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May 17, 1858: The Ordeal of the Steptoe Command
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Randall A. Johnson (1915-2007) served as Sheriff of Spokane Corral of The Westerners, the group that published The Pacific Northwesterner quarterly magazine for many years. Johnson born in LaCrosse, Washington, in 1915, moved with his family to Washtucna at the age of 3, and to Walla Walla at the age of 8. He graduated from Pullman High School and from Washington State University in Pullman, where he is renowned for designing the Cougar logo while a student. His account of the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865) at the hands of Native Americans near Rosalia in 1858 first appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter 1973). It is here reprinted with the kind permission of The Westerners.
The Ordeal of the Steptoe Command
By Randall A. Johnson
In the graveyard at Lynchburg, Virginia, a weathered stone bears the name Edward J. Steptoe, Lieut. Col., Army of the United States.
Far to the west, another granite pyramid, Steptoe Butte, bears the same man's name. This majestic, lonely mountain and the village at its base are about the only memorials to this little-honored soldier. No fighting took place on those steep slopes, but Steptoe passed close by on the way to and from his place of destiny 20 miles north.
The battle there was fierce, the soldiers lost and Steptoe's name is linked mostly with defeat. It was so, too, in frontier days and the humiliation dogged the man to his early grave. He deserved better.
Steptoe's career was trampled to ruin by the ponies of a thousand painted, howling Indian warriors on a spring day in 1858. Of all the Western movies that have been shot since then, none surpasses this dramatic true story with its record of history, valor, and irony.
The whole thing happened on ground we can visit today. Pine Creek and its tributaries still wind between the rocky hillsides. The cottonwoods and pine timber and bunch-grass look the same.
It takes little imagination to fade out the highway and Rosalia town and watch the ranks of mounted braves appear along the horizons.
The battle was not a great holocaust, as battles go, but it barely missed being one of the most dreadful massacres of pioneer times. The battered soldiers, dug in on their last-stand hill, were just trying to stay alive. They had no way of knowing that they were in fact involved in an action which was to be the key to the comparatively peaceful settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
Hindsight is easier for us. Now we can see how history hinged on this one pathetic encounter and the directly related events that followed.
Steptoe marched out of the mud hole that was Fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858. He had built temporary facilities along the creek the year before and was now establishing the permanent fort that had just been authorized and which still exists today.
This young officer had everything going for him. He was a competent soldier, decorated and promoted for his bravery at Buena Vista and Chapultapec in the Mexican War 12 years earlier. He had also made a good reputation in Utah, where he had smoothed over a potentially dangerous situation resulting from an Indian massacre. He was so well regarded that he was offered the governorship of that territory, but had not sought this honor and turned it down in order to pursue the career he had chosen. He was a West Point graduate, aged 43.
It was Steptoe's enlightened view that diplomacy should be tried before the guns were drawn. He was a man of good will, high-principled, and devoted to his flag and his duty.
It will surprise many to learn that Col. Steptoe was sympathetic to the Indians and believed that white emigrants should be kept out of the "great rectangle," as the area north of the Snake and east of the Columbia was known.
Even greater shock will attend the statement that Col. George Wright shared the same view, and General John E. Wool, their superior, actually lost his job because he persisted in it. This army position was not popular with the white prospectors who were crisscrossing the area looking for gold and often dealing roughshod with Indian rights and feelings. Their forceful ally was the dynamic Governor Isaac I. Stevens who was dedicated to the idea that settlement of this wilderness was inevitable and that the army must do its part in getting on with the job.
Friction between these two positions was getting hot, and something would have to give. As it turned out, it was the Army.
Let's take a look at the spot the Indians were in. Compared to much of the West, this had been a generally peaceful area, one sad exception being the Whitman incident in 1847.
There had been notable instances of friendly and hospitable relationships between the red and white men. The remarkable Nez Perce friendship was the salvation of settlers, time and again. The Spokanes and Coeur d'Alenes were proud of the fact that they had never killed a white. Spokane Garry's civilized leadership was a good influence that should be remembered gratefully.
