Nisqually, Klickitat, and Yakama warriors battle U.S. Army soldiers and Territorial Volunteers at Connell's Prairie in March 1856.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 5/14/2007
  • Essay 8145
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In early March 1856, Nisqually, Klickitat, and Yakama warriors battle U.S. Army soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey (1807-1882) and Washington Territorial Volunteers under Major Gilmore Hays at Connell's Prairie in Pierce County. The Klickitat chief Kanasket is killed and the Indians  will withdraw. Chief Qualchan will pull his Yakamas back to the east side of the Cascades and the Yakamas and Klickitats will direct their resistance against the American settlements at The Cascades. Nisqually and Puyallup resistance west of the Cascades will largely cease. (Note: In 1994 the then-named Yakima Tribe changed the spelling of its name back to the original form, the Yakama Tribe.)


Since the outbreak of violence in September 1855, U.S. troops, territorial volunteers, and settlers skirmished with Native Americans on both sides of the Cascades. Leschi, Stahi, and Quiemuth of the Nisqually tribe and Kanaskat of the Klickitats led attacks against settlers and settlements with some support from their Yakama relatives east of the mountains. Qualchan of the Yakamas, Leschi's cousin and Kanaskat's nephew, led groups of warriors and their families through the snows of the Cascades several times that winter. One target in January 1856 was the village of Seattle.

Most settlers found safety near blockhouses constructed to repel Indian attacks. In February 1856, soldiers of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment arrived in the Territory from the East via the Isthmus of Panama. Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey and part of the regiment marched to Fort Steilacoom from Fort Vancouver to join soldiers of the 4th Infantry and the 3rd Artillery already stationed there.

Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) raised regiments of volunteers who built blockhouses to shelter settlers and roads to facility movement and supply, but they failed to bring the Indians to battle. The volunteers remained under Territorial control and did not fall under the command of U.S. Army officers. Stevens also recruited Snoqualmie Chief Patkanim who provided 75 Snoqualmies and Snohomishes to track down Leschi and his followers. Stevens paid Patkanim a bounty for the head of each warrior with a bonus for a dead chief.

Death of Kanasket

In late February, Colonel Casey took to the field from Fort Steilacoom with about 125 soldiers and marched up the Puyallup River to build blockhouses and a road to Muckleshoot Prairie and to seek out the enemy. The Central and Pioneer battalions of the volunteer regiment built blockhouses and supply depots at Yelm Prairie and a ferry across the White River. Neither force operated under a common command.

Colonel Casey marched his men up the Puyallup River to a blockhouse called Fort Maloney (present-day Puyallup) and then up the right bank of the river to Lemmon's Prairie near the present-day city of Bonney Lake where they bivouacked for the night.

On the morning of February 29 (some accounts say March 4), Private Kehl, one of the pickets, spotted five Native Americans stealing upon the camp. The man at the front used gestures that marked him as the leader. Kehl fired at the man and he fell. The soldiers recognized the Indian as the Klickitat chief Kanasket who was credited with the death of the popular Lieutenant William A. Slaughter the prior December. Paralyzed by a bullet in his spine, Kanasket nevertheless shouted defiance in both his native language and in the Chinook jargon. Eyewitness Captain Erasmus D. Keyes (1810-1895), 3rd Artillery, relates that Kanasket cried, "My heart is wicked towards the whites, and always will be, and you had better kill me" (Knudsen, 227-228).

The chief began shouting in his own language and the soldiers believed he was giving orders to his men in the woods. Captain Keyes ordered the soldiers to keep the prisoner quiet. Corporal O'Shaughnessy put the muzzle of his rifle to the chief's head and fired. Keyes goes on, "I have seen men in rage, and women in despair, and maniacs, but never before did I gaze on a human countenance in which hate and blasted hope were so horribly depicted, as that of Kanasket." "Regarding the carcass of the dead chief as that of an unclean animal that men hunt for the love of havoc," Keyes continues, "we left it in the field unburied, and went on our way to fight his people" (Knudsen 228-229).

Rescue of Lieutenant Kautz

Casey's command resumed the march until noon when a galloper reported that Army Lieutenant Augustus V. Kautz and a company of infantrymen were pinned down by Indians on the right bank of the White River over the hill to the east. Casey dispatched Keyes and 50 men to Kautz's aid. The soldiers forded the White River in icy water up to their armpits. On the other side they found Kautz's men in the cover of some fallen trees fighting off perhaps 150 Indians. Keyes deployed his men as skirmishers (soldiers advancing in a loose formation rather than in a precise line). Kautz counterattacked.

The Indians fired one volley, high, although Lieutenant Kautz took a ball in the leg. The soldiers forced the Indians back until they broke off the engagement leaving perhaps seven dead and 20 wounded. The soldiers had two dead and eight wounded.

Battle at Connell's Prairie

On March 10 (some accounts say March 8), the volunteer battalions totaling about 100 men under Major Gilmore Hays approached the White River from the south to build a blockhouse and ferry. The lead company of 11 men encountered a force of about 150 warriors at Connell's Prairie and Hays brought up the rest of his column. When the larger Indian force appeared to be spreading out to flank the volunteers, Hays countered with two-dozen men in a flanking of his own. The battle developed into two lines of fighters shooting their muzzle loaders at each other.

After two hours Hays ordered an advance and, "the charge was made in the most gallant style by Captain Swindal against their center and Captain Rabbeson against their left, through a deep slough, driving the enemy from their position and pursuing them some distance in their flight" (Bonney, 201). The Indians still would not leave and dug in behind some fallen trees on high ground.

Hays tried a frontal assault coordinated with a flanking movement to his right. "The Indians were routed, put to flight, and pursued for a mile or more along a trail or trails covered in blood." Two Indian bodies, one that of Chehalis John, were recovered along with blankets and clothing stained with blood. Four volunteers were wounded.

Yakima Valley rancher Andrew Jackson Splawn (1845-1917) interviewed Yakama veterans of the fights at Connell's Prairie. They related that Qualchan of the Yakamas was in the battle with Casey's men (however, they were probably speaking of the March 10 battle with the volunteers). Qualchan, one of the fiercest and most charismatic Native American combat commanders, became disillusioned after the fight. He told a council that night, "Today's fight has convinced me that you cannot cope with the whites. I noticed reinforcements constantly arriving in the camp of the enemy, and these will continue, whereas you have the greater portion of your fighting men now on the ground. I advise you to move all you people to the Yakima Valley" (Splawn, 57-58).

Qualchan pulled his people out of the war west of the Cascades and through the snow back home.

Leschi, himself half-Yakama, followed the Yakamas up the White River and across snowy Natches Pass and into the relative safety Yakama country. Leschi later surrendered to U.S. Army soldiers. Small groups of Indians continued to ambush settlers. In response, Colonel Casey and Captain Keyes developed a strategy involving three-man ambush patrols that could move swiftly through the wilderness.

Sources: Kent D. Richards, Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1979), 263, T. G. Knudsen, Warrior of the Mist: A Biography of Qualchan Chief Owhi's Son (Spokane: The Author, 1996), 224-233; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 191-192; A. J. Splawn, Ka-Mi-Akin: Last Hero of the Yakimas (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1958), 57-58; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 152-154; W. P. Bonney, History of Pierce County, Washington (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1927), 198-210; Gary Fuller Reese, Origins of Pierce County Place Names (Tacoma: R&M Press, 1989).

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