Between 1818 and 1910, there were four outposts named Fort Walla Walla. The first Fort Walla Walla was established as a fur-trading post by the North West Company. The next two were built to house U.S. Cavalry officers, soldiers, and horses. There is nothing left of any of these forts or their outbuildings. The fourth and final Fort Walla Walla was important during the Indian uprisings of 1858, and remained in use until 1910. Its main buildings are still being used as a hospital for veterans from the Pacific Northwest. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.)
From Trading Post to Military Fort
In 1818, the North West Company built a trading post at a site where the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers meet. The company called it Fort Nez Perces (sometimes spelled Fort Nez Perce). Indians would bring furs to the fort and trade them for blankets, cooking pots, rifles, and other things they wanted. In 1821, the North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company and the name of the post was changed to Fort Walla Walla. Problems with the Indians led to the closing of the fort in 1855. In 1862, the town of Wallula was built on the site of the first Fort Walla Walla. Because of the great location, Wallula became an important steamboat landing for travelers to the Idaho and Montana gold fields.
The second Fort Walla Walla was established in 1856 seven miles east of what is today downtown Walla Walla. It was built as a military outpost but it was closed within a year. The third Fort Walla Walla included stables, housing for the troops, and officers' quarters. No trace of this fort exists today because what is now downtown Walla Walla has been built on the site.
The Fort Walla Walla that is most remembered is the fourth and final one, established in March 1858 for the U.S. Cavalry. This military outpost housed soldiers who fought in the Pacific Northwest Indian Wars and helped bring law and order to early communities of settlers. Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Steptoe was the officer in charge of the fort and the troops when this final Fort Walla Walla opened. He was a West Point graduate and an experienced combat officer. He had fought against the Seminole Indians in Florida and in the Mexican-American War.
On May 6, 1858, Colonel Steptoe led a troop of 159 soldiers and Indian scouts on a mission into the Indian lands of the Columbia Plateau. They headed for the area around Fort Colville where two miners had been killed. The settlers there were worried for their safety. Steptoe's troops were well-prepared and he had brought along two small cannons. They did not expect any trouble.
As they headed for their destination, some Indians saw that the soldiers had weapons and artillery. The Indians also realized that the cavalry was not following its normal route. They refused to let Steptoe and his troops cross the Spokane River. When Steptoe turned around to return to Walla Walla, a battle began. Between 800 and 1,000 Indians -- from the Coeur d'Alene, Palouse, Spokane, Cayuse, and Yakima tribes -- attacked Steptoe and his troops. The soldiers were badly outnumbered. Finally they escaped and returned to Fort Walla Walla. Two officers, four enlisted men, and one Indian scout were killed, along with an unknown number of Indian warriors.
A group of 600 soldiers led by Army Colonel George Wright set out immediately from Fort Dalles, Oregon. They wanted to find and punish the Indians responsible for the attack on Steptoe. During battles that continued for the rest of the year, Wright's troops rounded up between 800 and 900 Palouse horses. Horses were very important to the Indians. In September 1858, the soldiers killed the captured horses so that the tribes would not be able to hunt or have any advantage in battle. This action led to the surrender of the many of the Indians who were involved in the fighting. Colonel Wright ordered some of the Native leaders -- including Yakama tribal chief Qualchan -- to be put to death. Indian resistance to the military was soon over.
The Fort Walla Walla Cemetery was established at Fort Walla Walla in 1856. Many soldiers killed in the Indian Wars are buried there. Michael McCarthy, a survivor of one of the battles, settled in Walla Walla. He raised money to have a monument erected to honor those members of the First Cavalry who were buried in the fort's cemetery.
In 1861, the Ninth Regiment and First Cavalry Troops who were housed at Fort Walla Walla went east to fight in the Civil War. This left the fort vacant once again. The following year, a volunteer force from Oregon arrived at the fort. They were each promised a $100 bonus and 160 acres of land if they completed a three-year stay at Fort Walla Walla. After the Oregon volunteers left, the fort was used mostly to shelter animals over the winter months. The army considered closing the property. But by 1880, 300 troops arrived from Oregon and California and the fort resumed its importance. It became one of the largest posts in Washington Territory.
In 1891, soldiers who were stationed at Fort Walla Walla shot and killed a local gambler. The actions of those involved disgraced the fort. Within a few years, the fort was again underused as a military post. Only small forces -- including a unit of Buffalo Soldiers -- were stationed there. It was finally closed as a military outpost in 1910. Its buildings were needed because the local hospital -- St. Mary's Hospital -- had been destroyed by a fire. In 1920, the decision was made to permanently convert Fort Walla Walla into a medical facility to serve veterans in the Pacific Northwest. In 1996, it was named the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Administration Medical Center, in honor of a local military man who became a hero while serving in the Philippines during World War II.