Col. George Wright’s Harsh Justice in the Indian Wars of 1858

Col. George Wright

Col. George Wright

The year 1858 was a pivotal one for Inland Northwest history respecting the relations between whites and the region’s various Indian tribes.  In mid-May, a troop of 159 soldiers commanded by Col. Edward J. Steptoe was attacked near present-day Rosalia by a larger force of Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, and Palouse warriors, along with some warriors from still other participating tribes.  The battle raged for hours.  Badly outnumbered and running out of ammunition, Steptoe and his soldiers used the cover of night to make their escape and hasten back to their home station at Fort Walla Walla.

That summer, the memory of Steptoe’s defeat launched a punishing counter-attack, led by Col. George Wright.  The war-making tribes this time were soundly defeated in two engagements, at the Battle of Four Lakes (September 1st, 1858, near Fairchild AFB) and the Battle of Spokane Plain (September 5th, about 10 miles west of Spokane).  The tribes thereafter sued for peace and lasting treaties were signed.  No-nonsense provisions were laid down for the tribes under the threat of still more attacks by Wright’s soldiers.  In this way, what began as a humiliating defeat for the U.S. Army culminated in a more secure peace for travelers, settlers, and miners — as well as regional tribes — by the autumn of 1858, and also thereafter for many years.

A young lieutenant in his early 20s penned an excellent account of these events based chiefly on his first-hand observations.  His name was Lawrence Kip and his memoir was titled Army Life on the PacificA Journal of the Expedition Against the Northern Indians, the Tribes of the Coeur d’Alenes, Spokans [sic], and Pelouzes [sic], in the Summer of 1858, published in 1859.  As will become obvious, I have relied greatly on Kip’s account in this article.    

Four key features of the 1858 hostilities arguably exerted a favorable effect on the outcome for the Army and the peace of the region, and thus bear particular notice:  (a) the Army’s superior weapons and disciplined conduct in battle, (b) the slaughter of Indian horses, (c) the intermediary agency of mission priests, and (d) Col. Wright’s stern disposition toward peace negotiations and terms, as well as his unabashed use of prompt hangings of Indians responsible for past crimes or agitation.

Unlike Steptoe’s troops, Wright’s soldiers were equipped with newer and longer range 1855 Springfield musket rifles and new minie ball ammunition.  The minie ball was not spherical, like the old musket ball, but instead had a conical shape that expanded with the powder charge’s ignition.  The ignition’s force pressed the projectile’s sides against the barrel’s rifled bore, lending it an accuracy-improving spin.  The Indians’ guns were outmatched.  The new weapon’s enhanced accuracy also thwarted the Indians’ hit-and-run tactics and inflicted heavy casualties.  The impact of the Army’s better rifles and Wright’s disciplined troops was convincingly relayed in Kip’s account:

We heard to-day a fact, showing what will be the influence of our two fights even upon the Indian tribes which were not engaged in them.  One of the chiefs of the Colville Indians whose hunting-grounds are far north of the Coeur d’Alenes, just on the borders of the British possessions, told his tribe that he had heard a great deal about the soldiers, but never having seen them he would go down and be a witness of the fight which they knew was at hand.  So he joined the other tribes, and was present at the battle of “Four Lakes.”  When the fight was over, he turned his horse and rode until he reached his own people.  There he called his tribe together, and told them he had seen the soldiers, but never wished to see them again; that they stood as firm as the oaks when the Indians fired at them; that they could march faster and further in a day than horses; that their guns carried a mile, more than half way as far again as those of the Indians, and he ended by advising them always to remain friends with the whites (pp. 92-93). 

Gustav Sohon's rendering of the battle

Gustav Sohon’s rendering of the battle

At the Battle of Spokane Plain some 900 Indian horses were captured by Wright’s troops, along with some cattle and grain stores.  The Indians hoped that they could before long stampede the captured horses and round them up for their own use again.  Wright however allowed his men to select about 200 mounts for Army use and slaughtered the remaining 700.  “It was a disagreeable necessity,” wrote Kip, but one which could not be avoided” (p. 71).  “We learned subsequently,” Kip also wrote, “that nothing we had done so much prostrated the Indians as this destruction of their horses” (p. 75).  And, “Without horses these Indians are powerless” (p. 76).

The Coeur d’Alene tribe, the first to approach the Army for peace, was hesitant to assemble at the mission to parley with Wright.  Kip wrote of the Indians:  “They are scattered and hiding in the mountains and ravines, and it will be through the agency and influence of their priests alone, that we shall be able to reassure them and induce them to accede to the necessary terms” (p. 80).  The mission’s priests served as intermediaries, as guarantors of their safety, and as peace advocates.  The priests served similar roles with the Spokanes and other tribes in the peace process.

