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#19. Lt. Grover; Lt. Saxton and Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox

For readers who have missed earlier portions of this series, we are reviewing the final report of the explorations (1853-1855) made by and the teams under the direction of Isaac Stevens to determine the practicability of the northern route for a railroad to the Pacific.

Stevens had directed Lieutenant Grover to perform a survey of the upper Missouri to connect with that of Lieutenant Donelson, returning to Fort Benton between the Milk river and the Missouri. Further, his team was to make the best possible examination of the country, then starting from Fort Benton in the winter to cross the mountains with a dog train. This would allow him to gather statistics about the snows and winter climate between Fort Benton and Puget Sound.

Early in their journey, Grover noted that the mountain trail at that time was not passable for wagons and the survey of that section of the Marias would wait until a milder season. He wrote also of difficulties in Mr. Lander’s party which compelled him [Grover] to order Landler to return with him to Fort Benton. He sent a dispatch to Lieutenant Donelson to push on with his advance party but to keep to the main trail until Grover could join them. Grover’s Indian guide’s knowledge of the terrain made quick work of their treacherous descent to the lower river valley area, where they set up a camp for the night. They reached Fort Benton at 3 o’clock on September 12th (1853).”[1] Mr. Stanley and Mr. Tinkham continued their journey to the Piegan camp.

In Grover’s report, we learn of a military team led by Lieutenant Rufus Saxton. Saxton would later distinguish himself in the Union Army during the American Civil War, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts to a Unitarian and Transcendentalist family, he completed his education at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1849. Saxton’s assignment was to transport supplies from Fort Dalles to the Bitterroot Valley (Western Montana) and meet with Isaac Stevens. Saxton’s reports are a bit more interesting than Grover’s, giving us a more pictorial and human accounting.

After crossing the Des Chutes river they entered a dry sandy plain where it was 106° in the shade, followed “the emigrant road parallel to the south side of the Columbia”[2]. They entered the lands of the Umatilla ( Nixyáawii speaking Native Americans) where they were met by a deputation of Cayuse braves representing their chief [may have been “young chief” Weatenatemany] to ascertain their intent in passing through their country. The Umatilla had been told Saxton’s group was “coming to make war upon them and take away their horses”.[3] Saxton, as Stevens had done, assured them that they had been sent by the “great chief at Washington, on a mission of peace to all the Indians, and invited their chief”[4] to join them in smoking the pipe of peace at their [Saxton’s] camp. Camp was erected and the Umatilla chief joined them, smoked the pipe of peace, and glad that “their hearts were good”, he promised to be friendly. Today, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation consist of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse. They are actively working on preserving and reviving their native language.

(Photograph of the Umatilla Indian Reservation website:

On July 26th, before reaching Walla Walla, Saxton wrote: “The excessive heat and laborious travelling, through sand hills for many miles, caused some animals to give out, and two were drowned in swimming the Walla-Walla river”.[5] They arrived at Fort Walla-Walla, 120 miles from Fort Dalles on July 27th. Upon learning that his planned route to “Bitter Root” by way of the Koos-Koos-Kia would be very difficult, Saxton determined to take the more circuitous route via Pend d’Oreille lake. He hired Antoine Plante as his guide, a “half-breed, who lived with the Spokanes near the prairie intermediate between them and Coeur d’Alenés.”[6]

July 30th, Saxton’s group traveled 25 miles up the beautiful valley of Walla-Walla. Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox [Yellowbird] sent a warrior to guide them across Snake river.

Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox (“Yellowbird”)

Born between 1790-1800, his native name translates to “Yellowbird”; however, the fur trading company translated it to “Serpent Juane”. What I’ve read about Chief Yellowbird indicates he, while not a perfect human, was a judicious and honorable leader. Unfortunately, as history has recorded, treaties and promises from the “great father in Washington” continued to be broken, increasing the tensions and clashes between all parties. When his son, Elijah, was killed by settlers, rather than join others in war against them, he chose to follow the “great father’s” laws. No one was punished for his son’s murder. In 1855, the Walla Walla Treaty Council held in May and June of that year provided for reservations for tribes of the region, and ceded the majority of their tribal lands to the United States. Immediately after the Treaty Council, well before the treaties were ratified by Congress, miners and squatters began occupying tribal lands. The tribes resisted and tried to protect their property and livestock. Things were tense and getting ugly and members of the Walla Walla tribe raided the Fort Walla Walla trading post. U.S. Army Major Gabriel Rains sought help from the Oregon Mounted Volunteers who marched from the Willamette Valley and established Fort Henrietta on the Umatilla River. The Volunteers inspected the abandoned trading post and then marched towards the Touchet River to punish the Walla Wallas. Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox met them under a white flag of truce. To prevent an immediate attack upon the Walla Walla village, he became hostage of the Volunteers.

However, violence was not avoided. When the Volunteers returned to the Walla Walla

River and started up the valley to establish a winter camp at the old Whitman Mission, the battle began. Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox and four other hostages were killed by the Volunteers at the Larocque cabin during the first day of the battle. I was within a yard or two from the Great Wallawalla chief when he was shot. The whole scalp was taken from his head, and cut up into 20 pieces, his skull was divided equally for buttons — his ears preserved in a bottle of spirits — and large strips of his skin cut off along his back to be made into Razor strops — such is Indian warfare — but enough of this. [James Sinclair to Dr. Cowan, February 10 1856, Letter #5, E/B/Si6, BCA]

The statue of Chief Peo Peo Mox Mox is located in Walla Walla, Washington.

We will return to Lieutenant Saxton’s report in the next issue of this series.

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 107. [2] Ibid. Page 108. [3] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 108. [4] Ibid. Page 108. [5] Ibid. Page 108. [6] Ibid. Page 108.


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