Shootin' Injuns with Colonel George Wright


I was riding the Cheney/EWU bus back to Spokane. The sun had just gone down and it was darker inside the bus than out. The driver hadn't yet turned on the interior lights.

The road buzzed my eyes shut. My head bobbed, then bobbed again.

In the seat ahead of me, a young mother stared blankly out the window while her five-year-old boy picked his nose and watched me watch him. A red baseball hat hung crooked on his head. On the front was printed the word INDIANS, along with a cartoon-like silhouette of an Indian with a goofy smile, a big, bend nose and a baseball bat.

The Four Lakes Community Church passed on the right. Suddenly, the kid stood up in his seat and pointed behind me, his eyes wide and his mouth forming an O.

I turned and looked out the back window. Crossing the road was a muscular Indian wearing an eagle-feather headdress, his face streaked with earthy paint, and carrying a ceremonial spear. He rode atop a wild-looking horse, likewise adorned, with a strange petrograph-type drawing on its white-painted flank.

He crossed the road and galloped toward the bottom of the towering mound that the locals call Wright Hill, where, to my suprise, I noticed another Indian like him, and ahead of him another, and another and another, all making their way up the hill and into the forest.

I turned back to see if the kid saw what I saw. When I did I accidentally touched his hand, and suddenly --

 

--suddenly we were elsewhere, standing together, he holding my hand. I saw that the amazed look on his face was not because of any Indian but because of the army cavalry officer who held a long saber up between his squinted eye and the rising sun, checking the edge for nicks. Behind him, a company of soldiers had fallen into formation and were busily loading their rifles.

The officer was talking to his companion about the new arms and the ammo it shot, something he called the "minie ball," a French invention which greatly increased accuracy, and had a range of up to 1,000 yards, ten times that of the old Army muskets.

I determined that we were at an encampment near what is now called Granite Lake, next to where the freeway should have been, directly opposite the hill where we saw the Indian from the bus.

The kid led me through the camp where most of the men were preparing for battle. At the other end of the camp stood the famous Colonel George Wright peering through a small telescope as an attendant prepared his horse. Since sunrise, Indians had been gathering on the hilltop in large numbers.

Colonel Wright -- along with 190 cavalry, 380 infantry, 30 friendly Nez Perce Indians, 100 employees, 800 animals, and enough food and supplies for 38 days -- had come from Fort Walla Walla to the edge of the Spokane tribe's country, having been ordered by Washington Territory Governor Stevens to avenge the humiliating Steptoe disaster, three and a half months prior. The ill-equiped Colonel Steptoe and 158 cavalry were met by a combined force of Spokane, Coeur d' Alene and other Northwest tribes near the present town of Rosalia. The braves caused the Colonel and his men to high-tail it back to the Snake River under cover of darkness, losing seven men in the retreat.

Colonel Wright mounted his horse and conferred with his staff as they rode to the front of the troops. Leaving 50 men to guard the pack train, Wright ordered a Major Grier to take two companies of cavalry around the left side of the hill. Wright would lead the main force around to the right, choosing to ascend the hill by the more gradual incline on the south.

The kid tugged my hand and looked up at me. Suddenly we were surrounded by smoke and whizzing bullets and the horrible smell of burning sulfur in the air.

As the smoke cleared I saw that we were atop the hill. A host of Indian warriors were riding at full speed down the steepest part of the slope. At the bottom of the hill, spread out across the plain were at least 500 or more mounted Indians, wild with excitement, concentrating most of their fire and arrows on Grier's cavalry who we could clearly see was held up below us to the left.

Behind us appeared a long line of soldiers on foot, firing their rifles as they marched. They continued in like fashion over the hill, advancing on line of warriors.

From behind the footsoldiers appeared Colonel Wright and the rest of the battalion. Wright immediately ordered two of the rifle companies to the left to back up Grier, and two companies to the right to deploy in front of a pine forest which held an undeterminable number of the enemy. A horwitzer cannon was set up just below the crest of the hill.

Below, the Indians charged the front line of riflemen, firing and then retreating. This tactic, which worked with Steptoe, proved to be a fatal mistake against the new arms of the artillery. Indians and horses dropped all around.

The native host retreated.

Wright gave the order for the cavalry to charge. With Colt revolvers in one hand and sabers in the other, the soldiers took the reins in their teeth and drove the Indians across the plains and into the hills.

The Colonel's staff cheered and offered congratulations.

The Colonel stood rigid as a statue.

I looked down at the kid and suddenly we were in darkness. A number of fires burned in the distance where came a joyous roar of song and cheers. We walked toward the greater flame to investigate.

A crowd of officers and enlisted men were clapping and whistling as one of the Nez Perce scouts jumped over and danced around the bonfire, waving above his head a scalp of long black hair and dried blood.

 

The bus hit a bump and the kid bit his lip, causing him to issue an ear-splitting yelp. His mother grabbed his arm and jerked him to the seat.

In a few years the kid would read in his history book about how Colonel George Wright, who, after defeating the tribe, mercilessly destroyed their winter storages of food, slaughtered their entire herd of 900 horses, and hanged the leaders of the uprising.

The bus rubbed up against the curb and squeaked to a stop. The kid and his mother stepped out the backdoors and were immediately approached by a tall transient in a tattered overcoat. He had pox-marked, dark-brown skin and long, straight black hair that hung in his face. He reeked of cheap wine.

"Could I talk at you just a minute, ma'am?" he asked the mother, stumbling toward her with his palm out.

The mother grabbed the kid's neck and hurried him along, the kid's hat falling over his eyes as he looked back over his shoulder. The guy then looked over at me, pointed his finger at my face like a gun and squinted his red eyes.

"Bang," he said calmly.