Biography of Colonel Edward J. Steptoe
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The available records of the Steptoe family go back to the year 1697, when Anthony and John Steptoe, brothers, located in Lancaster County, Virginia. From one of these was descended Colonel James Steptoe of “Hominy Hall,” on the Lower Potomac.
Colonel James Steptoe arose in military rank from the militia of his colony, and his career in the profession of arms began with his appointment as captain of “a company of horse” in 1734, from which position he was promoted to the office of colonel. He was twice married, and there were born to him six children. One of his daughters, Elizabeth, became the wife of Samuel Washing ton, only full brother of General George Washing ton, To them was born George Steptoe Washington, who became an officer in the army, and one of the five nephews mentioned in the will of General Washington as his executors. He married the beautiful Lucy Payne, sister of the renowned Dolly Madison. Colonel James Steptoe’s second wife, a widow, Mrs. Aylett, had two daughters at the time of their marriage, and one of these married the Hon. Richard Henry Lee.
James Steptoe, one of the sons of Colonel James Steptoe, was clerk of Bedford County, Virginia, for fifty-four years, and was, as might well be supposed, a man of sterling character. It is said of him that he had his slaves taught various trades in order that they might be able to support themselves, and as they thus became efficient gave them their freedom.
While driving along the road to Bedford one day, his attention was attracted by a crowd of citizens gathered around a residence. He ordered his coachman to stop and go over and ascertain the cause. On returning the coachman reported: “Massa, de sheriff ‘s selling ole Missus Caffree out.” The old clerk promptly got out of his coach, went over to where the assemblage was gathered, bought all the goods the sheriff offered for sale, and then presented them to Mrs. Caffree.
Elizabeth, one of the daughters of County Clerk James Steptoe, married Charles Johnston. Soon after the Revolution Mr. Johnston was sent to Ohio on government business. At that time various Indian tribes along his route were in a state of hostility and as he neared Sandusky he fell into the hands of a party of them. Prior to this he seems to have acquired some skill in the art of cooking, and now applying himself to the task he so appealed to the appetites of his captors by the excel lent quality of his “pancakes” that they postponed his execution from day to day until a year had rolled by. His death was then decided upon and he was bound to a stake to be burned. Just as the faggots were being lighted, an old Frenchman called Dr. Shuget drove up in a pedler’s cart, and after some parley induced the Indians to spare the life of Johnston, in exchange for a few goods. The Frenchman took Johnston back to Virginia, and later he was sent on official business to Paris. It so happened that he sailed on the same vessel that carried General Lafayette back to France after the latter’s first return to the United States to visit General Washington. On the voyage he entertained the distinguished French soldier and his staff with the narrative of his captivity among the Indians.
Among the descendants of Colonel James Steptoe, we find Doctor William Steptoe, also of Bed ford county, but who for many years resided at New London, Campbell county, Virginia. Besides the attainment of eminence in his profession, Dr. Steptoe exerted a wide influence over public affairs, and while it is not recorded that he was ever ac corded political preferment, it is known that he was in close touch with the official administration of his state. His wife was a sister of Hon. John Thompson Brown, member of Congress from Virginia.
Edward Jevnor Steptoe, son of Dr. William Steptoe, was born in Bedford county, Virginia, in 1816. Going back again among the ancestors of this boy, it is of interest to note that Elizabeth Eskridge, daughter of Colonel George Eskridge, was one of his great-grandmothers. Col. George Eskridge was the guardian of Mary Ball, the mother of George Washington. The “father of his country” was named for Colonel Eskridge.
Edward Steptoe’ s boyhood was no more eventful than that of other Virginia boys who learned the precepts of Christian religion and good citizen ship in homes where such things were revered and taught. At the age of seventeen he graduated from Chapel Hill University, North Carolina, and immediately thereafter, through the influence of his uncle, Hon. John Thompson Brown, he received an appointment to a cadetship at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. From that institution he graduated in 1837, standing No. 34 in a class of fifty, and of the graduates from the founding of the Academy he was No. 924. Among the members of his graduating class were Braxton Bragg, Jubal A. Early, John Sedgwick, John C. Pemberton, Joseph Hooker, and many others who in after years climbed high on the ladder of fame.
