The Steptoe Defeat, 1858
Virginia native Edward Jenner Steptoe graduated from West Point in 1837. His first military service was in Florida against the Seminole Indians and next, the Mexican War. In 1854 he became commander of Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory.
This was a difficult time in the Pacific Northwest as white settlers had been arriving on the Oregon Trail and by boat, As Indians steadily lost land to these migrants, tensions mount ted.
Adding to this, Gold discoveries in British Columbia caused miners to flood across lands that treaties had promised to the Indians. The Walla Walla treaty of 1855 had forbidden whites to trespass onto Indian lands unless the Indians invited them. but by 1858 this treaty had not yet been ratified by Congress and many white people did not abide by it.
Colonel Steptoe's correspondence of the week before the battle reveals that he intended to march to Colville and mediate a dispute between Indians and white miners.
The command of 150 men and attendant train of mules and equipment departed Fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858. They had two mountain howitzers and Steptoe ordered the men to leave their swords at the Fort. They traveled east and after ten days of travel, they forded the Snake River at Red Wolf's Crossing.
Local tribes regularly camped together at this time of year, to gather Camas root while it was blooming. And because the soldiers seemed to be heading toward a gathering of women and children out gathering this root, the Indians became suspicious of their intent.
On the 16th of May, 1858, after crossing the Snake River, Steptoe and his soldiers came upon Indian warriors from several bands, who chastised them and told them that they should not be on Indian land.
The Soldiers continued and on the 17th drew near Stubblefield Lake, where the women and children were encamped. Distraught, the Indians sent messengers on horseback around Lake Coeur d'Alene to spread the word and gather warriors to defend their people and land.
The Jesuit Father Joset heard what was happening and hurried to the location in an attempt to prevent violence and after a meeting with Joset and the Coeur d'Alene Indian leader Vincent and others, Steptoe determined to turn back to Fort Walla Walla. but as they began to turn, a shot rang out from the back of the train, and an Indian man was killed. This enraged the Indians, who began to fight back and a running battle ensued.
The warriors and the soldiers fought from hilltop to hilltop all day long, heading south from the Stubblefield Lake area to what is now the town of Rosalia where the soldiers began to run low on ammunition.
Desperate, and as darkness fell, they made a stand on the top of a plateau (where Rosalia High School's football field is now) and picketed their mules and horses in a circle with the gear and soldiers on the inside.
Indians of different tribes surrounded them on all sides.
In spite of this, almost miraculously, the troops escaped in the middle of the night. They left all their equipment and mules they buried their dead and the howitzers.
The soldiers had a large amount of whiskey with them and while getting ready to escape in the night, Sergeant Ball was charged with discarding the whiskey which he did. Drunk, he made his way to Pine Creek where he passed out under a bush. When he woke in the morning, he found that the troops were gone and It took him nearly two weeks to walk back to Fort Walla Walla.
Some have judged it unlikely that Steptoe and 150 men could escape in the middle of the night with no ammunition and completely encircled by Indians. There are differing stories telling how this happened. The soldiers say that they were stealthy and tricked the Indians and the Coeur d'Alene Indians say that they let the soldiers through their side of the surround.
Steptoe has been criticized for this embarrassing defeat Some questions are: Why did Steptoe order his meant to leave their swords at the Fort? How could they not have packed enough ammunition? Why did they travel into Coeur d'Alene Indian lands to get to Colville? and Why did they have so much whiskey with them?
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.
This battle is also called The Battle of Pine Creek, The Coeur d'Alene word is "Hngossemen," and the Nez Perce word is Tohotonimme."