Washington Indian Encounters: The Unfriendly Kind
October 6-8, 1855 Toppenish Creek (White Swan, Washington)
In September 1855, Yakimas cut the throat of Indian agent Andrew J. Bolon, and Yakima chief Kamiakin announced that he would kill all whites who entered his country. The tribes of the Columbia River basin had united to stop the increasing incursions into the area. In response, district commander Maj. Gabriel J. Rains ordered an expedition to awe the Indians, and Capt. Granville O. Haller was to lead it. Haller's 4th. Infantry Companies I and K and a detachment of H left Fort Dalles in early October with a howitzer.
A three-day march brought Haller to Toppenish Creek, east of present-day Fort Simcoe State Park, Washington, where he ran into Kamiakin, Palouse chief Owhi, and possibly up to 1.500 Yakima and Palouse Indians. Haller's was not a large enough force to intimidate the combined tribes arrayed against him. Nevertheless, the infantry took position on a ridge top and fought for nearly three days before retreating. Haller then struggled for three more days to get his men back in one piece to Fort Dalles. They lost the howitzer and the pack train, and Haller was lucky to escape with most of his command.
Five men were killed and 17 wounded in the expedition. Approximately 20 warriors were wounded or killed. The defeat emboldened the rest of the northwestern tribes to take action.
November 4-7, 1855 White River/Puyallup River (Puyallup, Washington)
To cooperate with columns approaching the Yakima Indians from west of the Cascades, Capt. Maurice Maloney organized a force in the Puget Sound area. With a volunteer company of 100 men of Companies A and C of the 4th. Infantry, he marched east up the White River, but he found his route over the Cascades blocked with snow. After the soldiers left, several bands of Puyallup, Nisqually, and Squaxon warriors drove white settlers into the main towns and forts around Puget Sound and sent 150 warriors up the White River to find and confront Maloney's troops.
The ensuing battle was sharp. After a daylong fight, the Indians pulled back, but the soldiers pursued them to the Puyallup River. The action continued for another day or two, until the Indians finally broke off and scattered.
In the various confrontations, the Indians had 30 casualties. If Maloney's regulars, 3 were killed and 2 were wounded; 19 civilian volunteers were killed.
December 4, 1855 Bennan's Prairie (Auburn, Washington)
Since the fight at White River/Puyallup River (see November 4-7), Lt. William A Slaughter and his company had been camped at Bennan's Prairie, just east of present-day Auburn, Washington, where the Green and White Rivers flow a mile apart. Slaughter's men, companies A and C of the 4th. Infantry, and a detachment of Company M of the 3rd. Artillery had bedded down for the evening of December 4th. in heavy fog. That night, Chief Kanaskat and his Klickitat warriors surrounded the camp. They closed in, fired a volley, and withdrew into the darkness.
It was no pitched battle, but three enlisted men were wounded and one was killed. The only officer hit with a fatal bullet was Lt. Slaughter.
December 7-10, 1855 Waiilatpu (Walla Walla, Washington)
Lt. Col. James K. Kelly left Fort Dalles, Oregon, on December 2nd. with 350 men of Companies A, B, F, H, I, and K of the 1st. Oregon Volunteers, heading up the Columbia River for Fort Walla Walla. Two days later, near the confluence of the Touchet and Walla Walla Rivers, Kelly met with Chief Peopeo Moxmox of the Walla Walla Indians, who had allied with the Cayuses, Umatillas, and Palouses. The conference did not go well, and Kelly, suspecting the chief of trickery, held him and several others hostage.
The next morning, Kelly moved up the Touchet River about 15 miles to find the rest of the Indians, but they had fled. Returning to the confluence, Kelly induced Peopeo Moxmox to send a messenger to tell his band to surrender, but the courier did not return. On December 7th., as Kelly marched up the Walla Walla River, Indians appeared on the hills. Soon, they outnumbered the volunteers tree to one, and a ten-mile moving battle ensued.
Kelly advanced to within two miles of Waiilatpu, Washington, the site of the old Whiteman Mission. There, the Indians had formed a battle line on the north side of the river, blocking further advance. They fired a sharp volley, causing the volunteers to fall back. With his men, Lt. J.M. Burrows tried to flank the Indians in the hills, but he was killed.
Company A, under Capt. A.V.Wilson, tried to push the warriors back with a bayonet charge, and Capt. Charles Bennett's Company F joined them. Together they drove the Indians about a mile up the river. The warriors took a stand in some abandoned cabins and killed Bennett as he tried to storm the place. During the day's fighting, Peopeo Moxmox allegedly tried to seize a gun from a guard and was clubbed to death. Some of the other hostages bolted and five were shot. When the battle ended for the night, the volunteers set up a field hospital in a settler's house.
