Plateau Indian Battles of 1858

Abstract by Mahlon Kriebel

Col. Edward Steptoe left Fort Walla Walla on the morning of May 6, 1858, with orders to march north to Ft. Colville to calm tensions between white miners and local Indians. He was also instructed to ride east on the Nez Perce Indian trail towards the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers to capture a band of Palouse Indians who had stolen a herd of cattle. Steptoe’s command consisted of six officers and 150 dragoons. 

They leisurely covered 18 miles a day, riding west to Red Wolf Crossing on the Snake River. Today, this route is Highway 12 and the crossing is at Timothy Park. They did not find the cattle. After crossing the Snake River, they headed northeast on the Red Wolf Indian trail towards the north-south Nez Perce trail near present day Moscow, Idaho. The next ride brought the troops to the Palouse River where they were told to ‘return home’ by Coeur d’ Alene Indians. Several officers wrote that they looked forward to giving the Indians a ‘good drubbing’ because the unofficial reason for the expedition was to ‘show force.’ This was so Lt. John Mullan’s road building crew could follow behind and begin construction of the Military Wagon Road to connect Fort Nez Perce at the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers to Fort Benton on the Missouri River, which was at the end of navigable water. Steptoe continued his march towards Ft. Colville until his command was stopped by Chief Vincent of the Coeur d’ Alene Indians and Chief Sgalgalt of the Spokane Indians one mile south of Seelah (Stubblefield Lake in the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge). The chiefs thought that they would be attacked because 150 Indians were peacefully digging spring camas at the end of the trail that Steptoe’s Nez Perce guides were following. Steptoe claimed he was on a peace mission. The chiefs concluded that he was on a mission of war because Steptoe had two mountain howitzers and his dragoons were armed with muskets and horse pistols. Finding himself surrounded by hundreds of warriors, Steptoe decided to retreat. A running battle occurred the following day with casualties on each side. Steptoe finally held a hill near present day Rosalia. That night, Steptoe’s troops retreated. Coeur d’ Alene Indians claim they let the soldiers escape, whereas Steptoe’s position is that they retreated under darkness. The Battle of To Hots Nim Me, at Pine Creek, was a military defeat, and congress demanded that the US Army retaliate. Col. George Wright of the Ninth Infantry assembled 400 infantry, 200 dragoons and 100 artillery soldiers at Fort Vancouver. The command used the immigrant trail to Fort Walla Walla where they trained for several weeks. Wright deployed wagons to move supplies to the Snake River. Wright then used 400 mules and 200 Mexican muleteers and 30 Nez Perce scouts for the expedition into hostile Indian territory. Reaching the region of “Four Lakes” (near Cheney), they engaged several hundred Indians on “Surprise Peak” (Wright’s Hill). Wright advanced his infantry armed with new Springfield rifles with a deadly range of 400 yards to easily force the Indians to disengage because the Indian musket had a range of only 100 yards. Wright then sent his dragoons armed with new Sharps Carbines to dislodge the Indians from pockets of trees. The twelve pound howitzers dispersed the warriors from the meadows below. Wright claimed victory at the Battle of Four Lakes whereas Indians claimed a retreat. After resting his men for four days, Wright continued his march towards the Spokane River. The Indians were waiting and attempted to start a prairie fire. However, the grass was too green to burn and the Mexican muleteers were able to stamp out the fire. Realizing that they were completely outdistanced, the Indians attempted to lure the dragoons into deep ravines. This tactic also failed and the warriors melted into the forests. Wright claimed victory of the Battle of Spokane Plains. During his march from the Spokane River to the Mission on the Coeur d’ Alene River (Cataldo), Wright shot 840 Indian ponies, burned seven winter storage granaries and hung one Indian to break the Indians’ spirit to fight. Father Joset convinced the Coeur d’ Alene Indians to surrender. During Wright’s return march, the Spokane and other tribes surrendered at Lahtoo Creek. Wright hung eleven Palouse Indians but did promise them a treaty if “they behaved themselves for one year.” Wright survived the Civil War fighting for the North but was not able to keep his pledge to the Palouse Indians because he drowned in a ship wreck. It is now time to honor Wright’s pledge to the Palouse People. 

Author note: Col. Wright recruited Theodore Kolecki as topographer during the expedition. Kolecki drew over 100 field maps with extensive notations and bearing information. Each map covered an area of about 7 by 3 miles. I was able to find the position of trails used from Ft. Dalles to Cataldo and back. I located all 35 Wright camp sites and identified many topological features noted by Kolecki. The Kolecki field note maps have been ‘lost’ in the National Archives for 150 years. The Kolecki maps shine much information about the battles. For example, Kolecki visited the Steptoe-Vincent battle field and drew two very detailed maps showing the precise camp sites and routes used by Indians and Steptoe. Of great importance, Kolecki noted on the battle field map of Spokane Plains that the “grasses are luxuriant.” This can only mean that Spokane Indian oral tradition that claims “we were not able to make the green grass burn” is correct. The Kolecki field maps and notes permit an entirely new perspective on these three Plateau Indian Battles of 1858.