Chief Moses (1829-1899)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/19/2008
  • Essay 8870

Chief Moses was the leader of the Columbia band of Indians, who gave his name to both Moses Lake and Moses Coulee. He was born in 1829, the son of a chief of this Central Washington tribe. His father sent him off at age 10 to Rev. Henry Spalding's Christian mission at Lapwai, Idaho, to learn Christianity and the white man's ways. Moses received his Christian name there, but was never baptized. He soon returned to his own people and as a young man came to be known as a brave warrior, a fierce opponent of white intrusion, and an influential leader. During the Indian wars and subsequent reservation negotiations, he emerged as one of the most influential tribal leaders in the entire Inland Northwest. Many white settlers distrusted Chief Moses -- he was accused of murder several times -- yet for decades he maintained a careful balance between friendliness and resistance, always stopping short of outright hostility. He went to Washington D.C. twice, where he signed two treaties and shook the hand of a U.S. president. However, his dream of a permanent reservation encompassing his mid-Columbia River homeland was thwarted on several occasions. He and his tribe eventually moved on to the Colville Reservation, north of the Columbia. He was an influential leader on the reservation and helped the defeated Chief Joseph (1840-1904) and his Nez Perce band to settle there. He died at the age of 70, recognized -- grudgingly, in some cases -- as a powerful, stalwart diplomat for his people.

Early Years

Chief Moses, at various times, gave his birthplace as either the Wenatchee Flat near the Columbia River, or in the nearby coulee which eventually bore his name, Moses Coulee. Both were sites frequented by his tribe, the Columbia Indians, also called the Columbia Sinkiuse or Sincayuse, according to Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, authors of a biography of Chief Moses, Half-Sun on the Columbia.

The tribe had once numbered in the thousands, but by the time Moses was born in 1829, the tribe was sadly diminished to only a few hundred after having been decimated by smallpox and malaria.

Moses was the son of Half-Sun (Sulktalthscosum) the chief of the tribe, and Between-the-Robes (Karneetsa), a half-Spokane woman. The child was named Loolowkin, a name that would change several times over his lifetime.

The boy spent months, sometimes entire years, traveling across the Rockies to Montana on expeditions with his father's buffalo-hunting parties. The tribe also roamed widely through central and north-central Washington, from Kettle Falls in the north to the Yakima River in the south to the slopes of the Cascade Mountains in the west. Sometimes, they would camp at a marshy lake where the tribe gathered duck eggs, later to be called Moses Lake.

When the boy was about 10 (or 12 by some accounts), his father sent him on an adventure that would change his life forever. The chief had heard about a white missionary, Rev. Henry H. Spalding (1803-1874), who had established a mission and school at Lapwai, Idaho. The chief believed that Rev. Spalding was in possession of powerful medicine in the form of written words -- the Bible. The chief resolved to send one of his sons to Lapwai to learn this magic, and he chose Loolowkin (Moses).

So Loolowkin rode all the way to Lapwai and soon began learning to read the Bible and speak English. Little is known about his three years at Lapwai, but apparently he was a reluctant student. He often played hooky by sneaking out to his Appaloosa pony and riding into the mountains instead of going to his lessons.

Yet he learned some English and even more Nez Perce, along with the rudiments of agriculture. He also learned a number of Bible stories which he remembered all of his life. Spalding gave the boy the Christian name Moses, in hopes that the boy would one day be a leader of his people. There is no record that he was ever baptized. He sometimes talked about his love for Jesus, but he apparently never considered himself a full-fledged Christian.

Moses grew to like and admire Spalding, but he must have been desperately homesick. One day, the boy said a spirit told him to return to his mother's tipi. He untied his horse and rode nearly 200 miles home, without even saying goodbye.

Sometime after returning to his tribe, he joined a buffalo-hunting expedition to Montana. While there, Blackfeet warriors attacked the party. Moses was too young to take part in the fighting, but he was enlisted to shuttle ammunition and water to his father's warriors. While gathering supplies at camp, a Blackfeet warrior appeared and came after Moses with a knife. Moses somehow managed to throw the warrior to the ground and stab him through the heart with his own knife.

"It was his life or mine," Moses would later say (Ruby and Brown).

Because of this incident, Moses was accepted at an early age as a brave warrior. His tribe had numerous other clashes with the Blackfeet on the buffalo hunting grounds, and during one clash, Moses's father was shot dead. Moses did not immediately assume the role of chief -- that would fall to one of his brothers -- but he soon became an influential leader among the mid-Columbia tribes.

