Wenatchi (P’squosa) families have long passed down traditions related to an unprovoked massacre of an entire village of Wenatchi people shortly after the signing of the 1855 Walla Walla treaty. In late 2017, the Wenatchi Advisory Board, a tribal group that advises the Colville Business Council on matters relating to their Tribe, began a study to determine if there was other evidence to corroborate the traditions.
The Wenatchi have announced that multiple sources, including documentary materials produced over the past one hundred years, traditions of non-Indian settlers in the Wenatchee Valley and traditions from a number of other tribes, as well as the Wenatchi, provide evidence showing that a Wenatchi village was attacked by United States troops in 1858 and that many Wenatchi men, women and children were brutally killed.
A representative of the Wenatchis had signed the Yakama Treaty at Walla Walla in 1855. The treaty promised the Wenatchis hunting, fishing and gathering rights in their aboriginal homeland centered in the Wenatchee Valley. Article Ten of the treaty guaranteed them a reservation of thirty-six square miles centered where Icicle Creek flows into the Wenatchee River. (At a cession council held in 1894, when Yakamas demanded that Wenatchi rights under the treaty be respected, the United States agreed. Congress also ratified the results of that council, again guaranteeing the Tribe fishing, hunting and gathering rights and a reservation within their traditional territory.)
In 1855, the Wenatchis were reportedly satisfied with the provisions of the treaty and expected to live in peace with the White people who were pouring into the rest of the territory. The Wenatchis met with United States military officials who promised to protect the Tribe and offered to expand the reservation to sixty-four miles square in return for their continued friendly relations.
Three years after the treaty was signed, it had still not been ratified by Congress. This caused confusion among both Indians and Whites, and during that year hostilities broke out on the Columbia Plateau.
In 1858 a party of miners attempted to travel up the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers to gold fields that were along the Fraser River in what is now British Columbia. They were attacked by a group of Indians, mostly Yakama. Wenatchis assisted the white miners to retreat. This incident and other hostilities in the eastern part of the Columbia Plateau prompted United States military officials to send out “punitive” military expeditions, one of them into Wenatchi country.
Major Robert Selden Garnett was ordered towards Wenatchi country with orders to kill the Yakamas responsible for attacking the miners. Under him were three commanders: Capt. James J. Archer (later said to be a friend of the Wenatchis), Lt. George Crook (later famous for his campaigns against the Apaches), and First Lt. James K. McCall.
The troops reached the Wenatchee Valley in August, 1858.
Crook reported that the Wenatchis assisted the army in identifying Yakamas who had been involved in the attack. But according to Crook, some of the Yakamas escaped, so a military party was sent up the Wenatchee River, past Tumwater Falls in pursuit.
The military reports from Crook do not describe what happened when the troops reached the White River drainage that enters in to upper Lake Wenatchee. However, many other sources confirm that the troops sent out by Crook encountered a seasonal village of Wenatchis, who were engaged in summer subsistence activities–gathering huckleberries, fishing and hunting in an area along the White River. These many sources, which include traditional narratives from both Whites and Indians from several tribes, describe a massacre of up to seventy-five Wenatchi men, women and children by the troops.
In 1975 Wenatchi tribal elder, Moses George described what happened in a letter he drafted. He said there were between 60 and 75 Indians in 10 tepees.
The elders were busy gathering berries, nuts, fish and medicinal herbs, storing for winter use at all events this tribal faction was totally unaware of any wars, troubles or malfeasance as committed by Yakimas....
The day was horrible when the soldiers surrounded the encampment and ordered the males to line up and be shot down totally, some were hung, and to complete the decimation women and children were shot or slashed to death with sabers.
The only survivors were a few lads tending horses a short distance from camp--when the tumult of the atrocity subsided these horrified witnesses hid and fled after the soldiers left the area– ...what they saw was handed down through generations since then until this date...
There were no burials by the soldiers therefore later on in time another group of Indians found the razed site and only a few of the skeletons were evident, these Indians prayed in their way and left the area untouched.
As Mr. George reported, there were some survivors, including a boy who later became chief of the tribe. Another tribal elder, Joseph Atkins, also drafted an account of the massacre in the 1970s. He reported that this was an account he did not like to tell very often.
John Harmelt told us that when his father, William Harmelt, was about nine years old he belonged to a small band of Wenatchee Indians which lived near Lake Wenatchee. One summer the whole band went up the White river valley to gather berries, roots and medicinal herbs. They put up their tule-mat covered tipis to stay a while.
William was looking after the horses on the nearby hill. While he was up there, he saw white soldiers on horseback come where the people were camped. As William watched, he saw the soldiers shoot all the Wenatchee Indian men. They also killed (shot) the one Yakima Indian who was with the Wenatchis.
The Yakima Indian knew about the trouble and fighting in Yakima, and he was hiding among the Wenatchee Indians without telling them why he was there. The Lake Wenatchee Indians were innocent. They knew nothing about the Indian trouble at Yakima. In fact, living that far up in the mountains they had never seen white men before.
After the white soldiers shot and killed all of Indian men, they killed all of the women and children too, even though some of the Indian women tried to fight back.
While William watched, all of William Harmelt’s band of Wenatchee Indians, men, women and children, were wiped out completely.
After the white soldiers were gone William Harmelt followed down the Wenatchee River. When he came to Cashmere, the Indians living there took him in and raised him. They were Wenatchee Indians, too. When he was a grown young man they made him their chief.
Early White settlers in the area reported finding the site of the massacre, where bones were strewn across the landscape. In 1858 U.S. troops reportedly chased more Yakama Indian people into the Chiwawa drainage, where the Indians escaped using ingenious methods.
One hundred sixty years after the event, Wenatchis are still reluctant to discuss the massacre–many of their ancestors were brutally killed and left unburied. The memories of the massacre and its impact on the Tribe, continue to live on in the traditional narratives passed down by Wenatchis, Yakamas and elders in several other tribes. Non-Indians in the area also continue to recall details related to the White River Massacre of 1858.
Although the United States failed to survey and set aside the reservation promised under the 1855 Treaty and the 1894 agreement, the Wenatchi people pressured the United States to abide by its treaty obligations and between 2006 and 2010 the Tribe litigated their fishing rights in federal court and finally prevailed, with the United States formally affirming the fishing rights promised under the 1855 treaty and the 1894 agreement (both ratified by Congress).