American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Yakama War

The mid-1800s were a turbulent time in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon and Washington Territories' Native population had been ravaged by disease, resulting in the Whitman Massacre, and news from Indians around the Northwest was keeping racial tensions high.

In 1854–1855, the new territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, was on a mission to acquire Native Americans' land in the Pacific Northwest for a proposed transcontinental railroad route from the Mississippi River to Puget Sound (Kent, 1993, 98–99). To do so, he needed to secure peace in the region and to open the land to European-American immigration. After negotiating several treaties around Puget Sound, Stevens intended to do the same with the Plateau Indians, and then cross over the Rocky Mountains to deal with the Flatheads and the Blackfeet. For the council with the Plateau Indians at Walla Walla, Stevens enlisted the assistance of Oregon Indian Agent, Joel Palmer (Stevens, 1855, 8).

Upon hearing of these plans, Kamiakin, the headman of the Yakamas, called for a meeting of chiefs from several tribes and nations in the region on the Grand Ronde River, during the summer of 1854, to discuss rumors. After meeting for five days, all the men of authority among the Plateau Indians agreed to band together against Stevens and refuse to give up their peoples' lands. Some powerful men, mainly Spokan Garry (Spokane) and Lawyer of the Nez Percé, however, advised the chiefs listen to what the immigrants had to say before entering into an avoidable and costly war (Miller, 2003, 112).

When the Walla Walla council did finally meet in the summer of 1855, the solidarity that had been agreed upon at Grand Ronde quickly broke down and each of the chiefs found themselves scrambling to retain any of his peoples' land at all. In the end, the Yakamas received a relatively small reservation in the Yakima Valley, a loss of nearly 30,000 square miles (Splawn, 1944, 35–36).

This was a devastating loss to the Yakamas and, along with the increased traffic from the Puget Sound settlements to the gold mines in northeastern Washington, Kamiakin's warriors were furious. In September 1855, A. J. Bolon, subagent to the Yakamas, was murdered, sparking open hostilities. Bolon was assumed to have known that some of the white travelers were killed by Qual-chin, son of chief Owhi, who was Kamiakin's half brother, so Qual-chin ambushed Bolon to keep the authorities from punishing him for the murders (Glassley, 1972, 112–113).

Meanwhile, Governor Stevens was meeting with Native peoples in the Rocky Mountains; acting Governor C. H. Mason called on troops from Fort Vancouver and Fort Steilacoom to protect Euro-American immigrants traveling through the area and to escort Governor Stevens on his return to Washington Territory. This duty fell upon Major General Rains, the commander of Fort Vancouver, who ordered Brevet-Major Granville O. Haller from The Dalles, Oregon, and Lieutenant W. A. Slaughter from Fort Steilacoom to join forces (Glassley, 1972, 113).

En route, Haller, with nearly 100 men and a howitzer, encountered approximately 1,500 well armed Indians on Toppenish Creek, on October 6, 1855. The Indians attacked and surrounded the soldiers. Fighting continued for three days, as the soldiers were forced to bury all their extra supplies, including the howitzer, and make a fighting retreat to The Dalles. Along the way, Haller met with a group of forty-five artillerymen on the Klickitat River, under Lieutenant Day. There they built a blockhouse and defended themselves. At the same time, Lieutenant Slaughter had tried to cross the Cascade Mountains through Naches Pass with fifty men, but on the eastern side, he encountered so many hostile Indians that he returned to the west side of the mountains (Glassley, 1972, 113–114).

General Mason then sent Lieutenant Phil Sheridan from Fort Vancouver, along with two companies of volunteers and regulars from The Dalles, plus two government ships from Puget Sound. Governor Curry of Oregon Territory sent four more companies of volunteers against the hostile Indians. Major General Rains, with two companies of Washington volunteers and all the available regulars, combined with four companies of Oregon volunteers under Colonel J. W. Nesmith in the Yakama country on November 7. On the next day, they engaged hostiles near the Yakima River. The soldiers pursued the Indians upstream along the river, but the Indians escaped by climbing the cliffs out of the canyon (Glassley, 1972, 115).

Initially, the Yakima War lasted only a few months, July to November 1855, but, having escaped the pursuing soldiers for the time, the Indians resumed their hostilities against the intruders. By July 1858, war had erupted again, this time with the help of the Palouse, Spokane, and Coeur d' Alene Indians. This war lasted until September 1858, when the Indians were defeated and many of their leaders were hanged. After this, most Plateau Indians resigned themselves to their reservations. Peace was shattered again in another conflict in 1877, when Chief Joseph fled federal troops until his defeat in western Montana.

Daniel R. Gibbs


Further Reading
Doty, James. 1978. Journal of Operations of Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens of Washington Territory in 1855. Edited by Edward J. Kowrach. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press.; Drury, Clifford M. 1979. Chief Lawyer of the Nez Perce Indians. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark.; Glassley, Ray. 1972. Indian Wars of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort.; Josephy, Alvin M. 1965. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.; Josephy, Alvin M. 1976. The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance. New York: New York Books.; Miller, Christopher. 1993. "Indian Patriotism: Warrior vs. Negotiator." American Indian Quarterly 17, no. 3 (Summer): 343–349.; Miller, Christopher. 2003. Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Richards, Kent. 1993. Isaac I. Stevens: Young Man in a Hurry. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.; Splawn, A. J. 1944. Ka-mi-akin: Last Hero of the Yakamas. Portland: Binfords & Mort (for the Oregon Historical Society).; Stevens, Isaac Ingalls. 1855. A True Copy of the Record of the Official Proceedings at the Council Walla Walla Valley 1855. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press.
 

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