The Coeur d'Alenes were less friendly, but had always permitted the explorers safe passage and had accepted the "black robes," Catholic missionaries, in their camps.
Much is owed to these missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, who had labored in one of the Lord's most difficult vineyards. Their teachings had been wholly or partly accepted by many of the chiefs and leaders and probably did more to create an atmosphere of peace than any other single factor.
But now trouble was coming to a fast boil and Steptoe erred in not recognizing its extent. He had been advised about the growing unrest, but he discounted the threat. Such intelligence usually came from prejudiced parties or was deliberately meant to mislead. This time, however, it was true.
The Indian uneasiness stemmed from many sources and is understandable. Mainly they were worried about the growing stream of immigrants. They reasoned correctly that the trickle would become a flood and they foresaw the time when they would be outnumbered by the white man and overpowered by his iron tools and weapons.
These nomadic people followed the hunt, but also depended heavily on fish and camas bulbs for food. They required vast territories for this way of life and they were fiercely possessive of their ancestral lands and stretches of rivers. Bitter enmities had existed for generations between many tribes because of such territorial jealousies.
Now a final straw had been added with the news that a thousand-mile road would be built straight through their cherished homelands. Lieutenant John Mullan's military road surveyors were in the field and thousands of white settlers could be expected to follow.
Anxieties were increasing among all the northern tribes. The Coeur d'Alenes, who had never shed white man's blood, now vowed to kill any and all road builders on sight.
Leaders like the great Kamiaken were quick to sense the opportunity that seemed at hand. He was a true war chief, part Yakima and part Nez Perce, and he bitterly hated the whites.
Some writers speculate that there were as many as 5,000 warriors in the Northwest territory who could have been assembled to completely exterminate the settlers. It was a smoldering powder keg which didn't blow, fortunately, because the Indians lacked organization, concerted purpose, and overall leadership.
So it was into this hornet's nest that Steptoe travelled in the spring of fifty-eight. His casual attitude seems incredible in the light of what happened, but it is recorded in his own letters and reports.
On May 2, he wrote his commander, General N. S. Clark at The Dalles, of his intentions. In response to orders, he would take an expedition north to Fort Colville and attend to several matters. First, there was the reported murder of two white prospectors on the Palouse River. Indian informers had supplied the killers' names and Steptoe planned to bring them to justice. Mostly, however, he hoped to calm the nervous settlers and reduce the tension that was growing between them and the tribesmen. He figured that showing the flag and letting all parties know that the army was on the job would have a calming effect. It is plain that he expected no real trouble.
The men looked forward to the trip. Spring in its beauty had come to the country and the prospect of a visit to the well established Fort Colville was welcomed by the lonely troopers. An abundant supply of whiskey was loaded.
Think for a moment, about the lives of these long-suffering bluecoats. Their existence, like that of most on the frontier, was one of misery, exhaustion, and danger. They knew few comforts. Their stations were crude outposts near the trouble spots and far beyond the reach of civilization. They lived in tents or dugouts or bug-infested log shelters. The chow was poor, at best, although usually there was enough.
Equipment was so poor as to be almost scandalous. Uniforms were a joke, considering the settings in which they were to be worn. They consisted of a billed cap, blue shirt, light gray pants with a yellow stripe, poor quality shoes and a greatcoat. An equipment belt hung from white suspenders, crossed front and back. Needless to say, "field modifications" soon made this style almost unrecognizable. The men acquired buckskins, moccasins, or high-top boots into which they tucked their baggy pants. Slouch or brimmed hats were common and regulations were winked at to accommodate these practical changes.
Pay was $13 a month and the men had to pay •some personal costs out of that. Officers, who drew little more money, had to pay for the feed for their horses.
Fun time didn't amount to much. Riding contests, swimming in the creek, card games, and grumbling filled some spare hours. Pay day might lead to a bust-head binge at the sutler's shack complete with fist fights and a morning after. Female companionship, if any, was found in the Indian camps. Occasionally the officers managed to get wives and families to join them, but this practice often contained the seeds of tragedy.