The Treaty and the Treaty Wars

Moses was apparently at the Stevens Council of May 1855, when representatives of the Yakama, Entiat, and other tribes ceded rights to practically all of Central Washington in exchange for two relatively small reservations, the Yakama Reservation and the Wenatchee Fisheries. Moses opposed the treaty and became especially angry when white prospectors almost immediately overran even those small reservations.

Now going by his new name, Quetalican, Moses became so angry that, according to one Spokane chief, he embarked on a campaign of revenge, stalking white intruders into Central Washington and strangling them. His brother-in-law, the Yakama chief Qualchan, also angry for the same reasons, led a war party that hunted down a group of six miners and killed them. The federal government sent Indian Agent A. J. Bolon out to find the killers, but Bolon, too, was killed.

The Army sent in a detachment to punish the Indians, inciting what came to be known as the Yakima War. Moses later described one victorious encounter on Toppenish Creek by saying, "Then we started a war here and we whipped most of the soldiers" (Ruby and Brown). Yet more white soldiers kept coming over the next two years.

Moses himself was accused of killing a miner in Moses Coulee during another attack in 1857, although the evidence suggests it was the work of another war party. Another Army detachment went on the march to hunt down the killers.

Moses and Qualchan retreated toward the Spokane country in an attempt to join up with the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Palouse tribes, who were at war with another Army detachment under Col. George Wright (1803-1865). However, before they could join up, Wright routed those tribes at the Battle of Four Lakes and the Battle of Spokane Plains.

The victorious Wright then demanded that all of the warring chiefs, including Moses, Qualchan, and Qualchan's father, Owhi, come in to his camp on Latah Creek south of present-day Spokane, to surrender and make peace. Owhi arrived and was immediately clapped in chains. Wright sent a messenger to bring in Qualchan, who Wright believed had killed Indian Agent Bolon.

Meanwhile, Moses rode into Wright's camp unrecognized, along with some other Indians. An officer asked Moses for his horse, and Moses was about to comply when another Indian whispered for him not to do so. The man whispered that Owhi was in chains in the guard tent. Moses jumped on his horse and raced out of the camp, before anyone knew who he was. He set out to warn Qualchan.

Yet they missed each other. The unsuspecting Qualchan soon rode into Wright's camp and was immediately seized. Wright later boasted that it took less than 15 minutes to string Qualchan up and hang him. Owhi was also killed, after attempting to escape. Latah Creek became known thereafter as Hangman Creek.

Chief Moses

With both Owhi and Qualchan dead, the chieftainship of his tribe settled on Chief Moses.  He established camps at Moses Coulee and near Rock Island on the Columbia and welcomed people from many of the tribes and bands along the Columbia, who were being driven out by white encroachment. He encouraged people to plant vegetables and he led hunting parties into the Cascades and, less frequently as time went on, to the buffalo grounds of Montana. Moses became the arbiter of disputes, many of which were of a domestic nature.

Moses himself had several wives. His favorite was Mary (?-1939), who became his wife in 1864 and remained with him until his death.

He continued to remain aloof from the whites. By 1870 he had a developed a firm position about how his tribe and other tribes should deal with what looked like the inevitable tide of non-Indian settlement.

During a meeting in 1870 with Indian Agent W. P. Winans, he made the following speech: "The white man is the cause of our sorrow ... I fear the ruin of my people is coming. Now you tell me to cultivate and fence my land [and that] after a time the government will give me a deed for it and then it will be mine. My parents gave birth to me here and I fancy that this is my country. ... Let me remain in my own country and I shall die contented" (Ruby and Brown).

He and his tribe refused to accept the gifts Winans offered and refused to take part in a census that Winans was conducting, although he guessed that Moses's tribe now consisted of about 1,000 people.

As historian Byron Fish later put it, "He was not really friendly to white settlers, but neither was he an overt enemy. He just kept them guessing and worrying."

In 1873, he had a happy reunion with his old teacher Rev. Spalding, who reported that Moses "came out boldly for Jesus," and said that most of his tribe was ready come into the fold as well (Ruby and Brown). But this apparently went no farther than talk.

By the 1870s and 1880s, Moses's personality was well known and much debated amongst the new white inhabitants of the region. He was famous for his stylish outfits and was particularly partial to his decorated "magic shirts," which caused his tribe to nickname him "Seven Shirts."

He often lectured his people on the perils of drink, yet his fondness for the white man's poison is well documented.

