What many people consider one of the most brutal, inexplicable and traumatic acts in the mid-1800s war between the U.S. government and Native Americans of the Inland Northwest wasn’t about the loss of human life. It had to do with horses.
On Sept. 8 and 9, 1858, approximately 800 horses belonging to tribes of the area were slaughtered by the soldiers of U.S. Army Col. George Wright along the banks of the Spokane River near what would become the border between Washington and Idaho.
In 1946 the Spokane Pioneer Society, with help from the Sons and Daughters of Pioneers of Washington and some local citizens, erected a monument that notes that Wright and his troops captured the horses and to “prevent the Indians from waging further warfare he killed the horses on the bank of the river directly north of this monument.”
The 8-foot-tall granite marker sits along the Centennial Trail about a mile west of the Gateway Park visitors center and a truck weigh station off Interstate 90 (exit 299), as close as could be determined to the exact spot where the killings occurred. But the words carved in stone don’t begin to explain or convey the effect of that one event.
Although land east of the Cascade Mountains had been closed to settlement by the Army, there were settlers, and some had been killed by tribal members. Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe was dispatched to punish the tribes, but he suffered defeat at their hands in mid-May of 1858 near what would become the town of Rosalia. Wright then set out from his base at Walla Walla to bring the military’s wrath down upon the Indians, which he did at battles at Four Lakes (Sept. 1, 1858) and Spokane Plains (Sept. 5, 1858).
Not long after, Indian herders were discovered attempting to drive their horses out of Wright’s reach, and the soldiers overpowered them, capturing the horses, which may have numbered as many as 900, and set up a camp at the location where the monument now stands. It became known as Horse Slaughter Camp.
Quite a bit has been written about possible reasons for the slaughter – how difficult it would have been to take the horses along on the march, how serviceable the horses might be (the 130 or so horses that were saved proved to be so wild that they could not be broken for use by the Army; most were later shot) and what impact a massive slaughter of horses would mean to the Indian tribes.
Historical accounts say that Wright was under orders to win decisively as there was a feeling that the Northwest might be the opening front in a general uprising of Indian tribes.
Wright wrote: “I deeply regretted killing these poor creatures, but a dire necessity drove me to it.” He also wrote: “The chastisement which these Indians have received has been severe but well merited and absolutely necessary to impress them with our power. … A blow has been struck which they will never forget.”
“The slaughter of the horses was an application of shock and awe, and it worked,” said local historian William Stimson, author of “A View of the Falls: An Illustrated History of Spokane.”
Historians who argue that it was the cruelest and most needless of actions said that the horse slaughter was unnecessary because the end of the Indian wars was clearly in sight.
By the end of September 1858, Wright declared the Indian wars over.
Horse slaughter was an ugly business. According to an account of an officer present, the animals were taken to the banks of the river and shot one by one, young colts were knocked in the head and mares were heard crying for their foals. In addition, this: “On the following day, to avoid the slow process of killing them separately, the companies were ordered to fire volleys into the corral.”
The physical evidence of the horse slaughter lasted a long time. More than 50 years later, the bleached bones of the horses could still be seen along the river. Some were washed away in floods and others gathered up and processed into lime for sugar refining, according to Edmund T. Becher in his book “Spokane Corona: Eras & Empires.”
The physical evidence may be gone now, but the monument is in place so that the horse slaughter won’t be forgotten.