Field units seldom had more than skeleton strength. A company could consist of 20 men. They included men and boys from the farms and quite a few European immigrants. Mostly, they were well led by Academy graduates from good families. The strict caste system of the time made a wide gap between the commissioned officers and the enlisted men, but this lessened considerably as the frontier was approached.
Those were not good days for the Army. National backing was spotty and the neglect was discouraging. Some soldiers said their popularity back home was "about the same as a mangy dog."
Desertions thinned the ranks, especially in areas near the gold strikes or from those stations where life was especially lonely and hopeless. One wonders at the strength of spirit that enabled the men to endure what they did. It was truly a calling of hardship, one that might be ended any time from a bout with the fever, the quick swish of an arrow, or worse.
Steptoe's expedition consisted of seven officers, 152 dragoons and cavalrymen and about 30 civilian scouts and packers. There was a string of beef cattle and pack train of about 100 pack horses that carried or hauled supplies. Two small cannons called mountain howitzers were taken. They fired a ball about the size of a boy's fist. Each of these guns was drawn by one horse. Another followed with packs of ammunition. Steptoe's scouts were from the friendly Nez Perce, whose homeland extended from the Wallowa Mountains to the Clearwater River.
Moving out of Walla Walla, the column went north, then east across the Touchet and Tucannon Rivers, and on to the mouth of the Alpowa Creek at Red Wolf Crossing on the Snake River.
Here was the camp of Timothy, a Nez Perce chief, who had been converted to Christianity by Henry Spalding. He was a true and lifelong friend of the whites, never properly rewarded for his loyalty.
Steptoe had been persuaded by his scouts to take this route rather than the more direct trail which crossed at Lyons Ferry well to the west. It seemed like good advice, or was it? Timothy's people had canoes and were skilled swimmers. They could and did move the whole expedition across the flooding Snake without losing a man or a horse But the trail north, called Lapwai, took the column straight into the territory of the Spokanes and Coeur d'Alenes.
A question that will always go unanswered but which tantalizes historians is: Did the crafty Nez Perce deliberately lead Steptoe into Coeur d'Alene country? The Coeur d'Alenes were their ancient enemies and here was a chance to get them in bad trouble. The Nez Perce knew how explosive the situation was up north. If they reasoned that Steptoe would march into that stronghold, be annihilated and thus draw down a great punitive war on those tribes, they were very nearly right.
Most writers of the time suggest this was the case. The Indians were cunning and capable of just such clever duplicity. No one can prove it now, one way or the other.
There were several reasons why Steptoe might put his foot in such a trap. First, we know he underestimated the hazard; second, the offer of assistance at the dangerous river crossing was tempting; third, the Palouse, who harbored the murderers he sought, were in that vicinity. Such circumstances make up the intriguing ironies of a tale that has many.
Resuming his march after the river crossing, Steptogi sighted a band of the Palouse. They scurried away to inform the other tribes of the soldiers' approach.
The column proceeded up the gulch we now call Steptoe Canyon, which heads near Uniontown. From there they crossed east to the Thatuna Hills at Moscow, then north along the way through the present sites of Palouse, Garfield, Oakesdale, and Rosalia.
The trails the pioneers used were mostly the Indian routes. Earlier they had been the game trails. They followed the easy going, usually waterways or valleys. Sometimes, they left the brushy stream beds and took to the ridges where the traveler could see around. It is no wonder that the engineers who laid out the railroad and highways we travel today used the same byways.
As the soldiers moved north, it became plain that they were being carefully observed. Still, there was no feeling of real concern and camp was made on Saturday night, May 15, on a hilltop just south of Rosalia. This spot was directly across the valley from the site which was to become a "last stand" in two more days.
At this point great numbers of Indians from several tribes appeared. There were Spokanes, Coeur d'Alenes, Palouse, Cayuse, and Yakimas. They went boldly through the camp and sized up the command's numbers and fighting strength. Still, it seemed possible to avoid a confrontation. This changed the next morning. About 11 o'clock with the column again on the march, war-painted braves by the hundreds galloped up. They indignantly charged that Steptoe's expedition was an invasion and declared that they would wipe it out.