Soon after finishing his course at West Point he was assigned to duty in the army. In the early forties he was in the service in Florida against the Indians as a Lieutenant. His letters to his father during that period indicate that his duties required constant activity, although he was not often engaged with the hostiles.
When the war with Mexico broke out Lieutenant Steptoe, commanding a company of artillery, was early to the front. The force to which his company was attached was taken from New Orleans to Tampico by boat. At Tampico it was for some time detained. While transporting his company by water along the coast during the preliminary movements for the siege of Vera Cruz he was ship wrecked. His men had much difficulty in reaching safety, and as it was two were lost.
He participated in the siege of Vera Cruz, and was assigned the task of guarding a certain pass leading out of the city to prevent ingress or egress.
At one time during the siege he was ordered to take a couple of his guns and demolish a barricade that had been reared by the enemy some distance out from the city. Under a heavy fire he advanced and planted his guns within thirty yards of the barricade, when eight or ten charges of canister sufficed to disperse its defenders to other cover. In this movement he suffered the loss of only one man.
“Steptoe’s Battery” became well known during the war, and shared in the honor of General Taylor’s daring and marvelous campaign.
Lieutenant Steptoe was promoted for gallantry in the battle of Cero Gordo, and again for his con duct at the battle of Chapultepec. When the war was ended he bore the title, “Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.”
While serving in that war under one of the future Presidents of the United States he formed an intimate friendship with another General Franklin Pierce.
After the close of the Mexican war, Colonel Steptoe was stationed for a time at Old Point Com fort, Virginia. His service there, near the home of his parents and other members of the family, all of whom 1 he regarded with the most tender affection, was perhaps the most pleasant period of his twenty-four years of army life. The greater part of his military service was on the frontier, and in places where social pleasures were unknown.
Late in 1854 Colonel Steptoe’s command was ordered to the Pacific coast, and on reaching Salt Lake, Utah, he encamped about that city for some months during the fore part of 1855. The trouble with the Mormons was at that time demanding attention, and the administration of affairs in the territory by Brigham Young, who had been appointed governor by President Fillmore, was receiving some critical consideration in Congress. President Pierce appointed Colonel Steptoe as governor to succeed Brigham Young and his appointment was duly confirmed by the Senate. Owing to the peculiar conditions existing in Utah, the governorship of that territory was considered one of the most important appointments in the hands of the President, yet the appointment of Colonel Steptoe received the highest commendation from the press and the people generally who were familiar with the requirements of the office.
The appointment was entirely unsolicited by Colonel Steptoe, and though it was tendered to him in a most generous and flattering way, yet through his love for the profession of arms, and in view of the prospects of advancement in the army which now seemed to beckon him on, he was prompted to decline its acceptance.
Early in the spring of 1856 Colonel Steptoe reached Vancouver, Washington Territory, with his command, and prepared to go into the Yakima country, where it was reported that trouble with the Yakima Indians was brewing. On the 28th of April, with about two hundred men, he set out from Vancouver, up the Columbia River by boat. Arriving at the Cascades he found a band of hos tile Indians awaiting him, on the Washington side of the river. The troops landed under a brisk fire and after a sharp fight drove the Indians from their position, taking a large amount of supplies and capturing many animals. In his official report of this engagement Colonel Steptoe made especial mention of the gallant conduct of 2nd Lieutenant Philip H. Sheridan, of the Fourth infantry.
Steptoe spent the greater part of the summer in the vicinity of the Yakimas, his permanent encampment being on the Nachez river. Occasionally portions of his command had light brushes with the Indians, but suffered no serious results.
One day, while in camp on the Nachez, an amusing incident occurred : A small party of Indians was discovered skulking near the camp under cover of a clump of brush. Aside from spying out the situation about the grounds, they were evidently intent upon stealing whatever they might be able to lay their hands upon. One of the officers secured as large a mirror as could be found in the camp and stationing himself in the sunlight cast the reflection of the mirror into their hiding place. The Indians became panic-stricken and fled in much disorder, and the reflection following them up hastened their efforts at retreat.
