Coeur D’Alene Indians

Coeur d'Alene people and tipis, Desmet Reservation, c. 1907

It is not known how long these Indians were in northeastern Washington and northern Idaho but probably for many centuries. Their lands stretched from the Coeur d’Alene and Bitterroot Mountains to the headwaters of the Spokane River, to Lake Coeur d’Alene, to the headwaters of the Clearwater River, and to the Spokane Valley. The Spokane Indians lived west and the Kalispell tribe lived to the north. The Pend Oreille lived to the northeast and the Flathead lived to the east. The Nez Perce lived south and the Palouse lived southwest. The Coeur d’Alenes are considered part of the Salish Family of North American Indians. Their headquarters were on the Spokane River near Lake Coeur d’Alene. There were an estimated 2000 to 5000 people before the smallpox epidemics of about 1831 and about 1850.

Lewis and Clark were the first white men that came in contact with the Coeur d’Alene Indians. This was when they were returning from their trip to the Oregon Coast in May 1806. On May 6, Lewis and Clark were camping at a site on the Clearwater River where they gave medical treatment to a band of Nez Perce Indians. This was when they met three Indians from the Coeur d’Alene tribe.

The first fur traders in the area were members of the Northwest Company led by David Thompson. Thompson built a trading post on the Clark Fork River in 1809. The Indians traded furs and horses. It was during those times that the Indians became known as the Coeur d’Alene. Formerly they had been known as the Skitswish, their tribal name.

In the 1830s, missionaries began to come West. In 1838, Elkanah Walker, Cushing Eells, and their wives built Tshimakain mission on Walker’s prairie near present Ford, Washington. Jesuit missionary Nicholas Point came there in 1842, probably the greatest Christian influence on the Indians there. The first Jesuit mission was built at the confluence of the St. Joe River and the Lake. This mission was later moved to high ground near Cataldo, Idaho, after being flooded.

They used leather covered teepees during hunting and berry-picking season because they were light weight and mobile. Poles and liners were made with deer and elk hides. After they got the horse and could hunt Buffalo easily, the teepees were made of Buffalo hide, which was much easier since the skins were so much bigger. After the horse inter-marriage also became more common when tribes often visited each other. The first recorded such marriage was between a Kalispell and a Coeur d’Alene in 1840.

By 1853, many travelers were coming through their lands. One was Isaac Stevens, who was territorial governor of Washington. He was also commissioner of Indian affairs and leader of a survey crew for a northern transcontinental railroad. The Indians treated them fairly but were wary about a railroad coming across their land. Their fears were confirmed in 1855 when they heard about the treaty negotiations with the Yakima and other tribes. After disagreements, a war broke out between the tribes and the white men, later known as the Yakima War or Cayuse War of 1855. Kamiakin, chief of the Yakima, urged the Coeur d’Alene to join them but the Coeur d’Alene wisely decided not to join them.

More intruders came with the gold discovery in the northern Columbia River. The Indians became even more alarmed when forts were built at Yakima and Walla Walla. This was not a sign of peace. Then they learned of Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Steptoe, who was bringing 158 men to Spokane country. Steptoe set out from Fort Walla Walla on May 6, 1858. Soon they would be engaged in war, with Steptoe taking most of the casualties. More troops were sent to forts Vancouver, The Dalles, and Walla Walla. In the meantime, Indians took U.S. branded horses and mules from the battlefield and traded them.

On August 3, Colonel George Wright set out with a full contingent of men and animals to take revenge on the northern tribes. It wasn’t long before they engaged the Indians in war. Armed with a new rifle, the white men were able to fight from a much greater distance. Casualties for the Indians were high. At the first of September they engaged again at what would later be called the Battle of Spokane Plains. Wright had 680 men and the Indians had somewhere between 500 and 1000. These were tribes from the Spokane, Yakima, Nez Perce, Pend Oreille, Palouse, and Coeur d’Alene. Though the Indians fought well they still had to retreat. On September 7, the Indians sent a contingent to talk peace with Wright. Wright demanded unconditional surrender by all parties involved in the war and threatened total extermination for those refused. These were harsh terms but eventually the natives agreed. Some 800 horses were killed by the Army to prevent the Indians from using them against them. This area today is named Horse Slaughter Camp near Highway 90, two miles west of the state line. Bones could still be found their many years later. The party also destroyed native beef cattle and graineries.