Steptoe protested that his intentions were peaceful. He wanted only to pass through to Colville, he said, to calm the frightened settlers and promote peace between them and the tribes.
The, chiefs were skeptical and pointed out the presence of the cannon. The "guns that spoke twice" didn't look peaceful to them.' In any case, they said, Steptoe would not get their help nor would he be allowed to cross the Spokane River.
The situation had suddenly become desperately urgent. The survival of the command was now the main issue. Sensing a trap in the rocky draw east of his position, Steptoe moved the other way over the hills and made camp beside a small lake. This spot is near the intersection at the north end of Babb Road. The draw which then impounded water is long since dry but can still be located.
The Indians were getting more bold and daring by the minute. They rode along the column, insulting the soldiers and describing how they would kill them all on the next day.
Interestingly, they said they were sparing them for the moment because they didn't kill on Sunday. The harassed bluecoats must have breathed a grateful thanks to the hardy missionaries who had preached that commandment.
One Negro was with the command and was the subject of great interest to the warriors. He stood unflinching while they rubbed his black skin and tugged his kinky locks, but he vowed out of the side of his mouth, "If dey get dis wool, dey'll know dey had a fight."
The command was strung out in a long file led by Steptoe and Lieut. W. N. Grier with H Company dragoons. Next came C Troop, then E Company with the pack train near the center. Captain 0. H. P. Taylor and Lieutenant William Gaston with their E Troop dragoons were assigned to protect the rear, a duty that was to cost them their lives. (Captain Taylor bore his rather cumbersome triple initials with pride. 0. H. P. stood for Oliver Hazard Perry, his uncle and namesake, the heroic American commodore in the Ware of 1812.)
About 8 o'clock the Indians began to appear along the rear and each flank. They were in full fighting regalia, their bodies and ponies smeared with war paint. Most of them were well-armed with Hudson's Bay rifles, probably secured from the traders at Fort Colville.
Steptoe passed the word to hold fire. No one was to shoot unless absolutely necessary to save men's lives. One very good reason for this order was that there wasn't much ammunition. The men had only the 40 rounds or so each one carried in a belt. Reserve supplies, not thought necessary on a peaceful reconnaissance mission, had been left behind. (Some poolroom stories have been passed down suggesting that Chief Packer Tom Beall, pronounced Bell, had removed ammunition boxes to make room for plenty of whiskey in the mule packs. This could be true since Beall, like the others, was expecting a peaceful outing. We do not know whether Steptoe approved this change or even knew of it but, in any case, the responsibility was his. Beall, the son of an army colonel, lived in the Inland Empire to a ripe old age. He was considered a competent frontiersman and a good man to have on your side.)
For this very serious neglect, Steptoe assumed full responsibility and was later reprimanded. We will see how, in a back-handed sort of way, it may have been a factor in their salvation. Another irony.
Speaking of the soldiers' handicaps, we must mention their weapons, which were barely worth the name. Most were armed with musketoons, the forerunner of the cavalry carbine. This was a short barreled smooth-bore piece that fired a large ball and three buckshot from the same load. It didn't fire them very far nor straight. One old timer said "it wouldn't kill a rooster across the barnyard." The men had a saying that likened it to a garrison soldier, "big mouth and no damn good." The Indian rifles outranged it easily.
Most of the men also had the single-shot, smooth-bore pistol. Typically one or two of these were carried in pommel holsters. Like the musketoon, it was about as effective when used as a club.
One unit was armed with Yager rifles which had good range but were long-barreled and could not be reloaded without dismounting. Orders had been given for the enlisted men to leave their sabres at the fort. This loaded the dice against them still more. (Sabres, immensely useful in a close fight, were otherwise a heavy, noisy, awkward nuisance. Steptoe probably thought he was doing his men a favor to leave them behind.)
