by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
In July 1853, U.S. Army Captain James McClellan and a column of 61 men and 161 horses and mules headed east out of Fort Vancouver with instructions from territorial Governor Isaac Stevens to survey the middle Columbia region and Cascades passes. When they reached the Simcoe Valley in mid-August, they were greeted by Fathers Pandosy and D’Herbomez of the St. Joseph Mission. They introduced McClellan and George Gibbs, an ethnographer and geologist with the expedition, to “Kamiakin, the principal chief of the country.”
The son of a Yakama mother and a Palouse father, Kamiakin grew up among the Yakamas, but as an adolescent also spent time among his father’s people. Following the seasons, with their cyclical succession of plants and salmon, the family camped throughout eastern Washington. Kamiakin was about five years old when his people started hearing rumors of strangely dressed white men, the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveling through the region.
As he grew up, Kamiakin learned the horsemanship of his father and steadily built his wealth on horses. As early as 1840, he was recognized by a majority of Yakamas as their headman and was becoming increasingly prominent among other Sahaptin and Salish tribes.
Kamiakin and his brothers traveled widely, perhaps as far as California, bringing longhorn cattle and milk cows back with them to the Yakima Valley. They also introduced potatoes, peas, and other crops. In fact, note Richard Scheuerman and Michael Finley in their recently published Finding Chief Kamiakin, it is curious that Captain McClellan failed to acknowledge Kamiakin’s gardens and grainfields as he assured Kamiakin that Americans would not settle in the interior. As Gibbs observed, “it is difficult to imagine” that the area would ever serve any “useful purpose.”
Given Kamiakin’s lingering presence across the state, his name having been attached to both high schools and buttes, it is also curious that it has taken so long for a biography to appear. The only previous book-length treatment was Ka-Mi-Akin: The Last Hero of the Yakimas, by A.J. Splawn in 1917. However, it focused primarily on Kamiakin’s role in the 1855–1858 Yakima War.
Scheuerman and Finley’s book, on the other hand, draws on much new material—including genealogical information and oral history—not only to correct what they consider misconceptions about how heavily Kamiakin influenced that war, but also to elucidate his earlier life and, significantly, his later life and his large family.
Through his friendship with Father Pandosy, Kamiakin accepted much of Catholic teachings and had his children baptized. But he would not accept Pandosy’s insistence that a Christian be monogamous. Kamiakin had five wives. How could he give up any of them, he asked Pandosy, when he loved them all? The resulting progeny are many, produced over a long life. Kamiakin’s lineage in the Northwest is complex and intricate.
Richard Scheuerman ’72 grew up near Endicott. “Growing up there, in the shadow of Kamiak Butte, Steptoe Butte, you can’t help but wonder about those things.” Those things being Kamiakin, of course, and his band, who camped at Kamiakin Crossing on the Palouse River just north of Endicott. After his defeat in the 1858 War and his subsequent exile in Montana, Kamiakin eventually ended up back in Washington, at Rock Lake, where he died in 1877.
The coauthor with Clifford Trafzer of Renegade Tribe (WSU Press 1993), the most complete treatment of the Palouse tribe, its role in the war, and Kamiakin to this point, Scheuerman has also written about his Russian ancestors who settled in eastern Washington.
“Even in high school, I knew our community was a little different from others, the nature of the families, relationships, all this talk about Russia. I decided I would track down everybody living in the community who was born in the old country. I don’t think I got everyone, but I got most. I still have the notes.
“Several commented about life on the Palouse River when they first came from Russia and the relationships they had with the native peoples when they’d come through every fall and every spring, trading their salmon for the fruits and vegetables.
“It sparked my interest, who are they and why they aren’t here now.”
Michael Finley’s thesis advisor at Eastern Washington University told him that if he wanted to be an authority in Native history of the Inland Northwest, he had to know who the authorities were. “He probably meant pick up their books,” says Finley. Which he did. But he also took his advisor literally, personally contacting Trafzer, Scheuerman, and Robert H. Ruby, another prolific scholar of Northwest Indians.
