History of Steptoe Butte

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Steptoe butte
Steptoe butte

The line of longitude 117 degrees and 8 minutes W. crosses the line of latitude 47 degrees and 2 minutes N. very near the summit of Steptoe butte. It is beautifully and symmetrically proportioned, being cone-like in shape; its north and east faces, however, fall away with greater abruptness than either the south or west elevations, the west being elongated by a ridge sloping from near its mid-side to the general level of its base. The steepness of the north and east sides is such as to render ascent from those directions laborious and difficult, even to the footman. The southern gradient is somewhat easier, while from the west the long sloping ridge forms a comparatively easy approach to the point where the ridge might be said to connect with the butte proper. A wagon road has been constructed from the west, which, after traversing the ridge, winds back and forth on the south face of the butte until it reaches the top.

The circumference of the butte at its base is about five miles; at its summit here is about a half acre of level ground from the edges of which the descent begins quite sharply. Its altitude is 3613 feet above sea level and it reaches, therefore, about 1200 feet above the level of the surrounding country.

The mountain is timberless and even devoid of shrubs except a few clumps of service and wild cherry on its northern slope. The upper portion is almost solid rock, consisting of a species of granite and common basalt; a ledge of the latter presenting a few feet of perpendicular wall faces eastward at the summit.

Ownership of the summit and a large part of the western slope was for some years held by Mr. James H. Davis, a pioneer, who became widely known under the pseudonym of “Cash-up” Davis. In 1888, Mr. Davis, who was a man of keen business propensities, conceived the idea of making a resort of the butte, and accordingly erected a large, two-story frame building upon its summit. The building was fitted with a number of rooms, as a hotel; a spacious auditorium was overlooked by a gallery; a wide balcony stretched along the south side at the second floor, and on the roof a deck was fixed upon which stood an observatory provided, during Davis’ occupancy, with a large telescope.

Mr. Davis died in 1895, and his property on the butte fell into other hands and has, since then, been sadly neglected. The building is broken and dilapidated, the lower part being in use as a rendezvous for horses and cattle which wander up from the pasture lands on the lower slopes. The whole structure is made to serve as a visitors’ register, and from the sills to the highest point of the dome, both inside and out, names are scratched, chiseled, carved and penciled until hardly a board can be found in the weather-beaten old ruin which does not display the record of somebody’s presence. Among the names so recorded may be found those of men and women from many walks of life and from various states and countries.

From the top of Steptoe butte one beholds a panorama that can hardly be excelled in grandeur from the summits of noted mountains of far greater proportions. The hills stretch away from its base in every direction like the billows of a stormy sea; here and there a long depression indicates the course of a hollow leading down to its confluence with a spring branch and that to its connection with a creek away in the distance. To the west, northwest and southwest, the vision meets the horizon over the continuous roll of hills; to the north, forty to sixty miles distant, is seen the sparsely wooded region of the Medical Lake country and the timbered hills along the Spokane river; to the northeast, beginning at about the same distance, are the mountains of the Coeur d’Alene, looming dark with timber and continuing in the distance until their glimmering blue blends with the hue of the skyline; extending along the east and southeast, the nearest point about eighteen miles away, are the spurs of the Bitter Root mountains, also covered with timber, and as the ridges and peaks increase in height as they approach the main range farther back, they may be seen well up to ward the sources of the Palouse and St. Mary’s Rivers. To the south, beyond the Walla Walla valley, and over one hundred miles away, are the Blue Mountains. Standing northeasterly and south-westerly, the long, high ridge is distinctly outlined, dotted here and there even in midsummer with banks of snow. Nearer at hand one sees a number of towns: about one and a half miles from its base, to the southwest, is the little, new village which also bears the name of Steptoe ; about twelve miles directly south, portions of Colfax, the county seat, are visible ; about twenty miles to the southeast Palouse is seen; the outskirts of Garfield, ten miles away and a little south of east, are in view; Farmington, about eighteen miles distant and a little north of east, is in full sight, and so is Oakesdale, about six miles to the northeast; Tekoa, in the same direction, is in plain view about twenty-five miles distant; four or five miles to the northwest is the town of Thornton also in plain view; Rosalia, the town which bears the distinction of being at the battle field on which Colonel Steptoe’s command was surrounded and where its last stand was made, like many other towns of the county, is hid den from view by intervening hills.

The Palouse River, flowing westward out of the Bitter Root Mountains, may be traced in its windings from a point several miles east of the Wash ington line, almost across Whitman County, its course passing to the south of and within four miles of the butte. This stream, almost the entire length of its run in the State of Washington, follows a deep canyon which, for the greater part of the distance, either on one side or the other, has perpendicular walls of basalt rock. A fringe of pine timber follows its course.

While there are but few points where the walls of the Snake River canyon may be distinguished, the hills sloping to it from beyond enable the ob server to mark its location.