Major R. D. Gwydir, an Indian agent at the Colville Reservation called him a "big man and a great character," but "he used to get pretty drunk" (Spokesman-Review, "Habits").

Gwydir told this story about the time Moses went in a government worker's home in Nespelem:

"Moses looked around the apartment in search of fire water. Spying a bottle on the mantle containing a colored liquor which he supposed was whisky, he hastily grabbed it, put it to his mouth and drank a copious draught. With a yell of anguish he rushed to a creek nearby and plunged into the icy water. The bottle contained Perry Davis' Pain Killer" (Spokesman-Review, "Habits").

R. A. Hutchinson, who lived on the Colville Reservation with Moses and went on to become state legislator, had a more nuanced take on Moses' attitude toward alcohol. He said that Moses would "occasionally drink to excess" but he was one of the "brightest, brainiest and most liberal men I ever met" (Hutchinson).

He quoted Moses as saying, "Liquor is a bad thing for the Indian, for it robs him of his property and his health, and through it come diseases never known by the Indian until the white man came. But the Indian is weak, and I want to tell you the only way to stop the Indian from drinking liquor is for the government to stop making it" (Hutchinson).

Resistance and Struggle

In 1877, Moses had to make the difficult choice about whether to join Chief Joseph's Nez Perce in war or to remain peaceful. His ties with the Nez Perce were particularly strong, dating from his days at Lapwai, but he eventually realized it would be futile to join in the war, since the Nez Perce were already retreating across the Rockies. Moses apparently did what he could to prevent his warriors from joining in a number of attacks that erupted across the Northwest during the Nez Perce crisis.

Jack Splawn (1845-1917), a white cattleman, interpreter, and historian, who had known Moses for years, later wrote that the "energy and foresight of Moses, together with his good control of his followers, must be given the credit for averting another Indian war" (Splawn).

Meanwhile, obtaining a suitable reservation settlement seemed more crucial than ever to Moses. The government was pushing him to accept removal to the Yakama Reservation -- which was south of his tribe's homeland and already filled with other tribes -- or to the newly established Colville Reservation, which was north of the Columbia and farther east than the tribe's homeland. Moses made clear his displeasure with either idea by staying away entirely from the 1877 treaty council.

He threatened to run to Canada, like Joseph, if the government forced them onto the Yakama Reservation. In a letter to Gen. O. O. Howard (1830-1909), who was attempting to broker a treaty with Moses and other tribes, Moses made his position clear.

"I have always lived here on the Columbia River," he wrote. "I am getting old and do not want to see my blood shed on any part of the country. … I do not want to go to the Yakima Reservation. I wish to stay where I have always lived and where my parents died" (Ruby and Brown).

A number of serious skirmishes broke out during this time, but all-out war was barely averted because the government backed down from its threat to move Moses forcibly to the Yakama Reservation. In an 1878 council with Howard, Moses traced out a reservation request that included a huge chunk of Central Washington, from the mouth of the Spokane River to the mouth of the Yakima, and the entire Columbia country in between.

Howard was encouraging and said he would convey Moses' request to the U.S. president. Howard immediately issued an edict preventing settlement on that land, pending a decision. Moses left in an optimistic mood.

The Perkins Murders

Yet settlers in the Yakima Valley immediately blared their opposition to such a huge barrier to white expansion. Meanwhile a young White Bluffs couple, Lorenzo Perkins (1836-1878)  and his pregnant wife, Blanche Bunting Perkins (1856-1878) were murdered by seven renegade Umatillas in 1878, setting off hysteria in the Yakima country. The murderers had been on the way to Chief Moses's camp when they came upon the couple, and people in Yakima accused Moses of complicity.

Moses proclaimed his innocence and even offered to join a posse to hunt down the renegades. A posse was formed, but after a series of misunderstandings and a tense standoff on Crab Creek, the posse captured Moses himself.

He was brought to Yakima City and clapped into prison, and some Yakima City people wanted him prosecuted for aiding and abetting the Perkins murderers. As he sat in prison, he could hear townspeople outside, celebrating his capture.

Moses still held out hope that Howard would arrive soon, set things straight, and announce the acceptance of Moses' reservation proposal.

"In staying here I am getting very tired and I would like to hear from General  Howard very soon, so that I can go to my own house," he said from prison around Christmas, 1878 (Ruby and Brown).

Partly because of fears that white vigilantes would seize Moses, he was soon moved to a guardhouse on the Yakama Reservation. In February 1879, Moses was called to a meeting and was told that the President had finally made a decision: There was to be no vast mid-Columbia reservation.