After finishing his thesis, on the three chiefs of the Colvilles, Skolaskin, Moses, and Joseph, Finley went to work for the Colville tribe in the history and archaeology division.
“I had some extra time on my hands outside of work. Coupled with that, I did a lot of research in my work. I’d come across references to Kamiakin,” which he started e-mailing to Scheuerman.
Finley also had access to genealogy records, which interested Scheuerman very much.
Scheuerman wrote back, “I haven’t seen that before.” He said this is wonderful stuff, says Finley. What should we do with it?
Finley is currently vice chairman of the Colville Business Council for the Colville Confederated Tribes. He is a descendent of Jaco Finley, the explorer David Thompson’s French-Indian guide. His wife Jackie is, through her father, a direct descendent of Kamiakin. Even though Kamiakin and his wives and younger children settled at Rock Lake, his adult children all moved to the Colville Reservation.
“I thought, what better tribute for my children than to work on their family history.”
Kamiakin had watched cautiously as Whites started moving into the region. He welcomed them, if a little nervously. Nevertheless, in 1848 he had invited the Catholic fathers to open the St. Joseph mission and assured them he would take full responsibility.
But Kamiakin’s patience and goodwill had limits. Sometime around 1853, he contacted military authorities at Fort Dalles and asked them to remove a settler who had established a claim on Indian land about 20 miles north of the Columbia River. Not wanting to provoke an incident, they complied.
But Isaac Stevens was not so compliant. Stevens was not only governor of Washington Territory, but also the territory’s superintendent of Indian affairs and the supervisor of the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey. In light of this last job, in particular, he thought it essential to extinguish Indian title to what federal officials considered public domain.
Stevens’s belief in Manifest Destiny was resolute. “The great end to be looked to,” he wrote, “is the gradual civilization of the Indians, and their ultimate incorporation with the people of the territory.”
“The rapid dispossession of Puget Sound tribal domains,” write Scheuerman and Finley, “confirmed Kamiakin’s suspicion that the polite rhetoric of White officials concealed other motives.”
His friend Father Pandosy was unable to encourage him. “It is as I feared,” he told Kamiakin, “the Whites will take your country as they have taken other countries from the Indians... . You may fight and delay for a time this invasion, but you cannot avert it.”
Angus McDonald, another friend of Kamiakin’s with the Hudson Bay Company, affirmed Pandosy’s warning. Killing a white settler was like killing an ant, he told Kamiakin. There would be hundreds more pouring from the nest.
Indeed, their warnings were prescient.
Increasing pressure from Stevens and deliberation among Indian leaders moved them all toward the 1855 Walla Walla Treaty Council. Piupiu Maksmaks, the Walla Walla chief, and Kamiakin had hoped that the assembled tribal leaders would present a united front against Stevens. But the Nez Perces, who had long been friendly to the whites, refused to join. In late May, hundreds of people—Yakama, Nez Perce, Palouse, Walla Walla, Cayuse—met with Stevens and other territorial representatives.
Stevens later observed of Kamiakin, “He is a peculiar man, reminding me of the panther and the grizzly bear. His countenance has an extraordinary play, one moment in frowns, the next in smiles, flashing with light and black as Erebus the same instant.”
Another observer noted that Kamiakin was the “great impediment in the way of cession of Indian lands.”
For over a week, Stevens presented federal Indian policy, pushing his proposals about reservation boundaries and fishing rights.
But Kamiakin was unmoved. “I am afraid that the white men are not speaking straight,” he told Stevens.
Regardless, at one point, Stevens offered Kamiakin an annual salary of $500 to “perform many services of a public character.” But Kamiakin refused, as he did all offers and gifts, believing that to accept anything from the Whites would compromise him and imply he had sold the Indians’ land.
When Kamiakin finally told Stevens he was leaving, that he was “tired of talking,” Stevens pushed harder and, according to an interpreter’s account years later, resorted to threat: “If you do not accept the terms offered and sign this paper...you will walk in blood knee deep.”
Whether it was that threat or the combined advocacy of the other leaders, muse Scheuerman and Finley, Kamiakin finally signed with an X. According to one of the priests present, he was in such a rage that he bit his lip until it bled.
