Steptoe's Defeat: Battle of Tohotonimme (1858)

  • By Stephen B. Emerson
  • Posted 8/08/2008
  • Essay 8709
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The year 1858 was the seminal turning point in conflict between Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and the encroaching interests of the United States. Fur traders, missionaries, and gold seekers were followed by farmers and stock raisers, who continually enlarged their territories at the expense of the tribes. Tensions created by the situation caused the fearful white settlers to raise militias and, later, call on U.S. troops to protect them. In 1855, fighting erupted along Puget Sound, the Yakima Valley, and the Walla Walla Valley. Things had calmed down by 1858. So much so that Colonel Edward Steptoe (1816-1865) had no qualms about taking a small and lightly armed column of soldiers right through the heart of the Columbia Plateau Indian lands. His command was soundly thrashed at the Battle of Tohotonimme, a defeat that spurred a desire for retribution. Only a few months after the Steptoe debacle, Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) stormed through the Spokane Valley, a massive display of force that effectively removed the ability and the will of the Indians to resist.

From Peace to War

By 1858, conflicts in the Yakima Valley and Puget Sound had dissipated, and most of the Plateau tribes had managed to maintain their independence. The U.S. Army maintained a presence in the Yakima Valley and at Fort Walla Walla, south of the Snake River. Fort Walla Walla was the most recently established post, having just been built under the supervision of Colonel Edward Steptoe, the officer who would lead the ill-fated expedition in May of 1858 that would be defeated at the Battle of Tohotonimme. Prior to this fight, most tribes involved in the battle had maintained friendly relations with the whites and it was expected that they would continue to do so. The Nez Perce of central Idaho had remained on good terms since they first fed the starving men of the Corp of Discovery in 1805. Some of them would serve as scouts for Steptoe’s detachment. To the north, the Colville, Chewelah, and other groups had long lived and worked side-by-side with whites of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the center, the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes avoided hostilities and allowed Christian missionaries to live among them. The Yakamas, to the west, had suffered in the earlier conflicts and maintained a precarious peace, although some like the leader Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877) maintained that they would have to fight again to save their lands and way of life. The Palouses, who lived along the banks and tributaries of the lower Snake River, were most directly in confrontation with the American soldiers. They had already lost much of their lands and their numbers had been depleted through adversity. They angrily confronted the settlers and soldiers who were present in the Walla Walla River Valley, and actively encouraged others to resist further encroachment. Most of the Indians agreed with them that the whites must remain south of the Snake River or face attack.

Relatively minor events in 1858 had served to turn the homelands of these tribes into a tinderbox ready to ignite. Miners crossing the region to reach ore fields to the north were often confronted, and several were killed. Such activity created tension among the white setters near Fort Colvile, who felt they needed further protection from the threat of intimidation or attack. (This was the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Colvile, not the American military Fort Colville, which would be built in 1859.) It was feared among the tribes that the Americans were planning to build a road right through the area, and indeed Lt. John Mullan (1830-1909) was preparing to do just that. Finally, some emboldened members of the Palouse Tribe crossed the Snake River and rode off with a number of horses and cattle from the Walla Walla post. Colonel Steptoe believed an expedition across the Plateau to Fort Colvile was necessary to address the situation. All of the above reasons were put forth as excuses for the excursion, but likely Steptoe’s underlying assumption was that a show of force was needed to keep the Indians at bay.

Colonel Steptoe's Mission

Colonel Steptoe departed Fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858, with 152 regular enlisted men, five company officers, and two other commissioned officers, a total of 160 soldiers. The command consisted of Company C, First Dragoons (later called cavalry), commanded by Oliver H. P. Taylor, and following Taylor’s death in the battle, Lieutenant James Wheeler; Company E, First Dragoons, commanded by Lieutenant William Gaston; Company H, First Dragoons, commanded by Lieutenant David Gregg; and Company E, Ninth Infantry, with two mountain howitzers, commanded by Captain Winder. Other commissioned officers attached to the command were Assistant Surgeon Dr. John F. Randolph and assistant quartermaster Lieutenant Hugh B. Fleming. This force was accompanied by at least three Nez Perce scouts and perhaps as many as 30 civilians who accompanied a large pack train that consisted of transport horses and mules and a number of beef cattle for subsistence en route to Fort Colville. All participants in the expedition appear to have been mounted in one form or another.