Moses, after hearing the news, wrote a despondent letter to Howard: "We are both beaten and those that opposed us have won; we have been outwitted" (Ruby and Brown).

Going to Washington D.C.

The government invited Moses to come to a council in Washington, D.C. to work out the details of his people's future. Moses was suspicious of the offer, but eventually agreed. But he also worked out a plan of escape, in case it was all just a ploy to transport him to Indian Territory and leave him in exile, like Chief Joseph. 

He set out for The Dalles on March 17, 1879, with an Army chaperone, where they caught a steamer to Vancouver, Wash. There he told reporters about his new reservation idea: A large new reservation which would be added on to the western side of the Colville Reservation, encompassing almost all of the land from the Okanogan River on the east, to Lake Chelan and the Cascades on the west, to the Columbia River on the south and the Canadian border to the north.

Moses went shopping for a suit and tie in Portland ("I look fine!" he reportedly said) and then embarked with his delegation by steamer to San Francisco. From there, they went by railroad and arrived in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 1879. The Washington Evening Star reported that he "seems to have the powers of leadership, if not the meekness, of his Biblical namesake" (Ruby and Brown).

He and some other chiefs were paid by a theater owner to go up on stage and display themselves to the public. "We went and all we had to do was sit on the stage, look wild, smoke the pipe of peace and give an occasional yell," reported a somewhat baffled Moses (Ruby and Brown).

The Short-Lived Moses Reservation

In a series of meetings over the next week, Moses must have been persuasive. E. A. Hayt, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, agreed to the new, vast reservation west of the Colville Reservation for Moses's people and "other friendly Indians." On April 19, President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) signed an executive order establishing the reservation, which would become the Columbia Reservation, more commonly known as simply Moses's Reservation.

Moses immediately wrote, in a letter to a Seattle newspaper, "Great Father Hayes is a good man and has a good heart. He gave me all the country I wanted, more than I need" (Ruby and Brown).

When he shook President Hayes' hand at the White House, Moses told him he would now be a "bigger Indian than ever" (Ruby and Brown).

Yet there was an immediate backlash in the settled parts of the Northwest. One opponent said that the government had set up a sanctuary for "King Moses" to set up a "barbarous kingdom" of renegades (Ruby and Brown).

On his return, Moses invited many of the mid-Columbia tribes to come onto the new reservation. Moses was now officially considered the chief of the Wenatchees, Entiats, Chelans, Methows, and Okanogans. And since his new reservation adjoined the Colville Reservation, he also considered himself chief of the Colvilles, San Poils, and Nespelems -- even if they did not.

The Spokanes, among others, had no interest in submitting to Moses's rule. Spokane Chief Garry (ca. 1811-1892), who was Moses's equal in experience and influence, stood up at a council and related the story of an Indian who once snuck up on a sleeping miner in a coulee and cut his throat.

"That Indian was Moses, your good chief," said Garry, resurrecting the old charges against Moses from the 1857 incident. "If he is a good Indian, then is Garry a bad one, for Garry never killed a white man. Oh, no!" (Ruby and Brown).

The Spokanes chose to hold out for their own reservation.

Meanwhile, the Perkins murder charges were still simmering. The murderers had been captured and one had implicated Moses before they later escaped. Moses had to return to Yakima City for a grand jury hearing in October 1879. Yet the evidence was shaky and the grand jury set Moses free.

The new Moses Reservation was beset with problems from the start. Moses had trouble convincing many Indians, most of whom lived south of the reservation on the Columbia, to move up there. And white miners and ranchers were beginning to raise a ruckus about the loss of so much prime land. They began agitating for the abolition of the Moses Reservation almost before Moses or any other Indians had moved onto it. It didn't help matters that when Moses finally established his home camp in 1880, it was in the Nespelem Valley on the Colville Reservation, not on the Moses Reservation.

First, the mining interests succeeded in having a 15-mile strip of the Moses Reservation removed along the Canadian border.  This caused so much trouble amongst the Indians that Moses was once again invited to Washington, D.C. in 1883 along with several other chiefs, to discuss a settlement. This time they were able to leave by train directly from Spokane.

The Colville Reservation

In D.C., the Interior Department floated another proposal: That Moses and the related tribes cede the entire Moses Reservation and move to the Colville Reservation. In exchange, the government would give them various improvements, including a sawmill, a grist mill, cows, wagons, and plows. Moses himself was offered an annuity of $600 a year if he and his people kept to the agreement. Moses bargained only one significant change; He asked for $1,000 a year, and got it. Moses signed with an X and when the treaty was ratified in 1884, the Moses Reservation was no more.