Under the terms of the Yakima Treaty of 1855, the 14 tribes of the confederated “Yakima Nation” ceded to the United States approximately 17,000 square miles in exchange for the exclusive use of 2,000 square miles of reservation land, two schools, and fishing and gathering rights at “all usual and accustomed places.”
The Nez Perce and Walla Walla-Cayuse treaties were also drawn up.
Within weeks of the signings, however, the treaties, not yet even ratified, were broken. Gold was discovered on Indian land north of the Spokane River, and Whites rushed to the new diggings. And where miners rushed in, other settlers would soon follow.
Kamiakin convened a conclave a month after the treaty signing, meeting with Teias and Owhi of the Yakamas as well as representatives of the Columbias and Wamapum.
Kamiakin asked them, “What of us then?” Shall we become “degraded people? Let us stop their coming, even if we must fight.”
In spite of his despair, Kamiakin still sought reconciliation: “Let us send men to the mountain passes to warn the white men to go back.” But “if they persist...we will fight.”
As worthless as historical speculation might be, one cannot help but wonder what the former Washington Territory might be like had the moderating efforts of Kamiakin, the Catholic priests, and the U.S. Army prevailed over the volunteer militias, the ranting newspaper editors in Seattle and Portland, and the relentless momentum of impatient settlers.
But of course there was no stopping that momentum.
In July 1856, the Washington Volunteers attacked an encampment of 300 Cayuse, Walla Wallas, and Umatillas, and claimed they’d killed many Yakama warriors under Kamiakin in the process. They destroyed the camp’s stores of dried beef, tents, and flour and took about 200 horses, many of which they shot.
According to Colonel George Wright, the new commander of the recently formed Ninth Infantry, the attack was on “women, old men and children, with a few of the young men.” Kamiakin was not present. He was likely camped among the Okanogans with his brothers and the Yakama chief Owhi and Columbia chief Quiltenenock.
“As word spread,” write Scheuerman and Finley, “Army officials railed again against Stevens and the volunteers’ methods, which were ‘to provoke a continuance of the war and to plunder the Indians of their horses and cattle.’”
A second Walla Walla Council in 1856 deteriorated under Stevens’s inflexibility, alienating even the Nez Perce. Escalation of violence seemed inevitable.
Amidst the recorded vitriol and impatience of the Whites and the running battles between Indians and Whites, one factor is only slowly being recollected, and that is the impact of introduced disease on the fate of the native peoples of the interior.
“I’ve often said,” says Scheuerman, “before the war started in 1855, it was already finished.” Some historians estimate that as much as 60-70 percent of the native population was decimated by smallpox and measles in the preceding decades.
“There were villages on the lower Snake River that were totally uninhabited,” he says. “Someone told the story of going upstream on the Palouse River and finding a village with one small child crying, the only one left.”
If the physical decimation weren’t enough, the psychic toll must have been profound. “On a grand scale,” write Scheuerman and Finley, “epidemics demoralized and decreased Native populations, adversely affecting their overall social organization and strength.”
Whatever their disadvantage, however, the growing tension led to a major victory.
Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe left Fort Walla Walla in May 1858 with a contingent of approximately 160 men, headed for Fort Colville in a show of strength. North of Rosalia, they met a large gathering of Indians.
Having crossed the Palouse River the night before, Steptoe had received intelligence of belligerent Palouses and Spokanes ahead, but sent a scout back to Fort Walla Walla with the message that he intended to “give them a good drubbing.”
But the gathering was far larger than he had imagined, his men were under-armed, and the Indians were angry at the blatant incursion on their territory. Chief Vincent of the Coeur d’Alenes ordered him to turn around, and Father Joset of Sacred Heart mission desperately attempted to negotiate.
But as more and more Indians gathered, they finally attacked under no threat of a drubbing.
Fierce fighting continued throughout the day. Seven soldiers were killed and thirteen wounded, but finally they were able to slip away under darkness.
Such an embarrassment to the Army could of course not go unanswered. On July 4, 1858, General Newman Clarke, commander of the Army of the Pacific, issued orders to Colonel Wright for a “complete submission” of the warring tribes.