In the latter part of the summer Colonel Steptoe was directed to proceed to Walla Walla, and there to construct a post. During the fall of that year he erected the first barracks and buildings of Fort Walla Walla. Concerning its location he wrote his sister, Miss Nannie Steptoe, under date of October 27th, 1856, as follows: “Do you know where this place is? Look up the Columbia River on the map till you see its tributary, the Walla Walla, and on this latter The Mission.’ About five miles above the last place I am erecting a Post. The Walla Walla River flows through a valley surrounded by hills & mountains. This valley being so shut in has a very fine climate, is very fertile and is intersected by streams everywhere. I find much to interest and amuse me. What with supervising the work, shooting grouse & catching trout, the time moves not unpleasantly along. My command embraces some 14 or 15 officers and five companies of troops. One want we feel much, and that is female society; but one officer is married & his family is absent.”
Colonel Steptoe commanded at Fort Walla Walla until after the return of Colonel Wright’s expedition in 1858. His health having failed, he was granted a furlough early in 1859 and returned to his old home in Virginia. It had been his intention on obtaining his furlough to visit Europe before returning again to active duty, believing that travel abroad would benefit his health. Absorbed in the congenial society of family and old friends after arriving in Virginia, the departure for Europe was postponed. In 1860 he married Miss Mary R. Claytor. Still intent on regaining his health, he went to Cuba and with his wife remained there through the winter of 1860-61. On his return to Lynchburg, in the spring of 1861, he suffered a stroke of paralysis. He had previously had some symptoms of the trouble. Dr. Randolph, surgeon of the Steptoe expedition, and a warm friend of Colonel Steptoe, wrote Dr. William Steptoe that the Colonel had in 1857, while returning to Walla Walla from a trip to Vancouver, shown pronounced symptoms of palsy of the right side which so affected him that it was necessary to assist him in mounting his horse or in entering his carriage. From that, however, he seemed to have recovered entirely and appeared to be in excellent health until after the long and arduous ride which followed the escape of his command from the “Northern Indians.”
In the fall of 1861 Dr. William Steptoe had the Colonel taken to Philadelphia for treatment, and he remained in that city for some months. From Philadelphia he went to Canada, but was never able to recover his wonted vigor.
The war between the states was a matter which distressed Colonel Steptoe sorely. He was loth to break his fealty to his native state, which cast its fortunes decidedly with the South, yet he regretted profoundly the imminent prospect of the dismemberment of the Union. It was his belief that the circumstances which brought on the war were due in a large measure to ill-advised statesmanship on both sides. He remained loyal to the government, and retained his position in the army until a realization of the hopeless condition of his health was forced upon him.
At the outbreak of the war the press of Virginia speculated a great deal as to what position Colonel Steptoe and other prominent army officers would take. When the Enquirer announced him: with a list of those who had taken their stand with the North, some of the Virginia editors refused to believe the announcement true.
Despairing of recovery from his affliction, he determined to return to Virginia and there spend his remaining days in the quietness of his home. That he might return without molestation, he resigned his commission in the army. His last days were spent in Lynchburg, where he died on April 16th, 1865 a day on which the nation stood at the bier of its assassinated President. His only child, a daughter, preceded him in death about one year. His widow survived him about ten years. His age at the time of his death was forty-nine years.
Colonel Steptoe was a man of most excellent character; simple and unostentatious in his habits; genial in spirit, yet firm and strict in his adherence to principles of purity and morality in life. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1851 and continued thereafter a consistent member. He enjoyed the confidence, love, and esteem of his fellow officers in the army to a degree seldom accorded any man in his position. His expedition into the Palouse country has in late years had a few critics; and yet the writer, after searching contemporaneous publications and writings concerning him and that event for several years, has been unable to discover the least expression of censure either from the press of that period or from his fellow officers in the field.
His body lies in the cemetery at Lynchburg, and over his grave is erected a monument upon which is this inscription:
Sacred be this Monument to the Memory of Edward J. Steptoe,
Late Lieut. Colonel in the Army of the United
States, who was born in Bedford County, Va.,
1816 & died 1865.
A soldier by avocation and profession, he was sans peur et sans reproche. A grateful Government testified its sense of the value of his services by advancing him through various gradations to the elevated rank he held in its military service, ere he had reached the high noon of existence; crowning all with the grace ful tender, through an Executive who had been his companion in arms, in a foreign land, of exalted civil position, which he declined.
Religion and Patriotism were beautifully blended in the character of him who sleeps beneath, for he was not less a soldier of Christ than of his country. Like the Captain of his salvation, he was “made perfect through suffering” and hath now entered into the joy of his Lord.