DescriptionThis battle is also called The Battle of Pine Creek, The Coeur d'Alene word is "Hngossemen," and the Nez Perce word is Tohotonimme."
Virginia native, Edward J. Steptoe, graduated from West Point in 1837. His first service was in Florida against the Seminoles and next, the Mexican War. In 1854 he became commander of Fort Walla Walla. This would seal his fate.
Gold discoveries in British Columbia caused miners to flood across Eastern Washington Indian lands heading for the Fraser River Valley. This added to already high tensions between Whites and Indians. The Walla Walla treaty had forbidden whites to trespass onto Indian lands unless they were invited but the treaty was not yet ratified and many white people did not abide by it.
Colonel Steptoe was supposedly marching to Colville to mediate a dispute between Indians and white miners when the engagement occurred.
Steptoe's command marched from fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858. Though Colville is north, they traveled east, fording the river at Red Wolf's crossing. Indians say that this raised their suspicion because he headed directly for the location where they were digging Camas root near present day Rosalia.
On May 16th, he came upon Indians from several bands, who chastised him and told him that he should not be there, because it was Indian land. On the 17th Steptoe determined to turn back, but a battle ensued.
Steptoe writes in official letters that his intent was to march directly toward the offending Indians. They had two mountain howitzers (canons), however they did not carry enough ammunition to fight and the men had been ordered to leave their swords at the fort.
What they did have enough of was whiskey. While getting ready for their retreat, Sergeant Ball was charged with discarding it, which he did in a very practical manner. Drunk, he made his way to the creek where he passed out under a bush. Waking in the morning, he found that the troops were gone and It took him nearly two weeks to walk back to Fort Walla Walla.
The troops had escaped in the middle of the night of the 17th, leaving all their equipment: saddles, mules and the howitzers, which they buried. Some have judged it unlikely that Steptoe and some 150 men could escape while completely encircled by Indians. Yet this is what they claimed to have done.
As a result of this embarrassing defeat, Colonel Steptoe was placed on sick leave until he resigned his commission in 1861. He died four years later in Virginia, at the age of forty-nine.