Washington Territorial Volunteers kill 50 Cayuse in the Grande Ronde Valley on July 17, 1856.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 5/03/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8146
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On July 17, 1856, Washington Territorial Volunteers under Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Shaw attack a camp of Cayuse Indians in the Grande Ronde Valley in Oregon Territory. Shaw had been assigned to suppress hostile tribes and the volunteers made little distinction between hostile, neutral, and friendly tribes. The volunteers kill at least 50 people, many of them women and children, burn Indian foodstuffs and 120 lodges, and kill horses. This aggression inflames non-hostile tribes and will be an important reason that the Second Walla Walla Council fails to result in treaties between the Indians and the United States.

By the summer of 1856, hostilities between whites and Native Americans west of the Cascades had almost ended. Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) wanted to mount an offensive against tribes east of the Cascades as did U.S. Army Colonel George Wright (1803-1865). But the two officials were at odds as to Indian policy. Stevens wanted to force the tribes onto reservations where they would learn the ways of white settlers. Wright wanted to separate the tribes from settlement and allow the natives to go about their traditional lives. Stevens had raised hundreds of settler volunteers, but he refused to place them under the command of Wright and Army officers, preferring to control his own military operations. Wright believed that the Indian troubles were partly the result of the conduct of the undisciplined amateurs who made little distinction between friendly and hostile Indians.

Stevens instructed Volunteer Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Shaw to take a force to the Walla Walla Valley to suppress hostiles there. In June 1856, Shaw marched out of Camp Montgomery in Pierce County with 175 mounted volunteers and a supply train of 36 packers, 82 pack animals, and 20 beef cattle. Shaw sent a message to Wright, then operating with his regulars in the Yakama country, with an offer of assistance. Wright declined Shaw's help. Shaw and his force proceeded to the Walla Walla Valley by way of Naches Pass.

One of Shaw's company commanders was Hamilton J. G. Maxon whose men had killed noncombatant Indians along the Nisqually River a few weeks before. Maxon became annoyed with Shaw and attempted a mutiny to remove him from command. Unable to recruit more than his own company, Maxon's reaction was to lag an hour behind the main column and to camp separately.

In the Walla Walla Valley, Shaw met with a force of 750 Nez Perce Indians who had been supporting the whites against Kamiakin and his Yakamas. But the Nez Perce became suspicious that Shaw might attack their relatives the Cayuse or themselves. Shaw convinced himself that he could never find Kamiakin and decided to find hostile Walla Wallas, Cayuse, and Umatillas to the southeast in the Grande Ronde Valley of Oregon.

The Cayuse had camped in the Grande Ronde (about eight miles southwest of present-day Elgin, Oregon) to dig roots. They saw the approach of a military force, but when they learned that it was not the reputable Colonel Wright but volunteers, they starting packing up. Some men rode out to meet with Captain John, Shaw's Nez Perce scout. Shaw claimed later that the Cayuse dangled a white man's scalp and threatened to shoot Captain John. Shaw interpreted the attempt at flight and the emissaries conduct as hostility and he ordered an immediate attack.

People scattered into the brush along the Grande Ronde River and ran downstream. Shaw interpreted this as an attempt at an ambush. The volunteers killed at least 50 men, women, and children. Shaw reported, "The charge was vigorous and so well sustained that they were broken, dispersed and slain before us" (Ruby, Cayuse, 239). One volunteer bragged that it was, "a jolly good time"  (Richards, 298). The volunteers also burned 120 lodges and 150 horseloads of food (the tribe's winter food) and equipment, and destroyed most of 200 horses they found (and kept the rest). The Cayuse managed to kill four volunteers and wound four others. The absence of Captain Maxon and 16 of his men from the fight caused Shaw to order them all back to Puget Sound.

Governor Stevens expressed pleasure with what his biographer Kent Richards calls "... one of the sorriest affairs of the war" (Richards, 298). U.S. Army Department of the Pacific Commander John E. Wool (1784-1869) wrote, "Unfortunately for the glory of this achievement it has been reported that 'the whole object was to plunder the Indians of their horses and cattle, and provoke a prolongation of the war'" (Ruby, Cayuse, 240).

The attack enraged all Indians and Walla Walla chief Homily recruited 10 Cayuse to raid the volunteers' pack train. They managed to scare away the packers and made off with horses and goods. The day after the fight some Cayuse skirmished with the volunteers, then broke off the fight.

Shaw's attack caused General Wool to order on August 2, 1856 the closure of Indian country to white settlement (miners could go in and the Hudson's Bay Company could stay). Governor Stevens tried to treat with the tribes east of the mountains at the Second Walla Walla Council in September, but word of the Battle of the Grande Ronde poisoned the well and Stevens and his Army escort had to be rescued by the Nez Perce.

Sources: Kent D. Richards, Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1979), 291-298, 303; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Cayuse Indians: Imperial Tribesmen of Old Oregon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 238-241; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History," Governor Isaac Stevens convenes Second Walla Walla Council on September 11, 1856" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 27, 2007).

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