Major Gabriel Rains and 700 soldiers and volunteers skirmish with Yakama warriors under Kamiakin at Union Gap on November 9, 1855.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/30/2007
  • Essay 8124

On November 9, 1855, U.S. Army Major Gabriel J. Rains (1803-1881), U.S. Army soldiers, and Oregon and Washington volunteers skirmish with warriors of the Yakama and other tribes under Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877) at Union Gap (sometimes called Two Buttes) on the Yakima River. The Yakamas skillfully evacuate the women and children across the icy Columbia. Major Rains fails in his mission to suppress the Indians, who are resisting American incursions into their land. (Note: In 1994 the then-named Yakima Tribe changed the spelling of its name back to the original form, the Yakama Tribe.)

Military Complications and Conflicts

After Brevet-Major Granville Haller (1819-1897) returned to Fort Dalles following his defeat by Yakama warriors under Kamiakin in October 1855, Major Gabriel Rains, commander of U.S. Army troops at Fort Dalles organized a larger expedition against the Indians.

The responses to the 1855 Indian troubles known as the Yakama War were fraught with politics on all sides. U.S. Army Department of the Pacific commander Major General John E. Wool (1784-1869) disdained the civilian government and militia volunteers, and he believed that he and the army were best positioned to deal with Indian matters. He blamed the Indian troubles on the Pacific coast on white immigration and greed on the part of government contractors. In September 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) was in the Flathead country negotiating Indian treaties, so the reins of government in Olympia were left in the hands of Territorial Secretary Charles H. Mason (1830-1859). Mason issued a call for volunteers.

When Oregon Territorial Governor George Curry heard of the trouble, he issued his own call for four, then eight companies of volunteers. Enough men for 10 companies turned out. Curry refused to let his volunteers be mustered into U.S. service, but instructed his officers to cooperate with army officers. Curry ordered his Oregon Territorial forces into neighboring Washington Territory.

Major Rains wanted to move quickly against the Yakamas before winter set in. He put together a force of 370 soldiers made up of companies from the 4th Infantry and 3rd Artillery Regiments, and a detachment of 20 Dragoons under Lieutenant Philip H. Sheridan (1831-1888). Rains was joined by about 400 men made up of several companies of Oregon volunteers under Colonel James W. Nesmith, two companies of Washington volunteers mustered into federal service, and civilian packers.

Issues of command were resolved to some extent when Acting Governor Mason commissioned Rains as a Brigadier General of Washington Volunteers -- "some hocus pocus" per Lieutenant Sheridan (Meany, 181) -- thereby outranking Oregon's Brigadier General of Volunteers. The independence of the Oregon contingent did free Rains from any responsibilities for their supplies or transportation.

Rains started the column across the Columbia in wintry weather on October 30, 1855. Instead of heading due north into Yakama country, Rains and his force followed the right bank (north side) of the Columbia to the mouth of the Yakima River, then proceeded upstream from there.

On the Indian Side

Yakama Chief Kamiakin learned of the enemy's approach from scouts under Qualchan, but he had detailed about half of his 600 effectives to the east to help defend the Walla Wallas and their country. The Yakamas and other Columbia Basin tribes were not of a single mind as to resistance to the incoming settlers. Chiefs under Kamiakin argued for patience and cooperation. Walla Walla Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox complained bitterly about the treaties forced upon the Indians by Governor Stevens. For the most part, the other tribes -- Palouse, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Wenatchee, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene -- opted out of the conflict until they were themselves invaded. Many individual warriors rode to the Yakama country to stop the white invasion, giving army officers the impression that all the tribes were resisting.

The army column was larger than Kamiakin had anticipated. He ushered the women and children to the Columbia River where they crossed in canoes at Priest Rapids. They kept the canoes on the east shore without which the soldiers could not follow them. The Indians also took with them Roman Catholic Oblate missionary Fathers Charles M. Pandosy (1824-1891) and Pierre Paul Durieu, who operated St. Joseph's Mission on Ahtanum Creek. The Yakama chief camped his remaining 300 warriors at a break in Ahtanum Ridge where the Yakima River flowed through, which they called Pah'-qy-ti-koot or Gap in the Mountains. The settlers called it Two Buttes and later Union Gap.


Qualchan and his scouts openly watched the soldiers and volunteers approach up the Yakima River. While the army was in camp, Qualchan cleverly helped himself to some horses and mules by sneaking through the picket lines (the civilian packers refused to help with guard duty), silencing the clapper on a bell mare with grass, leading the animals to a safe distance, then loosening the clapper to ride away with his prizes in tow.

On November 8, at the mouth of Toppenish Creek, about 50 Indians under Kamiakin took shots at Rains’s leading elements and fell back across the river. Major Rains ordered Lieutenant Sheridan and his dragoons into the shallow but icy and swift current to pursue them. As the Sheridan crossed, the Indians attacked, but the soldiers were able to drive them off. Sheridan lost two men drowned. 

Indians at Union Gap rode to the sound of the guns and ran into Oregon Captain T. R. Cornelius’s mounted volunteers. The two groups shot it out until dark, producing two wounded Indians and one wounded volunteer.