Wright marched 1,000 men across the Columbia Plateau. Kamiakin and other chiefs massed their people in Spokane and Palouse country to meet the advancing troops.
Wright’s troops and the gathered tribes finally met in early September in the Battle of Four Lakes, about five miles north of present-day Cheney. The Indians were unprepared for the improved weaponry of the Army troops, and the warriors fell back under heavy fire in spite of Qualchan and Kamiakin’s appeals to stand their ground. The companies that had been part of the Steptoe rout were “burning for revenge” and swept into the Indians. Warriors were overrun, shot down, or clubbed, leaving confusion and death across the plains.
After retreating, Kamiakin and other leaders tended their wounded and waited for Wright’s next move. By September 5, they had regrouped several miles north of Four Lakes to meet the soldiers again in the Battle of Spokane Plains. “This proved to be the decisive action of the campaign and a defining moment in the region’s primal clash of cultures,” the authors write.
“Again Kamiakin and Qualchan led the Palouses and Yakamas at the Indians’ center left and right, respectively. Stellam’s Coeur d’Alenes took the right flank and Spokanes under Garry and Sgalgalt formed on the left. As rifles barked and the howitzer began thundering, Indians from the north dashed ‘down a hill five hundred feet high and with a slope of forty-five degrees, at the most headlong speed,’ in ‘feats of horsemanship...never seen equaled.’ They rushed forward to join other warriors attempting to contain the soldiers’ horseshoe formation.”
But horsemanship and valor were in the end no match for Wright’s superior firepower.
Wright’s strategy had relied on overwhelming force and a “focused assault on Tribal leadership,” write Scheuerman and Finley. Wright, who earlier had pursued a diplomatic path, had now assumed a ruthless and uncompromising policy. When Qualchan rode into Wright’s camp with his wife to speak of peace, Wright had him summarily hung along with some Palouses he had rounded up. The stream where Wright was camped was named Hangman Creek.
Wright demanded unconditional surrender and had his troops destroy camps, herds, and food caches. Three days after the battle, Wright had ordered his troops east through the Spokane Valley, overtaking a herd of a thousand Indian horses, which they shot.
The war of 1858 was over.
Kamiakin and his band fled eastward into the Bitterroots.
So why did it take so long for a biography of Kamiakin to materialize? Scheuerman and Finley give slightly different answers.
Part of it is the nature of the Kamiakin family, Scheuerman ventures. Perhaps they feel a continuation of what Kamiakin himself felt, hurting from the divisions among the tribes, during and after the war. Kamiakin goes to live at the obscure Rock Lake and then drifts off himself into obscurity, the real story of his role and greatness remaining only within the family.
Perhaps more significant, even though it occurred over 130 years go, the family is still enraged over the desecration of Kamiakin’s grave. Soon after he died and was buried in a small family plot on the shore of Rock Lake, fossil hunter Charles Sternberg learned about the chief’s grave from a local rancher. Another local resident encountered Sternberg and his brother leading packhorses. Sternberg mentioned casually that “Wouldn’t the old chief’s head look good on the shelves of the Smithsonian Institution.”
When family members visited the gravesite and found Kamiakin’s grave dug up and his head gone, they were devastated. They had a holy man supervise the moving of the cemetery to the other side of the lake. All swore never to reveal its new location.
Many attempts have been made to locate Kamiakin’s skull, to no avail. Scheuerman himself has tried his best to track it down. He finally gave up.
Some of the reason for the biography’s slow coming is simply a matter of privacy, says Finley. But there is also an unease with written history: “What you put in writing can be used against you down the road.” Written accounts, both accurate and inaccurate, have been used in deciding treaty disputes.
“On the other hand,” he says, “if you don’t put anything out, you have nothing to stand on. It’s important that you put stuff in writing. It’s also important that you’re very careful what you say and how you say it.”
Scheuerman and Finley plan to donate royalties from their book to a memorial at the site of the Kamiakin camp at Rock Lake, if the family concurs. If not, they will go toward a scholarship in Chief Kamiakin’s name.
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