William A. Slaughter

Robert L. Bradley, "William A. Slaughter," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly, XVIII (Winter, 1989). 

During the westward expansion of the nation, the Army played a key role in providing expeditions, topographical survey, frontier security, protection for settlers, and skills and services not available in pioneer settlements. The posts that accompanied these duties often were isolated and remote, but symbolically and in practice were centers for the pioneers. 

For the military, garrison life in the new territories often was monotonous, with patrols equally so except during periods of Indian unrest. Then, field duty could become suddenly violent and dangerous. 

This pattern prevailed in the Washington Territory, with officers and men sharing both the daily routine and the occasional hazards, some paying with their lives during the Indian War of 1855-1856. One of these, stationed at Fort Steilacoom, was a young West Point graduate, William Alloway Slaughter.

Slaughter was born in Kentucky in 1827, the first child of Alban and Mary Alloway Slaughter. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Lafayette, Indiana, where his father served as a justice of the Peace and Court Administrator. In 1844, young Slaughter entered the Military Academy, graduating in 1848 after the end of the Mexican War. He received his brevet commission as a Second Lieutenant, 2nd Infantry, and reported to Fort Hamilton, New York, awaiting sea transportation to California and his first troop assignment.

Stationed at San Diego, his most interesting duty was providing security for the survey party which fixed the new border with Mexico. In 1850, he was transferred to Fort Gratiot, one of a series of forts controlling the Great Lakes waterways. There he married Mary Wells, the only daughter of a local merchant. Married less than a year, the Slaughters moved with the 4th Infantry Regiment as it was assigned to the Department of the Pacific in California.

Lt. Slaughter was assigned in 1852 to Columbia Barracks, Fort Vancouver, and he was transferred to Fort Steilacoom in 1853, at the same time that Washington Territory was created.

Lt. Slaughter and his wife quickly entered into life at Fort Steilacoom and the local community. She ran the Officers Mess. He surveyed and platted the township for Lafayette Balch's part of Steilacoom, eventually owning 32 lots. As a Mason he was one of the original group who successfully petitioned to form a lodge in Steilacoom, founded in 1854.

In addition to mixing with locally prominent settlers, Lt. Slaughter also came in contact with Governor Stevens during Indian negotiations. At the end of 1854, Lt. Slaughter was present at the historic Medicine Creek Council on the Nisqually flats, seated at the main table with Governor Stevens as the treaty negotiations began. Governor Stevens, charged with the purchase of Indian lands and the creation of reservations, embarked on a whirlwind series of councils to sign treaties in the Washington Territory. 

While there were multiple causes for the Indian War that was soon to follow in 1855-1856, dissatisfaction by both the settlers and the Indian tribes with the treaty provisions figured prominently in the rising pattern of violence and conflicts in the Territory. In shortly over two months, from late September to early December, 1855, Lt. Slaughter took part in the opening action of the Indian War and in a series of sorties on the prairies east of Fort Steilacoom, the last of which ended in his death.

The precipitating incident for the Indian War was the death of Andrew Bolton, the Governor's agent for Indian tribes, who was killed east of the Cascade Mountains by members of the Yakima tribe. His death sparked widespread rumors and fears of an Indian uprising, despite the fact that many of the Indian tribes had peaceful relations with the settlers and never took part in any hostilities. Bolton's death triggered a two-pronged punitive action that was loosely coordinated and unsuccessful. 

Major Haller, with a force of approximately 100 men, left Fort Dalles on October 3, and three days later had an afternoon skirmish at Toppenish Creek with a large band of Yakima warriors. He broke contact, took a defensive position on a hill, and withdrew the next day, fighting sporadically until his force reached the safety of the high ground across the Columbia River from the Dalles.

On September 24, Acting Governor Mason had sent a letter to Captain Maloney, the Commander at Fort Steilacoom, requesting a detachment of troops be sent to punish the Yakima tribe. Lt. Slaughter and about forty men left on September 27 and crossed the Naches Pass, intending to make contact with Major Haller. Warned by one of his civilian scouts of Major Haller's defeat and the advance of the Yakima tribe, Lt. Slaughter halted his advance and withdrew to the vicinity of the White River.

The news of the abortive expedition raised a storm of civilian and military reaction. Acting Governor Mason declared war with the Indians and authorized the formation of two volunteer companies of militia. When the word reached the Department of the Pacific, General Wool dispatched seventy men to Fort Vancouver and asked for a regiment from the east coast, a request that was granted. Meanwhile sporadic Indian attacks continued. 

