Numerous indications of the recent presence of Indians were observed as the expedition proceeded north from Snake River. Evidently a considerable number of had gathered in the vicinity of Red Wolfs crossing and, being fully aware of their own guilty conduct and of the punishment justly due them, they fled to the Coeur d’Alenes and Spokane to incite among those tribes, if possible, a spirit of hostility toward the soldiers in the hope of thus being aided by their counsel and numerical strength.
After marching eight days, Colonel Steptoe reached the Palouse River and on Friday morning, the 14th, when about to resume the march, some Indians appeared and informed him that the Spokane would resist his entrance into their country. Although entertaining the belief, as expressed in his letter to Major Mackall of January 29th, 1858, that there existed among the Spokane and other northern tribes such a state of feeling that but slight encouragement would suffice to engender hostility, he did not believe there had transpired any events of recent origin which might be considered of sufficient account to induce them to interpose hostile opposition to his advance through their country. The information created general surprise among the officers. The Spokane had heretofore been regarded as preserving a friendly attitude toward the whites; no depredations had been charged against them, and an officer of the expedition writing of this occurrence said: “When we left Walla Walla no one thought of having an encounter either with them or any other Indians on the march.” However, the report was received with so much doubt as to its reliability that it was not deemed advisable to halt for the purpose of ascertaining the state of the country on ahead, but the command pursued its course in the usual manner.
Evidently, at some point reached soon after the crossing of Pine creek a northwesterly direction was taken, leading away from the mountains and following the general direction of the creek.
After a march of some fifteen miles Pine creek was again approached and encampment made near its banks on Saturday night, May 15th.
Along the entire route from Snake River Indian “signs” had been abundant. Small parties of Indians had been seen at a distance and a few had entered the lines bent upon conversing with the officers and men. Reports of the command in detail, its progress, equipment, numbers and manner of discipline flew northward almost with the wind. The Indians had ample time in which to assemble their warriors and to their headquarters was furnished as complete information regarding the approaching force as commanders could desire.
This Saturday night passed with the usual quietness which had characterized the encampments since leaving Walla Walla. The sentries walked their beats undisturbed and observed nothing that indicated the near proximity of an enemy. When the reveille brought the sleeping camp to life again the soldiers assembled in high spirits as men who look forward with eagerness to the coming of the events of the new day which is to add a common share to an interesting life. The dragoon horses, having fed to their satisfaction on the nutritious bunch grass, displayed good fettle and were impatient of restraint.
Having accomplished the routine of the morning, the soldiers were in the saddle and leaving camp when it was reported that the Spokane had assembled in their advance and were in hostile array, ready to fight. This report, like that received at the Palouse River, was received with considerable discredit and, though the column was formed in better order to repel an attack, should one be made, and extra vigilance was directed, the march was continued. Nothing was observed tending to confirm, the report or to indicate that any force of Indians was lurking in the vicinity until about 11 o’clock, when there appeared suddenly from among the hills about a thousand braves (the number was variously estimated at six hundred to twelve hundred) the majority of whom were arrayed in war costume and all were splendidly mounted. Their demeanor admitted no doubt as to their attitude although there was no apparent inclination to attack the troops at once. When at a distance of about one hundred yards Colonel Steptoe ordered his column halted, and indicated his willingness to hear what his interceptors wished to say. Several of the Spokane came forward and informed the Colonel that they had been told he was come into their country for the purpose of annihilating them and that, if such was his mission, they were ready to fight. Steptoe replied that he had not sought them, and that he had not come into their country to fight them, but was merely passing through on his way to Colville, at which place he had learned some trouble existed between the whites and the Indians and that it was his purpose to bring about a better understanding, and more friendly relations among them there. This reply seemed to produce a measure of satisfaction among the Indians, yet in further protest against his advance he was informed that he would not be permitted to cross the Spokane River.
The parley was continued at some length when Steptoe became convinced of the futility of any further effort toward arriving at an amicable understanding. It was apparent that no argument or statement that might be made on his part could allay the excitement manifest among the main body of the Indians and which seemed to be reflected back to those engaged in the conference.
In view of this situation the Colonel dismissed the council, and turning to his officers told them they would have to fight.
The ground occupied by the command at this time offered but poor opportunity for a successful stand, therefore the men were at once placed in order to move to a better position, and word was quietly passed along the lines to be in readiness, but that the enemy should take the initiative in the engagement by firing the first gun.
The troops moved slowly forward, all alert and fully expecting to be precipitated into a fight at any moment. The whole seething horde of Indians surged along the right flank maintaining a distance of about one hundred yards. Opportunity was thus offered the soldiers to observe the action and spirit of their superb mounts, all of which were cayuses, a small, wiry horse capable of great endurance, the common variety bred by the tribes of the northwest. It was also noted that most of the Indians were armed with rifles; being plainly better equipped in this respect than were the soldiers.
Steptoe pushed forward until about to approach a gulch which his road entered when he saw that, should he continue, his troops would, when well into the defile, be at a very great disadvantage in case of an attack, and from the actions of the Indians he believed them to be planning for such a trap. Therefore, turning toward the west, he marched about a mile mid a din of taunts and jeers from the enemy whose excitement now rapidly in creased, and reaching a small lake (afterward designated by Captain Mullan as Lake Williamson), decided to encamp. The command was halted, yet the order to dismount was withheld; no risk could be ventured in thus breaking the vigilance which had been maintained in the march since the redskins intruded their company upon it, nor could the defensive order in which the companies were formed be dissolved.
Immediately upon halting, another powwow was inaugurated, or rather the talk which was had earlier in the day continued. During this talk the Indians sought further to justify their own ‘hostile demonstrations upon the manner of Steptoe’s appearing in their country. They asked why, if he was bent on a peaceful mission, he should carry two howitzers with him. And, if he was going to Colville, why he had come so far east of a direct course from Walla Walla.
It appeared at once that no good would result from this conference, yet under the most trying circumstances it was prolonged. The Indians not actually engaged in the formal “talk” continued throughout to taunt the soldiers in the most insulting manner, both by word and gesture. Not only did they reiterate the declaration that Steptoe should not cross the Spokane River, but they threatened also to seize the canoes along Snake River (called the Nez Perce River by these Indians) and thereby prevent him from recrossing, virtually penning him up in their own land.
As the afternoon advanced some of the hostiles informed the soldiers that, this being Sunday, they would not defile the day by fighting, but would give them battle on the morrow.
For three hours the men were kept in their saddles and compelled to endure without protest these demonstrations, not daring to dismount. At the setting of the sun the Indians drew away toward the east and before darkness came on not one could be seen. Encampment was made and the disposition of the command determined for the night.
The horses were picketed on the most convenient ground, a stronger line of sentries than usual was placed on guard, the companies so arranged in camp that resistance could be most speedily organized in case of an attack during the night, and each man not on duty slept upon his gun.