eopeomoxmox was an important chief of the Walla Wallas at a pivotal period in Northwest history. Although his life was cut short by a white man's bullet, he lived through some of the most difficult times imaginablean era that would see the traditional ways of the Walla Wallas and other Indian tribes changed beyond recognition.
The defining moment of Peopeomoxmox's life and leadership was undoubtedly the loss of his son. Given the Christian name of Elijah Hedding, he was educated in the Willamette Valley mission school run by Jason Lee, and learned some English.
A Sad Journey
In 1844, in the summer of Elijah's eighteenth year, a group of about fifty men of the Walla Wallas, Nez Perces, Cayuses, and Spokans decided to make a business trip to the California settlements. These men wanted to buy cattle, but the Hudson's Bay Company had refused to sell them any. The few cattle they had purchased from the settlers had only increased their desire for larger herds.
Peopeomoxmox knew that ranchers in California had huge herds of cattle; it was something he had learned as a small boy while accompanying his father and a band of warriors to California to steal horses from the large Spanish ranches. Moreover, his son Elijah had confirmed that the people of the Willamette Valley occasionally received cattle from California.
Although it was a long and arduous journey, the Indians were determined to make a trade expedition to this distant land. They traveled as a war party, many of them chiefs from different tribesTauitau of the Cayuse, Spokan Garry of the Spokans, Kipkip Pahlekin of the Nez Percewith a band of horses and a load of furs to trade for the cattle. They traveled up the John Day River, across the mountains of Oregon, and through the wilderness lands of the Klamath and Shasta Indians, two tribes unfriendly and dangerous to outsiders. It was a perilous trip, but the troop finally reached the Sacramento River, where they found Sutter's Fort and a surrounding community. Many of the settlers there had come from the Willamette Valley, and the trading was good
Before the group made the return trip home, they went hunting in the mountains. They wound up in a fight with a group of California Indians, capturing more than twenty horses and mules from them. Arriving back at Fort Sutter with their spoils of war, the Indians were accosted by settlers who claimed the animals had been stolen from them. The Oregon Indians grew obstinate and refused to give them up, sparking an argument with an American named Grove Cook. Cook was known to be a man who hated Indians, and was willing to kill them without provocation. True to form, he shot and killed Elijah. The violence alarmed the settlers, who branded the Northwest Indians troublemakers, forcing them to leave hastily and without the cattle they had legally purchased.
Calls for a War of Revenge
Arriving back at Fort Walla Walla in the fall, they were filled with hatred for all whites. The chiefs sent word to all the villages of the death of Elijah Hedding.
Peopeomoxmox was not just Head Chief of the Walla Wallas. He was also related to many members of other tribes, all of whom were outraged by this horrible injustice. The chiefs called for a war of vengeance, and a council was held among the Walla Walla, Cayuse, Spokane, Nez Perce, Pend d'Oreille, and some of the Shoshoni tribes. They discussed raising a coalition party of 2,000 warriors, the best warriors of each tribe, to exterminate the Sacramento whites. Peopeomoxmox wanted to wipe out the whites in the Willamette Valley as well. He felt they were responsible for the attitudes that made Elijah's murder possible.
It was the wrong season for such a long journey, though. The mountain passes would be filled with snow. So as they waited for the weather to clear, the dark clouds in the minds of the chiefs began to clear as well. It was decided that the Indians would attempt to work the problem out through legal or diplomatic channels.
Seeking Redress through the Legal System
Peopeomoxmox met with Dr. John McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver, who advised him that war would prove disastrous for the Indians, and that the warriors would receive no help from the Hudson's Bay Company. He sent them instead to Dr. Elijah White, the Indian agent. A representative was selected from the tribes, and Ellis, an elderly chief was sent to the Willamette Valley to ask for advice.
