The Battle of Frenchtown (1855), Washington Territory: the Political and Demographic Context rev 9/4/11
Washington State’s newest historic site, Frenchtown, was opened on December 11, 2010. This date commemorated an event which had taken place 155 years earlier, one in which over 1,000 men found themselves engaged in a four-day battle in the Walla Walla Valley. Estimates of the number of men that died in the fighting there total around eighty souls.
This paper will focus on four sub-themes: (1) The actual four-day battle between the militia and the warriors of Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Palouse tribes who were defending their area villages; (2) The difficulties faced by the U.S. Army, in the person of the Pacific Division’s Commanding Officer, General John Wool, in establishing its authority and checking the rogue elements within the territorial militia of Oregon and Washington, along with the ambitions of West Point graduate Isaac Stevens, who was now wearing the hat of Washington’s Territorial Governor; (3) The more obscure yet fundamental matter of the actual regional demographics of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) frontier in the 1850s, and why there happened to be a ‘Frenchtown’ located at the site of this battle; and finally, (4) An outline of the migration of these obscure people into the backcountry of the PNW over the second half of the 19th century. In addition to a point on the map, there was the point in time, all part of a larger process.
All across the northern borderlands of the U.S., every time a treaty had been signed from 1763 through 1846, most of the older communities of French-speaking Canadiens located deep in the interior found themselves south of the new line. With them were their Indian wives and families of mixed-blood offspring - then called half-breeds, now generally the term metis is used, for those ‘French-breeds’ among them. Hence, the French-Canadian West found itself in territory that sequentially ended up in the U. S., not in modern Canada. As such, their part of the story has fallen out of Canadian history, and has yet to be written back into America’s national history. Not represented at the negotiations, much like their Indian relations, the treaties ignored the interests and natural allegiances of les Canadiens.
Furthermore, one might remember that during much of the 19th century the ancestors of the modern Anglo-Canadians still referred to themselves as English, Scottish, or Irish subjects of the Crown, rarely as Canadians.
At mid-century, in the Pacific Northwest, les Canadiens composed the large majority of the older settler group. And these were a river people. They had their own names for many of the tributaries and lakes of the Columbia-Snake River system. If the modern reader takes a closer look at the map, he will see that many of these names are still there. This applies to major milestones along the river system, also. The principal portage points going up-river through the Columbia River Gorge, were called les Cascades and les Dalles. By 1825 the first of these had been expanded to the entire mountain range penetrated by the gorge. Roughly half-way up, the Columbia River ran parallel to a natural phenomenon they called La Grande Coulee. A century later, a site along the Columbia at the north end of this massive dry canyon was picked for building the highest dam in North America. And so on, with numerous other residual names and topographical terms provided by les Canadiens that are still on our maps.
The Battle In an area rich with historic tragedy, the battle occurred two miles west of the ruins of the Whitman Mission in one of the territory’s largest inland settlements east of the Columbia River Gorge. Six months earlier the Walla Walla Treaty had been signed about ten miles further up stream. Located deep in Indian Country, this community stretched along the Walla Walla River for several miles between the modern day city of Walla Walla and the town of Lowden. More precisely, the settlement lay between the confluence of two tributaries of the Walla Walla, Dry Creek and Mill Creek. The community was known to the Americans as ‘Frenchtown,’ and to the locals as le Village des Canadiens. It was situated immediately down stream from the principal village of the Cayuse.
The Yakima War started in October of 1855, following a series of murders of whites in the Yakama Country and Puget Sound. Resentment by the Indians to the terms unilaterally imposed in a series of recent treaties is generally considered the principal cause of the series of incidents that led to war. The treaties were imposed between Christmas Day of 1854 and June of 1855 by Isaac Stevens. Stevens was a man wearing two hats, serving as both Washington Territory’s first Governor, as well as its Superintendent of Indian Affairs. When Governor Stevens arrived in the new territory in the fall of 1853, Indians still outnumbered whites by roughly a four to one ratio. Stevens was in a hurry, however. American settlers continued to trickle in looking for free land, and there was no time to waste.
With the successful conclusion of the Yakima River campaign in November under Major Rains of the U.S. Army, it appeared that further operations were to be called off until spring. Major Rains had cleared the Valley, working in tandem with the Oregon volunteers under an independent command, but this had amounted to little more than minor skirmishing and looting of Indian food caches and a French Catholic Mission on the Ahtanum River. While the smaller Washington force of volunteer militia were fully occupied in the Puget Sound areas, the more numerous Oregon volunteer units were not to be denied. There had been reports of looting in the Walla Walla Valley by bands of Indians. Rumors passed on by friendly Indians indicated that a number of Walla Walla Indians were planning to attack Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and a small accompanying force of volunteers, returning with him from the Spokane country. Therefore, Oregon’s Territorial Governor, George Curry, ordered the volunteer units that had missed out on the Yakima Campaign to deploy to the Walla Walla Valley to counter the potential threat to Stevens and his party.
