The foundation for the Plateau Indian Wars in Washington during the 1850s can be found in the 1855 Walla Walla Treaty. The United States wanted to acquire title to Indian lands so that these lands could be developed by American miners, farmers, and railroads. To do this, the Indian nations who had occupied this area for thousands of years were to be confined to reservations, primarily lands which were not seen as promising for American development.
In the treaty council, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens had promised the Indians that that would have two or three years before they would be required to move to the reservations and their lands would be opened to American settlement. However, just twelve days after the treaty had been signed, and before it was ratified by the United States Senate, Governor Stevens announced that the lands were now open for settlement.
In his biographical sketch of Yakama chief Kamiakin in his book Who Was Who in Native American History: Indians and Non-Indians From Early Contacts Through 1900, Carl Waldman reports:
“His worst fears confirmed, Kamiakin called for an alliance of the tribes to contain white expansion. He advised against direct confrontation with superior white forces, however.”
The arrival of miners and settlers, however, quickly created conflicts which became violent. When a group of miners raped a Yakama woman, the Yakama warriors responded by killing them. The U.S. Army, seeking vengeance rather than justice, began a campaign against the Plateau tribes.
In 1856, a war party of perhaps 100 Yakamas, Klickitats, and Cascades under the leadership of Yakama chief Kamiakin attacked the American community of The Cascades in what is now Oregon. For two days, the Indian warriors harassed the Americans and laid seize to the store. In his book “Hang Them All” George Wright and the Plateau Indian War, Donald Cutler reports:
“Some members of the Cascade tribe had remained out of the fight and assisted in the escape of the people from the lower landing and the launching of the steamships to Fort Vancouver.”
When the steamship Belle arrived at Fort Vancouver, lieutenant Philip Sheridan and a detachment of 40 dragoons boarded the ship, and it headed back upstream to the lower landing. With the arrival of an American military force, the Indians withdrew.
Lieutenant Sheridan’s troops took 13 prisoners. When the Oregon volunteer militia arrived, they insisted that they should shoot the prisoners in retaliation for supposedly killing a man named Seymour. Donald Cutler reports:
“Sheridan warned the militia to stay away, telling them that he would use lethal force to stop them. A while later Seymour emerged from the wilds, unscathed, where he had been hiding since the initial attack.”
Colonel George Wright and 270 soldiers arrived on the steamer Mary Ann and were fired upon by the Indian warriors. Wright responded by firing howitzers from the deck of the boat. The American infantry then charged, driving the Indian warriors to retreat into the woods. The Yakamas and Klickitats left, but some Cascade warriors remained behind and were captured by Wright. While the Cascade warriors insisted that they had not killed any civilians, Wright insisted that they were guilty and held what he called “a trial by military commission.” Wright then declared them guilty of treason and had them hung. Donald Cutler reports:
“The treason charge was curious, since the Indians had never been considered to have citizenship equal to that of whites.”
Indeed, Indians at this time were not citizens in the eyes of the law, nor could they become citizens. Donald Cutler reports:
“To the warriors, they were engaged in a battle against an invader, not fighting their own countrymen or government.”
According to the American military, fourteen civilians and three soldiers were killed during the Battle at The Cascades, and about a dozen people wounded. There is no estimate on the number of Indian casualties, but nine Indian warriors were executed. While the Army would claim that all of those executed had confessed their guilt, at least one innocent man was executed. Jim Tassalo had American witnesses who had seen him away from the battle.
The Battle at The Cascades was only one of the first battles between the Plateau tribes and the U.S. Army that raged in the region during the late 1850s. The callous hanging of Indians without concern for justice or law was a pattern that would be repeated by the Army troops under George Wright.
More American Indian histories
Indians 301: The Puget Sound War
Indians 101: The 1856 Battle of Seattle
Indians 101: The 1855 Battle at Connell's Prairie, Washington
Indians 101: The 1855 Walla Walla treaty council
Indians 101: The Stevens Treaties in Washington Territory
Indians 101: The California treaties of 1851-1852
Indians 101: America's Christian General vs the Nez Perce
Indians 101: California's War on Indians, 1850 to 1851