The whole country, spreading away from Steptoe butte in every direction fenced and farmed, the fields alternating with fallow ground and stubble or growing grain, and dotted with farm buildings and orchards, has much the appearance of a vast checker board, and at any season of the year constitutes a most beautiful scene.

About twenty miles to the southeast, standing a few miles out from the mountains, is a long ridge rising six or seven hundred feet above the general level, which bears the name of Kamiakin, the man who, perhaps more than any other of his race, was responsible for the hostility with which the Indians greeted Colonel Steptoe on ‘his northern march, and for the acts of outlawry and murder which preceded that event.

Kamiakin was a Palouse Indian, the son of a chief. He married a woman of the Yakima tribe and was recognized as a chief among those people. In the treaty made between Governor Stevens and the Yakima, Palouse and other tribes, at Walla Walla, in 1855, by agreement Kamiakin was designated as the head chief of the several tribes thus confederated for the purpose of the treaty.

From, the summit of Steptoe butte, one could, with a strong glass, have watched the advance of Colonel Steptoe’s command; could have seen it every day; could have seen a part of the running fight and the long retreat; but the last desperate stand would have been veiled by a projecting hill. Thus, while it bears a name bestowed upon it largely through mistake as to the identity of a battle field of historic importance, it bears it well, for it stood like a giant guide directing the course of the soldiers and gauging their proximity to the enemy’s country; and when they had to flee, indicated to them also the progress of their retreat. Without doubt it became familiar sight to every man of that ill-fated expedition.

There are no means of determining when the name Steptoe was given to this mountain. So far as ascertained, the oldest settler now in the country cannot recall its having any other name. At the time of Colonel Steptoe’s expedition, however, it was known as Pyramid Peak. Captain John Mullan, who accompanied Colonel Wright’s expedition, which followed that of Colonel Steptoe, as topographical engineer, made a map of the country and marked thereon the location of the butte under that name. During the summer of 1859 Captain Mullan, while engaged in the survey and construction of a military road from: Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, also in making surveys with a view to the location of a Pacific railroad, on ar riving at what is now Union flat, near where it empties into the Palouse, questioned as to whether he would better proceed to the south of the Pyramid Peak and thus by way of the “camas prairies near the headwaters of the Nedlwhuald” (Hang man creek, near De Smet mission) or whether to go north, keeping to the west of Spectre lake and crossing the “Spokane Plains” toward the St. Joe River. To determine himself in the matter, he sent Theodore Kolecki, topographer, with two other men, up the Palouse to ascertain the feasibility of a route by that way. Kolecki’s party followed the Palouse to a point ten and a half miles from Pyramid Peak, when they ascended to the plateau and made directly to the mountain, ascended to its summit and spent the night of July 8th, 1859, up there. His report, on returning, was such as to decide Captain Mullan to take the route leading to the west and north of Pyramid Peak as being the shortest and offering fewest obstructions, and so, on this first survey through this section, he crossed Snake river at the mouth of the “Toukanon,” reached the Palouse at its juncture with Cow creek, followed the Palouse to the mouth of Rock creek, thence up Rock creek for some distance, then to the west of Rock lake and across the rocky country to its north in an easterly direction. On the I4th of July, he reached the “Lahtoo,” or “Nedlwhuald,” and of this he says: “We encamped this day on the banks of the Nedlwhuald, and at the same point where General Wright hung Qualtian, the noted Yakima chief, and several other Indians; from which fact the stream is known to many as Hangman’s creek. Poor creatures! their doom, although in this instance a just one, is, nevertheless, pitiable ; had the white man been to them more just, fate had proved less harsh.” From here he proceeded to Poun Lake (Chatcolet), bridged the narrow channel through which that body of water empties into the St. Joe River, followed up the left bank of the river four miles, then crossed to the north side.

Along with the changing of the name of Pyramid Peak many of the original Indian names applied to the streams throughout this region were superseded by English names. It is quite probable that in each of these cases utter ignorance prevailed as to the original name. Thus, Union (Flat) creek was the “Smokle”; the South Palouse was “Sma-kodl”; Pine creek was “Ingossomen,” though it seems to have been known to the Nez Perces as the “To-hoto-nimme” ; Steptoe creek was “Skalassams”; Rock creek, which was considered as the north fork of the Palouse, was the “Ouraytayouse”; the “Aguasep,” flowing from the northwest, formed a juncture with the “Ingos-somen” near the northern end of Rock Lake, and from this juncture to the lake the stream thus formed bore the somewhat onerous name “Sil-sil-cep-pow-vetsin”; and Rock lake was known as “Spectre” Lake.

NOTE Since the foregoing was written, the old building on the top of Steptoe butte burned down. The fire occurred at night, and as the flames leaped skyward a scene of grandeur was presented which attracted attention throughout the entire territory lying within the view of the butte.



MLA Source Citation:

Manring, B. F. Conquest of the Coeur d'Alene, Spokane and Palouse Indians. The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2, 1912. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 6 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/washington/history-of-steptoe-butte.htm - Last updated on Mar 1st, 2013


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