The next morning, Kelly faced more than 1,000 warriors. He rallied his men and jockeyed for better position. by the day's end, he had worked his companies into a good defensive position behind improvised breastworks. The worn-out troops remained there all day the following day, repulsing several Indian attacks. Finally, the next day, December 10th., Kelly's men sortied out and drove the warriors from a few key positions. With their flanks threatened, the Indians finally fled the field.
The fight cost the Walla Wallas and Cayuses 100 casualties. Of the Oregon Volunteers, 8 were killed and 18 were wounded. After the battle, the volunteers built a new post two miles up the Walla Walla River from Waiilatpu and named it Fort Bennett in memory of Capt. Bennett.
March 1, 1856 Muckleshoot Prairie (Enumclaw, Washington)
In late February, Capt. Erasmus D. Keyes of the 3rd. Artillery captured Kanaskat, the Klikitat chief who had instigated the attack on Lt. Slaughter at Bennan's Prairie (see December 4, 1855). While apprehending him, soldiers shot the chief in the back, but he still struggled furiously. Unable to silence him, a Cpl. O'Shaughnessy placed his musket to Kanaskat's temple and killed him.
With Kanaskat gone, the Puget Sound tribes lost another advocate of war, but they still had fight in them. On March 1st., about 200 warriors of various Puget Sound tribes struck the camp of Lt. August V. Kautz, 4th. Infantry, on the White River, not far from the site of Slaughter's fight. Kautz, who was leading Companies D and H of the 9th. Infantry, sent for help, and Capt. Keyes arrived with his company of 3rd. Artillery. Together the two forces stormed the Indians, who had taken a defensive position on a hilltop. The warriors scattered.
Two soldiers were killed in the fight and eight were wounded, including Lt. Kautz. The Indians suffered no casualties.
March 4, 1856 Connell's Prairie (Buckley, Washington)
Two small companies of Washington Volunteers went to the White River crossing at Connell's Prairie, just east of present-day Bonney Lake, Washington, to establish a ferry and build a blockhouse. Before they could accomplish the task, about 150 Klickitats attacked them. The volunteers countercharged the Indians and inflicted about 30 casualties, while only 4 volunteers were wounded. The results discouraged the Puget Sound bands, and this was the last comparatively large-scale battle west of the Cascades.
March 13, 1856 Tasawicks (Kahlotus, Washington)
After spending a miserable winter in the Walla Walla Valley, more than 300 men of the 1st. Oregon Volunteers, with their new commander, Thomas Cornelius, went after the Walla Walla and Palouse Indians. Though ill-supplied, Cornelius moved north on March 9th. "to win a noble triumph over our common enemy".
On the 13th., Cornelius reached the Snake River at the Palouse village of Tasawicks, about 25 miles upstream from its junction with the Columbia River. Most of the Palouses fled as the volunteers crossed the river in boats. An advance guard killed four older Palouse men who could not keep up with the rest. The volunteers also captured two women and a small boy, whom they named Thomas after their commander. It would be Cornelus's only "victory" of the campaign.
March 26-28, 1856 Cascades of the Columbia (Stevenson, Washington)
The 9th. Infantry moved out from Fort Vancouver, traveling west by boat up the Columbia River to The Dalles, to join an Indian expedition on the upper Columbia River. With the troops heading in their direction, various bands of Yakimas, Chinooks, and Klickitats moved east and attacked settlements downriver, particularly at the Columbia Cascades. On March 26th, at the Middle Cascades, Indians besieged a sergeant and eight men of the 8th. Infantry in an old blockhouse build specifically for shelter against Indians.
When word of the attacks reached Fort Vancouver, Lt. Philip H. Sheridan of the 4th. Infantry immediately took 40 soldiers upriver on a steamboat. Early on March 27th., the troops landed at the Lower Cascades and started up the narrow trail on the north side of the river, but Indians blocked their way. After a fight in which a soldier standing next to Sheridan was killed, the lieutenant ferried his men over to Bradford's Island. From there, the party continued upriver, towing their boat through the rapids. At the blockhouse, Sheridan's men went ashore to relieve the besieged soldiers.
Meanwhile, at Fort Dalles, Maj. Edward J. Steptoe, having heard about the attacks, took 200 men from the 1st. Dragoons, four companies of the 9th. Infantry, and Company L of the 3rd. Artillery and steamed downriver to the Upper Cascades. Steptoe's men debarked and continued on foot, fighting off the Indians in their path. Steptoe's advance guard reached the blockhouse about the same time as Sheridan's men.
