A conversation with writer Donald Cutler about his morally vigilant exploration of Col. George Wright’s 1858 campaign, and how to reckon with its dark and complex legacy.
In Donald Cutlers’s new book, “Hang Them All,” George Wright and the Plateau Indian War, we first meet two men and a lie at the end of a crumbling ribbon of asphalt in Four Lakes, Washington. The first is George Wright, the once-exalted military hero, and the one whose name is etched in the ten foot high granite monument surrounded by gopher holes and broken glass. Wright died in 1865. The other man is Cutler himself, who has come to the site of this historic battlefield out of curiousity for what happened here a century and a half ago, and leaves with two questions: Who was George Wright? And what do Native Americans think of this monument which was heralded, at the time, as a peace memorial?
As he describes in the preface to his book, the falsehood etched upon the monument—that the 700 soldiers under Wright’s command defeated a force of “5,000 allied Indians”—is a clue to a larger truth. It is the victors that get to write history in stone, and the gross exaggeration of the size of the Indian force (Cutler’s research finds there were, at most, 1,000 opposing warriors) serves only to embellish Wright’s image among the “pioneers” as a peacemaker. It does not address his cruelties and, in that way, it is the crumbling asphalt and shards of glass that, in Cutler’s scene, are the more revealing details.
Donald Cutler, “Hang Them All,” Part I
Don Cutler on “Hang Them All,” Part II
This is not history that is easily swallowed, nor easily written.
One clear service the book provides is in connecting the events and personalities that led to Wright’s 1858 campaign. Wright’s superior when he arrives at Fort Vancouver in January of 1856 is General John E. Wool, a professional soldier who’d been wounded in the War of 1812 and would go on to become the oldest general in the Civil War. Wool’s nemesis is the physically diminutive, ambitious and hyperactive Isaac Stevens, the appointed governor of Washington territory (1853) whose job it is to open the region to railroads and white settlers. The military, under Wool, sees its role as basically a police force to keep the peace between Native American tribes and white immigrants flowing into the region. But Wool and his subordinates, principally Wright, have no control over Stevens and the fire-breathing, volunteer militias and yellow press stoking Stevens’s campaign to forcibly subdue and remove the tribes from their lands. Stevens provokes both the natives and the U.S. military, leading Wool to warn Wright in August 1856 that “Governor Stevens is crazy and he does not know what he’s doing.”
“There was a description of one of [Wright’s] dragoons cutting an Indian’s head with his saber in the Battle of Four Lakes. He cleaved his head in two. It’s gruesome. And I get it because you’re in battle and there is the heat of it, and everything. But Wright did so many things that were calculated. That to me is more unnerving, that he actually had time to plan this out…To me that is the really disturbing thing about this.”
The net result, though, is that Stevens and the volunteer militias in Washington and northern Oregon inexorably provoked the tribes, all the while pressing the U.S. military to respond with more force. In the summer of 1856, Wright sent Col. Edward Steptoe to establish Fort Walla Walla. Two years later, in May of 1858, Steptoe led a force of 150 men northward from Fort Walla Walla into the Palouse, into an area that tribal leaders had warned should not be encroached upon. The tribes’ warnings (made directly to Stevens at an 1855 gathering along the Spokane River) didn’t seem to faze the Washington Territorial legislature. In January 1958, the legislature passed a bill creating Spokane and Walla Walla counties, with boundaries encompassing essentially all of the Columbia plateau. Even so, very few whites were willing to enter the area without permission of the tribes.
Steptoe’s purposes, to this day, remain unclear, though he insisted at the time that he was not traveling with hostile intent. Despite a valiant effort by Catholic missionary Father Joseph Joset to defuse the situation, Steptoe’s advance provoked an attack by bands of Yakama, Palouse, and Couer d’Alene warriors near modern day Rosalia. More than a third of Steptoe’s soliders were killed in the ensuing battle, before the remaining force fled to the south.