In late October, in several raids and ambushes, Indians killed three families along the White River, two envoys to Chief Leschi, and two members of a messenger party from Captain Maloney who was in the field. Fearful of a general uprising, many settlers left their farms and fled to Fort Steilacoom.

Lt. Slaughter and Company C, 4th Infantry, moved to the Puyallup River and Connell's Prairie to intercept Indian tribes and prevent their joining together. On November 3, after a patrol located a group of Nisqually Indians preparing an ambush along the Green River, Lt. Slaughter attacked the Indians, claiming thirty killed. He was unable to cross the river and cut them off; nevertheless, the action was one of the first successful ones in the campaign, with but one soldier killed.

Toward the end of the month, on November 24, Lt. Slaughter began a reconnaissance in force from Camp Montgomery, a supply base near the Puyallup River, toward the White River. Not making contact by the end of the day, he made camp, with the uneasy premonition that the wet, rainy weather would bring fog and increased chances of an Indian raid. He was correct. His position was fired on during the night, and despite doubled sentries some forty horses were stolen.

The next day, Lt. Slaughter's command was augmented by a detachment of twenty-five men from Company M, 3rd Artillery, which had arrived as reinforcements from San Francisco. The next several days were spent in search operations to locate hostile Indian tribes, but without success. On December 3, Lt. Slaughter was joined by Captain Hays and a detachment of Washington militia, with instructions to rendezvous with another small force of volunteers led by Captain Hewitt at the junction of the White and Green Rivers, the present day site of Auburn. 

After joining forces, Lt. Slaughter set up a joint camp. That evening, the position was fired upon by Indians, and Lt. Slaughter was killed by a musket shot as he was conducting a planning meeting with the other commanders. Two other men were casualties and five were wounded.

The death of Lt. Slaughter was widely mourned. The Legislature passed a resolution of condolence and adjourned for the day as a mark of respect. Newspapers published laudatory articles. He was buried at Fort Steilacoom with full military and Masonic honors in a ceremony attended by Acting Governor Mason, Lafayette Balch, and other prominent citizens. As a final note of respect, when Mrs. Slaughter later returned to the east coast, she was accompanied by Acting Governor Mason.

At the time of his death, Lt. Slaughter was honored for giving his life in the service of his country and the Washington Territory. After the Civil War, when the Army disbanded Fort Steilacoom, Lt. Slaughter's remains were reinterred in 1892 in the military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco. Nevertheless, his death still stands as a symbol of all the soldiers who gave their lives during the creation and growth of the Washington Territory.

Monograph submitted by Colonel Robert L. Bradley, U. S. Army, Retired, Class of 1949, United States Military Academy


Research material on Lt. Slaughter furnished by Mr. Joseph Koch, Auburn, Washington.

Bonney, W. P., History of Pierce County, Washington, Vol. 1, Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, Chicago, IL, 1927.

Richards, Kent D., Isaac L Stevens, Young Man in a Hurry, Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT, 1979.

Spreen, Christopher A., History of Steilacoom Lodge #2 F. & A. M.-1854-1952, Steilacoom Masonic Lodge, Steilacoom, WA, 1952.

Robert L. Bradley, "William A. Slaughter," Steilacoom Historical Museum Quarterly, XVIII (Winter, 1989).


William P. Bonney, "The Death of Lieutenant Slaughter," History of Pierce County. Volume I, p. 189.

Captain E. D. Keyes arrived at Fort Steilacoom November 24 with Company M of the Third Artillery, consisting of about eighty-four men, further strengthening the 168 regulars of the Fourth Infantry under Maloney. At this time Captain Hewitt, commanding a company of volunteers at Seattle, was ordered to the Green and White rivers to place himself in communication with Lieutenant Slaughter. 

Captain Hays took up a position on the Nisqually River, near Muck Prairie. Captain Wallace's company was in the Puyallup Valley, keeping communications open to Steilacoom and the fort. Lieutenant Harrison, of the Jefferson Davis, also took the field with Lieutenant Slaughter. 

Slaughter started for the White River on the twenty-fourth. On the night of the twenty-fifth he was attacked on Bitting's Prairie by bands under Kitsap and Kanascut, of the Klikitats; Quiemuth and Klowowit of the Nisquallies; and Nelson of the Green River and Niscope Indians. He lost forty horses during the fog and attack. 

