After being hectored by the fast and loose talking Isaac Stevens, the Washington Territory Governor, into signing a treaty that would see them removed from their ancestral lands to reservations in 1855, the native tribes of present day eastern Washington state became restless with the intruding white settlers and miners. Repeated raids and revenge killings spiraled the area into open confrontation between the U.S. Regular Army of the Northwest and combined tribes of eastern Washington.
Stevens’ disputed 1855 agreements were falling apart as several tribes (a Yakima faction, Coeur d’Alenes, Palouses, Cayuses and Spokanes) raided the eastern end of the territory. From 1855 through 1857 the pace of the unrest grew, until the exasperated Stevens called up volunteers to seek out the Indians that they felt were not complying with the treaty. Stevens had looked to volunteers, because, the military commander of the area, General John E. Wool, had held Stevens’ demands for federal troop intervention in contempt. Eventually, Wool sent a force under Colonel Newman S. Clarke to clear out the area, but very little action was found by Clarke and the area slipped into a relative calm. Wool started making concessions to the treaty in return for continued peace. Stevens was livid, but Wool felt it was better to try to live in peace with the Northwest Indians, rather than rankle them all of the time. Unfortunately, the tribes of eastern Washington began to view the concessions as weakness and the pace of the attacks picked up again, especially against miners digging for gold in the Colville area.
Eventually, Stevens had used his political connections to get Wool re-assigned and Clarke, now a Brigadier General, took over from his boss. Clarke was an old Indian fighter from the Second Seminole Indian War in Florida, but held many of Wool’s sympathies for the Indians and was just as disgusted by the actions of many of the whites. Both officers had either seen or had direct knowledge of the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears and were abhorred by it. However, Clarke was an old Army hand and knew that he would follow Wool out if he didn’t do something to stop the killings around Colville. In May 1858, Clarke sent Major (Brevet Lieutenant Colonel) Edward J. Steptoe, a respected and decorated Mexican War veteran, on an armed reconnaissance of the Colville area to see if there was a way to cool hot-heads on either side. Steptoe headed out of Fort Walla Walla in southeast Washington near the Oregon border on 6 May 1858 with approximately 160 soldiers (1st Dragoons, Companies C, E and H and E Company of the 9th Infantry).
Steptoe took off in early May 1858, but turn back immediately with a wagon train that was just too heavy to maneuver to his animal’s liking. After unloading ammunition (leaving an average of 40 rounds per man), he set off again. After crossing the Snake River at Red Wolf’s crossing, Steptoe had Indian company from thereon. The Allied Indians had already received advance notice of his movements and were waiting. They followed his movement up past what is known as Steptoe Butte today and through the town of Rosalia, Washington.
As Steptoe passed Rosalia going North on 16 May 1858, he was confronted by approximately 1,000 Indians of the combined tribes. Steptoe, realizing he was outnumbered, deciding to parley with them. The talk merely confirmed to Steptoe that the Indians were spoiling for a fight and could take his whole command if he wasn’t careful. The Indians thought Steptoe had come to fight and were unmoved by his explanation that he came to try to settle the Indian / miner disputes in the Colville area. Thinking discretion was the better part of valor, Steptoe decided to withdraw back to the Snake and await re-enforcements who he had requested through a courier, now on his way.
