New Perce Chief Timothy Rescues The Steptoe Expedition

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There is considerable controversy among historians and authors as to whether Chief Timothy of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe really accompanied the U.S. Army Calvary unit known as the Steptoe Expedition when it first went into the Palouse country in what is now known as the northern Idaho and the eastern Washington area. The question always lingers on as to whether Chief Timothy was actually with the Calvary Unit when it first went into the Palouse country or whether he later learned of Colonel Steptoe’s plight and went to his rescue.

Mr. Thomas Beall was an early day pioneer/settler of the central Idaho Territory and was the Chief Packer for Colonel Steptoe. As such, he was consequently an eyewitness to the events under question. Tom Beall is considered by all who knew him to be a most reliable source of true information. Tom Beall was most emphatic in saying that not only did Chief Timothy march with the expedition but also with his only nephew, Simon, known by the Indian name of Shinica-to-chit-skin (meaning a blanket made of goose feathers); another Indian by the name of Levi and about twenty-five additional young Indians who went along for the adventure. These three named Indians were to act as guides and interpreters.

The expedition had as their guide from Walla Walla to Alpowa a half-breed Indian brave called John McBane whose father had been a Hudson’s Bay Fur Company Factor. Once they reached Alpowa and its Snake River crossing site, McBane refused to go any further north as he was certain that the Indians in eastern Washington Territory were in an ugly mood and would not permit the expedition to pass through their lands enroute to their objective, Colville, Washington Territory.

Chief Timothy was engaged by the army to ferry the soldiers across the Snake River at the ancient crossing site and to go along with them as a guide and interpreter. Interestingly, Levi, 29 years later, acted as an army calvary scout for General Oliver O. Howard in the Nez Perce Chief Joseph War.

Simon was wounded in that war in the back of his head while he served with Colonel Steptoe, a wound from which he always suffered and which eventually was the cause of his going blind.

In the spring of 1858, Colonel Steptoe, while stationed at Walla Walla, Washington Territory, was ordered to go from their encampment at Walla Walla north and across the Snake River at Alpowa and thence on up to what is now known as Colville, Washington. This area is a mountain valley north of present day Spokane, Washington. Their mission was to reconnoiter the country and find a suitable location for the future establishment of a military army fort. Steptoe was in fact only a major of infantry which probably accounts for his fatal error in ordering the two companies of cavalry, who were to accompany him, to leave their sabers and pistols at Walla Walla. Tom Beall was of the opinion that if the men had taken these arms along with them, with which they were familiar, the disastrous campaign would have had a completely different ending. The two troops of cavalry, known as dragoons were armed with musketoons, ancient guns which had an effective range of less than fifty yards. They had 22 inch barrels, smooth bore, and were muzzel loading firearms, with the ramrods fastened to the barrels by swivels. Paper cartridges each containing the three buckshot and a ball were used. The percussion cap was a awkward affair shaped like of a plug hat. A company of infantry from Steptoe’s own regiment was armed with rifles which were the equal of any in use at the time.

The expedition consisted of 152 enlisted soldiers, five officers, about thirty civilians and an equal number of Indians, together with a very large packtrain under the guidance of Thomas Beall. It later developed that there was an extreme shortage of ammunition. Fantastic stories have been told of how hostile Indians, under the guise of friends, had sunk the canoes which contained the ammunition at the Snake River crossing. Tom Beall confirmed this was not true. The ammunition was never taken from Walla Walla. Steptoe didn’t realize with what and whom he was going to contend. Consequently he ordered that all surplus ammunition and other supplies be dispensed with which would impede the speed and pace of a fast march.

The expedition started northward, but never got within one hundred miles of it’s objective. On the tenth day out, Sunday, May 16, 1858, a band of Indians numbering an estimated 1,000 to 1,500, were encountered at a place called “Te-Hots-No-Mah,” near where now stands the prairie town of Spangle, Washington just south and west of present day Spokane, Washington. Colonel Steptoe in his report says, perceiving it was the purpose of the Indians to attack, he turned aside and encamped. Conferences were held with the Indians, but they made it plain they would not permit the whites to advance, nor would they furnish them with boats to cross the Spokane River. The Indians were in command of “Po-lat-kin,” a Spokane war chief.

“Saltice,” a Coeur d’ Alene Indian sub-chief, started a parley with Colonel Steptoe. As it began, Levi dashed up and accused the Colonel of serious treachery. Levi stated he could understand the language of the horse soldiers and therefore knew that the Colonel was parleying with Seltice only for the benefit of gaining extra time for the soldiers to lay a good ambush site to be used against the Indians. What Levi was saying was indeed true. The ambush site of the soldiers was in a small gully, near the forks of Pine Creek, a tributary of the Palouse River. Colonel Steptoe had ordered his men to take a position on a high bench overlooking Pine Creek. This site was near the present day town of Rosalia, Washington, and it was where the battle of Steptoe Butte was fought. The battlefield was just fourteen miles north of what is called today, Steptoe Butte. This self same miniature mountain rising up out of the rolling hills of the Palouse prairie was originally named Pyramid Butte.

The Indians made a desperate attempt to dislodge the soldiers. Later on it developed that the great Yakima chieftain, “Ka-mi-a-kin” used all of his influence to get the Indians to make a grand charge against the soldiers right at dusk. Had they done so, none of the Steptoe Expedition would have been left to tell the tale. The soldiers has so used their small supply of ammunition that there remained only one round to the man as dusk fell upon the land.

Against the advice of his officers, Colonel Steptoe accepted the good offers and assistance from Chief Timothy to the extent that the latter scouted among the enemy and discovered that a pathway over a high terrain had been left unguarded over which it was possible for the soldiers to retreat to the Snake River. The soldiers were at this point 80 miles from the Snake River crossing site to the south of their location. Leaving the tents erected, the camp fires burning, and burying the cannon and other supplies. The whole command moved out around midnight. By a forced march they had placed themselves out of pursuit distance from the Indians by sunrise.

After Colonel Steptoe and his full command had re-crossed the Snake River back at Alpowa and were headed for Walla Walla, a large group of about 60 Nez Perce Indians from Kamiah (in Idaho Territory) and led by Chief Lawyer and a number of other sub chiefs, rode up and offered the services of the Nez Perce nation. Services were offered under the condition that the soldiers would return and give battle to the Indians who had so recently defeated them. Colonel Steptoe declined the offer, thereby losing the great opportunity of redeeming himself and his command. Shortly afterwards, Colonel Steptoe resigned from the army and spent his remaining days in Europe.

Several years after the Steptoe campaign, Colonel George B. Sanford, then commandant of Fort Lapwai, with the assistance of Tom Beall and other survivors of the old Steptoe Expedition retraced the route of Colonel Steptoe and definitely located the battlefield as being exactly 14 miles north of what is now known as Steptoe Butte. Later a settler, who had located a homestead on the battlefield plowed up a pistol which was positively identified as having belonged to Lieutenant Taylor, an officer who had been killed in the battle. Colonel Sanford traced the line of retreat used by Colonel Steptoe under the guidance of Chief Timothy of the Nez Perce. This proved that the guide did not follow the main trail but made a short cut overland and crossed the Palouse River near the present day location of what is called Palouse City.

It wasn’t so easy settling this northwest territory of the western area of what later would be called the United States.

Peace And Love to All of You……………………….Poppa Bear

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