Moses was vilified by many Indians for bartering away their land in exchange for gifts for himself. Some, but not all, of that criticism abated when the government arrived on the Colville Reservation with wagons and mills and other improvements.

Also, Moses had managed to gather some new allies onto the Colville Reservation: Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band. They had been exiled to the Indian Territory after being captured, but they were homesick for the mountains and ponderosa pines of the Northwest. Joseph sent a message to his old friend Moses asking if they could come and live on the Colville. Moses was quick to agree and the government eventually agreed as well. In 1885, Joseph and his band were put on trains and escorted first to Fort Spokane and then to Nespelem, where they set up a camp not far from Moses.

Hutchinson, on the reservation to build the mills and teach the Indians how to use them, came to Moses' defense when a Spokane newspaper article implied that Moses took everything for himself and nothing for his people. Hutchinson said Moses once asked him to buy extra supplies because he was worried his people would starve before spring. Hutchinson told Moses he didn’t have the money to buy that much food.

"The next morning, Moses came to me and handed me $1,000," wrote Hutchinson. "He told me to buy sugar, tea and flour with the $1,000 and let the people have the supplies during the winter and that they would pay me later, and when they did, I could pay him" (Hutchinson).

The Indians eventually paid Hutchinson in furs, and Moses got his money back. Hutchinson said he knew Moses and his people better "than most any other white man" and he could vouch for his character and generosity.

Chief Moses's Last Years

Moses' last years on the reservation were marked by strife between the various bands on the reservation; by outbreaks of measles; and by increasing complaints that the government was not living up to its treaty promises.

 In 1890, Moses came to Spokane and gave a despondent interview to a reporter, who asked him about "his children" (his tribe).

"I have about 500; are dying off rapidly; they are sick all the time," said Moses. "I do not know how long they will last" (Ruby and Brown).

Moses and his people found it difficult to adjust to a life of staying put. No more could they follow game into Montana or the Cascades. They became increasingly dependent on government handouts.

Then in 1891, the federal government decided it wanted to buy back the north half of the Colville Reservation for $1.5 million. At a tribal council Moses argued that the government was going to get what it wanted anyway, so they might as well take as much money as they could. Moses signed -- and had his annuity raised to $1,500. The next year, however, Congress passed a bill which took back the north half of the Colville Reservation, but eliminated the $1.5 million payment and the increased annuity.

Moses and Joseph became a common sight in Wilbur and other nearby towns. A Wilbur reporter wrote the "two old murdering rascals" strutted around town "as only becomes men of rank" (Ruby and Brown). However, they became increasingly jealous of each other and did not always get along.

Their diminished reservation was getting crowded and their people were finding it increasingly difficult to roam outside of it to their ancestral camas root grounds or to Moses Lake to collect duck eggs. When they tried to go to Moses Lake in 1898, a settler harassed them and tried to get the sheriff to eject them for trespassing.

Moses, now 69 years old, had increasingly taken to drink. When he went to the Yakima Jubilee and Fair in 1898, he went to a saloon and ended up in jail for what a reporter called "failure to carry his liquor with his former grace" (Ruby and Brown).

Moses was failing fast. He died on March 15, 1899, at his house in Nespelem with his wives, including Mary, by his side. One of his tribespeople said he "was made an old man too soon and too sad." Over a thousand people came to a potlatch in his honor.

Grave robbers dug up his grave in 1904 and stole his watch and a Washington D.C. presidential  medal.

Yet nobody could steal his legacy, which remains alive on the land where he roamed. Next time you drive across Moses Lake or Moses Coulee, spare a thought for the man who was forced off these lands, even as he gave his name to them.

Sources: Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Half-Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses, revised paperback edition (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); Mary Moses's Statement (Fairfield, Wash: Ye Galleon Press, 1988); Jack Splawn, "Chief Moses As I Knew Him," as reprinted in Mary Moses's Statement, (Fairfield, Wash: Ye Galleon Press, 1988); R. A. Hutchinson, "Chief Moses, A Noble Indian," Spokesman-Review, November 26, 1916; "Habits of Chief Moses," Ibid., October 17, 1906; Theo H. Scheffer, "Good Land o' Moses," Ibid., March 29, 1953, p. 8; Byron Fish, "Chief Moses' Name Lives On," Ibid., July 30, 1972, p. 10; "Chief Moses," biography folder, Spokane Public Library Northwest Room.

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