The fall of 1855 found increased unrest among the Native Americans of eastern Washington. This was a result of the treaties that Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens had been requiring the many Northwest tribes to sign. His methods of obtaining the native lands were considered controversial even in the mid 1850s.
With the resulting unrest, the white settlers of Puget Sound quickly formed a volunteer militia. Among those who had enrolled as a member of the Puget Sound Mounted Volunteers under Capt. Gilmore Hays was Bonney Lake’s first settler, Reuben A. Finnell.
When acting Gov. Charles Mason needed additional troops to assist Capt. Maurice Maloney and his men who were preparing to face the Yakama Tribe across the Cascade Mountains, he sent Hays’ company. Upon reaching the Naches River, Hays learned that the band of reinforcements expected from the south was delayed. Reports of a vast number of warriors grossly outnumbering the volunteers and rumors of impending trouble back to the west along the Naches Trail, convinced Maloney to send a dispatch by express to Mason at Fort Steilacoom. He ordered volunteers William Tidd and John Bradley to deliver the dispatch. They were accompanied by Col. A. Benton Moses, Dr. Matthew P. Burns, George Bright, Joseph Miles and Antonio B. Rabbeson.
The weather had turned cold and a snowfall signaled the coming of winter in the mountains. The men with the express descended the mountains via the Naches Trail, also known as the Immigrant Road and the Military Road. Arriving back at Connell’s Prairie around 3 in the afternoon on either the 30th or 31st of October, they found a large encampment of Native Americans. Connell’s cabin had been destroyed by fire, yet when questioned, the Indians could shed no light as to how the fire may have occurred. Moses had not yet heard of the deaths on Oct. 27 of Michael Connell and James McAllister. He was also unaware that the following day a band of warriors had crossed the White River and massacred nine other people.
According to Rabbeson, the express party members conversed with the assembled men, including Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe. It was an amiable exchange and even a little shopping for moccasins was indulged in by a couple of men. Leaving Connell’s Prairie, heading west along the Naches Trail, they had only travelled about half a mile when they were ambushed while negotiating a deep, muddy swamp. Moses was shot in the back and Miles was wounded in the neck. The impact knocked Miles from his horse. At the urging of his companions, Miles managed to grab the stirrups and his horse dragged him out of the mud. Too weak to remount his horse, he urged his companions to make good their escape without him.
The remaining express men rode about one more mile before Moses became too weak to remain on his horse. Everyone dismounted and carried the wounded officer about 200 yards up the wooded hillside above Finnell’s Creek and hid him in the brush until they could return for him. Remounting their horses, they quickly rode back down to the creek and immediately faced another attempted ambush. This time the men charged into the thick vegetation of the swamp, firing their guns and swinging their sabers. The tangled growth hindered visibility and the men found themselves firing their guns at such close range that sometimes their weapons were actually touching the bodies of their foes. The fighting was intense, but the volunteers prevailed. The warriors eventually fled and the express men returned to the hillside where they had hidden Moses.
Since the colonel was too weak to make the return trip to Fort Steilacoom, he was made as secure and comfortable as possible. One of the men took his wool coat and wrapped it around Moses to help keep him warm during the nights that lie ahead. The colonel’s last words to his men were, “Boys, if you escape, remember me.”
It was difficult to leave their fallen comrades, Miles and Moses, but their lives continued to be at risk and they still had to reach Fort Steilacoom with their message for the acting governor. Very quietly, the men returned to the edge of the bluff, looking down on Finnell’s Creek. Hidden by the trees, they were able to see a large group gathered on the opposite side of the prairie. Far outnumbered, they decided to leave their horses, keep to the brush, and make a stealthy escape on foot in the approaching nightfall.
It was cold and wet. Wading through the mud and water, sometimes up to their waist, fighting through thick brush and climbing over fallen timber took its toll. Arriving at the edge of Lemon’s Prairie on the Puyallup River, they sighted another group of Native Americans nearby and remained hidden. Crossing the Puyallup the next morning, they continued along the Naches Trail toward Fort Steilacoom. It took the men three days and nights traveling by foot to reach the fort and deliver their message to Mason. Following their escape from Connell’s Prairie, the men had not dared to stop and build a fire, since doing so would have betrayed their position. They arrived at Fort Steilacoom cold, wet, hungry and exhausted.
Upon receiving the dispatch from Capt. Maloney, Mason immediately ordered additional troops back to Connell’s Prairie on the White River. The mission was to locate and punish those who were responsible for the recent deaths, rescue Moses and recover the bodies of those who had been slain. Moses’ recovered body was returned to Fort Steilacoom for burial.
What began as the Yakima Indian War east of the Cascades quickly spread to the west side of the mountains with the deaths of Connell McAllister, followed by the White River massacre on Oct. 28 and the deaths of Miles and Moses. The plateau above the Puyallup River, through Finnell’s Prairie and Connell’s Prairie to the White River, witnessed the beginning of the Puget Sound Indian War, was the site of numerous battles and ultimately was also the location of the decisive battle several months later that signaled the end of the war.