Officers and non-coms, however, were armed with blades. Some were lost during the fight and showed up along with saddles, parts of uniforms, and other army gear in possession of the Indians that Col. Wright encountered four months later on his subjugation campaign.)
One of the best weapons used that day was the newly developed Colt revolver. This huge hand gun was carried by the officers and non-corns and a few others. Several were found along the line of battle as years passed. One had a charge stuck in the barrel and a deep gash cut across the hand grip by a slash of sabre or tomahawk which surely cost the shooter his trigger finger.
About the same time the Indians were moving in on the column, Father Joseph Joset appeared. He was the well-known and respected Jesuit priest who had galloped all the way from Cataldo, Idaho, when he heard of the trouble. His arrival was a most welcome sight to Steptoe. Joset was as knowledgeable and influential with the Indians as anyone. If the situation could be salvaged, he was the one to do it.
Although matters were rapidly worsening, Joset did manage to get one chief, Vincent of the Coeur d'Alenes, to come in and parley. They had to talk while on the march. The frightened pack horses were almost out of control and had to be kept moving.
The attempted parley, such as it was, continued briefly until one of Steptoe's Nez Perce scouts (said to be Levi) rode up to Vincent and struck him viciously with his heavy whip, saying, "Proud man, why do you not fire?"
The insult implied, perhaps accurately, that Vincent spoke with forked tongue. Levi's charge was that the chief was simply using the talk as a subterfuge to delay Steptoe and give his braves time to gain better positions.
At any rate, that incident ended the parley. Vincent rode away, furious, and word came that the Palouse were going to open fire.
This they did, riding wildly across the rear of the column, which was now strung out in the valley of North Pine Creek. More Indians swarmed in from every direction to join the first attackers, urged on by the aggressive Kamiakin.
As ordered, the troopers held their fire with remarkable coolness. Then, at about the confluence of Spring Valley Creek and North Pine, Lieut. Wm. Gaston's horse was killed and he was slightly wounded. He sent word ahead asking for a slower pace. This could not be granted, as a race had begun for the high ground to the left. Now the soldiers had begun to return fire. Men were falling.
From hill to hill, the struggle went on in a wild confusing melee that continued for 10 tortuous hours. The weather was overcast and muggy and the unrelieved soldiers soon began to suffer from fatigue and thirst. The emotional exhaustion was even worse, with the hopeless aspect of the situation grown starkly clear. The cries of the dying mingled with the blood-curdling yells of the frenzied warriors. The din was ceaseless and unnerving.
The soldiers were outnumbered at least five to one. At even odds, the Indians would have been fearsome enemies. Proud and athletic, they were superb horsemen and dangerous marksmen. Their quick charges matched anything that could be staged in the most colorful of Wild West movie sets. They rode bareback on their nimble ponies, naked bodies daubed with war paint, firing on the dead run from behind the animals' necks.
But the soldiers fought well. Though most were recruits who had never seen battle, their commander later reported that they had been a credit to the Army. Only when their leaders fell did they drop back.
Both sides sought the advantage of the high points. When Indians had gained one prominent hill, Lieutenant David Gregg mounted a charge which drove them off and held while Taylor's and Gaston's men struggled to join him. This fight was one of the most wild and savage of the whole encounter. A dozen Indian bodies were counted at the point where they were caught between the two Army units charging together.
After crossing Spring Creek, Captain C. S. Winder set up a howitzer and blasted out a few rounds. Then he moved on to the next hill and fired again. The effect of the cannon fire was mostly psychological since such guns were difficult to employ against fast-moving targets.
One of the few advantages the soldiers had was their sturdy well-trained Army horses. Lacking better weapons, time and again they rode headlong into the charging Indians, with their heavier mounts giving good account.
When all elements of the battered command were again together, Steptoe began his move to a more defensible position with access to water. The column moved down toward the flat with Gaston and Taylor again guarding the flanks.