Dr. White, having received advance word of the visit, and worried that his actions could precipitate a war, must have been concerned when Ellis appeared on his doorstep. As a representative of the government, White had a responsibility to hang the murderer of Elijah, but that was clearly difficult, since the murderer was far away. Instead he wrote a letter for Ellis to take back to the chiefs, inviting them all to visit him the following fall. He promised to compensate them for their financial losses on the fateful trip. He also promised to establish "a good manual labor literary institution" where the Indians' sons and daughters could receive education. Lastly, he promised to write to the governor of California, to Captain Sutter, and to other powerful people to "get the unhappy affair adjusted. "
These grand promises turned out to be entirely empty. Some letters of complaint were written to California officials, but no replies were ever received. In the end Dr. White left suddenly for Washington, DC, on a mission to deliver a resolution drafted by the American settlers'. He never returned to the Oregon country, and likely forgot that he had ever promised anything to the Indians.
Thus, long before Isaac Stevens was appointed Governor of Washington Territory, long before the treaty councils, the Cayuse War, or the Yakima War, Peopeomoxmox, Spokan Garry, and the people of the neighboring tribes had learned a hard, bitter lessonno justice could be expected from the white man.
The Cayuse War
Ironically, Peopeomoxmox neither anticipated nor participated in the Cayuse War, although the murder of his son became a rallying point for the other tribes. Poor Elijah became the martyr whose memory was invoked to stir the passions of the warriors. Peopeomoxmox was accused by the Cayuses of being afraid of the whites. He told them:
I am not afraid of the whites, nor am I afraid of the Cayuses. I defy your whole band. I will plant my three lodges on the border of my territory at the mouth of the Touchet, and there I will meet you if you dare to attack me.
And he did, indeed, move his camp to the mouth of the Touchet, remaining there for a considerable length of time. His neutrality rankled the Cayuse braves, who were eager to avenge the death of Elijah Hedding.
The Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855
Late in 1854, Peopeomoxmox met Governor Stevens, who was out on a surveying expedition. Stevens described the Walla Walla chief as being "of dignified manner, and well qualified to manage men." The old chief, he reported "had saved up a large amount of money (probably as much as $5000); still he is generous, and frequently gives an ox and other articles of value to the neighbors. " Five thousand dollars was a great amount of cash for anyone at that time to possess and was likely earned through the sale of horses, cattle, and produce to the Fort and immigrants. Most tribes, however, found little value in American cash, preferring instead to receive material goods in trade.
In the months that preceded the Walla Walla Treaty Council, Peopeomoxmox, received several visits from a representative of the Stevens government, Secretary James Doty. By the end of March 1855, the chief appeared to be convinced that it would be better to receive a fair price for his lands than to be constantly fighting with the white men and in all probability left with nothing.
Peopeomoxmox, already on Stevens's list of malcontents, arrived at the Walla Walla Treaty Council insisting that he, Young Chief, Lawyer, and Kamiakin do all the talking for the tribal participants. He also demanded more than one interpreter, so that "they might know they translated truly." Stevens readily agreed to this demand.
Although there was a narrow margin between distrust and hostility, Stevens believed he could win the hearts of the reluctant chiefs. Joel Palmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon, was not so sure. The white contingent consisted of forty-seven troopersnot an impressive force stacked up against several thousand Indian warriors.
The Council began with speeches by Stevens and Palmer, after which the Indians requested a day to talk amongst themselves. The purpose of these talks must have been obvious to all, just as the purposes of the white commissioners was clear to the Indians. Peopeomoxmox and his ally, Kamiakin, Head Chief of the Yakama, must have found it quite easy to find support for the opposition faction.
The Council began with speeches by Stevens and Palmer, after which the Indians requested a day to talk amongst themselves. During the next day's council session, Peopeomoxmox delivered an angry speech:
We have listened to all you have to say, and we desire you to listen when any Indian speaks. ... I know the value of your speech from having experienced the same in California. We have not seen in a true light the object of your speeches… you have spoken in a round about way. Speak straight. I have ears to hear you, and here is my heart... You have spoken in a manner partly tending to evil. Speak plain to us...
