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A mid-19th-Century traveler, passing through the land of the Yakimas in then Washington Territory, had occasion to observe their noted leader, Kamiakin, whom he thought looked “every inch a king.” Stalwart, with a noble countenance, Kamiakin indeed seemed born to greatness. He was, wrote Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory, “a man of fine presence and bearing, over six feet in height, well built and athletic.” Another observer described him as very dark, with a large face and serious countenance.

Born in Washington’s Yakima Valley between 1800 and 1804, Kamiakin was the son of Ja-yayah-e-ha (also known as Ki-yiyah), a Nez Perce, and Ka-emox-nith, a Yakima princess. Little is known of Kamiakin’s youth, but he was exposed to the teachings of Catholic missionaries who established the Ahtanum (or Ahtanahm) Mission near his home, although he did not apparently attend the mission school.

By age 30, Kamiakin was the acknowledged leader of the Yakimas, recognized for his innate ability as an organizer and leader. He was often called on by other tribes to act as an arbiter in issues of dispute and was, arguably, the most influential Indian leader in the Columbia River basin. Several men opposed him as leader because his father was a Nez Perce, but the dissident voices seem to have been few.

In addition to his obvious leadership skills, Kamiakin also appears to have had a business sense. In 1840, he journeyed to Vancouver to trade horses for cattle, driving the animals back to the Yakima Valley, where it was said to be the first cattle herd in the valley. Later, he added to his investment by buying and trading for additional cattle from passing emigrants.

During the early territorial days, the Yakimas remained largely isolated from the main traveled routes of the whites. Fur traders used the Columbia River, while the emigrant trail lay well to the south of Yakima territory. At this point in his life, Kamiakin was peacefully disposed toward those whites with whom he did have contact, perhaps because of his association with missionaries as a youth and partly owing to his business dealings for cattle. Indeed, following the 1847 Whitman Massacre by Cayuse Indians, he condemned the act and refused to join with them in their war against the whites.

By 1853, however, the picture had begun to change. In May, Congress divided the huge sprawling Oregon Territory into two parts. That portion lying north of the Columbia River was designated Washington Territory, with 37-year-old Isaac Ingalls Stevens as governor. That year, Captain George B. McClellan, of future Civil War fame, led a railroad survey expedition through Naches Pass without the Indians’ permission, an act that not surprisingly upset the tribes of the region. Kamiakin in particular was deeply disturbed, seeing in the act a foreshadowing of future events. The fear was to prove well grounded when Governor Stevens convened a great treaty council at Walla Walla in 1855.

Massachusetts-born, Stevens was an 1839 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War. Following military service, his friend President Franklin Pierce appointed him Indian agent and, in 1853, governor of Washington Territory. Energetic and ambitious to a fault, Stevens, recognizing the growing attraction of the territory to settlers and railroad interests, approached the council intending to obtain the Indian lands, preferably by treaty but by force if necessary.

The great council convened at Walla Walla during the four-day period May 24-28, 1855. A team of treaty commissioners led by Governor Stevens and Indian superintendent Joel Palmer were escorted by Lieutenant Archibald Gracie and 40 dragoons. The Nez Perce, some 2,500-strong, were the first to arrive, followed by 300 fierce Cayuses. Yakimas and Walla Wallas, numbering about 1,000 under Kamiakin, his brother Skloom and Peo Peo Mox Mox (Yellow Serpent) were the last to arrive. Over the years, Kamiakin had forged a strong bond of friendship with both Peo Peo Mox Mox and Looking Glass of the Nez Perce. No doubt because of his mixed heritage, he felt equally comfortable with both Nez Perce and Yakimas.

Altogether, 14 separate bands gathered to listen to the governor’s presentation. The idea of the treaty was to set aside a block of country and allow each of the represented tribes to select its own reservation within that block. The treaty commissioners believed that if the Indians chose their own reservations, there would be land left over that could be used for settlement by the incoming whites. Under the terms of the treaty, the various bands of Yakimas would be consolidated into one, with Kamiakin as head chief. In exchange for their agreeing to the treaty, Governor Stevens agreed to pay each tribe an annuity of trade goods.

The U.S. government’s insistence on proclaiming one individual as overall “chief,” not only at this council but also at others before and after, was the source of much confusion and misunderstanding in Indian-white relations. In this particular instance, the 14 bands of Indians living east of the Cascade Mountains, between the Columbia River and the Lake Chelan region of north-central Washington, were autonomous, and the concept of one single chief overall was completely foreign to them.

Stevens and Palmer might have regarded the terms of the treaty as a fair bargain, and several Indian leaders, notably those who had been strongly influenced by missionary teachings, did see the treaty in a favorable light, but Kamiakin and most of the other leaders refused to accept the terms. Reportedly, in a private conference that night, Stevens advised Kamiakin that their uncooperativeness could mean war.

Confronted with Stevens’ take-it-or-leave-it proposition, Kamiakin finally put his name to the treaty, but in all likelihood he did so simply to be rid of Stevens and his high-handed ways. Some of the smaller bands were upset with the provisions, feeling short-changed in the process, for the treaty stipulated that the tribes agreed to surrender any and all claims to lands outside the reservation they had chosen. But the crafty governor had anticipated just such a reaction and allowed that Kamiakin, as titular head of the newly reconstituted Yakima tribe, had the authority to cede land without their consent—and therein lay the rub.

Within a month of signing the treaty, Governor Stevens advertised in territorial papers that the newly ceded lands were now open to settlement. The governor had managed to acquire 60,000 square miles of Indian land for about $600,000, or approximately $10 per square mile—a bargain, indeed, for Stevens. With that treaty signed, the ambitious Stevens then crossed the Rockies to negotiate with the Blackfeet.

