Location: Near present day Spokane, Washington, United States

Article by Steve N. Jackson (v. 1)

United States M1955On 1 September, 1858 a battle would be fought in the Pacific Northwest of the American continent that would signify a sea change in military conflicts.

In 1851 the new Minié type rifle began to enter service with the major military services of the world, but the process was slow. The Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) and India's First War of Independence (1857) saw a limited but increasing use of rifles - the Indian war was set off in part due to mistakes in training British Commonwealth soldiers to use these rifles. There was no doubt in military planners minds that the Rifle was a significant advance in combat technology, but the slow transition to the weapon left it mostly untested.

The cause of the Battle of Four Lakes can be traced to May of 1858 when a unit of United States army soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Steptoe was ambushed by a small group of Palouse warriors near Rosalia, Washington. Both groups were evenly matched in terms of arms, carrying the standard smooth bore muskets that were not much different than what armies had been issuing for nearly three centuries. The Palouse warriors though had a significant advantage over the United States Army in training, motivation, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. The result was an event that was common in the history of western colonial expansion: a tactical defeat of the colonial forces who were otherwise strategically victorious in the longer wars. The battle, now called the Battle of Pine Creek, was probably between two evenly matched forces (although Steptoe reported opposition as near 1,000 warriors, a common exageration of Indian forces through out the frontier period - most tribes in the Pacific Northwest lacked the organization to gather than many warriors into a single place at the same time) and was fought as a running engagement with typically low casualty rates - probably fewer than 20 people were killed and wounded on each side compared to 300+ soldiers and warriors engaged).

Whatever the exact numbers involved in the battle, the musket was at best an average weapon when used by light infantry. Most high casualty, decisive battles occured because forces met in melee combat. Defeats of the type handed to the US Army at Pine Creek were measured not by a defeated unit but by the failure of one side or another to carry out a mission objective. Similar battles fought at Toppenish Creek (5 October, 1855), Union Gap (9 and 10 November, 1855), and in particular Seattle (26 January, 1856) were all characterized by limited casualties despite hundreds of combatants spending sometimes half a day engaged in fighting.

The action that would become Four Lakes had no real reason to be any different from previous battles. Soldiers under American Colonel George Wright were an inexperienced combat unit although Wright was a long service officer and veteran of the Seminole wars. The sides were evenly matched except that Wright's unit had recently requipped with rifles.

The battle started when the U.S. forces camped in a constricted area between four small lakes. The Indian leader, Kamiakin, followed what had been a winning strategy for the tribes in the past: he waited for the Army soldiers to settle into their standard hasty camping position before moving to envelop the soldiers in a three sided attack. The Americans were in essense immobile and restricted in their routes of retreat by the lakes.

At around 400 meters the seemingly inexperienced Americans opened fire on Chief Kamiakin’s warriors, a distance at which only canon are usually effective, and these soldiers had none of these devices. The first volley though was devastating, killing warriors in the open before they could find cover, wounding Chief Kamiakin (who had to be rescued by his axe wielding wife) and handing the Federation Chief Kamiakin represented a resounding defeat. More Federation warriors died in less that four hours of fighting at Four Lakes than had been killed in the previous three years of combat, against only two United States soldiers killed.

The U.S. Model 1855 Minié rifle, then just making its appearance in the hands of American soldiers on the frontier, was the result of a rush of innovation in small arms manufacture by French inventors working out of armories patterned after Hall’s Harper’s Ferry. Federation warriors, armed with traditional smooth bore muskets, were cut down hundreds of meters from where they could effectively respond to American rifleman. While Minié rifles saw limited use in the Crimean War, Chief Kamiakin’s defeat was a quiet reminder of how far French arms makers were changing the face of modern warfare.


Kip, L. (1999). Indian War in the Pacific Northwest: The Journal of Lieutenant Lawrence Kip. Bison Books.

Scheuerman, R, Finley, M, and Clement, J. (2008). Finding Chief Kamiakin: The Life and Legacy of a Northwest Patriot. Washington State University Press.

Splawn, A. (1917). Ka-Mi-Akin, the Last Hero of the Yakimas. Kilham Stationary and Printing Company.