Wright took a boldly assertive stance in his peace negotiations with each of the tribes.  On September 7th, Wright had an impromptu parley with Spokane Chief Garry along the banks of the Spokane River.  Garry lamented that he had never supported war with the white man but had been pushed into it by younger, hotheaded braves and other chiefs.  Wright’s reply to Garry, as recorded by Kip, evidences his stern disposition toward the defeated Indians:

“I have met you in two battles; you have been badly whipped; you have had several chiefs and many warriors killed or wounded; I have not lost a man or animal.  I have a large force, and you Spokans, Coeur d’Alenes, Pelouzes [sic], and Pend Oreilles may unite, and I can defeat you as badly as before.  I did not come into the country to ask you to make peace; I came here to fight.  Now, when you are tired of war and ask for peace, I will tell you what you must do.  You must come to me with your arms, with your women and children, and everything you have, and lay them at my feet.  You must put your faith in me and trust in my mercy.  If you do this, I shall then tell you the terms upon which I will give you peace.  If you do not do this, war will be made on you this year and the next, and until your nations shall be exterminated” (pp. 67-68).

Wright made many demands of the tribes in his effort to establish hegemony for the United States and insure the peace.  For one, he required them to provide hostages who would be kept under Army control for a year-long period.  For another, he required that spoils taken by warriors from the battle with Steptoe’s troops be returned.  For yet another, he demanded that tribal leaders transfer into the Army’s hands individual Indians or groups who had been responsible for murders, theft, or other crimes.  The tribal leaders usually complied, and the men they turned over to Wright were usually promptly hanged.

The scene of such transfers must have been wrenching in some cases for the tribal leadership, members, and families; yet Kip also told of instances where the hangings appear to have been met with some relief by the tribes. Kip’s narrative described a September 30th council between Wright and the Pelouze [sic] tribe where such handover requests and hangings transpired.  Wright spoke through an interpreter:

“Tell them they are a set of rascals, and deserve to be hung; that if I should hang them all, I should not do wrong. Tell them I have made a written treaty with the Coeur d’Alenes and the Spokans, but I will not make a written treaty with them; and if I catch one of them on the other side of Snake river, I will hang him. Tell them they shall not go into the Coeur d’Alene country, nor into the Spokan country, nor shall they allow the Walla Walla Indians to come into their country. If they behave themselves and do all that I direct them, I will make a written treaty with them next spring. If I do, there will be no more war between us. If they do not submit to these terms, I will make war on them; and if I come here again to war, I will hang them all, men, women and children.

“Tell them that five moons ago two of their tribe killed some miners. The murderers must immediately be delivered up.

There was a brief consultation among the Indians, which resulted in one of them coming forward. He was at once bound, and turned over to the guard to be hung. The other had disappeared, to the evident annoyance of his countrymen.

“….Tell them they must deliver up the six men who stole our beef cattle at Walla Walla.”

This was at once assented to, and after another consultation the offenders were brought forward and immediately handed over to the guard.

Kip’s account leaves little doubt that Wright’s negotiations did not aim to establish pacts between equals or pacts freely entered into by both sides.  They were surrender treaties and celebrated the U.S. Army’s victories.  They were therefore also exercises seeking the subordination and subjugation of the war-making tribes.

Col. Wright dealt with hard realities harshly.  Young Lt. Kip’s memoir, doubtless reflecting the prevailing sensibility of the time, registered no criticism nor objection to his commanding officer’s swift and — from a modern viewpoint — heavy-handed methods.

—  Ron Roizen

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3 Responses to Col. George Wright’s Harsh Justice in the Indian Wars of 1858

  1. Bob savage says:

    Wow wright was one determined officer ; his actions were needed to support & protect the
    Citizens along with negotiating a peaceful settlement in the region ; he being judge & jury
    Was cruel to read today but needed to deal with the many Indian tribes ; very interesting article!!!

  2. Jeff Cuneo says:

    Outstanding and it points out what alot of people dont know–that a few out of control warriors brought death and misery to the rest of the tribes. Geronimo himself was hated and an outcast among the others since they knew they were all suffering— because of his raiding stealing and killing. Also they tracked down indians often by using Indian guides against them since even other indians often hated the raiders. Instead all we hear today is politically correct statements that all the indians were wise and sat around saying wise things and connecting with nature–then we suddenly came along and killed them out of the blue which is garbage.

  3. Alan says:

    Good story; glad GOD made it ‘right’ in the end when he delivered Col. Wright to his final destination; very well served justice. & as usual… History is written by the winners.

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