On September 11, Wright met with the Indians, with Jesuit father Joseph Joset representing them. Wright demanded the Indians surrender the men who attacked Colonel Steptoe, give back all federal government property, allow white people to pass through unharmed, and surrender one chief and four men and their families to be taken as hostages back to Walla Walla. The Indians complied. Shortly afterward, forts were built at Boise and Colville to protect white settlers and deal with the conquered Indians. Father Pierre DeSmet was brought in to tend to the spiritual needs of the tribe and actl as a liaison between them and the government. DeSmet also brought back the hostages from Fort Walla Walla.

On March 3, 1863 the tribal boundary was changed because some of their land became part of the new territory of Idaho. The size of the reservation didn’t change but its government did. The reservation and its borders were finally accurately mapped on June 6, 1867. Things went well for the first ten years and in fact they refused to join the Nez Perce in the War of 1877. By 1882, they had 5,000 acres of land under cultivation. They built many new homes and a new Catholic church. They had very productive farms and cattle. They were almost completely self- supporting and needed very little government aid. One man even ran a stage line from Farmington to Lake Coeur d’Alene.

But rumors began that whites wanted to settle their and that the Indians would lose their best land. The Indian agent Moore and Chief Andrew Seltice fought hard for their rights. Roman Catholic priests also fought for them. A petition was sent to the president and other officials sign by six chiefs and 40 other influential men of the Tribe. The government sent out three men to negotiate with the Indians, basically to give up their land for certain compensation. They met on March 7, 1887. The first result was that the Spokane Indians gave up their lands and moved to join the Coeur d’Alenes on their reservation. The Spokane Tribe was given $95,000, with $30,000 given in the first year, $20,000 given in the second year, and $5,000 for the next eight years. An additional $5,000 was given to those who would break and plant 5 acres of land. Six Spokane chiefs would receive $100 per year for ten years. The whites convinced the Coeur d’Alenes that it would be wise to open their reservation to other tribes to fend off the whites who wanted their land. On March 26, 1887, a treaty was formally read and signed, to establish the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and its boundaries. Provisions for money were made for loss of land outside the boundary and for needed improvements.

In January and February 1888, a scarlet fever and measles epidemic struck the tribes. Fortunately the Coeur d’Alenes weren’t too bad off because they had a doctor who quarantined the sick away from the well. By this time there were only about 520 members. 125 could read English and 310 could speak it well enough to be understood. By the end of the year they harvested wheat, oats, barley, vegetables, and hay. They raised horses, mules, cattle, pigs, and sheep.

On March 26, 1889 a new agreement was signed that reduced the reservation. This was because gold had been discovered and whites wanted mineral rights. This agreement also provided that the Upper and Middle bands of the Spokane Tribe and some Kalispell Indians could move to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. Even with less land they continued to improve yield and number of families supported. The treaty was not ratified until February 13, 1891. About 185,000 acres were transferred to the public domain with this treaty. With the payment from the government they were considered the wealthiest Tribe in the Pacific Northwest. They used much of this money for fine work horses, wagons, buggies, and the latest farm equipment. They were able to plant much larger areas with much larger yield. They also put some money in banks where they could earn interest. On February 4, 1894, the northern boundary was changed. They would get another $15,000 in compensation.

On August 9, 1909, event that would forever change their lives occurred. The government auctioned off the remaining 1,044 parcels remaining after all had been allotted to the tribes. Their word over 115,000 names entered 1,000 names were picked many of them white.