Tradition of Steptoe Butte
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In the fall of 1878 the family of which the writer, then a boy of twelve years, was a member, arrived in the Palouse country, Washington Territory, and secured temporary quarters on the Palouse River where the town of Elberton has since been built. At that time it was the site of a sawmill owned and operated by the well-known and highly respected pioneer, G. D. Wilber.
One night during the winter that followed, in company with an older brother, we were driving the horses in from the hills to be stabled and fed. It was a most beautiful night. A full moon, high in the heavens, flooded the landscape with a mellow light of such transparency that one could almost have read common print in the open. The temperature stood at about fifteen above zero, and the winds, halted in their course, rested upon the land motionless and silent. A coating of snow about a foot in depth enveloped the country, and the accumulated frost clinging to the needles of the pine and to the twigs of the aspen glistened like tinseled drapings. The picturesque grandeur of the scene as it appeared at that hour of the night, duplicated on countless other nights, is still vivid in memory. Objects could be plainly discerned at a great distance; the outlines of the hills, each of which sat among the whole like a block of masonry, presenting a symmetrical importance in which all shared, were clearly visible and our attention was constantly drawn to a large, conical shaped butte about five miles to the northwest of us, rising, tree less, far above its surrounding hills. Wrapped in wintry garb, its outlines were plainly graven against the rim of the blue sky, and in the whole vast stretch of unbroken prairie no peer stood out to greet it. This, we had learned, was called “Steptoe butte.”
As we moved along in the lonesome silence that seemed to enwrap us silent save for the crushing of the snow beneath the horses’ feet, and the occasional long-drawn howl of a coyote prowling through the woods far up the river we met one of the very few neighbors we then had, returning to his home from some errand, and gladly stopped for a chat with him. To ask him if he had ever been upon “Steptoe” occurred very naturally to us, and he told us of having once lost his way among the hills at its base and that in the hope of regaining his bearings he has ascended the side of the butte. Before succeeding in righting himself a heavy fog enveloped his position, rendering his situation even worse than before he came up from the foothills. Darkness came on before the fog was dissipated and he was compelled to spend the night there, not being able to locate the route to his destination until the following morning.
The narration of the story with its details interested us greatly and, believing there were other exciting incidents connected with Steptoe butte, we pressed him for information as to why it bore that name and elicited the following story, which, as it proved, embodied pretty accurately the common tradition of that day and for many years thereafter:
“Many years ago,” said he, “before any white people settled in this part of the country, Colonel Steptoe, with a body of soldiers, came in here for the purpose of subduing the Indians, who were in a state of constant hostility. He met and engaged a large number of them in battle at a point some miles north of the butte and, being greatly outnumbered, was driven to its base and from; thence fled to its summit, believing his command could better protect itself from that eminence. The Indians quickly surrounded the summit, creeping up the steep slopes as near to the soldiers as safety would permit, and for several days maintained a siege, during which a large number of their tribes men were killed and many soldiers fell, among the latter being Colonel Steptoe, the commander.
In the meantime a courier had made his way unobserved through the Indian lines, and making all possible haste to Walla Walla, informed Colonel Wright, who, with a strong force, set out at once to the rescue. Finding the ordnance he carried was a serious impediment to rapid marching, he buried and left a couple of cannon at Tukanon creek (hence, the then supposed origin of the name of the creek, “Two Cannon”). A series of forced marches brought him to the scene of the siege; the Indians were dispersed and the remnant of Colonel Steptoe’s command, almost famished, was rescued.”
The graves of Colonel Steptoe and the men who fell with him, he said, were there upon the mountain, likewise the Colonel’s flagstaff, planted upon the summit, was still standing.
That night, after the horses had been stabled and fed, while seated around the broad fireplace built in the side of the log house which we occupied, the story the neighbor had told us was repeated and was subjected to as severe examination as a half dozen interested boys and a girl could give it, with an occasional interpolation of information from, the parental source. We longed to know more of the story and wondered if any authentic account of Colonel Stepitoe’s fight with the Indians had ever been printed who was Colonel Steptoe, and what of the times that required him to go against savage Indians in a country beyond the van of the pioneers?
Coequal with the desire to read the true account of this affair was the desire to climb and inspect the butte; but, though we continued to live at no greater distance than ten miles from it, it was not the privilege of the writer to make its ascent until several years afterward. Then no graves could be discovered, though careful search was made for them. A pole was found, however, standing on the summit, supported at its base by a pile of loose rock, its length being about ten feet and its diameter at the larger end about five inches and at the smaller end about four inches. I had much difficulty in compromising this with a flagstaff, such as might be carried by a cavalryman. It had been used as a sort of register and bore, carved and penciled on its surface, initials, names and dates of scores of former visitors and upon which I found space to add my own name and the date of my first visit at the summit of Steptoe butte.