“Steptoe’s defeat sent a shockwave up the chain of command,” Cutler writes. “Colonel Wright, General [Newman] Clarke, Secretary of War Scott and President Buchanan were all incensed.”
By then, at Stevens’s insistence, General Wool had been replaced by General Clarke. Clarke’s orders to Wright were clear enough: to avenge Steptoe’s defeat by forcing the plateau tribes to turn over those who initiated the hostilities. The result was a 19th century version of ‘shock and awe’—of Wright roundly defeating the tribes on the battlefields at Four Lakes and, four days later, the West Plains near what is, today, Spokane’s airport. Then came several gruesome hangings without trials, destruction of native food supplies, and an infamous massacre of hundreds of horses in the Spokane Valley. The ignoble campaign concluded at Wright’s encampment on Latah Creek, near present-day Mount Hope. There, on September 23rd, the Yakama warrior Qualchan was hung literally within minutes after he voluntarily arrived in camp. This is why Latah Creek appears on modern maps as Hangman Creek.
“There was something about all those hangings that were particularly gruesome. They didn’t really hang people in those days, they strangled them to death…As Wright continued this march down into the Palouse, they started hanging Palouse people and he would make their families watch, and he would assemble people to watch. You know, that’s the kind of thing the Nazis did in Eastern Europe.”
Wright’s 1858 mission was decisive and ultimately devastating to the Columbia Plateau’s Native Americans. Among other things, it opened the way for dams on the Columbia and Spokane rivers that would extinguish the once prolific salmon runs that provided the staple protein for the inland Northwest tribes. There are no doubt poignant questions involving absolution and compensation that beg for our attention. The easiest way to avoid drawing them into focus is to cling to a one-sided history that paves over inhumanity, racism and injustice with hero worship.
When Cutler spoke at Auntie’s bookstore in late September he was candid about the labors of scholarship and peer review required by his publisher, the University of Oklahoma Press. It had taken him six years. Speaking in a room that was mostly full, he tried his best, as he does in the book, to keep his balance in passing judgment on Wright.
If we accept the Anglo-American conquest of North America as a historical inevitability, then who’s to say that Wright’s brutal 1858 campaign didn’t supplant later, and even bloodier conflicts? More broadly, Cutler explains in his preface that he doesn’t believe Wright was a hero, “but I hesitate to condemn him, for to do that would make it easy to separate him from me—from all of us.”
And, still, “Hang Them All” circles Wright in a way that Wright circled the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene 158 years ago, not with a noose but with careful scholarship and open questions that retain their poignancy through time. For the most part, he reports and we decide. But he doesn’t allow us (and here I’m speaking about those of us who are the Anglo-American beneficiaries of Wright’s purposefully intimidating campaign) to look away, because he doesn’t allow himself to look away. One important dimension of his book is reporting about how Wright’s actions became a reference point in evaluating the case of General Jacob H. Smith. Smith was court-martialed and forced to retire for ordering a massacre on the Phillipine island of Samar following a grisly attack by islanders that killed more than forty U.S. soldiers in 1901. Cutler cites a 1902 article in the New York Times that offered a defense of General Smith inasmuch as Smith’s orders were not so different than the summary hangings Wright presided over, in Spokane, that were condoned and praised.
In our conversation Cutler agrees that he left Four Lakes a decade ago with a third question, that he asked of himself. As a writer and a descendent of those who forcibly settled the region, did he have a duty to “right the record,” beyond the congratulatory accounts that would have us believe that Wright’s mission and actions were part of a heroic, civilizing conquest.
“That was the driving force behind this,” Cutler says, “and that is the driving question for me.”
To make it somewhat more accessible, I’ve divided the audio of our conversation into two roughly equal segments, the first covering the period prior to Wright’s 1958 incursion (including the Steptoe battle), and the second covering the period of Wright’s campaign in the aftermath of the Steptoe battle.