Despite Steptoe’s intent to advance with an intimidating presence, it does not appear that he felt it would take much force to do so. It appears that he assumed only a few members of the Palouse Tribe would cause trouble and expected the primary tribes in the area he would pass through, the Spokanes and Coeur d’Alenes, to remain on peaceful terms. Subsequent events would illustrate how wrongly he had assessed the situation. Father Joseph Joset, S.J., a Roman Catholic Jesuit missionary to the Coeur d’Alenes, correctly detected a wide degree of suspicion and anger among the tribes of the region, and tried to warn Steptoe before he crossed the Snake River, but was turned back because of the apparent danger. Others had personally warned Steptoe, but he nevertheless set out with an inadequately supplied column, at least as munitions were concerned. This was due in part to underestimation of the Indian’s resolve to defend their lands and a desire to improve the mobility of the command.

Ill-Equipped and Misinformed

Most of the weapons carried by the soldiers were outdated and clearly inadequate. Steptoe notes that two of his companies carried rifles known as Muskatoons, muzzle loading guns that fired a variety of shot in a wildly inaccurate spread that was rarely lethal at its maximum range of about 50 yards. Other soldiers reportedly carried Mississippi Yager rifles. Both the Muskatoon and the Yager were muzzle-loading weapons that were difficult to load while traveling on horseback, especially in the heat of battle. Another account indicates that a few of the soldiers had breach-loading Sharps carbines. Additionally, a number of the dragoons, likely including all of the company officers, carried Colt Dragoon revolvers, large handguns, which would prove to be the most useful armaments in the battle. The two mountain howitzers were small caliber cannons designed for use in irregular terrain. The firing tubes and the carriages were carried by separate mules, but could be rapidly unlimbered. The Indians, however, quickly learned to avoid the fire of these weapons by moving quickly and singly. Ultimately, the howitzers only served to cast doubt on Steptoe’s claims of peaceful purposes and even became an object of ridicule. Another egregious oversight in equipping the troops was the order to leave the sabers behind, a move that greatly decreased the effectiveness of a cavalry charge. The deficiencies in armament were exacerbated by a lack of adequate ammunition. Most of the soldiers apparently were allotted an average of only 40 rounds per man.

Upon leaving Fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858, Colonel Steptoe and his column headed for a point on the Snake River near the mouth of Alpowa Creek, a place called the Red Wolf Crossing. Here the Nez Perce Chief Timothy (1808-1891) and his people helped the troops cross the Snake River, the only way they could have accomplished this task. At the sight of the soldiers a nearby group of Palouse Indians fled northward. Thereupon, Steptoe proceeded “leisurely on the road to Colville.” Far from what we today would call a road, this route consisted of a variety of routes loosely referred to as the Lapwai Trail, on the south, and the Colville Trail further north. The path took them past the vicinities of the current towns of Moscow, Palouse, Garfield, and Farmington. Near the latter town, the column began to move down the main branch of Pine Creek, called Tohotonimme by the Nez Perce and Ingossomen by the Palouses and Spokanes, in the direction of the present-day community of Rosalia. Indians were often sighted during the trek and the more curious ones even ventured into the soldier’s camp. No obvious animosity was apparent on the surface, but many of the Indians were alarmed that the armed column was traveling so far to the east of the normal route northward to Fort Colvile. This was partly a result of the necessity of crossing the Snake River where they did, but also may have been due to Steptoe’s desire to confront the Palouses, who had reportedly been in the area.

Armed, Painted, and Defiant

On the night of May 15, a Saturday, Steptoe’s command camped at a point along the west side of Pine Creek just outside of the current city limits of Rosalia. The night passed uneventfully and the next morning, May 16, the troops continued to follow the creek northward. They were shortly met by a contingent of Spokane Indians, who declared that they would fight if the soldiers advanced. Steptoe was skeptical, considering the peaceful record of the Spokanes. The soldiers moved on. More and more Indians began to appear on the rolling hills on either side of Pine Creek. They were described as “armed, painted, and defiant,” and included men from the Spokane, Palouse, Coeur d’Alene, and Yakama tribes, as well as smaller groups from other tribes. The soldiers pressed on, going up North Pine Creek before turning toward the west, following a tributary of the stream. More Indians were arriving and their number soon approached as many as 1,200. As the troops approached a narrow draw between two hills, sometimes referred to as the “Dangerous Defile,” Steptoe noted that the crests of the hills were “crowned by the excited savages.” This prompted the colonel to order an end to the advance and the column turned to the southwest and marched about a mile to what Lieutenant Gregg later described as a “sheet of water,” and usually referred to in the literature as a small lake. Subsequent study of a map drawn by Lt. John Mullan’s topographer, Theodore Kolecki, reveals that the men actually camped beside a wide stretch of Squaw Creek.

