Chief Timothy was proud of his own record of friendly relationship with the whites, and his counsel to his people was ever to preserve a spirit of good feeling between the two races. He possessed an old flint-lock gun which, he said, was given to his father by the explorers, Lewis and Clark, and which he valued highly as an heirloom. He himself remembered the visit of the explorers, and in his declining years loved to recount the events which clustered around the coming and going of the first party of federal officials that ever traveled across the continent.
Colonel Wright did not accompany the column from The Dalles to Walla Walla, the command for that movement probably having been given to Captain Erasmus D. Keys of the Third artillery. The colonel, with a suitable escort, reached Walla Walla a few days after the arrival of the force.
Immediately after the arrival all arms of the command were put through rigorous drills which were continued daily by way of preparing for the exigencies of the northward movement. The Third artillery companies, with the exception of Major Wyse’s company, drilled twice a day at light infantry tactics. Major Wyse practiced his company in the regular artillery drill, using mules for the mounted battery instead of horses, as had there to fore been the custom.
Some unusual interest was observable among the Indians who came and went around Walla Walla, and the reports which came to the fort through the friendly Nez Perces indicated that the war cloud was fast thickening in the north.
Having decided that everything pertaining to his command was in readiness for the march, Colonel Wright on the 3rd of August issued the following orders:
Orders No. 3.
Headquarters, Camp Near Fort Walla Walla,
August 3, 1858.
- The artillery battalion and one company of dragoons, under command of Captain Keys, will march on the 7th instant.
- The supply train will be sent forward with Captain Keys, and returned from Snake River, escorted by the dragoon company.
- Assistant Surgeon Hammond will march with Captain Keys, and Assistant Surgeon Randolph with the 9th infantry.
- First Lieutenant Mullan, acting topographical engineer, will accompany Captain Keys.
Before marching, Captain Keys will receive writ ten instructions from the colonel commanding.
By order of Colonel Wright
P. A. OWEN, First Lieutenant 9th Infantry, A. A. A. G.”
In accordance with these orders. Captain Keys started from Walla Walla on the morning of the 7th. His command consisted of one company of dragoons and six companies of artillery with two twelve-pounder howitzers and two six-pounder guns. He carried also, on pack mules and in wagons, thirty thousand rations. His destination was the mouth of the Tucanon, on Snake River, about sixty miles distant from Walla Walla.
During the night following the departure of Captain Keys, a party of Indians drove off thirty-six head of beef cattle belonging to the post. On the discovery of this theft, early in the morning, Lieutenant Gregg with his company of dragoons was ordered in pursuit of the Indians. At the same time an express was started after Captain Keys with orders directing that officer to send Lieutenant Davidson with his company of dragoons also after the marauders.
Davidson scouted over the country for thirty miles, discovering no sign of the Indians, and having reached a part of the country with which his guides were unfamiliar, he returned, arriving at camp late at night. Gregg was but little more fortunate in results. He struck the trail of the thieves leading in the direction of Snake River, and after following it until late in the day, he caught sight of the Indians as they were crossing to the opposite side of the river. His force was not strong enough to venture over, however, and he returned to the fort.
After encountering many difficulties, Captain Keys reached a point on the Tucanon about a mile from Snake River on August 10th. The Indians had burned the grass over a part of the way, and the march was pursued through clouds of dust. Much of the route traveled during the last two days was through a rough country, requiring the services of a party of men as pioneers in constructing a road. As it was, two of the wagons were overturned, but the damage reported on account of the misfortune was very slight.
