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Fort Walla Walla was built during the fall and winter of 1856, by Brevet Lieutenant Colonel E. J. Steptoe. With three companies of the Ninth Infantry he had arrived there late in the summer from the Nachez River in the upper Yakima country, with orders to erect the post. For many years prior to the establishment of this fort the Hudson’s Bay Company had maintained a trading post on the Columbia, at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, which it designated as Fort Walla Walla. The rude structure around which the dignity of the title centered was composed largely of mud, and its identity is now almost entirely effaced. No United States force was ever domiciled there unless, perchance, it might have been while in transit temporary accommodations were obtained.
The force reported to be under Colonel Steptoe at the new fort on June 3Oth, 1857, was composed of four companies of the First Dragoons, part of the Third Artillery, part of the Fourth and part of the Ninth Infantry.
Not having provided a sufficient amount of hay at the fort, during the summer of 1857, with which to winter all the army stock, it was found necessary at the approach of winter to remove the dragoon horses to Fort Vancouver, where provisions had been made for their care.
There would seem to be some incongruity in moving the horses away from Walla Walla in order to secure feed when grass grew in such luxuriant abundance in the valley; but doubtless the lack of facilities for harvesting it during that first year would account for the failure to provide the quantity necessary for the winter.
By reference to Major Mackall’s letter of Jan. 12th, 1858, to Colonel Steptoe, it will be observed that the Colonel was directed to recall his dragoons and horses from Vancouver as early as the state of the roads and the grass or his supply of forage would permit. He was informed also, in the same letter, of the reasons which prompted General Clarke to communicate the order. Colonel Steptoe accordingly ordered the return of the horses in due season and, in the mean time, applied himself to the gathering of information concerning the tender of the Indians in his territory. On April 17th, he ad dressed the following letter to headquarters:
“Fort Walla Walla,
April 17th, 1858.
There appears to be so much excitement amongst the Pelouse and Spokane Indians as to make an expedition to the north advisable, if not necessary ; I shall accordingly start with three companies of dragoons in that direction as soon as possible after the arrival of Brevet Captain Taylor.
Some forty persons living at Colville recently petitioned for the presence of troops at that place, as they believed their lives and property to be in danger from hostile Indians. I cannot tell at this distance whether they are needlessly alarmed, but shall visit Colville before returning.
Two white men are reported to have been killed recently near Pelouse River on their way to Colville. An Indian gave me today the names of the Pelouse Indians said to be implicated. I am inclined to think the rumor is correct, but will investigate the matter thoroughly during my trip.
A few nights ago a party of the same tribe made a foray into this valley and carried off horses and cattle belonging to various persons, both whites and Indians, and thirteen head of beef cattle, the property of the commissary department. It is my impression that they did not suppose these animals to be in our charge or they would not probably have taken them. However, it is very necessary to check this thieving, or of course worse trouble will grow out.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco.”
The dragoons arrived with the horses at some time during the last of April. By that time the new grass was, if we may judge by later observations, in prime condition, so that the question of forage was simple and easy of solution. Colonel Steptoe again wrote headquarters as follows:
“Fort Walla Walla, W. T.
May 2, 1858
Major: Brevet Captain Taylor has arrived with the dragoon horses, all in fine condition. I have delayed proceeding to the north until some more definite information could be obtained of the state of things there. Whether the two white men were really killed, as was reported at the date of my last letter, I have not, however, been able to ascertain, but the most reliable Indian chiefs seem to believe so. It is my intention to leave here some day this week, probably on Thursday, with about 130 dragoons and a detachment of infantry for service with the howitzers, and to move directly where it is understood the hostile party is at present.
Lieutenant Harvie, who is at the Dalles to receive and bring up about 250 head of beef cattle, will be on the return in a few days. He has fifteen dragoons for an escort, but in the unsettled state of the country I fear the temptation to get possession of the cattle might be too strong with the Indians, and accordingly have written to Colonel Wright asking him to add a few men to the escort.
It is proper for me to say that there appears to be some probability of considerable disturbance among the neighboring tribes, but I hope to check it.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
E. J. Steptoe, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, U. S. A., Commanding Post.
Major W. W. Mackall, Assistant Adjutant General U. S. A., San Francisco. ”
Lieutenant David McM. Gregg with H company, First dragoons, had arrived at Vancouver from Fort Tejon, near Los Angeles, California, in October, 1857, and when Captain Taylor was ordered to return to Walla Walla with the horses Gregg was directed to join him with his company.