On the twenty-sixth a member of Wallace's company, E. G. Price, was shot by a lurking Indian. The same bullet wounded Addison Perham. Twenty-five men of the Third Artillery, under Lieutenant McKeever, joined Slaughter on the twenty-sixth. Slaughter divided his force, delegating Wallace and his men to make sorties from Morrison's place on the Stuck. The weather was cold and rainy, and disagreeable for field work. 

On the third of December Slaughter took sixty of his men and five from Wallace's company and started to meet Captain Hewitt. He camped on Brannan's Prairie, at the forks of the Green and White rivers, taking possession of a log hut; and sent word for Captain Hewitt, some two or three miles distant, to meet him there. On the night of the fourth Indians crept up near the cabin, and as a conference was being held, opened fire, killing Slaughter, as described by Captain Keyes to Acting Governor Mason in the following letter:

Head Quarters, Puget Sound District,
Fort Steilacoom, W. T., Dec. 7, 1855 (6 p. m.)
Acting Governor C. H. Mason,
Olympia, Washington Territory.


I have just received information that on Tuesday night last, while Lieutenant Slaughter was sitting in a small house at his camp, about two miles and a half above the forks of the White and Green rivers, conversing with Captain Hewitt and Lieut. Harrison and Dr. Taylor, the Indians fired on them and killed Lieutenant Slaughter at the first discharge. Two soldiers were also killed on the spot and five others wounded, of whom one is since dead. Lieutenant Slaughter's body has arrived here.

It is reported on all hands that it is impossible to operate against the Indians with any effect in the country on the White, Green and Puyallup rivers at this season of the year, and I know it to be so from personal observation. To continue such a course will break down all our men and effect no harm to the Indians. Our pack animals are broken down, and we must establish our forces on our own ground in places where they will not suffer at night and where they can best protect the settlers. 

As you must be far better acquainted with such points, I would request that, if convenient, you will come and see me tomorrow.

I send by the bearer a letter to Captain Hays, with directions for him to concentrate his command at Bradley's, to go to the relief of forty men now encamped on the other side of the Puyallup, about three miles from the ford. I do not know where Captain Hays is at this moment. If you know please direct the bearer.

Mrs. Slaughter is at Olympia. Please keep the dreadful news of her husband's death a secret until Lieutenant Nugen can break it cautiously.

I am, sir, very respectfully,
Your most obedient servant,
(Signed) E. D. Keyes,
Capt. 3rd Art., Com.

The death of Lieutenant Slaughter cast a gloom over the entire Sound. The Legislature, then in session, passed resolutions of condolence, and adjourned out of respect for the beloved officer.


William Alloway Slaughter was born in Kentucky in 1826. He moved with his Parents into Indiana, and from there was appointed, to the Military Academy at West Point in 1844. He graduated on June 30, 1848, and was made brevet second lieutenant July 1st, 1848, in the Second Infantry, and appointed first lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry November 6, 1848. This regiment was sent to the forts in Michigan, with U. S. Grant commanding.

In May, 1851, Lieutenant Slaughter met and married Mary Wells, of Port Huron, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Wells. In April, 1852, the whole regiment was ordered to the Pacific Coast. They came by way of the Isthmus of Panama. Mrs. Slaughter, a bride of less than a year, was the only woman to accompany the troops from the fort where her husband was stationed.

The story of that voyage, with their hardships, as told by General Grant in his personal memoirs, is too long to repeat here. However, there is one item found on Page 198, Vol. I, that will bear repeating. It reads:

"One morning an amusing circumstance occurred while we were lying at anchor in Panama Bay. In the regiment there was a Lieutenant Slaughter, who was very liable to sea-sickness. It almost made him sick to see the wave of a tablecloth when the servants were spreading it. Soon after his graduation, Slaughter was ordered to California and took passage by sailing vessel around Cape Horn. The vessel was seven months making the voyage, and Slaughter was sick every moment of the time, never more so than while lying at anchor after reaching his place of destination. 

"On landing in California he found orders, which had come by the Isthmus, notifying him of a mistake in his assignment; he should have been ordered to the northern Lakes. He started back by the Isthmus route and was sick all the way. But when he arrived in the East he was again ordered to California, this time definitely, and at this date was making his third trip. He was as sick as ever, and had been so for more than a month while at anchor in the Bay. 