Soon after arriving at the camping ground on the Tucanon, Captain Keys sent Lieutenant Mullan with a detachment of dragoons to look out a road to the river. Mullan proceeded down the Tucanon to its mouth and then followed down Snake River to a point opposite the mouth of the Palouse. On returning to camp he reported that a road would have to be cut through the brush along the Tu canon. On the morning of the nth, Lieutenants Morgan and Kip were detailed with a party of sixty men to cut out the road. As a precaution, pickets were stationed at the mouth of the creek. During the forenoon some Indians came across the river on a scouting trip. After having had some talk with the pickets, they returned to the opposite bank of the river, from whence they began firing. At the same time a party of mounted Indians joined them. Their fire was ineffective and a well-directed volley from the pickets caused the horsemen to wheel and skurry away and also scattered the party which had just crossed the river.
On this same day an incident occurred in which the intrepid Lieutenant John Mullan exhibited the rare mettle with which he was possessed. The incident is thus recorded by Lieutenant Kip: “Captain Keys, with a detachment of dragoons, having gone to Snake river to select a site for the fort, while there captured two Indians, who were left under the charge of a sergeant and three men. They had not marched, however, a hundred yards, when the Indians broke from them and sprang into the river. The party fired at them without effect, as they were concealed by the growth of willows on the banks, which is dense and impenetrable, when Lieutenant Mullan dashed into the river to his waist, to secure one of whom he caught sight. The Indian was an exceedingly athletic savage, the sight of whose pro portions would have tempered most persons’ valor with discretion. But my gallant friend is not one to calculate odds in beginning a fight. The Indian dived as the lieutenant fired at him, and came up with some heavy stones, which, hurled at his antagonist, bruised him severely. He then seized Lieutenant Mullan’s pistol, which had got thoroughly wet, and the struggle commenced in good earnest, grappling each other, now under water, now above. It might have fared badly with. my spirited companion, but the Indian, stepping into a hole, got beyond his depth and was obliged to relinquish his hold, when he made off and escaped to the other side.”
The road was finished about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the command was moved down to and encamped on the river.
Without delay, the erection of a fort was begun. The site selected was at the mouth of the Tucanon. High bluffs stood back and on either side of it about eight hundred yards apart, each commanding the fort. One of the bluffs measured a height of 260 feet and the other 310 feet. It was freely admitted that the location of the fort at this particular place was not in accord with scientific warfare, and that should it be attacked by a civilized enemy the garrison would soon be routed. The builders felt assured, however, that the fort would be ample security against the Indian methods of attack.
The spot upon which the fortress was constructed was found to be an old Indian burying ground and graves were discovered on every hand.
On the 13th a Catholic priest arrived from, the Coeur d’Alene Mission on his way to Walla Walla with letters from Father Congiato to General Clarke. From him it was learned that the Coeur d’Alenes had assumed- an attitude of defiance, and that should a war be opened by the whites, they had determined to make of it a war of extermination. This report was not needed, however, to convince the soldiers that there would be fighting whenever they should reach the strategic grounds of the Indians. Frequently redskins fired upon the pickets or small numbers of the soldiers from the opposite side of the river, usually after nightfall, and during the day small parties were occasionally seen moving among the hills to the north.
One night, about 9 o’clock, an Indian was heard shouting loudly to the soldiers from across the river. Captain Keys, accompanied by an interpreter and the officer of the day, proceeded at once to the river bank to ascertain what he wanted. On being called to by the interpreter, a Nez Perce, the Indian on the other side cursed him soundly as a traitor. A he finished his maledictions a comrade who stood by him fired at the interpreter. The fire was immediately returned by four sentinels who were on duty nearby, and though the Indians were quieted the darkness prevented the soldiers from seeing whether any serious damage was inflicted.
Fearing an attack was contemplated by the Indians; the companies were ordered out and for an hour remained under arms. No further demonstration being made on the part of the foe, the soldiers were dismissed with orders to sleep on their arms.
While the work of building the fort was in progress, several Indians were taken as prisoners, some of whom had come within the lines evidently for the purpose of spying. Clearly reports of the movements of the soldiers were being heralded throughout the domain of the hostile tribes, and when the force should cross the river it would be deemed to have “passed the Rubicon” and become a prey to the savages.