On Thursday morning, the sixth of May, Colonel Steptoe started from Fort Walla Walla with Companies C, E, and H of the First dragoons (this branch of the army is now designated entirely under the name of cavalry) and twenty-five men from Company E, Ninth infantry, mounted. The force comprised one hundred fifty-two enlisted men and five company officers, making a total, including the Colonel himself, of one hundred fifty-eight men. There were also a few friendly Nez Perce Indians, the exact number cannot be ascertained, engaged to accompany the expedition as guides. Two mounted howitzers composed the equipment of ordnance.
Two of the dragoon companies were armed with musketoons, a short gun of the musket pattern, in capable of speeding a ball accurately beyond the average throwing distance of man. There were among the other companies some better arms. Many carried revolvers, and in H Company there were ten Sharpe’s carbines, a very effective weapon. There were none of the long muskets afterward so extensively used in the army.
The ammunition amounted to about forty rounds to the man, and here is presented the point which has involved some criticism and which called for special mention by the lieutenant general of the army.
The man who had charge of the packing has stated that in loading his pack train on the departure from the fort, it was found that the baggage designed for the expedition exceeded the carrying capacity and that in cutting down the amount a part of the ammunition probably inadvertently was eliminated.
It should be borne in mind that the ammunition, as well as the guns, used at that time, was made up quite differently from the ammunition and guns of the present. Brass cartridges, packed in convenient boxes, were not them used. If cartridges of any kind were used, they were, quite probably, such as were supplied for muskets during the civil war, large, cumbersome balls, around the ends of which were wrapped a light paper shell containing the powder, and the percussion caps which were of prime necessity for the discharge of arms of any kind then in common use.
Colonel Steptoe was, without doubt, apprised of the shortness of his supply of ammunition and knew to whom, if to any one, the fault should be attached; yet, in a very magnanimous spirit, he refrained, in his report of the expedition, from attributing blame to any one; choosing rather to assume the full responsibility for any deficiency in preparation which may have contributed to his failure.
There is also small doubt that had he gone out with the intention of engaging in a general campaign with the Indians, instead of with a mere possibility in view of fighting the Palouse, he would have given the matter of ammunition more careful attention. Nevertheless, it must be recorded that the light supply proved to be a thing of grievous consideration.
The commissioned company officers were Captain C. S. Winder, in command of the detachment of Company E, Ninth infantry, which had charge of the howitzers; Captain O. H. P. Taylor, of Company C, in charge of the three companies of First dragoons; Lieutenant William’ Gaston, Company E, and Lieutenant David McM. Gregg, Company H, First dragoons. Lieutenant James Wheeler, Jr., was also attached to Company C. Two other commissioned officers accompanied the command, namely, Lieutenant H. B. Fleming, acting assistant quartermaster and acting commissary of subsistence, and Assistant Surgeon J. F. Randolph.
Remaining at Walla Walla were Company B and a part of Company E, Ninth infantry, a few artillerymen, and one company of the First Dragoons, under command of Captain F. T. Dent. Colonel Steptoe took a northeasterly direction from Walla Walla and, after several days’ marching, reached Snake River at the mouth of the Alpowa creek, a point then known as Red Wolf’s crossing.
Some writers of recent years, assuming that Fort Colville was the sole objective point at which the expedition was directed, have essayed to criticize the Colonel for bearing thus off a direct route and leading his command into the country of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. A direct route from Walla Walla to Colville would cross Snake River nearly fifty miles west of the Red Wolf’s crossing and would run some thirty miles west of the point where the Indians were encountered. But, while it was his intention to go to Colville before returning, to investigate the condition depicted in the petition of the forty miners, it was also an important part of his plan to meet the Palouse and demand of them some fitting satisfaction for the murder of the two men near the Palouse river and for depredations committed upon the settlers around Walla Walla. In the event of the refusal of these people to make satisfactory amends, then it was his intention to administer to them such punishment as would be necessary to bring them, into peaceable subjection.
