SECOND WW TREATY COUNCIL AND STEVENS SKIRMISH
Though the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 has become fairly well known, very few people know that in 1856, Governor Stevens held a Second Treaty Council in Walla Walla in an attempt to end the Indian war that had broken out over land invasions by whites in advance of the treaties being ratified. After calling all the inland tribes together again, Stevens failed to convince them to surrender either their lands or their arms, and he and his party were attacked as they attempted to return to The Dalles. The initial attack led to fighting in the upper Mill Creek area throughout the afternoon and night of September 19, 1856, and into the following day. This dramatic series of events, whose locations had never been determined, involved the only instance of combat with Indians by Stevens, who later died as a general in the US Army during the Civil War.
As the sesquicentennial of these 1856 events approached, I was determined to discover where they had taken place, and to organize some activities to study and commemorate them. I began by studying all the historical accounts with the help of historian Steve Plucker, a Touchet area farmer whose great grandfather had served in the US Army during the Yakima War. Once I had pieced together the descriptions of the various camps as well as the area where Stevens and his party of thirty-eight wagons had first been attacked, and then where they had circled their wagons during the 12-hour siege, I began to walk all of the ground in the area to see if I could find any places that met the various descriptions.
Though the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 took place just east of where Mill Creek crosses the Nez Perce Trail along Walla Walla’s Main Street, the 1856 council was said to have begun about two miles above that. In addition, Gov. Stevens had reported, “We are on a little tributary of Mill Creek about one mile from it.” Going two miles as indicated above the old treaty grounds, there are only two tributaries of Mill Creek in the vicinity—Garrison Creek, which is about a half mile away, and Yellowhawk Creek, which is a mile away. Based on the historical accounts I concluded that the Second Treaty Council probably began along the left bank of Yellowhawk Creek just above where it crosses School Avenue on land now owned by the Leonetti Cellar winery.
In the midst of the 1856 council, Stevens became convinced he was in danger, and moved his camp farther up Mill Creek “about 7-8 miles” to Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe’s U.S. Army camp of several hundred soldiers. Whitman College historian W.D. Lyman placed this camp on the Gilkerson property which begins east of Five Mile Road and extends up the Mill Creek canyon to Seven Mile Road. When the reconvened council ultimately failed, on September 19, 1856 Stevens left for The Dalles with his party of thirty-eight wagons pulled by eighty oxen, fifty teamsters and quartermaster’s men, sixty-nine Washington Volunteers, over fifty friendly Nez Perce, and more than two hundred head of loose livestock.
In his October 22 report to the Secretary of War Stevens stated, “Following me as I set out about eleven o’clock on the way to the Dalles, they attacked me within three miles of Steptoe’s camp at about one o’clock in the afternoon…I moved on under fire one mile to water, when forming a corral of the wagons and holding the adjacent hills and the brush on the stream by pickets, I made my arrangements to defend my position and fight the Indians. Our position in a low, open basin, 500 or 600 yards across, was good, and with the aid of our corral, we could defend ourselves against a vastly superior force…”
Another account by one of the participants states, “small parties of Indians began to pass us on the left and soon commenced firing on our rear…But we drove on, the volunteers, and occasionally a teamster returning the fire until we had reached a small spring branch, where we corraled our wagons, including our stock. A place where three small valleys met, and as many elevations of about 30 feet, standing close in the form of a triangle…By the time we were camped, we were surrounded and fired upon from all sides. The three points having first been secured to keep the enemy from annoying the train, a charge was made upon the Indians in our rear to the left.”
Another account stated, “After proceeding… two and a half miles, and coming into the valley of a small branch of Mill Creek, the whole body of Indians came on the full run for the rear of the train, and opened a fire on the rear guard which was returned in good order…The Train moved on slowly one mile further, when the wagons were formed into a corral, and the loose animals run in for security. Pickets were then placed on the highest hills, so as to prevent the Indians from firing into the corral and stampeding the animals.”
Serious fighting then took place throughout the afternoon, including two charges by the Volunteers with loss of life on both sides, and continued until 2 a.m. on September 20 when the Stevens party was rescued by Steptoe’s troops and escorted back to the federal camp. On the way back to the camp, and later that morning, additional fighting was reported.