As white encroachment increased, the tribes grew increasingly angry and restless, and none more so than the Yakimas and their spokesman. In the face of this mounting threat to their very existence, Kamiakin sought to organize an anti-American Indian alliance, not unlike what the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh had tried to accomplish a few decades earlier. Kamiakin encouraged the Palouses, Spokanes, Coeur d’Alenes and Nez Perces to resist white encroachment. The strategy was not an overnight thought on Kamiakin’s part. The way he saw it, war was the only way to deal with this invasion, and the Yakimas had, accordingly, been stockpiling gunpowder in preparation for war.

Late in 1855, prospectors bound for gold camps in British Columbia, crossed Indian lands and were attacked by young warriors. The murder of two prospectors by Qualchin, son of Owhi, chief of the Kittitas, but orchestrated it was rumored by Kamiakin, brought agent A.J. Bolon out to investigate. Although he was a fair and hard-working agent and supposedly on good terms with Kamiakin, Bolon, too, was murdered.

As a consequence of the Bolon murder, Major Granville O. Haller marched north from the fort at The Dalles (French for “stepping stones,”) of the Columbia River with 100 men and a howitzer. On October 6, Haller was attacked by Kamiakin and some 500 Yakimas. Following a two-day fight, Haller was forced to beat an ignominious retreat after first burying his howitzer and burning his baggage train.

The whipping of Haller’s command sent a strong message to federal authorities that the Yakimas meant business. Suddenly, the United States found itself compelled to deal with two Indian wars, one on each side of the Cascades, as other tribes, encouraged by Kamiakin’s success against Haller, joined the resistance. Fear spread throughout the region. Both Washington and Oregon wasted no time mobilizing volunteers, but in so doing sowed the seed of a war within a war, as the volunteers would clash often with the Regular Army over the conduct of the war.

For nearly a year and a half, from the spring of 1855 until August 1856, the region remained in a state of turmoil. Following the Haller debacle, Major Gabriel Rains marched north out of Fort Dalles at the head of a strong column, with payback in mind. En route, Rains’ men managed to burn Father Charles Pandosy’s Catholic mission when they discovered a store of explosives hidden there, and which they assumed belonged to the hostiles. However, despite several skirmishes and a brief though spirited scrap at Union Gap on the Yakima River, the military forces that took the field enjoyed little success against Kamiakin and his followers. The Indians tended to strike quickly, then fall back, staying out of reach of the troops. Given Kamiakin’s position of influence, not only within his own tribe but with others as well, it seems more than likely that the chief masterminded the resistance.

In the spring of 1856, Department of the Pacific commander Brig. Gen. John E. Wool assigned Colonel George Wright of the 9th Infantry to subdue the hostiles and end the war. Kamiakin’s father-in-law, Owhi, was of the opinion that the war had gone on long enough, but Kamiakin refused to submit to military authority. He did promise friendship and, along with the other Indian leaders, did agree to cooperate by first turning over those hostiles responsible for depredations and then surrendering themselves. However, the agreed upon five-day grace period passed with the Indians failing to show.

Despite this, Wright, who believed peace with the Indians could be had through negotiation, set out on a summer-long sweep through the Yakima country of central Washington, finding the Indians not at all hostile. In August he returned to Fort Dalles to find awaiting him orders to construct an outpost in the Walla Walla Valley, a job he subsequently assigned to Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe.

Notwithstanding Wright’s bloodless campaign, the situation was far from peaceful. The Indians were frustrated and divided among themselves as to whether they should acquiesce or resist. In the white camp, meanwhile, Governor Stevens, eschewing what he regarded as the Army’s feeble efforts, sent two volunteer columns into the field. In July, this force defeated a large, mixed group of Indians in the Grand Ronde Valley. The victory prompted Stevens to convene a great council in September 1856. Some 4,000 Indians were on hand, but in a sullen mood and with too few volunteer troops to maintain order, because Steptoe had refused to provide federal troops. The council was finally called off. Angry warriors turned hostile, but were finally quelled by a fresh force of volunteers brought on by Stevens himself, who he insisted, were the answer to the Indian problem. General Wool, however, was not to be intimidated and refused to relinquish his authority, which was handed down from Washington, D.C., not the territorial governor. The problem in a nutshell was whose representative was to exercise authority over the Indians, civil or military. In any case, though it remained unresolved, this marked the end of the Yakima War.

The following year—1857—saw little resolution, though there were plenty of incidents as whites, especially those in search of gold, continued to move into the area. Then, in May 1858, a strong column under the command of Steptoe moved out from his recently constructed Fort Walla Walla, deep into the heart of Coeur d’Alene country. The move was designed to impress the Indians and reassure miners. It soon proved a bad idea. Confronted by Kamiakin and warned to turn back, Steptoe pressed on and a stiff fight ensued, with the Indians forcing the troops to fall back. The Indians, however, failed to follow up their success.

The following August saw yet another Army column take the field. This one, commanded by Colonel Wright, consisted of 700 men, armed with rifled muskets and supported by artillery. Twice Kamiakin attacked, but the army won the Battles of Four Lakes and Spokane Plains, the two major engagements of the Spokane War. The Indians suffered heavily in both fights, and Kamiakin himself was injured.

Much of the Indian heart for resistance died, with many now choosing to surrender. Kamiakin, however, refused to acknowledge defeat. He moved to British Columbia for a time before returning to the United States. The chief died at Rock Lake in Washington Territory in 1876. The power of Kamiakin’s influence in uniting the Yakimas (spelled Yakamas since 1994) cannot be overstated. Unfortunately for Kamiakin, he did not live long enough to witness the legacy of his influence.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here