The Battle of To-Hoto-Nim-Me
The night passed with an uneasy truce, but the morning of the 17th found Steptoe on the move and aggressive Indians following and waiting for a moment of weakness. By 8 AM, the soldiers were taking regular assaults from the Indians. They just accepted them at first, but had to start retaliating when the Indians started taking high ground in advance of Steptoe’s column. Eventually, the fire from the soldiers took down several Cour d’Alene chiefs which raised the blood of the Indians, namely Chief Vincent whose Brother-in-law was one of the dead. Vincent had been one of the restraining voices in the Indian camp. With Vincent’s rage ignited, the combined tribes began to attack in earnest. On the Army side, all ideas of a quiet withdrawal were now gone. A series of running skirmishes on the flanks by Company E and C of Dragoons, led by Lieutenants William Gaston and Oliver Hazard Perry Taylor, respectively, were getting increasingly hot. Steptoe sent H Company, led by Lieutenant David McMurtrie Gregg, ahead to secure high ground, but even this was not enough to secure his force. Once the force had consolidated on the Gregg secured hill, Steptoe decided to keep moving to the vicinity of his 15 May camp Southeast of present day Rosalia, near To-Hoto-Nim-Me Creek (now known as Pine Creek). Along the way, Gaston and Taylor went down mortally wounded. The Tribes were calling in re-enforcements as they realized an opportunity to cut off Steptoe’s command.
The Steptoe Fight
Finally, the soldiers reached the hill which today is the Steptoe Battlefield State Park, on the Southeast outskirts of Rosalia. Steptoe set up a perimeter with the howitzers guarding the main approaches. The Indians surrounded the hill and tried attacking from multiple angles, but were beaten back each time. However, the soldier’s ammunition and water was running disastrously low. One example of the fierceness of the fighting on the flanks as the hill was being occupied was Trooper Victor De Moy, a former French Captain, swinging his rifle as a club and firing off all of the rounds of his Colt revolver except one…which he saved for himself. As night closed in, Steptoe gathered his remaining officers and suggested they fight to the bitter end. His lieutenants thought otherwise and convinced Steptoe to evacuate the hill under cover of darkness and make an end run for the Snake River. Burying the dead they could find and the disassembled howitzers, the soldiers left their fires burning, blacked out their gear and horses, tied down jangly items and exfiltrated through a gap in the Indian lines. Rumor has it that the great Yakima chief Kamiakin made it to the site by evening and encouraged a full scale night attack, but was not taken up. Instead, a series of uncoordinated attacks from different angles would harry the soldiers. The first of such was around midnight, but the Coeur d’Alenes who attacked found no soldiers, but most of their gear left behind. The temptation of scavenging the remaining goods overtook reporting the lack of soldiers, so Steptoe got a good head start.
Steptoe’s troops then made an extra-ordinary march of approximately 90 miles to Wolf’s Crossing on the Snake in 24 hours. There they were met by friendly Nez Perce Indians who secured their camp for them as they took well needed sleep. This ended a potentially disastrous engagement for the U.S. regulars, but the sting of having to retreat in the face of Indians was new to the U.S. Army.
Although in military history hindsight, Steptoe’s retreat was one of the most innovative, lucky and resourceful imaginable, his decision to take too little ammunition and his decision to withdrawal in the face of the combined tribes was questioned heavily at the time. The tribes of eastern Washington were resurgent and felt their strength when they fought together and in great numbers. The Army could not allow this “humiliation” to stand and immediately began preparing a column to address the issue. This column, which included future Indian fighting legend Lieutenant George Crook, met the combined tribes on 1 and 5 September 1858 at the battles of Four Lakes and Spokane Plain, respectively, and won decisive victories that ended the problems in the Northwest for the time being.
This is a long ride if you want to follow the Steptoe line of march. (A glitch in Google Maps is causing the route to go through Moscow, Idaho on US-95. The map I designed is correct when I view it, but the insertion code moves the route east. The route should follow Highway 195 through Pullman, Washington. Sorry, but I can’t really complain, Google Maps are pretty good normally) Once in the area, consider the Palouse Scenic Byway for some great scenery. Finally, check out the Rosalia Visitor and Interpretive Center at an old Texaco station for a map of the whole engagement.
At Clarkston, WA, you are near the Nez Perce reservation and it is well worth a stop if you have the time. I’ve spent some time on the Nez Perce Trail. Of course, this area is also Lewis and Clark country. Further south is the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway which is beautiful. Below is possibly the best picture I’ve ever taken. It is Hells Canyon on the Snake River from the scenic byway.