He entertained some desire, also, of having a conference with the Spokane with the view of dis abusing their minds as to any sinister design upon the part of the government, and to warn them against the machinations of persons who persisted in spreading evil report among them: reports tending to show that the government was faithless in its dealings with the Indians generally. The latter mission, however, was not deemed of vital importance to the expedition.
Reports had reached Colonel Steptoe that the Palouse were gathered in force near Red Wolf’s crossing, and going thus directly to that point he took the most direct route to reach the people whom ‘he desired to meet. Whether this report was a part of a conspiracy among a few Nez Perces to decoy the soldiers into the country of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alenes, as some assert it was, cannot be established to a degree of certainty. The evidence tending to prove the existence of such conspiracy is by no means conclusive. The reasoning adduced in support of the claim lacks in harmony also, one theory being that the Nez Perces wished to see the Spokane, between whom and the former tribe there existed some enmity, defeated; while another is that they desired to compass the destruction of the command by leading it against an enemy of far greater numerical strength. Some allusion to the treachery of the Nez Perces is found in the letter of Father Joset in succeeding pages.
It was known, too, that Chief Timothy, of the Nez Perces, who dwelt at the mouth of the Alpowa, on the left bank of Snake River, possessed a line of canoes which would insure reasonable safety in transporting the packs, ordnance and munitions to the north side. There being no other point known to have ample equipment of floating craft, this fact alone would, doubtless, have been an impelling factor in the selection of Red Wolfs crossing.
Timothy assisted Colonel Steptoe in crossing the river. Of this task Major Trimble, now of Berkeley, California, says: “It was an interesting sight. The Indians seemed perfectly at home in the water. Their dark bodies, glistening like copper, would glide gracefully among the horses. Some of them swam the horses while others ferried the men and supplies across in their canoes.”
It has been said that Timothy also accompanied the command thence on its northward march and return, and from some sources he has been given much credit for valuable services he was supposed to have rendered in piloting the command through the circle of savages drawn about the hopeless position from which it retreated on the night succeeding the fateful day of the fight, and guiding it back to Snake river. The writer would be pleased to ascribe to Chief Timothy the full meed of praise thus accorded him; his kindly disposition toward the whites generally, during his long life, as well as the aid rendered Colonel Steptoe, merits the gratitude of everyone who has an interest in this section of country, or in its history. The officers who wrote of the affair, however, failed to mention him as having taken any part therein. Lieutenant (afterward General) Gregg has no recollection of his presence with the expedition, and Colonel Step-toe made no mention of him beyond the fact of his having assisted at the crossing of Snake River both on his going north and on his return. It would certainly seem that such distinguished services as that of piloting the command from its position of extreme peril should at least be rewarded with official mention. The conclusion is unavoidable; therefore, that he did not accompany the command in any recognized capacity.
The Palouse encamped near Red Wolf’s crossing, on learning that Steptoe was moving toward that point, fled northward.
Having crossed the river, the command followed the trail leading out of the deep crevice through which it winds, by way of Skalassams creek, the mouth of which is about two and a half miles below the mouth of the Alpowa. This creek is now known as Steptoe creek, from its having witnessed the passing of Steptoe’s expedition, and Steptoe canyon, a defile of some note, encloses a part of its length. From its source to its mouth is about four and a half miles.
Before the advent of the settler into the Palouse country, Indian trails traversed it in various directions. From, the banks of Snake River trails fol lowed up the courses of the principal creeks putting in from either side until the table land could be conveniently reached. From the north these trails radiated toward the Snake River crossings most generally used. There were several whose deeply beaten tracks indicated long and constant usage, crossing the country north and south, converging at the north toward the several tribal headquarters. The largest of these trails was called the Lapwai trail, also the Colville trail. From the early settlers it is learned that the Lapwai trail connected with the Colville trail at Hangman creek somewhere near the site of the town of Latah, the trail from Lapwai to Colville being continuous. Numerous minor trails branched off, or merged into this large trail, some, apparently for the purpose of connecting with other trans-country highways in order to shorten the distance to certain points, while others led off to some water resort, or into the hunting grounds, or to the camas flats. The Lapwai trail, crossing the Clearwater River at its mouth, followed near the line which now marks the Idaho-Washington boundary, toward the north; passing around the western base of the Tahuna hills, over the sites of the city of Moscow and the village of Viola and thus for many miles keeping near the mountains and traversing the rolling foothills.