"I remember him well, seated with his elbows on the table in front of him, his chin between his hands, and looking the picture of despair. At last he broke out, 'I wish I had taken my father's advice -, he wanted me to go into the navy; if I had done so I would not have to go to sea so much.' "

We read in Elwood Evans' writings a description of Lieutenant Slaughter's personal appearance. It says: "He was stationed at Fort Vancouver a short time, and in 1853 was ordered to Fort Steilacoom. As an officer he was brave to a fault. 

As an Indian campaigner, he was remarkably successful; no man had more endeared himself to his command, none had a more happy faculty of inspiring men with enthusiasm; small in frame and delicate in person, his powers of endurance were wonderful. He had led almost all of the expeditions to check the Indians during the stay in the country, and had been actively in the field from the commencement of hostilities until he met his untimely death. 

Brilliant he was as a soldier, and as a citizen he had rendered himself equally dear to the people of the Territory in which he had been assigned to duty. In the walks of social life who that enjoyed his friendship can ever forget him?"

Lieutenant Slaughter was a likable character- those who knew him best loved and respected him most. His wife was a leader in this class. She never regained her cheerful composure after her husband's death. In 1856 she went back to her old home, accompanied by Territorial Secretary Charles Mason. She died in 1861 and was buried in the family plot at Port Huron, Mich. On one side of her tombstone is a tribute to her husband. He was buried at Fort Steilacoom on the 9th of December, 1855, with appropriate Masonic and military honors. 

When Captain Keyes heard of Slaughter's death he remarked: "My heart is sick when I reflect that so brave an officer and so gallant a gentleman should be slain by the wretched savages."

William P. Bonney, "The death of Lieutenant Slaughter", History of Pierce County, Volume I, p. 189.


Ezra Meeker, "The Death of Lieutenant Slaughter", Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1903.

On the 24th of November, Lieut. Slaughter with fifty regulars and two companies of volunteers Captain Rays and Wallace's commands, moved to Puyallup, camping on the same ground where the Eaton Rangers had been previously besieged. At nightfall of the 25th, the camp was surrounded by Indians, the night made hideous by their yells, and some shots fired into camp without harm. 

The Indians succeeded in running off a number of the horses of the command. The next day one man was wounded, and the camp kept under arms at night by occasional shots, after which the Indians drew off and were seen no more at that camp.

The whole attack, on the part of the Indians consisted more in yells than of bullets, and became ludicrous after the affair was ended.

A curious incident occurred during this affray. The horse ridden by Dr. Burns on the 31st of October, through the swamp when Miles and Moore were killed, came into camp with saddle, saddle bags, sword and everything just as he was when Burns abandoned him nearly a month before. 

The superstition of the Indians had doubtless deterred them from touching the outfit, and saved the horse to be again "shot down from under him," as previously reported by the eccentric doctor.

The Indian, Kanasket, was mortally wounded during the evening and brought into camp defiant to the last, exciting the admiration and pity of his foes. He knew his time had come but that he was willing to die; that if he had the power to do so he would renew the fight and never make peace as long as there was breath of life in him. 

He was one of the most fearless of his tribe. His loss was keenly felt and doubtless caused the early withdrawal of their forces from the field, as he was one of their leaders.

Slaughter's command moved down the Puyallup a few miles to near the mouth of Stuck. Here, forty of the volunteers under Lieutenant Moore of Wallace's company, were left in camp while Slaughter, on December 4th, pushed on over to White River, and camped near the ground of the recent massacre, two miles below the mouth of Green River. 

While consulting in an open cabin at night fall with Captain Hewitt, who had moved his company from Seattle to a point near by, the Indians made a sudden rush, killed Lieutenant Slaughter and Corporals Berry and Clarendon of the volunteer force, and wounded four privates of the regulars, one of whom soon died.

Captain Keyes hastily summoned Captain Haysí company to extricate the forty men camped on the Puyallup, and again the country was evacuated, Slaughter's contingent going out down White River to Seattle, while the Puyallup command returned to Steilacoom by the same route they had gone in on.

The utter futility of attempting to prosecute a winter campaign became so apparent that no further move was made for over two months.

