On May 17, 1858, Yakama, Palouse, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene Indians attack a column of U.S. Army troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe (1816-1865). The year 1858 is a time of high tension in the Inland Northwest, as wary Native Americans face the oncoming encroachment of Euro-Americans in ever greater numbers, including miners, farmers, and stock raisers who have their eye on lands that were the ancestral homes of the tribes. Steptoe’s failure in his foray into the heart of Indian lands temporarily gives hope to the Indians, but a punitive invasion by Colonel George Wright (1803-1865), several months later, will result in military defeat and oppression.
Setting Out Unprepared
In 1858, American military action was taken against tribes in the Puget Sound vicinity and in the Yakima Valley. Although most Native Americans in the Puget Sound area sued for peace, the situation in the Yakima Valley remained a virtual stalemate. Indians of the Columbia Basin insisted that the Americans remain south of the Snake River. To the north, fur traders and settlers at the former Hudson’s Bay post of Fort Colvile, viewed the situation nervously. A U.S. Army post had been established at Fort Walla Walla under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel Steptoe. He apparently assumed that the Indians just needed a show of force to come to terms. Using an incident concerning cows and horses stolen during a Palouse incursion across the Snake River, Steptoe prepared to lead a column into the country north of the Snake.
He and his men departed the fort on May 6, 1858, with 152 regular enlisted men, five company officers, and two other commissioned officers, a total of 160 soldiers. The force was accompanied by at least three Nez Perce scouts, and about 30 civilians who tended to the pack train of horses, mules, and cattle. All participants appear to have been mounted. Despite warning signs, Steptoe set out with an inadequately supplied column, as far as munitions were concerned. Most soldiers carried inaccurate muzzle-loading rifles that were difficult to load while on horseback. They were allotted only about 40 rounds per man. Additionally, the company officers carried Colt Dragoon revolvers, a repeating weapon that would prove the most useful armaments in the battle. Two small caliber mountain howitzers proved to be quite useless, as the mobile Indians were easily able to avoid their fire. Finally, the dragoons were ordered to leave their sabers behind, greatly reducing the effectiveness of a cavalry charge.
Alarming the Tribes
At a place called the Red Wolf Crossing, at the mouth of Alpowa Creek, Steptoe’s troops were aided in crossing the Snake River by Nez Perce Chief Timothy (1808-1891) and his people. Many of the Indians were alarmed that the soldiers were so far east of the normal route northward to Fort Colvile, where Steptoe was ostensibly heading. On the night of May 15, a Saturday, Steptoe’s command camped at a point along the west side of Pine Creek, called Tohotonimme by the Nez Perce and Ingossomen by the Palouses and Spokanes, just outside of the current city limits of Rosalia. After the troops continued along the creek the next day, more and more Indians gathered to taunt them. They were painted and armed for war.
Following a tributary of Pine Creek, the column approached a narrow draw between two hills, sometimes referred to as the “Dangerous Defile.” Indians lined the crests of the hills, prompting Steptoe to withdraw his men and camp for the night at a wide spot of Squaw Creek. There, the Indians demanded explanations. The Indians did not believe Steptoe’s assertions that his intentions were peaceful. They refused to allow the troops access to canoes for crossing the Spokane River, to the north. This closed the door to any advance to Fort Colvile, and Steptoe determined to withdraw the next morning, on Monday, May 17, 1858.
The Battle Begins
The troops set out before dawn, retracing their path to Pine Creek. Jesuit missionary Joseph Joset, who served among the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, appeared and tried to defuse the situation. He failed to bring about a settlement and, by the time he returned to his camp, the fighting had begun. At first the firing was sporadic, with the soldiers pressing ahead but not returning fire. After about 20 minutes, however, some of the soldiers were hit and the firing became general on both sides.
At one point, the Indians successfully got between two of the companies, prompting the troops to counter-attack to avoid encirclement. Two officers were mortally wounded in the ensuing melee. The beleaguered column made for a knob at the south end of a ridge, where they formed a circle. A skirmish line of soldiers guarded the perimeter, hugging the ground and hiding behind baggage and in the bunch grass. A smaller circle was formed at the south end of the containment, where pack animals, supplies, and the wounded, dead, and dying could be somewhat protected. The Indians charged several times, but were held at bay.
By nightfall it was clear that the ammunition was almost gone. It seemed that when another attack came in the morning, the soldiers and their retinue must all perish. Thus, it was decided to gather the men on the remaining usable horses and make a dash through the gauntlet and race for the Snake River, 85 miles distant. The dead were buried, as were the two howitzers.
There are several versions of the story concerning the escape of Steptoe’s men, including that they were led to safety by Nez Perce Chief Timothy or by Chief Vincent of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Most likely, however, the soldiers were simply allowed to slip away, with the Indians content in having defeated their enemy. Steptoe’s column lost at least seven men dead, including the two officers.
Although a greater number of the Indians died, their morale was boosted by seeing the troops flee under cover of night to their faraway base. Each group made its way to its separate home with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Unfortunately for them they had no idea that they had set into motion forces that they could scarcely conceive, forces that, before the year of 1858 was out, would sweep away their way of life forever.