The day they killed the horses

History Corner

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In walking distance from the Idaho-Washington state line, just north of I-90, stands a lonely granite monument in an open field. It is a sad memorial to man's inhumanity.

A bad thing happened there 158 years ago this month.

It happened under the command of U.S. Army Col. George Wright (1803-1865) who ordered 700 soldiers to punish the Yakima, Spokane, Palouse, and Coeur d'Alene Indian tribes.

It was revenge for the defeat of Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865) and a small force of 164 mounted soldiers who were attacked in May 1858 by about 1,000 warriors from three tribes at the Battle of Pine Creek, near what is now Rosalia, Wash.

Up to 50 Indians were killed. Only seven soldiers died, with 13 wounded. For the Army however, that was excuse enough for what they would do next.

Conflicts with Indian tribes in North America were nothing new. It began as soon as Europeans set foot on the continent in the 1500s. The first major attack was the Indian Massacre in Virginia in 1622 when Powhatan warriors killed 347 English settlers - a quarter of the Jamestown population.

The last was the Posey War in 1923, when the Ute and Paiute tribes battled Mormon settlers in Utah.

Three main factors caused the long-running conflicts: The Indians fought to defend themselves from being evicted by the white man from lands they held for thousands of years. Second, there were huge technological and cultural differences. And third, both sides considered their cultures superior.

The mostly British, French and Spanish colonists and their descendants were far superior technologically. Bows and arrows were no match for muskets and gun powder; and teepees couldn't compete with forts and cannons.

These differences were a formula for disaster, exacerbated by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, espoused by John Quincy Adams. In 1811, he wrote to his father:

"The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.

"For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union."

Sadly, that brought no "peace and prosperity" to the Indians.

On Sept. 9, 1858, Col. Wright ordered his troops to slaughter 800 horses of the Palouse Tribe in northeast Washington. He knew that horses were the wealth and source of military power for the tribes.

Witness to the killings was Lt. Lawrence Kip, who described the carnage in his journal:

"On the morning of the 9th, Col. Wright convened a board of officers to determine what should be done with the captured horses. It was decided that one hundred and thirty should be selected for use of the command and the remainder shot. Each of the officers was allowed to select a pony for himself, but with the understanding that if it did not prove satisfactory it was to be shot.

"Two companies were ordered out to perform the duty of shooting the horses. A corral was first made, into which they were all driven. Then they were lassoed, one by one, and dragged out and dispatched by a single shot, without waste of ammunition, the colts being knocked on the head.

"This method was continued throughout the 9th, and at the close of the day about two hundred and seventy animals had been killed. During the night following the camp was continually disturbed by the distressing cries of mares whose young had been thus slain.

"The process adopted on the 9th for killing the horses being deemed too slow, on the following day volleys were fired into the frightened, huddled mass by companies drawn up for the purpose, until all were put to death."

The 130 horses spared were later deemed unfit for service and also killed.

Col. Wright later wrote: "I deeply regretted killing these poor creatures, but a dire necessity drove me to it ... The chastisement which these Indians have received has been severe but well merited and absolutely necessary to impress them with our power. ... A blow has been struck which they will never forget."

Lawrence Kip rose to the rank of colonel and distinguished himself in the Civil War. He died in New York on Nov. 20, 1899, and is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ironically, the New York Times noted in his obituary: "Col. Kip ... had become widely known socially and among horsemen. He had always been noted for his enthusiasm over good horses and his efforts to promote clean racing in New York."

Col. George Wright attained the rank of brevet brigadier general. During the Civil War, he held command positions in California. On July 30, 1865, he and his wife died while traveling to a new assignment aboard the paddle steamer Brother Jonathan.

The ship carried 244 passengers and crew, and a large shipment of gold and jewelry. During a ferocious storm, the ship hit a reef near Crescent City, Calif., and sank. Only 19 aboard survived. Col. Wright's body was recovered six weeks later and is buried in Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.

Most of the gold and jewelry is yet to be found.

And also yet to be found is a satisfactory happy ending to the Indian conflicts that are part of the darkest episodes in American history.

Scripture says the heart of man is evil. History proves that to be correct. Every nation and every person has experienced dark moments - great or small - that they wish never had happened.

The day they killed the horses was one of them.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/producer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission.

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