Archaeologists generally date the start of human occupation in North America to about 16,500 years ago. So-called ”Kennewick Man,” dating to about 8,500 years ago, is the earliest known resident in the Pacific Northwest, though tools and other artifacts carry the date of human occupation back another 1,000 years. In the thousands of years before Euro-American contact, many tribes were established in the region, including the Walla Walla, Umatilla, Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce), Yakama, Palouse, and Wanapum peoples. These groups spoke the same language (Sahaptin) with local dialects, and shared similar cultures and economies. Another regional band, the Cayuse people, likewise shared the same culture and economy, but spoke a language of their own, unrelated to Sahaptin. All these groups regularly visited and intermarried with one another.
The 1805 Corps of Discovery, an American expedition led by Lewis and Clark, provides important written documentation of some of the early contact between regional Indian peoples and Euro-Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Other evidence of Euro-American contact prior to 1805 may be undocumented, but nevertheless occurred. The first explorers recorded hints of earlier contact, including the presence of foreign trade goods and a variety of diseases not native locally. Both were likely the products of previous interaction with coastal traders.
THE FUR TRADE ERA
The explorers were followed by the fur-trade industry. As early as 1807, geographer David Thompson of the North West Company surveyed the entire Columbia River, and he soon established trading posts across the region. Various members of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), Pacific Fur Company, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company followed and began to set up shop in the region to trade Western manufactured goods for pelts taken by regional Indians. The North West Company established the first trading post in this region along the Columbia River where Wallula is now. Some sources cite that fort’s presence as early as 1816, though the first documented establishment was Fort Nez Perces in 1818.
The first trading posts were taking advantage of long-established trade habits and located their forts for the convenience of those who already came there to trade. Both Euro-Americans and Indians were astute traders and bargaining could be difficult. Regional Indian people, while interested in trade goods, were not excited about giving up their fishing, hunting, and harvesting in order to trap beaver. Such differences sometimes led to conflict, though relations were often peaceful.
The North West Company and the HBC merged in 1821, and Fort Nez Perce’s name changed to Fort Walla Walla. After the merger, many former NWC agents were dismissed. These men, primarily French Canadians, many of whom had married local tribal women, remained in the vicinity and became some of the first residents of Frenchtown. Frenchtown, a name applied to other similar sites across the West, was never any kind of incorporated or organized town, but rather a collection of cabins along the Walla Walla River in an area about seven miles east of today’s City of Walla Walla.
THE MISSIONARY ERA AND THE OREGON TRAIL
Missionaries began arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the 1830s. The first mission was built in 1834 and was soon followed by many others. These missionaries were primarily Protestant and were largely unsuccessful in converting Indian people to Christianity. A Protestant mission supported by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was established near Frenchtown in 1836. This was the mission of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who chose the site for their work among the Cayuse people. Marcus Whitman made the first exploratory trip in 1835 before returning the following year with his wife and several other missionary couples. The feat proved and encouraged the idea that families could travel overland to the West; the Oregon Trail was underway.
The mission did not convert a single person and was such in danger of losing its support from its sponsor, the ABCFM, that Marcus Whitman made a hasty trip back to Massachusetts to appeal for continued support. By 1843, he actively sought wagon trains to lead over the Blue Mountains to the mission for the travelers to rest, re-supply, and be doctored. This business activity quickly became the main function of the mission.
Disease was a major contributing factor to the decimation of Indian people across the continent, and that story played out at the Whitman’s mission as well. Some 900 travelers came through the mission in 1843. In 1847, the same year that a wagon train brought measles to the Whitman’s compound, that number went up to 4,000 for that year alone (Unruh, The Plains Across, 119). Measles was a common childhood disease for the settlers, and Marcus Whitman was able to successfully treat their children, but the Cayuse had no resistance and many adults and nearly all of their children perished. As per tribal custom, healers failing at their duties merited death. In late November of that year, a war party arrived at the mission and killed Marcus and Narcissa, along with 11 others. In addition, 53 women and children were taken hostage.