The Oregon Mounted Volunteers (O.M.V.) headed out, and up the south bank of the Columbia from the fort at les Dalles, establishing a base near the confluence of the Umatilla River. Then on December 2, after an all night march across difficult terrain from near the mouth of the Umatilla River to that of the Walla Walla River, the O.M.V. reached the abandoned Hudson Bay’s Company (HBC) trading post at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. The post had been
pillaged of its blankets and other trading goods, but to the O.M.V.’s disappointment, there were few Indians in site. Hopes of pulling off a surprise attack were frustrated.
However, the eager Oregon Mounted Volunteers under the command of the recently elected frontier lawyer named James Kelly, would soon have more opportunities to precipitate a battle. They drove up the valley toward the Walla Walla and Cayuse villages. Kelly, suddenly a militia Lt. Colonel, had displayed sufficient bravado during his campaign speech to get elected to the rank. Now an opportunity to act had presented itself. At his side rode one of the subagents of the Oregon’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Nathan Olney. The Superintendent, Joel Palmer, having learned of the man’s unreliable character through painful experience, had been trying to keep Olney on a short leash, but he had broken loose, again.
Concerned for their families along with their recently gathered stores of food for making it through the winter, Walla Walla Chief Peopeo Moxmox, rode out with forty men to ascertain the intentions of this armed suyapo force. (Suyapo was a Columbia basin Indian term for Americans, apparently derived from the French word for the peculiar ornament they always seemed to wear on their heads – le chapeau.) Chief Peopeo Moxmox had long been a friend of the whites. Many of the tribe’s young women had married Canadiens, who had once worked at the nearby trading post or its ranching operation further up stream. Known as a man of moderation, the chief had signed the recent treaty, and all this in spite of his son having been murdered by an American - a crime that had been allowed to go unpunished. The chief first met with a force of a 1/2 dozen metis scouts under Narcisse Cornoyer and Antoine Rivet.
Antoine’s father, Francois had accompanied Lewis and Clark in 1804 up the Missouri as far as the Mandan villages of North Dakota. Francois Rivet returned downstream in the spring of 1805 with another dozen or so boatmen of Canadien origins, while Lewis and Clark headed for the Pacific with a more Americanized crew. Then Francois was heading back up river in 1806 with Captain McClallen when they shared an encampment with Lewis and Clark returning from the Pacific. Rivet continued up river with McClallen where they reached the headwaters of the Columbia in 1807 by following a returning Flathead band of buffalo hunters via a much more practical crossing of the Continental Divide than that of the Shoshone. Francois stayed on and married a young widow of the continuous warfare with the Blackfeet. His wife was of Flathead and Pend Oreille origins. She later received the baptismal name of Therese, when they retired downstream with their large family to a farm in the Willamette Valley. As for Narcisse Cornoyer, he was a literate and more recent addition to the community of les Canadiens in the Willamette Valley, where he married a metis of Canadien and Chinook Indian origins, Sophie Beleque.
Peopeo Moxmox approached under a white flag of truce. A brief discussion in the regional pidgin known as the Chinook Jargon followed, one in which the chief expressed his desire to parley. Once Kelly was alerted that contact had been made, and had caught up with the metis scouts, the chief queried Kelly as to why the soldiers had entered Walla Walla Country. Kelly and Olney were immediately suspicious of the old chief’s willingness to discuss matters. Negotiation meant delay. They suspected treachery. In response to the chief’s willingness to pursue restitution for the looted blankets and livestock from the HBC trading post or local ranchers, Kelly responded with specific demands which amounted to confiscation of all rifles, ammunition, and the Walla Walla tribe’s considerable livestock – both horses and cattle.
As for the chief’s conciliatory posture, in his report afterward, Lt. Col. Kelly recalled, “we concluded that this was only a ruse for gaining time to remove his village and preparing for battle. I stated to him that we had come to chastise him for the wrongs he had done our people, and that we would not defer making an attack on his people unless he and his five followers would consent to accompany and remain with us until all difficulties were settled.” [extract from John C. Jackson’s “A Little War of Destiny,” p.120]
Chief Peopeo Moxmox and his men were consequently taken hostage. This naturally outraged the balance of the Indian force of several dozen Indians, observing from a nearby hill. Word immediately spread among the tribes of this latest breach of trust by the suyapo. The next morning, December 6, the Oregon Mounted Volunteers (O.M.V.) entered a nearby Walla Walla village that had been deserted. They proceeded to pillage the remaining food supplies.
Returning to the O.M.V. baggage camp on the Walla Walla, the next day Kelly’s force continued to advance up the river, while sniping began from Indians on ridge tops. The battle started on the morning of December 7, as a mobile action with small groups of riders circling and skirmishing up, over, and around the hill country extending north of the river valley. Dismounting under the increasingly heavy fire from the defending Indians, battle lines soon stabilized between the cabins of Joseph Laroque and Louis Tellier in le village des Canadiens. But this was not before the O.M.V. had made two charges against the Indians holed up on the Tellier farm. These two charges at the beginning of the battle would account for all eight of the O.M.V.’s fatalities over the entire four-day period.