About noon Lieutenant Gaston was killed, still in the thickest part of the battle and fighting bravely. Kamiaken himself, recognizing Gaston's courage and effectiveness, marked him for death and detailed his best marksmen to do the job. Strange that this brave man's own people have found no lasting way to commemorate his heroism.
Half an hour later, Captain Taylor, also in the midst of the fighting, received his second and mortal wound, shot through the neck.
Indians charged in to take his body as they had Gaston's but were beaten off by the courageous efforts of Privates LeMoy, Kerse, and Poisell, who stood over their fallen leader, swinging their rifles like clubs.
This was when LeMoy called out, in what might have been the battle cry of the whole expedition, "My God, for a sabre!"
Taylor, still barely alive, was carried to the final position where he died. Sad to say, his wife and two children had arrived in Walla Walla just before he marched away.
He was another whose valiant sacrifice has generally escaped recognition.
By early afternoon Steptoe reached the spot he had selected for a last stand and the soldiers dug in on the major hill overlooking Pine Creek's bend from the east. A tall monument erected by the DAR now stands on the spot,
A circular position about 250 yards across was occupied with one howitzer aimed along the ridge to the north, the other pointing over the bluff to the south.
Barricades were made of the supply packs and shallow firing pits were hastily dug. The remaining horses were tethered in the center with the main baggage. At last the troops were afforded some protection and a little rest, although the feeling of despair was intensifying. The men had not eaten and still suffered for lack of water. The loss of their comrades and the agony of the wounded and dying added to the demoralizing effect.
Even so, the men stood to their guns and beat back at least two full-scale charges. They were not fooled by the moving clumps of grass that marked the attempts of single warriors to break the line. All these were picked off readily, but ammunition was virtually gone.
When dusk finally came there were perhaps three rounds per man -- not enough to stop one more charge.
By then the attacks had stopped, but the men could see the camp fires in the valley and the victory signals on the hilltops. The hostiles were not far away and everyone knew that the massacre would surely come with first light.
Kamiakin, in fact, was disgusted to see the warriors withdraw. He galloped among the tribes urging them to make the death strike even though it was night. His appeal was not ignored but neither was it followed promptly enough.
On the hill Steptoe made his decision after counsel with his remaining officers. He had meagre options: Stay and be scalped or run for it and maybe be scalped. One of the Nez Perce, generally conceded to be Timothy, had offered to find an unguarded pass through the hostile lines. Despite the good chance that this could be another trap, there was really nothing more to lose by trying.
At this point we wonder if perhaps the ammunition shortage was a blessing in disguise. Had the soldiers had the means of continuing the fight, pride and duty might have led them to stay, even though they knew the inevitable outcome would only be more prolonged and horrible. (Some historians have expressed doubt that Timothy was with the command since there is no reference to him in the official reports. There are, however, many reliable secondary sources that definitely credit him as being the main guide, both up and back, and the one who saved the column. These include veterans of the battle and such reputable historians as Judge Kuykendall. The DAB monument, inscribed in 1906, makes prominent reference to Timothy. Army reports were often sketchy regarding their non-uniformed allies.)
The escape was a tactical masterpiece executed with skill and desperation and aided by plain luck. The scout reported that the bluff straight across the valley was presumed to be too steep for horses and was unguarded. It was the only chance.
Leaving their injured horses, supplies and campfires, the soldiers quietly slipped away in the drizzling rain that had started. White horses were covered with dark blankets and noisy hardware was muffled. Four who had died were buried, as were the two cannon, in graves carefully disguised by leading horses across them.( Conjecture persists, although unsupported by any primary documentation, that Steptoe's incredible escape had to be the result of a "deal" by which the Indians (presumably Coeur d'Alenes) turned their backs and let him get away. Speculation, however, can take any of a hundred turns and writers a century later can only depend on the record. Highly responsible records (Joset's for example) do exist and support the story as it is told here. Desperate men, aided by bad weather and against a foe grown overconfident and careless, accomplished the impossible.)
The plight of the wounded was piteous. Those who could not sit a saddle were bound onto pack mules with gags to stifle their groans. Some, mad with pain, begged to be shot.