At the streamside camp, Steptoe was again confronted by a number of Indians, who demanded to know why the Colonel had entered their lands with an armed force, bringing the big guns with them. Although Steptoe pleaded that his intentions were entirely peaceful, the Indians did not trust the armed soldiers. The Spokanes asserted that Steptoe would not be allowed the use of canoes with which to cross the Spokane River. Since this was the only way to get to Fort Colvile, Steptoe could see that his mission was now pointless and determined to retrace his steps to Fort Walla Walla at the earliest opportunity. The Indians continued to harass the troops, who did not dare to dismount their horses until darkness came and the Indians moved off.

Retreat and Gunfire

The full retreat commenced the next morning, Monday, May 17, 1858. The troops were mustered before dawn and set out to the east, making for Pine Creek. Father Joset, who had been following events with mounting alarm, had arrived in the vicinity on Saturday, May 15, after riding all the way from the Sacred Heart Mission on the Coeur d’Alene River. Early on May 17, Joset rode to Steptoe’s camp, only to find the column had already departed. When he caught up to the soldiers he asked if Steptoe would meet with the chiefs to try and defuse the situation. The colonel did not want to halt the pack animals, however, as they were becoming skittish. He agreed to meet with Indian leaders, but when Joset returned he brought only a few Coeur d’Alenes, including Head Chief Vincent. They apparently accepted Steptoe’s explanation that he wanted to return to the Snake River peacefully, but in the end they quarreled with each other, and this meeting had no effect on the coming battle. By the time Joset returned to his camp, he was informed that the fighting had begun.

Accounts vary as to who fired the first shots, some pointing to the Palouse, others to the Coeur d’Alenes. Regardless of who fired the first shot, the impetus for a fight probably came from those that Joset described as “rash yong (sic) people.” The gunfire first broke out as Steptoe’s men were approaching the valley of North Pine Creek. At the time, the Dragoon companies were strung out in a column, with Company H in the lead, Company C in the center, with the pack train, and Company E bringing up the rear. The shooting appears to have begun sporadically, but increased as more and more Indians judged that the die was cast and joined the fray. At first the soldiers maintained their formation, pressing ahead and not returning fire. After about 20 minutes, however, some of the soldiers were hit and the firing became general on both sides. Lieutenant Gregg, commanding the lead company, was ordered forward to take possession of the high ground on a ridge just east of Pine Creek. As the other companies advanced, separated from each other by about a thousand feet, they attempted to keep the Indians at bay through regular short charges or sallies. Upon withdrawal, however, the Indians rushed back, closely pressing the soldiers, hemming them in and attempting to get in front of them.

Casualties Mount

Captain Winder briefly unlimbered the howitzers in support of the troops coming up from the rear to the base of the ridge. But they were soon reloaded onto packhorses  and brought up the slope to be unlimbered again. Due to the separation of the companies in the column, the Indian attackers were able to get between Lieutenant Gaston’s Company E, in the rear, and the rest of the command. Spying this developing predicament, Lieutenant Gregg led his men in a charge down the ridge as Gaston drove his men forward to break free of the entrapment. A sharp engagement ensued as the two companies met and there were casualties on both sides. During the course of this action several prominent Coeur d’Alene headmen lost their lives, which enraged the Indians, who then pressed the fight even harder. The soldiers successfully reunited their units on the ridge, which they held for about another half hour. Indian fire and thirst, however, prompted them to move on, approaching Pine Creek and continuing the southward retreat.