With reference to the movement of the troops, Governor Mason, in his message, delivered to the legislature December 7th, 1855, said:

"The disposition which has been subsequently made of the troops in the field in this portion of the Territory, has been with the design-while at the same time to keep the hostile Indians in check, adequate force should be moving on the outskirts of the settlements-that the farmers might be enabled to return to their claims to provide for the coming year's subsistence."

This was a very different policy from that adopted by Governor Stevens a few months later, when he actually used a part of the volunteer force to drive settlers off their claims instead of protecting them. 

Governor Mason continued this humane policy until Stevens' return to Olympia, Jan. 19th, 1856.

Mason in his message paid a handsome tribute to Gov. Douglass. He said:

"I deem it my duty here, to make public acknowledgement of the services rendered by his Excellency, James Douglass Governor of Vancouver's Island. Upon the alarm naturally attendant upon a serious Indian outbreak, almost within arms length of us, and owing to the scarcity of fire arms and ammunition, application was made to him for such an amount of these munitions of war as he could possibly furnish. 

"That application was promptly and cordially responded to, to the extent of his power; he at the same time regretting that he had at the moment no vessel of war at his disposal, and that his steamers, the Otter and Beaver, were both absent, but upon the arrival of either, she should be dispatched to the Sound, to render such service as might be required of her. Since then the Otter has visited this place."

Let us recall the famous saying that "blood is thicker than water."

Pursuing this subject a little further, the following letter from R. S. Robinson, who was Quartermaster and Commissary of the Northern Battalion, with headquarters at Port Townsend, will be interesting reading:

"Our volunteers in the field were short of supplies. Governor Stevens requested me to go to Victoria, and, if possible, get what supplies were needed of the Hudson Bay Company.

"I went over to Victoria and presented my letter to the company. Governor Douglass was friendly from the first. The company would furnish the supplies if Governor Stevens would draw direct on the Treasurer to pay for the goods: I told them the Governor could not draw on the United States Treasurer for there was no appropriation to meet the emergency.

"Governor Douglass said: 'You shall not go back without some supplies.' He then wrote an order on the H. B. Co. to let me have $5,000 worth on his account. I presented this to the company. They saw the Governor was not afraid, and asked me for a statement of everything I wished from them, and I received the supplies to the full extent required."

Governor Stevens neglected to mention this generous act in his message to the next legislature. In looking over the old papers and books of units at Fort Nisqually, I found that at that post $27,304 worth of goods were supplied to the volunteer forces and from the private correspondence it becomes manifest the management both at Nisqually and Victoria were very loath to give up the goods for scrip, and did it only as a sense of duty.

Governor Douglass wrote:

"I must cordially acknowledge the moral obligation which binds Christian and civilized nations to exert their utmost power and influence in checking the inroads of the merciless savage, and it is a cause of sincere regret, on my part, that our means of rendering you assistance comes infinitely short of our wishes."

This letter was in response to the first request for help, but later the amount ran so large they doubted the wisdom, as a business venture, of letting so large a sum go, rightly saying that the emergency had passed and that the American Government could provide for the troops.

November 14th, 1856, Dr. Tolmie wrote the Board of Management of the Hudson Bay Company, Western Department Victoria:

"I am happy to inform you that commissioners residing in Oregon have been appointed to investigate the scrip liability incurred during the Indian troubles. Governor Stevens has taken a new position in framing his excuses for the Indian war, and has publicly declared that arch enemy, the Hudson Bay Company, is the only cause why the Indians would not observe the treaties made with them."

Of course the management were very much puzzled to account for such action on the part of Governor Stevens, not realizing the influences that were leading his mind astray, and that he so often was not responsible for his words.

Another incident worthy of record:

"Some time after Lieut. Slaughter was killed the settlers on the Sound were alarmed, not knowing when their time would come, being mostly housed up in block houses. It Was then the Puget Mill Company offered to furnish a vessel, arm it and supply it with men and provisions, and present it to the Governor for protection of the Sound. 

"I represented the facts to Quartermaster General Miller at Olympia. He consulted with Gov. Stevens. They represented to me that they felt under deep obligation to the Puget Mill Company for their generous offer, but did not consider the situation sufficiently alarming to warrant acceptance of the offer.

"The above incident was never published. It seems to me it was of sufficient importance to be preserved. The Puget Mill Co. certainly deserves credit for so generous an offer. Capt. Keller was superintendent at the time."

Ezra Meeker, "The Death of Lieutenant Slaughter," Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound. Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1903. p. 324-328.