Father J.B.A. Brouillet, a priest from a recently established Catholic mission, negotiated release of the captives after a few weeks. An HBC contingent saw to the burial of the deceased.
THE CAYUSE WAR
The Whitman incident prompted the Governor of Oregon Territory to call up a volunteer militia in pursuit of the Cayuse, who fought in the so-called Cayuse War. Some Cayuse raided isolated settlements and attempted to resist, while the militia provoked both friendly and hostile Indians. In 1849, after 50 Cayuse, largely women and children, had been killed, they handed over five men to be tried for murder in Portland. While none spoke English and only a translator of dubious ability was provided, all five were deemed guilty and executed by a military commission. Sporadic conflict continued to 1855. Though the Cayuse as a people were nearly decimated and their language is considered officially extinct, some still remain today.
FIRST TREATY COUNCIL OF 1855 AND BATTLE OF WALLA WALLA
Originally part of Oregon Territory, the establishment of Washington Territory occurred in 1853. Isaac Stevens was named Territorial Governor and immediately began to pursue treaty negotiations with tribal peoples across his governance. Ultimately, many tribes would feel they had been coerced into unfavorable treaties. After the Treaty Council, miners and squatters began occupying tribal lands. The tribes resisted and tried to protect their property and livestock, leading to another conflict, known as the Yakama War. The conflict spread to the Puget Sound area and other regional tribes allied with the Yakama, under Chief Kamiakin. Meanwhile, Oregon’s territorial governor dispatched the volunteer militia known as the Oregon Mounted Volunteers (OMV) to attack the largely peaceful Palouse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Indians.
In November 1855, the OMV men marched into Walla Walla valley and established themselves in the heart of Frenchtown, believing that Walla Walla headman Peo Peo Mox Mox (Yellowbird) was lying in wait with as many as 1,000 warriors. Fort Walla Walla, near the mouth of the Walla Walla River, had been burned and some homes in the area had also been razed. In early December, Peo Peo Mox Mox approached the troopers under a flag of truce but was ordered arrested.
In the meantime, the scattered cabins and farms of the Frenchtown residents were largely abandoned as tensions rose and military authorities advised they would be unable to protect isolated sites. Some of the Frenchtown men chose to ride with the OMV. Over the next four days, December 7 – 10, an estimated 600 – 1,200 warriors from the Walla Walla, Umatilla, Cayuse, Palouse, De Chutes and other tribes fought a running battle with the volunteers, known as the Battle of Frenchtown or the Battle of Walla Walla. During the battle, Peo Peo Mox Mox and his party were killed allegedly escaping. Peo Peo Mox Mox’s body was dismembered, with the pieces parceled out to the troopers who would display their grisly trophies throughout Oregon.
By the last day of the battle, the volunteers were running low on supplies and ammunition. Near mid-day, a relief column came to the volunteers’ rescue. In the face of changed odds, the Indian warriors withdrew. In all, seven soldiers perished and another 13 were wounded. An estimated 75 -100 Indians were slain.
SECOND TREATY COUNCIL OF 1856 AND AFTERMATH
A second treaty council was convened in 1856 and once again prompted armed conflict. Treaty negotiators were chased from the region, which led to a small skirmish. Soon after, a large force of federal troops under the command of Colonels Edward Steptoe and George Wright arrived in the valley. The troops built a new Fort Walla Walla in 1858. In the spring of 1858, Steptoe headed north to meet Kamiakin and his allies who had merged to form a loose resistance against the coming of Euro-American settlers. Steptoe’s force was defeated in the first battle, but several months later he led a larger force to thoroughly defeat the Indians, forcing peace agreements.
This marked the end of the Indian Wars in the region. Regional tribal people were re-located to reservations and the inhabitants of Frenchtown returned to their homes and farms. Many Métis members of Frenchtown eventually sought and received land allotments on nearby reservations.