Steptoe’s soldiers tried to maintain an orderly formation as they pushed forward, while the Indians tended to fight as individuals, loading their rifles and wielding their bows, rushing at the column and firing on the run. Steptoe was acutely aware of the shortage of bullets among his men and tried to get them to conserve their ammunition, but in vain, as, “in their excitement, the soldiers could not be restrained from firing it in the wildest manner.” In efforts to keep the Indians at a distance, to protect the pack train of frightened animals, and to reach water from the creek, Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston continually led mounted forays on the flanks of the column. The Indians would scatter, but then would rush right back into the vacuum when the attacking soldiers retreated. In this way, both officers received mortal wounds. When Gaston fell his men reeled backward and could not retrieve his body. Then Taylor fell, shot through the neck. A hand-to-hand fight ensued during the struggle over possession of his body. Soon after, Steptoe ordered his men onto a nearby hill, actually a knob at the south end of a ridge. Captain Taylor was carried to the spot where he soon died.

Final Retreat

Colonel Steptoe ordered his men to form a skirmish line along the perimeter of the hill, 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. A howitzer was placed at each of the northern and southern points of the outer skirmish line. Here the soldiers withstood two furious charges by the Indians and afterwards endured continuous sniping. As evening approached, and the attacks lessened, it was becoming apparent to the officers that there was not enough ammunition to fight much longer. It seemed that when another attack came in the morning, they 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, and the relative safety of Fort Walla Walla beyond. Four men, including Captain Taylor, a Native American (presumably a Nez Perce scout), and two dragoons were buried on the hillside. The two howitzers were also buried, much to Steptoe’s regret. Except for a meager supply of food and water, all else was abandoned, including the carriages that had supported the big guns. Once these preparations were completed, the party stole into the night.

There are several conflicting versions of the escape of Steptoe’s command. One story contends that the Nez Perce Chief Timothy, who had aided the soldiers on other occasions, had either pointed out, or led the Dragoons through, an unguarded corridor through the Indian encampments. This story became widely popular during commemorative activities 50 years after the battle and is actually the one referred to on the monument at the State Park. It is almost surely an apocryphal tale, however. Although Steptoe’s force did include some American Indian scouts, probably Nez Perce, there is no mention anywhere in any of the reports filed by U.S. Army personnel of the presence of Chief Timothy during either the battle or the flight. Furthermore the Palouse fighters, who had considerable contempt for Timothy and his Nez Perce, watched the southwestern perimeter of the position on the hill. It is unlikely that Timothy could have cleared a path through them.

Another version of the escape, expressed by some Couer d’Alenes, contends that Chief Vincent, of that tribe, and Father Joset arranged for the safe passage of Steptoe’s men through the Indians hemming them in. This story is most certainly not true, receiving no mention in the U.S. Army reports. Furthermore, Father Joset’s own written account of his role in the battle makes no reference to these events. Joset was far away by the time Steptoe’s men left their redoubt on the hill.

The account that is probably the closest to the truth is the one presented in the U.S. Army reports, which describe the final preparations as presented above and the departure of the column under cover of darkness. Steptoe’s command escaped unmolested to the Snake River, albeit leaving two severely injured soldiers along the route who later died of their wounds. The column was met at Red Wolf Crossing by sympathetic Nez Perce and subsequently escorted by other U.S. Army troops to Fort Walla Walla. Some accounts claim that the Indian pursuers were fooled and angry when the escape was discovered. Others insist that a massacre would have resulted had Steptoe not led his men to safety. But these suppositions:

"ignore the nature of Plateau Indian warfare. Some warriors undoubtedly harbored a desire to destroy the command, but the elders, older men and women, advised moderation. The Palouses and their allies were not out-maneuvered; they were not too busy dividing the loot; they allowed Steptoe to escape" (Trafzer and Scheuerman, pp. 82-83).

Casualties and Consequences

Casualty tallies for the battle of Tohotonimme have been variously reported. Most accounts indicate that out of Steptoe’s command a total of seven men died, including two officers, four enlisted men, and one Indian. At least six, and perhaps as many as 13, others were wounded. Indian deaths as a result of the battle have been reported as at least nine and as many as 15, while it appears that from 40 to 50 warriors were wounded. These numbers favor the soldiers, especially considering that Steptoe’s force was outnumbered by perhaps as much as 10 to one by an enemy that possessed superior weaponry.

But the fact is that when the battle was over, the Indians were left in control of the field, having overcome their own differences and uniting to defeat a common foe that threatened all of their livelihoods. Seeing the troops flee under cover of night to their faraway base greatly boosted the morale of the Native American defenders and each group made their way to their separate homes 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.

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