Stevens and Palmer could not have known about the death of Elijah Hedding, but the memory must have still been haunting Peopeomoxmox. The council reconvened on Monday, June 4, but the Indians were uncharacteristically quiet. Kamiakin said he was afraid of the white men, but Peopeomoxmox bluntly asked:
You have spoken for lands generally. You have not spoken of any particular ones.
The council continued on for several more days in this vein, with Kamiakin, Young Chief, and Peopeomoxmox standing firm in their opposition to the treaty. Something must have changed their minds however,as all three signed a treaty with Stevens before leaving the council grounds. It was "a most satisfactory council", in Stevens own words
The Yakima War
Although the Indians were still angry over what was for them a most unsatisfactory council, it was an additional series of unfortunate events that triggered the Yakima War
The Oregon Weekly Times, just twelve days after the Walla Walla treaties were signed, ran an inexcusable article that read, in part:
By an express provision of the treaty, the country embraced in these cessions and not included in the reservation is open to settlement, excepting that the Indians are secured in the possession of their buildings and implements till removal to the reservation.
White settlers and miners began pouring into eastern Washington through lands, guaranteed by treaty, to be held in reserve for Indians. In the summer of 1855, young Indian warriors killed five miners who were headed to the Colville gold fields. When the Indian subagent, the obnoxious A. J. Bolon, investigated the incident, he was killed as well. The death of a government official galvanized the attention of the military and the white populace. War had come to the Columbia Plateau once again.
The Walla Wallas were drawn into the war by the actions of a nervous Indian agent, Nathan Olney. Olney hurried to Fort Walla Walla to attempt to persuade the Indians in the region not to support the Yakimas, only to find that they, too, were angry that the terms of the treaties had been broken. Their complaints frightened Olney, who became convinced that Peopeomoxmox was hostile to the whites.
The Walla Walla chief had always spoken his mind frankly and bluntly, but he was a rich and peaceful man, unlikely to join the conflict. Olney, however, convinced others that Peopeomoxmox was about to lead a general uprising of the Indian population.
The volunteer militia scoured the valley, shooting any Indian they saw, and stealing the Indians' horses. Reports of this violence reached Peopeomoxmox, and on December 4, 1855, he and a small group of Walla Wallas left their camp carrying the international symbol of peace, a white flag. They approached the army camp led by Colonel Kelly, inquiring as to why the troops were in their country. Kelly replied that they had come to punish the chief and his people for crimes against the whites.
Peopeomoxmox did not believe he had committed any crimes, but he admitted that some young men from his tribe had looted an abandoned British post. He promised to pay for the damages, but the Colonel seized the chief and his cohort as hostages.
News of this event traveled quickly throughout the valley, and angry Indians began to surround the American camp. On December 7, while trying to move his men to a new camp, Colonel Kelly warned Peopeomoxmox that he would shoot him and his people if they tried to escape.
That morning a raging battle with the Indians began, and it continued for several days. According to the stories of the soldiers, Peopeomoxmox and his companions began to shout encouragement to the Indians, and Colonel Kelly ordered them bound. As soldiers attempted to bind their hands, one of the Indians, indignant about being tied up like a dog, pulled out a knife. The man was shot, as were Peopeopmoxmox and the rest of the hostage Indians.
After the death of the regal old Walla Walla chief, the volunteers horribly violated his body. He was scalped, and his ears and hands were cut off. According to one account, "They skinned him from head to foot, and made razor-straps out of his skin."
Peopeomoxmox had every reason in the world to treat the Americans with bitterness, but despite his own experiences, and to the day of this death, he remained a peaceful chief.
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Josephy, Alvin M. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
Nicandri, David L. Northwest Chiefs: Gustav Sohon's View of the 1855 Stevens Treaty Councils. Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1986.
Ruby, Robert H. and John A. Brown The Cayuse Indians: Imperial Tribesmen of Old Oregon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.