Jack McNeel
Some of the Indians on horseback who made a memorial ride to the stone erected along the Spokane River, seen in the foreground.

Native History: To Make Winter Survival Difficult, Army Slaughters 900 Horses

Jack McNeel

This Date in Native History: It was September 9 and 10, 1858 when the U.S. Army committed a cruel, inhumane act that is remembered to this day. Approximately 900 horses belonging to tribes along what is now the Idaho/Washington border were needlessly slaughtered. It was an act designed to make it difficult for tribal members to harvest game animals needed to survive the winter.

The site is along the Spokane River, about a mile from the Idaho line, and is remembered as “Horse Slaughter Camp.”

The activities leading up to this needless slaughter had begun in May the previous spring. Colonel Steptoe, with 158 mounted troops, headed north from Fort Walla Walla supposedly to mediate a dispute between Indians and miners. Gold had been discovered farther north and many miners were passing through northeastern Washington and through Indian lands, which was not allowed by the Walla Walla Treaty. The treaty had not yet been ratified and miners were not abiding by it.

On the route north Steptoe and his 158 troops were headed directly toward a location where Indians were digging camas roots. Steptoe was told he was on Indian land and shouldn’t be there. A short battle followed and several troops were killed. That night, under cover of darkness, the army crept away to return to the fort.

The Army was embarrassed by this defeat and immediately began assembling any available troops to retaliate. In August the troops again headed north and the first shots were fired on August 31. During the following few days several battles were fought with Indians from several regional tribes, but within a week the Indians were subdued.

On the 8th, a large cloud of dust was seen to the east along the Spokane River. Investigating, they found a herd of roughly 1,000 Indian horses being herded by children and elders. The herd was captured by the Army without any opposition.

It was decided to select a few animals for use by the military and to dispose of the rest with the idea it would greatly remove their ability to move very rapidly and make life more difficult. As Coeur d’Alene tribal historian, Cliff SiJohn, was to comment 150 years later, “In effect they put us on foot with winter coming. It was a hard time for us. We have never lost sight of that.”

On September 9 the horses were lassoed one by one and shot. Lieutenant Kipp noted in his diary that about 270 were killed this way. Colts were killed by simply knocking them in the head. That night it was reported that men were kept awake by the pitiful cries of those mares that had lost their young.

On September 10, Lieutenant Kipp again noted, “To avoid the slow process of killing them separately, the companies were ordered to fire volleys into the corral.”

In 2013, at the Julyamsh powwow, which was held just a couple of miles from Horse Slaughter Camp, emcee David Browneagle commented, “Let us all remember our histories because of that battle, why we had that war in 1858.”

A stone monument was placed along the Spokane River in 1946 to commemorate the deaths of roughly 900 horses.

In 2008, a memorial ride was organized by Dr. Ron Pond, Umatilla. A memorial service was held near the stone monument at daybreak followed by a memorial horse parade along the Spokane River with tribal members taking part from several tribes. Comments offered were emotional and heartfelt.

Bobbie Conner, Umatilla, said: “I think of these people and how they had to pick their hearts up off the ground. What must they have thought when they saw 900 dead horses? How did they recover from that? They had to be strong. They were amazing, beautiful strong people.”

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Steve Hampton's picture
Steve Hampton
Submitted by Steve Hampton on
I too covered this in my blog today, including a moving passage from Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues that refers back to this event. http://memoriesofthepeople.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/on-this-date-september-8-1858-washington/

eddiemac's picture
Submitted by eddiemac on
And, the outrage continues even today. Stay strong good people, stay strong. Believe in yourselves and your ancient ideals. Never give in....

jdomaha's picture
Submitted by jdomaha on
I am a "caucasion" male, 60 years old and I am just NOW beginning to learn the sad sad story of the history of the "pioneering" of our country.It seems that the White man has ALWAYS tried find new lands and conquer the local people. Even the leaders of England were wiping out their own people and taxing them, starving them, sometimes taking their wives and children for sex (as soldiers of the King deserving it as some kind of sick reward!) It seems now that wealthy European investors were also behind the wave of invasion that just about wiped out the Indians of North America. The search for money, land, gold, silver, oil, etc. has taken over the spirit of many a man. The atrocities carried out against the native people of not just the USA but of many nations is a horrible reality in the history of our planet. But there is hope folks! The "Landlord" of our planet WILL take back what is HIS someday. And men who did evil but never went to court will have their day in HIS court. The earth will be renewed and redesigned so that there will be MORE living space. And perhaps IF we all learn to work together in brotherly co-operation our Landlord will even allow us to populate the other planets as well! I think he is waiting on us to learn from our tragic history of hate and war and atrocities until we are sickened by it all, and NEVER ALLOW IT TO HAPPEN AGAIN!

Susan T Rudnicki
Susan T Rudnicki
Submitted by Susan T Rudnicki on
That monument doesn't "honor" the horses---it is worded as "to prevent the Indians from waging further warfare" instead of calling attention to the army essentially starving the Indians by killing their partners in transport and hunting. Figures---a bunch of "pioneers" put up the "marker" with their own self-absorbed reasoning paramount in the words.