Just before descending into the valley of the Palouse River, it arose over a high ridge, the western end of which is enlarged into a peak much higher and the eastern connecting with a spur of the mountain range. The Palouse River, here known as the Mo-ho-lis-sah in the days of Indian sovereignty, was crossed at the point where Ewing’s bridge spanned it many years after the events of the year 1858. From the Palouse River it led on northward, through the beautiful Cedar creek vale known as La Dow flat, which lies just east of the butte bearing also the name of La Dow, crossed Silver creek near its source and reached Pine creek through the pass between Queener’s butte and the mountains. Bearing thence northwesterly, the trail led around the western end of the long spur which, projecting out from the mountains, forms a sheltering storm-brake for the DeSmet mission, the present head quarters of the Coeur d’Alene: tribe. Near where Farmington stands a branch trail put out, crossing this spur and entering the mountains beyond and thus reached the camas flats on the Santa Anne. After passing around the end of the spur and in a few miles further, the main trail reached the Nedl Whuald, or Hangman creek, and followed it to^ ward its juncture with the Spokane. At a convenient point, soon after intersecting Hangman creek, a branch trail led off toward Coeur d’Alene Lake, running near the site on which Tekoa is built. Also on the western side of the mountain spur which terminates just north of Tekoa, a trail put out northeasterly through the Rock creek country toward the St. Joe River and Coeur d’Alene Lake.
In 1859, C. Sohon, an engineer attached to Captain John Mullan’s party, included a part of the Lapwai-Colville trail in a side trip undertaken under Mullan’s direction, for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of a route for a military wagon road following up Union Flat creek and from thence over the hills toward the spurs of the Bitter Root mountains, by the Tahuna hills, thence northward, reaching and following the foot-slopes of these spurs. Of the latter part of the route taken, Mr. Sohon says:
“Leaving the Ta-hu-nah hills we passed over a rolling prairie country in the general direction N-3O deg. W., magnetic, for five miles, when we crossed a ridge five hundred feet high, and steep; in eight miles from Ta-hu-nah we crossed a small creek called Ki-ah-ne-mah ; four miles more we ascended a ridge nine hundred feet high, and, in one and a half miles, descended to the valley of the Palouse river proper, here called the Mo-ho-lis-sah. The valley is here three-tenths of a mile wide, and timbered with pine. The river is thirty feet wide, two feet deep, with sandy bottom; its general course is west. At the distance of seven miles further we encamped on a creek where the water stood in pools; here the grass was good and wood abundant. The weather was exceedingly warm during the day (June 19th), and severe upon our animals that were not in the best condition. Our march this day was nineteen miles.
On June 2Oth we started at sunrise; it was clear and pleasant, thermometer being at 50 deg. Fahrenheit. The road continued over rolling prairie, when, in four and a half miles, it crossed the Ingos-somen creek (Pine creek); in two miles further another small creek; thence ascending, in one and a half miles, a ridge of six hundred feet, descends, and, in four miles, the Nedl-whuald, or camas prairie of the Coeur d’Alenes distance from last camp, twelve miles. The prairie is about one mile wide and bordered by mountain spurs with pine forests.”
With the exception of a few short stretches, over mountainous country, these old trails have all been obliterated by the hand of agriculture. It would now be extremely difficult to trace them with absolute accuracy throughout their entire length. Even the Lapwai-Colville trail, which was composed of a series of parallel paths, worn knee deep to a horse, and in many places covering a width of fifty feet, is lost in the grain fields and meadows and can be discerned only where it traversed the mountain side or upon ground unfit for the plow.
Local interest would be enhanced to some degree if the trail pursued by the expedition could be accurately defined, mile by mile, but such a task is now beyond the ability of man to accomplish. In the reports of Colonel Steptoe himself is found the only reference to the route followed after leaving Snake River. This reference is brief, but with an understanding of the trails running north and south near the spurs of the Bitter Root mountains, which could be conveniently and economically reached from Red Wolf’s crossing, one cannot be in doubt as to Which was taken. The Colonel wrote: “The enemy fled toward the north and I followed leisurely on the road to Colville.”