Rains pushed his troops up the Yakima into the twilight and the darkness until, on the verge of losing control, he ordered his men into camp. Kamiakin met with his leaders and decided to make his stand at Union Gap.

Battle at Union Gap 

The next day, November 9, Rains continued the march between the twin buttes of Ahtanum Ridge. Indians rode up and fired on the soldiers then fell back, but Rains kept coming. atop a ridge, but a few rounds from Rains's mountain howitzers drove them away. At the gap in the mountains the Indians were at the top of a hill. They beat drums and the remaining women sang the war song.

That afternoon, Rains and Captain Ferdinand Auger led two companies of infantrymen to assault the hill where the Indians had constructed a breastwork. The howitzers smashed the fortifications and scattered the defenders who had never before witnessed artillery. The Oregon volunteers tagged along with the assault and "they joined it as a free fight" (Rains quoted in Richards, 245). Rains ordered a flanking movement and the Indians fled. The volunteers built bonfires to celebrate their great victory, but Rains ordered them back into camp. The Indians came up and enjoyed the warmth of the fires in the cold weather.

That was all the fighting for that day. The Battle of Two Buttes ended. The army's only losses were the two dragoons drowned.

Kamiakin's Letter

On November 10, the mounted volunteers rode up the river and chased Indians who were covering the retreat. When Cut Mouth John, a Was-co scout for the army, saw a Yakama on a lame horse, he pursued the man and killed him “... without much danger to himself, for the fugitive was armed with only an old Hudson's Bay flint-lock horse pistol which could not be discharged” (Sheridan in Knudsen, 195) This was the only Indian death recorded in the fight.

Rains ordered a halt near St. Joseph's mission, which was located at Kamiakin's main summer camp. He gave the volunteers permission to harvest vegetables from Father Pandosy's garden, but the Oregonians foraged the priest's herd of pigs too. Cut Mouth John pillaged Father Pandosy’s home, much to the disgust of Major Rains. Then the volunteers discovered a half keg of gunpowder buried there. They convinced themselves that Pandosy was in league with the enemy. The rabble stole the rest of Pandosy's possessions, tore down his small cabin, and built a bonfire before officers could intervene.

Before Pandosy's cabin was torched, soldiers recovered a letter from Kamiakin to Major Rains dictated to Father Pandosy. "Write to the soldiers," Kamiakin told Pandosy, "tell them that we are quiet, friends to Americans" (Trafzer and Scheuerman, 65). The chief complained about the way that Governor Stevens spoke down to the Indians and of the conditions of the Walla Walla Council treaties. Kamiakin offered peace if the soldiers would withdraw and give land to every tribe. Otherwise Kamiakin would fight.

Rains's reply was not at all conciliatory. The army had come for war and "because your land has drunk the blood of the white man, and the Great Spirit requires it at your hands." Whites "were thirsting for Indian blood and planned to feed the hungry crows with the bodies of dead Indians" (Trafzer and Scheuerman, 66).


Major Rains dispatched Lieutenant Sheridan's dragoons toward Natches Pass with some mounted volunteers to make contact with a column expected from Fort Steilacoom over the mountains. A snowstorm blocked both Sheridan and the Fort Steilacoom soldiers and both groups turned back. The same storm covered the Indian tracks and Rains withdrew through the Yakima Mountains in deep snow.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Kamiakin and his chiefs evacuated across the Columbia abandoning their cattle and losing many horses in the current.

Lieutenant Sheridan wrote, "... in due time we reached the Dalles, which almost everyone connected with the expedition voted it a wretched failure, indeed, General Rains himself could not think otherwise, but he scattered far and wide blame for the failure of his combinations" (Knudsen, 199). Captain Edward O. C. Ord of the Third Artillery preferred charges against Rains. Rains countered by accusing Ord of looting Father Pandosy's shoes (Ord had gone on the campaign shod in carpet slippers). Neither matter reached resolution since the Departmental Commander, General Wool, lacked officers of sufficient rank to court martial Rains and Wool simply ignored the charge against Ord.

Although the soldiers did not achieve a great military victory, the Yakamas ended up abandoning their homes and scattered across the Columbia Plateau far from their usual sources of food. Some Yakama families went into winter camp near Moses Lake. Others moved in with relatives in the Palouse country. Many Indians blamed Kamiakin for their troubles and these feelings spread to the Wenatchees, Wanapums, Columbias, Klickitats, Palouses, and Wishrams. Kamiakin never returned to the Yakama country.

Sources: Kent D. Richards, Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979), 244-246; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Cayuse Indians: Imperial Tribesmen of Old Oregon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972, 2005), 213-214; T. G. Knudsen, Warrior of the Mist: A Biography of Qualchan Chief Owhi's Son (Spokane: The Author, 1996), 183-208; Clifford E. Trafzer and Richard D. Sheuerman, Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1986), 64-66; A. J. Splawn, Ka-Mi-Akin, Last Hero of the Yakimas (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1944), 46-54; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1910, 181-183.
Note: This essay was corrected on February 19, 2014.

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