Palouse Indians and Oregon Volunteers battle in future Columbia County for 30 hours beginning on March 14, 1848.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/29/2006
  • Essay 7807

On March 14 and 15, 1848, a battle between Oregon Volunteers and members of the Palouse Tribe takes place in present-day Columbia County during the Cayuse War. The fighting continues for 30 hours. The Oregon Volunteers are greatly outnumbered, but eventually fight their way across the Touchet River and to safety, though with casualties.

On November 29, 1847, Cayuse tribal members killed 13 people at the Whitman Mission at Waiilatpu, including Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. A fourteenth victim is believed to have drowned after escaping the attack. The Indians were most likely acting out of the belief that Marcus Whitman was an evil shaman using measles to kill people. The physician had been unsuccessfully treating the Cayuse, who lacked immunity, and measles were killing them but not the whites. This episode came to be known as the "Whitman Massacre" and led to the Cayuse War, fought by bands totaling about 500 Oregon Volunteers and the Cayuse Tribe. By March 1848 several battles had taken place between the volunteers and Cayuse.

In February or early March 1848, the Oregon Volunteers arrived at Waiilatpu, interred the remains of those who had been killed, and built a small fort on the site, which was named Fort Waters. Several bands of troops subsequently spread out through the area in search of the Cayuse.

On March 13, a band of 92 Oregon Volunteers under the command of Cornelius Gilliam was camped near the Tucannon River in the future Columbia County, Washington. Historian Clifford E. Trafzer describes Gilliam as follows:

"Gilliam, a Baptist minister, despised Indians and believed they should be exterminated. He took little interest in negotiating with the Cayuse and deliberately foiled attempts by an accompanying 'peace Commission' to settle problems without fighting" (Trafzer).

Gilliam received a message from Tauitan, a Native American chief. The message claimed that Tiloukaikt, a Cayuse chief who was involved in the Whitman Massacre, and the rest of his tribe had fled north on the Tucannon, intending to cross the Snake River into the Palouse country.

Gilliam gave chase and on the morning of March 14 approached the Cayuse camp near the mouth of the Tucannon River on the Snake River. Here he was approached by an old, unarmed Indian, who claimed that the camp was that of Peupeumoxmox, a chief of the Walla Walla Tribe. The old man further aired that the Cayuse fighters had left the area and, according to early-twentieth century historian F. A. Shaver, suggested that Gilliam and his troops take possession of a stock of cattle that were quietly grazing high atop some nearby hills.

It was a quarter mile up steep hills to get to the cattle, and when the volunteers got there, they received an unpleasant surprise: The cattle had been moved by the Cayuses and were swimming across the Snake River. The Americans had been duped. "Outwitted by a band of painted savages!" as Shaver, writing in 1906, exclaimed in the stereotyped racist language of the day (An Illustrated History ...). The volunteers gathered up the remaining stock, mostly horses, and began to march south toward the Touchet River. Accounts differ as to whether or not this remaining stock belonged to the Cayuse or the Palouse.

After a march of about a mile, the volunteers were attacked from behind by a band of 400 to 500 Native Americans. Shaver writes that the attacking Indians were from the Palouse Tribe. Other accounts (including Native American versions) also support that it was a band from the Palouse Tribe that was involved in this particular battle. However, most of the tribes in the region at the time are not known to have joined the Cayuse in the 1848 war against the white settlers.

The Palouse version of what triggered the battle differs from the Oregon Volunteer version. The Palouse version says that the volunteers simply rustled their stock without provocation, and that the Palouse had little choice but to respond. The Palouse version also notes that Native Americans were threatened by the increasing immigration into their territory as well as by increasing attacks from Americans and the Indians felt compelled to turn the Americans back.

Various accounts, both American and Palouse, confirm the broad outlines of the battle, which was a "hot one" (An Illustrated History ...) and continued for about 30 hours, starting late on the morning of March 14. Although greatly outnumbered, Gilliam’s volunteers fought furiously, marching in a hollow square to fight off the assaults, which came from all sides. The Americans were unable to reach the Touchet River by nightfall and camped without food or fire on a small stream.

During the night the Palouse continued to fire into the camp. The volunteers turned the captured horses loose in an attempt to mollify the Indians, but this was not successful.

The fighting continued on the morning of March 15. The Oregon Volunteers continued their retreat toward the Touchet River. The Palouse realized the objective and rushed for the Touchet ahead of the volunteers, where they took up positions in scrubby trees and underbrush along the river bottom near the present-day site of Dayton.

Early on the afternoon of the 15th, the battle was joined on the Touchet. One account lists the battle as lasting an hour; another says it lasted three hours, but both accounts agree that the fighting was "desperate" and it was only through the concerted efforts of the Americans that its force succeeded in crossing the Touchet. Once the volunteers crossed the Touchet, the Palouse broke off the attack.

Shaver records that there were no American fatalities and 10 injuries. Alternatively, a letter allegedly written in 1889 by a surviving Oregon Volunteer says that one volunteer was killed in the fighting and that "a number" were injured.

On March 16, the volunteers arrived back at Fort Waters, more than 30 miles from the crossing at the Touchet. Except for a small colt, they had had nothing to eat for three days.


F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 279-280; Clifford E. Trafzer, "The Palouse Indians: Interpreting the Past of a Plateau Tribe," in Spokane and the Inland Empire ed. by David H. Stratton (Pullman: WSU Press, 2005), 64-97; online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Cayuse attack mission, in what becomes known as the Whitman Massacre, on November 29, 1847" (by Cassandra Tate) (accessed April 2, 2017); “1948 Report, Part 5, Fort Waters And Conclusion,” National Park Service: Whitman Mission NHS, website accessed June 9, 2006, (; “Cayuse Indian War 1848,” A Place Called Oregon, History Genealogy website accessed June 10, 2006, (; “Our History and Culture: Part 2,” Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation website accessed June 23, 2006,; Dr. Eric Mayer, “The Northwest Tribes: Cayuse,” Emayzine website accessed June 23, 2006, (
Note: This essay was revised on April 2, 2017.

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