In the summer of 1853, U.S. Army Private Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903) accompanies the first official American expedition to explore the territory between the Snake and the Spokane rivers. He travels as a military escort to Lieutenant Rufus Saxton, who conducts a pack train from Fort Dalles to the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, where he meets the eastern arm of the Pacific Railroad Expedition under Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), the newly appointed governor of Washington Territory.
The Trek to Fort Walla Walla
In June 1853, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory departed St. Paul, serving in his dual role as commander of the official government survey for a transcontinental railroad route between the 47th and 49th parallels. As Stevens worked his way westward up the Missouri River, his assistant, Lt. Rufus Saxton, left Fort Dalles with a pack train headed for the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, where he was to establish a supply depot for the survey. The packers were guarded by a military escort of two officers and 18 soldiers from the Fourth Infantry, among them a 28-year-old private named Gustavus Sohon.
The party followed the emigrant trail along the south side of the Columbia, arriving at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Walla Walla on July 27, 1853. There they were visited by Peo-Peo-mox-mox, a chief of the Walla Walla Tribe, who pledged his friendship to the whites and offered his help along their way.
Having learned that the most direct trail across the mountains to the Bitterroot Valley was too arduous for his pack animals, Saxton set off on an alternate route by way of the Spokane and Clark Fork rivers. Guided by Antoine Plante, a veteran fur trader, the party left the Walla Walla valley on July 30 and traveled through a landscape that would become very familiar to Sohon in the coming years. The midsummer heat in the arid country was so fierce that the men remained in camp the next day, then marched through the night to reach the Snake River. They were making camp opposite the mouth of the Palouse River when about 50 Palus and Nez Perce Indians, having heard a rumor that American soldiers were coming to take possession of their home, arrived “in full costume, and with great formality, to hold a grand war talk.” After Saxton’s assurances of the peaceful nature of his journey, the delegation accepted gifts and watched the soldiers display the firepower of their Sharpe and Colt rifles.
The next morning at daybreak, the Palus and Nez Perce tribesmen loaded their canoes with the Americans’ packs and baggage and ferried them across the Snake while the soldiers swam the horses and mules. Marching northwest from the mouth of the Palouse for three and a half days, the party reached the Spokane River on August 6, where they met Chief Garry of the Spokanes, who had been educated in Canada by the Hudson’s Bay Company and spoke “tolerable English.” The Spokanes had also heard reports that soldiers were coming to make war. “They were delighted to find us friends, and came in great numbers to welcome us” (Stevens, Vol. 1, 257). Saxton gave out presents “sent by the Great Father at Washington” and made arrangements to leave three crippled horses in Garry’s care before continuing eastward for his rendezvous with Governor Stevens.
Gustavus Sohon, as he marched along at the head of the pack train, had no way of knowing that he would travel this same route many times in the decade ahead and become well acquainted with many of the tribespeople he encountered on his first journey through the Columbia Plateau.