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.”