The heroic LeMoy, who had been a captain in the French army, was shot through both hips. The pack saddle to which he was lashed slipped, and he was carried at a gallop, upside down under the animal. At last he was cut loose from his torture and left by the trail with a loaded revolver, his own request? (LeMoy's name also crops up as DeMoy or DeMoi. Strange names of people and places caused spelling problems then as now.)
Many veteran soldiers from other nations were attracted to service in the U.S. frontier forces. Their reasons were varied but usually they were the type of man who seeks action and adventure regardless of danger and discomfort. LeMoy was known as a skilled swordsman. (Years later, Indians told Agent A. J. Splawn what happened. The pursuers came on LeMoy after daylight and, as they approached, he fired, hitting two. They withdrew to surround him, heard another shot and rushed in, riddling his body with bullets and arrows. He had apparently killed himself with his last shot.)
The main column miraculously made its way up the steep bluff and through the hostile lines. Reaching the trail it broke into a full gallop, the men hardly daring to look back. Dawn was breaking in the east as they spurred on past Pyramid Peak, the mountain that was to bear their commander's name (Steptoe Butte).
The flight continued with only a quick stop for water at the Palouse River crossing. At 11 the next night, the command, by now completely used up, reached the Nez Perce outposts and the safety of the Snake River.
The Indians had charged the hill an hour after the troops had left and were furious to find their trapped victims had escaped. A pursuit was mounted, but was delayed by squabbles over the division of Steptoe's abandoned supplies. The hostiles turned back when they found their quarry had reached the protection of the Nez Perce, at the head of the same canyon they had come up a few days earlier. More helpful Indians were waiting at the river to take the exhausted men across in canoes. Their ordeal was past.
After a good rest and a feed of boiled salmon, the troops resumed their march homeward. A momentary panic occurred when a large mounted force was seen approaching. Happily it turned out to be Lawyer, a friendly Nez Perce chief, marching under the American flag and offering his forces to the soldiers so they could turn about and defeat their tormentors. Understandably, his proposal was declined. An amazing thing is the speed and accuracy of the signal system which had brought Lawyer the news.
On the next day, at the present site of Dodge Junction, Steptoe met Captain F. T. Dent with a relief party he had hastily organized at Walla Walla. Together they returned to the post.
But many stories remain. How did Captain Dent get the word?
At his Sunday night camp near Plaza, Steptoe, newly aware of his danger, had dispatched a message to Walla Walla requesting assistance. An Indian scout undertook the delivery which was against incredible odds. Somehow he made it through the hostile lines, across the flooded Snake and to Captain Dent. The Indian, according to one reliable source, was a Umatilla named Wildcat.
Wildcat, however, couldn't leave well enough alone. After faithfully delivering his message, he went to his tribe and convinced that Steptoe's men were doomed, tried to persuade it to attack and wipe out the lightly defended fort.
He couldn't sell the idea, though, and four months later, when Colonel Wright was concluding his punitive campaign by hanging four miscreants out behind the garrison, one of the four was Wildcat.
Sergeant Edward Ball should be mentioned. He was a top-kick of the old school, a real tough frontier soldier. As Steptoe prepared to leave camp, he detailed Sgt. Ball to destroy the whiskey. Looking back we might say that it would have delayed the pursuit more effectively to have left it, but the sergeant carried out his orders. The booze went on the ground except for a liberal amount that went into the thirsty Sergeant Ball. In his exhausted condition, he dropped off under a bush and couldn't be found. The command left without him. Somehow the Indians missed him too and after days of hiding and traveling on foot, he was picked up by a rescue party.
Ball was a fighting man. Cited for distinguished service in both the Steptoe and Wright campaigns, he became a Civil War major in the Union Army. Still later, 18 years after the Pine Creek episode, we hear of him again, a member of Reno's command and a survivor of the Little Big Horn tragedy.
During the retreat, two of the wounded, Sneckster and Williams, unable to keep the headlong pace, were captured by the pursuers.