Most of the Indians scattered at this turn of events, the Chinooks escaping to Bradford's Island. Steptoe detached Lt. Alexander Piper, Piper's 3rd. Artillery company, and a howitzer and sent them with Sheridan after the Chinooks. Piper's men cornered the Chinooks at the lower end of the island and the Indians surrendered, claiming they had not partaken in killing settlers nor in the blockhouse siege. To test their claim, Sheridan inserted his finger into several of the Chinook's muzzles and found the unmistakable evidence of burnt powder. He arrested 13 warriors.
On March 28th. Col. George Wright of the 9th. Infantry had marched back to the Upper Cascades, and Sheridan turned the prisoners over to him. A quick trial by military commission judged them guilty, and eight, including Chief Chenowith, were hanged.
The fighting cost the lives of three soldiers, and four others were wounded. About six civilians were killed in the raids preceding the battle. In addition to the eight hanged Indians, three died in battle.
April 10, 1856 Satus Creek (Granger, Washington)
After their minor skirmish at the Tasawicks village (see March 13th.), Thomas Cornelius and his s1st. Oregon Volunteers continued across eastern Washington in a vain attempt to find Walla Walla and Palouse Indians. Seeing no Indians as he trekked the Palouse country, Cornelius considered giving up, but instead he sent part of his force south to rest and reconnoiter at The Dalles while he continued on to the Columbia River, downriver to old Fort Walla Walla, and up the Yakima River. There, at last, Cornelius found his Indians.
About 300 Yakimas led by Kamiakin attacked Cornelius and his men near the confluence of Satus Creek and the Yakima River. The five-hour skirmish yielded meager results for both sides. One of Cornelius's volunteer officers was killed, and a few Indians were killed or wounded. The Indians withdrew and Cornelius went on the The Dalles.
May 17, 1858 Steptoe's Fight/Tohotonimme Creek (Rosalia, Washington)
In the spring of 1858, after Palouse Indians had run off stock and killed some miners traveling to the diggings in the Colville area of northeastern Washington Territory, Lt. col. Edward J. Steptoe decided to look in on the Palouse and Spokane Indians. On May 6th., he led 164 men of Companies C, E, and H of the 1st. Dragoons and a detachment of Company E of the 9th. Infantry with two howitzers out of Fort Walla Walla. They must not have expected much trouble, for each man was issued only 40 rounds of ammunition.
On May 16th. the soldiers crossed the Palouse River heading north and marched across Tohotonimme Creek. Suddenly, nearly 1,000 Spokanes, Coeur d'Alenes, and Palouses confronted them, blocking their way. Steptoe parleyed with the Indians, assuring them he came in peace, but the talk was futile. Steptoe, realizing he was dangerously outnumbered, called for a withdrawal.
The next morning the soldiers went on their way, moving south along Pine Creek, but the Indians stayed menacingly on their flanks. At 8 A.M. they attacked. The dragoon companies shielded the soldier's ranks as they struggled southward with the pack train and howitzers. The fighting waxed and waned. Two officers commanding flank companies, Lt. William Gaston and Capt. Oliver H.P. Taylor, took mortal wounds. Steptoe rushed to deploy the howitzers on a hilltop just south of present-day Rosalia, Washington. The Indians kept him under fire all day and made one major assault, which he beat back.
That night, Steptoe could see campfires almost ringing his position on the butte. His men ere down to three rounds each. Steptoe wanted to fight to the death on the hill, but his lieutenants talked him into a retreat under cover of darkness. They scouted an area that was clear of campfires, and after they buried their dead, they abandoned the howitzers and stole off into the night. Almost miraculously, the exhausted column escaped further attack and made it to Fort Walla Walla on May 22nds.
Steptoe lost 5 men in addition to the 2 officers, and 12 others were wounded--a surprisingly light casualty total under the circumstances. The Indians, attacking a defensive position, had greater losses--9 killed and 50 wounded. Nevertheless, they were now fully up in arms.
August 15, 1858 Yakima River (Ellensburg, Washington)
After Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe's ordeal in May (previous entry), the military organized more columns to put an end to the Indian troubles. Maj. Robert S. Garnett, with Companies C, G, and I of the 9th. Infantry, and Lt. George Crook's Company D, 4th. Infantry, marched north from Fort Simcoe. Garnett's orders were to attack and punish all hostile Indians and to capture the Palouses who had participated in killing the miners in April.
