>seven hundred horses


The Mullan Road was the first wagon road to cross the Rocky Mountains to the Inland Northwest. Courtesy of my father, this is a recent photo of this wagon trail. I thought I’d share the photo with you. Fascinating, isn’t it, to sense the wagons on this trail. I also thought to research the construction of this road. What was going on in the late 1850s, anyway?
Prior to the road, travel between Washington and Oregon and Montana was extreme. A small town in Montana, Benton (Ft. Benton) was the beginning and the end of steamboat travel on the Missouri River.
An accounting by Philip Ritz, urging the construction of this wagon road:
“There is another reason why the Mullan road should be opened. There are on this northern coast hundreds of persons and small families who would like to make a visit to the Atlantic States, but the expenses and the dangers of the trip via the Isthmus are so great that it has kept them from visiting their old homes on “the other side.” But let this road be opened so that four or six persons, or a small family, can take a light wagon, with their blankets and provisions, drawn by a span of ponies that will keep fat on the wild grass, and they can make decidedly a pleasure trip of it, hunting and fishing all the way to the steamboat landing at Benton. Then expenses from Walla Walla to Benton will be what their provisions cost them – six or seven dollars to the person, and about seven dollars, all told, for ferriages. My expenses on the route for ferriages was $2.25.

Wagons and teams would be worth nearly as much at Benton as they cost here. A great many passengers went down on the steamboats for from $10 to $40 this season. The Deer Lodge made the trip from Benton to St. Louis in 13 days and 15 hours, and back to Benton in 36 days and 21 hours. The time to Omaha, where cars could be taken to all parts of the United States, would be considerably less. This route only needs to be known to become the most popular one on the continent.”

But then there are matters I cannot imagine. For example: the matter of the seven hundred horses. Journal entries regarding the casualties as civilization worked and fought its way across the Rockies include this:

“The army’s respite was brief. Eager to teach the Indians a lesson, Wright pursued a scorched-earth policy, burning caches of Indian food in the Spokane Valley: camas, dried berries, and wheat. Then the soldiers encountered another form of booty. In his account, Capt. Erasmus D. Keyes, one of Wright’s officers, reported, in the distance “[we saw] many moving specks, which were horses, mares, and colts.” The army pursued the herd, managed to capture roughly seven hundred of the animals, then considered what to do with them.

Keyes advised Wright to slaughter them, telling him, “I should not sleep so long as they remained alive, as I regarded them the main dependence and most prized of all the possessions of the Indians.” The colonel then passed the decision on to a board of officers with Keyes as president. The officers decided to allow the “friendly Indians” in their company to each keep one or two of the horses. Then the soldiers built a high enclosure. “The poor animals [were] driven in, and the work of shooting commenced. The soldiers soon learned that by planting a bullet just behind the ears the animals would drop dead at once.”

The killing went on for two days, until 690 horses lay dead. Keyes, who had been so adamant for the slaughter, was affected. “It was a cruel sight,” he wrote. . . Soon afterwards the soldiers crossed the Spokane River and entered “a rich agricultural country, where we found many rude huts and numerous stacks of wheat. The dragoons all fed their horses with wheat, and each carried away one or two sheaves. The large balance we burned, so that desolation marked our tracks.” Without conscious irony, Keyes wrote of the Spokane crossing, “Ours was the first civilized army that ever passed that stream.”


About redmitten

author of Cracking Geodes Open, Making Good Use of August, and The Peppermint Bottle. poetry editor for IthacaLit. website: https://toomuchaugust.wordpress.com

2 responses to “>seven hundred horses

  1. >You can imagine what that killing sounded like. Undoubtedly some part of Keyes died that day too.

  2. >i can tell that you feel that, mike. me, too. yesterday i was in a poetry workshop. a few of the folks in there were wanting their poems to end neatly, with a tidy resolution. i thought to myself~ how unlife-like. i'm researching keyes and the site of this *battle*. stay tuned..

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