As part of a fiendish game, the Indians allowed them to mount their one tired horse and "escape" by swimming out into the flooding Snake. A few yards out, their captors opened fire killing Williams and the horse and shattering Sneckster's arm in a hail of lead. But he was another tough one. Somehow, though terribly wounded, he managed to reach the far side, drag himself up the bank and some Miles beyond where he found rescue at the lodge of a Nez Perce called Humpy. (The facts of this story are sometimes disputed. Sneckster, himself, gave this version of it, first hand. We do know that Wright hanged an Indian specifically for murdering Williams.)
The Nez Perce seem to have been trying to play a risky two-faced game. Apparently they thought they could keep one foot in each camp. This worked to some extent while the soldiers were in control, but had the trap been closed around Steptoe at Rosalia, his Indian allies would surely have been slaughtered along with the rest. During the confusion of the battle, one of the Nez Perce, a mere boy, saw a chance to recover some horses broken loose from the pack train. He dashed out and was returning with the animals when a sergeant, mistaking him for the enemy, ran him through with his sabre. Of such tragedies are battles made. The boy's body was buried with those of the soldiers. (The sergeant who mistakenly cut down the Indian boy during the battle was Williams, soon to become a victim himself. The Neu Perce boy was the son of Dick, Steptoe's expressman.)
Steptoe rode back to Walla Walla and oblivion. Companions wrote that be seemed in a trance, a man stunned and drained by misfortune.
Although he had performed brilliantly in battle, standing off the finest warriors of five tribes, he could find only blame for himself. He had saved nearly all his command but he sorrowed for the seven dead and score of wounded. He was an artillery officer and leaving his guns behind was almost a breach of honor by his strict code. He brooded over the idea that he, alone, was responsible for letting his men be trapped and defeated. (In addition to the seven servicemen, two Nez Perce scouts, the Indian boy, and a civilian interpreter named Conner died. The Army estimated Indian dead at 50 to 60. A figure half that is probably closer but the Indian losses included some of their best leaders.)
He was denied the face-saving opportunity to take part in the Wright campaign four months later although many of his men were with Wright on that well-heeled operation which won every battle. It led to Wright's promotion while Steptoe, now physically ill, lived with his sadness.
He took leave and went back to Virginia and seems not to have resumed active duty. While there, he married and a daughter, his only offspring, was born. (The little girl lived only two years.) His health worsened and strokes left him partially paralyzed. He was forced to sit out the Civil War which brought high rank and fame to many of his former comrades and classmates.
In the spring of 1865 he died, two days after Lincoln's assassination. He was only 49.
On Wright's return from the campaign in which he had permanently suppressed the northern tribes, the Colonel carried out another duty. He sent a detachment under Lieutenant Grier back to the Pine Creek battleground to recover the bodies of the dead, the cannon and other materiel. With Grier was Lieutenant Mullan, the road builder, and two skilled map makers. Some other veterans of the battle were along and the careful record they made helps us reconstruct the details of an operation that was poorly recorded in the near panic of the actual happening.
The bodies and cannon were found where they had been buried. Except for some disturbance by animals, they were untouched. Lieutenant Gaston's headless remains were recovered and the grim relics were returned to Walla Walla.
Saddened by their chore, the men found the broken shafts from one of the cannon and with a piece of quartermaster rope, they bound them together and erected a makeshift cross, a Christian tribute to their fallen comrades.
For awhile it stood there, a benediction over the lonely site. But it was a fragile thing, like the wispy strands of memory that bridge the years to a spring day long ago, when a lesson of devotion to duty was taught to us by brave men.
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Colonel Edward Steptoe (1816-1875)
Courtesy Yakima Valley Regional Library (Image 2002-850-653)
Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
Sketch by Gustavus Sohon, Courtesy Washington State Historical Society
Palouse country from Steptoe Butte, ca. 1940
Courtesy Paul Dorpat
Steptoe Butte, named after Colonel Edward Steptoe, routed by Indian warriors not here but near Rosalia, 2002
Courtesy Audubon Society