The Laroque and Tellier families along with those of the other Canadiens had withdrawn to one of two locations over the prior weeks as the chaos worsened. One group had headed down river toward les Dalles after the looting by a number of the younger Indians had begun, while the other group of several dozen individuals stayed in the area moving up the Touchet about twenty miles to the northeast. The following March, this latter group was also forced to move down river to les Dalles when the Army decided to start enforcing its earlier ban on settlement east of les Cascades, at least until things settled down.
It was outside the Laroque cabin that Volunteers gunned down Chief Peopeo Moxmox and several of his men on December 7. Once it was apparent that a serious battle was underway, Lt. Col. Kelly decided that the prisoners needed to be tied-up to free up their guards. The chief and his men resisted, and were killed for it. The chief’s body was then mutilated with ears and other parts cut off for trophies to be displayed once back in the Willamette Valley.
source: John C. Jackson Assaults, skirmishing and flanking operations continued over the next four days, shifting back and forth as the lines extended up from the brush along the river up over the ridge located to the north, where the cemetery of the St. Rose Catholic Church would soon lie. Both sides dug numerous rifles pits (fox holes) all along the fluid battle line. Small units of each party would move forward, but be forced back due to exposure to cross fire on their flanks. As in many battles, the timely arrival of reinforcements and supplies proved critical. First the Indians gained a momentary advantage with the arrival of around 100 Palouse warriors.
Ammunition was beginning to run low on both sides, however. When two companies of reinforcements showed up to bolster the O.M.V. positions on December 10, the Indian warriors decided to withdraw from the battlefield. This too was accomplished in an orderly manner. Unfortunately, several days later, the villagers panicked while crossing the Snake about 50 miles to the northeast. Several dozen Indians drowned and hundreds of horses were lost.
Estimates of fatalities at the battle site of Frenchtown included the original eight O.M.V. soldiers, and roughly 70 odd Indian warriors. The O.M.V. force also suffered 17 wounded.
Quoting from John C. Jackson’s “A Little War of Destiny,”
Next morning the Indians had evaporated. The arrival of the relief column had convinced them to give up the fight and evacuate the tribe and as much property as they could salvage. As the fleeing warriors whipped along the Nez Perce Trail, they passed the Metis camp on the Touchet River and pulled up for a moment to tell the half-breeds that they would have beaten the whites if the reinforcement hadn’t arrived….
As they [an OMV detachment of 60 volunteers] continued, the pursuers met a Nez Perce Indian bringing a message from Narcisse Raymond, who was with the Metis assembled in a group camp on the Henry Chase claim on the upper Touchet. It was suspicious that they had remained safe while the fight was going on. When the Metis asked for protection, they were put under the care of Company K [the Willamette Valley Metis unit]. Although proximity to the army was not in their best interests, the Metis were ordered to move nearer the volunteer camp so they could be properly supervised. [ JCJ pp.139-40]
As elsewhere in the West many local Indians and their metis neighbors had come to rely increasingly on cattle ranching to supplement ‘the hunt.’ Depredations committed in the Walla Walla Valley by the OMV during their advance and in the course of the following winter included confiscation of livestock and food caches of both the Indians and Canadien/metis community. The metis were suspect, and all Indians not in internment camps near the white settlements and forts were assumed to be hostiles. It was an exceptionally cold winter and the O.M.V. received only intermittent supplies. They resorted to living off the land. French Catholic missionary, Father Chirouse, tried his best to mitigate directly with the militia on behalf of his flock, writing letters to the authorities and such, but to little avail. In a convenient leap of logic, all Indian livestock was assumed to have been stolen! And, of course, looting by some of the Indians had been one of the pretexts for the O.M.V.’s invasion of the Walla Walla Valley. Moreover, no one had been killed during this out break of thievery. It is somewhat ironic then, that in addition to all the fatalities, that it was the Oregon militia that proceeded to do a far more thorough job of looting all things in the valley that were edible or of value over the next several months. It would take a long time for the Walla Walla and Cayuse herds to recover.
The O.M.V, represented the only force in the field that winter. It was so cold that the Columbia froze over. In mid-March after receiving reinforcements and completing several sweeps north and west along the Snake River the supply situation had become so critical Kelly decided to withdraw the main force.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army had finally received reinforcements in January, 1856. Eight companies of the U.S. 9th Infantry arrived under the command of Colonel George Wright. Deployment inland was delayed by weather, and then a major battle fought at les Cascades portage point on the Columbia. In August Fort Simcoe was established by the Army in the Yakima Valley, and in October, 1856 following an attack by Indians on Governor Stevens’ party after the failure of the Second Walla Walla Treaty Council, federal troops under Major Steptoe established Fort Walla Walla. The site of the U.S. Army fort is adjacent to where the modern city of Walla Walla soon sprang up – quickly becoming the largest city in the entire territory of Washington. Having ordered the settlers and miners out of the Columbia Basin, Canadian or American, the U.S. Army was now in place to enforce a truce – one that would last two more years. Then three major battles were fought in 1858 during the May to September time frame which definitively decided the matter. This time it was the U.S. Army with its Nez Perce allies fighting the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and again the Palouse. More reservations would be created over the following decades to accommodate these and other tribes in the region, but no longer under the pretense of “treaties.” From here on out Indian reservations would be generated by Executive Orders.