he wanted the treaties ratified, and would be assured that they should be ratified. Another would explain his objections to the treaties to some officer, and be assured that they should not be ratified. These Indians would then come together and find themselves in a conflict of fact, which showed that someone was deceiving them. Suspicion and discontent grew apace. The treaty Indians wanted the goods and money that had been promised them, but not paid; the opponents of the treaties watched with jealous eye every appearance of an encroachment on their lands. One thing that they desired, and they insisted on it at their council with Stevens, was that “the soldiers should not come north of the Nez Perces River.’ They did not object much to small parties, but they wanted no large ones, and no cannon. The stream they referred to is the Snake, or Lewis Fork of the Columbia. The Indians called it the Nez Perces, the Pelouse, and the Snake, in the parts which flowed through the countries of those tribes respectively. The whites applied the name ”Snake” to it throughout its length, and gave the name Pelouse to its first large affluent, above its mouth, on the north side, otherwise known as Flag River.

With all these causes fur discontent, there was still no satisfactory reason for the attack on Steptoe, and this the Indians themselves admitted. Says Father Joset to Father Hoecken: “Vincent arrived. I asked him what provocation they had received. ‘None; all the fault is on our side.’ ‘You are the murderers of your own people, not the Americans,” It is true. I would rather die as the Americans, as our people are dead. I had no intention to fight, but at seeing the corpse of my brother-in-law I lost my head. What will be the consequences? If we are pardoned we will faithfully restore all that has been taken; if not, we will remain home, and if we are attacked we will defend ourselves to the last, and when we are all killed the Americans will have our lands. Fools that we are we have always doubted the truth of what the Father told us; now we have seen it. The Americans do not want to fight ns.'” Again he says to Father Congiato, “The next day I asked those that I saw, ‘ What provocation have you received from the troops?’ “None,’ said they. ‘Then you are only murderers, the authors of the death of your own people.’ ‘This is true; the fault can in no way be attributed to the soldiers; Malkapsi is the cause of all the evil.’ “There were some, however, who claimed that the soldiers were the aggressor, because they had come into their country and brought cannon with them.

See Further: Yakima Malcontents of 1856

Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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