It was Garnett's understanding that about 25 Palouse warriors were guilty of the murders and that they had scattered among the Yakima Indians west of the Columbia River. In the gloom of an early morning along the Yakima River, an advance party of 15 men found and attacked a camp suspected of harboring the culprits. In the poor light, Lt. Jesse K. Allen was accidentally killed by his own men. When Garnett's main body of soldiers arrived, 70 Indians surrendered. Garnett executed 5 Palouses believed to have participated in the murders.
September 1, 1858 Four Lakes (Four Lakes, Washington)
After their battle with Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe (see Steptoe's Fight/Tohotonimme Creek, May 17th.), the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Palouse Indians who had defeated him were exultant and confident. A priest from the Coeur d'Alene Mission sent word to Col. George Wright that the tribes were ready for war and had congregated in the Four Lakes region southwest of present-day Spokane, Washington. Wright prepared to meet the challenge. His command of 600 men consisted of Companies C, E, H, I, and a detachment of D of the 1st. Dragoons under Bvt. Maj. William N. Grier; Companies A, B, G, K, and M of the 3rd. Artillery under Capt. Erasmus D. Keyes; Companies B and E of the 9th. Infantry under Capt. Frederick T. Dent; and 30 Nez Perce scouts under Lt. John Mullan. They left their stone fortification on the Snake River on August 27th.
Marching onto the Spokane Plain, Wright observed Indians lingering just out of range. On the last day of August, the Indians tried to set fire to the prairie but were unsuccessful. The next day at down, Wright saw a great number of Indians--Spokanes, Coeur d'Alenes, Pend d'Oreilles, and Palouses--arrayed on a treeless hill in his path, ready to fight.
Wright left the howitzers behind with the pack train and pushed Grier's dragoons and Dent's and Keye's infantry to seize the hill. They took the hill easily enough but found there were another 500 mounted warriors in the rocky ravines amid the four lakes below them, and still more in the pine trees at the base of the hill. Wright sent some of Keyes's men cautiously down the hill, hoping to entice the Indians out into the open.
Keyes's skirmishers drew out the Indians as planned, and the soldiers held them off with steady fire. With new 1855 rifles, the infantry was able to shoot some warriors of their horses from over 500 yards. Artillery men then brought up the howitzers and basted the woods, then Dent's infantry closed in on the right. When all his adversaries were out in the open, Grier shouted to his dragoons, "Charge the rascals!" The horsemen raced in and belabored the Indians with sabers and pistols. The Indians broke, and Grier's men chased them for a mile before the soldiers' horses gave out.
The Indians lost about 50 men and as many were wounded. Unbelievably, Wright fought the Battle of Four Lakes with no casualties. He gave most of the credit to his long-range rifles.
September 5, 1858 Spokane Plain (Spokane, Washington)
Col. George Wright and his men took a three-day rest after their victory at Four Lakes (previous entry), then they moved north. A short march brought them to the edge of the Spokane Plain, where, on a rocky, tree-covered ridge to the east, 600 or more warriors contested their advance.
Wright formed up his troops, throwing Keyes's artillery men forward as skirmishers, and angled toward the timber. The Indians set fire to the grass and curled around the soldier' flanks while hidden in the billowing smoke. The soldier's long-range rifles came to their rescue as they had in the previous battle, allowing the infantry to dash through the flames and drive the Indians back into the trees. Then the artillery men opened up into the timber. One round knocked a limb onto Yakima chief Kamiakin, severely wounding him.
When the howitzers had done their job, the infantry ran into the woods and chased the Indians for over four miles. Once the foot soldiers had driven the Indians out onto the open plain, Grier's dragoons took over, charging them with pistol and saber. The warriors scattered and returned to the trees.
Wright led his men to the Spokane River. At that point, all that the Indians could muster was sporadic harassing fire against the column's flanks. That night, the soldiers camped on the riverbank below Spokane Falls, and within two days the Indians had surrendered as Wright's men rounded up fugitives.
Amazingly, only one soldier was wounded in the battle. The Indians' losses are not known, but they probably suffered at least 30 casualties. Wright slaughtered 900 horses from one captured chief and hanged 15 men he considered major troublemakers. The Yakima called Qualchin was hanged, and when his father, Owhi, tried to escape, four pistol balls brought him down. Wright's victories brought major fighting in the Pacific Northwest to an end.
Michino, Gregory F., Encyclopedia of Indian Wars, Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850 - 1890, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula Montana, Copyright 2003.