After I walked and viewed all of the terrain within a reasonable distance of the Mill Creek canyon beginning at Seven Mile Road and going downstream, I found a place about two and a half miles below the likely council site where “the valley of a small branch of Mill Creek” enters the canyon. Within a mile of that point, easily accessible by wagons, is a low, open basin about 500-600 yards across, with a small spring branch, where three small valleys meet, standing in the form of a triangle, with adjacent low ridges of nearly 30 feet elevation, a ridge to the south about 500 yards away where one of the charges was described, and another stream about a mile away to the south where the friendly Nez Perce were said to have made their camp. There are very few other points in the vicinity where wagons were capable of leaving the deep Mill Creek canyon, and this site, at the end of the concrete spillway leading from the Mill Creek diversion dam to Bennington Lake, is the only one in the area that appears to meet the descriptions of the participants in these events.
To confirm the location, I organized a workshop that was held on February 11, 2006 at Walla Walla Community College under the sponsorship of our citizens group Walla Walla 2020 that I coordinate. The purpose of the workshop was to compare historical accounts, to visit likely sites, and to discuss potential commemorative activities during the sesquicentennial of these events. Participants were historians, archaeologists, tribal representatives, and interested local residents, including the farmer and an owner of a portion of the site, most of which is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of its Bennington Lake flood control project.
To assist the workshop participants, I prepared a summary and map of fifteen points of skirmish activity noted by the participants, with suggested locations for each. Some additional corroboration was provided by the first survey of the area, completed in 1860 with a resulting 1861 survey map, which shows a road from the vicinity where the council apparently ended leading to the valley of the small branch of Mill Creek I had found, as well as a road passing through the apparent skirmish site and leading southwest into the valley of Russell Creek not very far from the location of the initial 1856 council site. Our workshop participants walked the area from the Mill Creek canyon to the place where the sustained fighting appears to have occurred, and there was general agreement that this was the location.
To potentially provide further evidence of the skirmish site, I then recruited archaeologist Darby Stapp and a team of volunteer metal detector operators, and we swept the private lands from the Mill Creek canyon to the Corps of Engineer property where the corral appeared to have been established, which had been farmed for nearly 150 years with considerable alteration of the ground level. Though we weren’t able to find anything from that period, we hope someday to do additional archeological work on Corps property in the area of the corral, for which we’ll need special federal permits.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of these events on September 9, 2006, I recruited Walla Walla Chief Carl Sampson as well as the head of the Whitman College American Indian Association as co-chairs of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Second Walla Walla Treaty Council. As part of the commemoration, interested participants were invited to walk or ride horses from the Leon Filan farm at 853 Five Mile Road, where the ceremonies began, all the way to the probable skirmish site. The event included the sharing of food by participants, a presentation of flags by all parties, the sharing of tribal and immigrant perspectives on the Second Council and resulting skirmish, and the two-mile trek over the route of the Stevens party to the skirmish site, where final observances were held.
The participants in the project included Sam Pambrun, whose great grandfather Andrew Dominique Pambrun was Stevens’ secretary, guide, and interpreter for the Second Council, and wrote a colorful account of both the proceedings and the skirmish in his autobiography, “Sixty Years on the Frontier in the Pacific Northwest.” In addition, Walla Walla Chief Carl Sampson is related to Homli, who served as head chief of the Walla Wallas after the killing of Peopeomoxmox in 1855, and who was present at both the council and the skirmish. Leon Filan, who provided the site for the commemoration adjacent to his corn maze, remembers a square log building on the property with no windows and a series of small round holes on every wall about rifle height that may well have been part of the Fort built by Steptoe. Filan’s family had moved to the Five-Mile Road site in the 1940’s. Other farmers and landowners in the vicinity also cooperated with the commemoration by permitting the historic trek through their lands between the Filan place and the Bennington Lake area.
Corps of Engineers rangers have been interested in the project and its historical significance for their lands, and have been working with me since 2006 on commemorative signage we hoped to install at the site to interpret these events.
Accounts by actual participants in these historical events, together with a map and description of the skirmish locations are online at the Walla Walla 2020 website, www.ww2020.net/historic-sites, and also at www.wallawallatreatycouncils.blogspot.com which includes a Readers Theater script I’ve put together on the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855 using excerpts from the official transcript of that council.
Excerpted from “A Privileged Life-Memoirs of an Activist” by Daniel N. Clark