Above: A dramatized (and most likely inaccurate) view of the Battle of Four Lakes.
When I was a kid, I used to think history was like a map. Just as those static classroom charts that clearly showed where, say, the borders of the United States intersected with those of Canada and Mexico — not to mention all the states in between — I thought history was just as it was laid out in our textbooks.
That was before I learned about the notion of perspective. Napoleon Bonaparte may have put it best (if most cynically) when he supposedly said, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."
The shock for me was coming to the understanding that not everyone agreed on any one version of what is happening in the very present, must less the meaning of what happened in the past.
And so it is with George Wright, the U.S. Army officer who most famously led forces against a rough coalition of Inland Northwest Indian tribes (Yakima, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Palouse and others) in two engagements known, respectively, as the Battle of Four Lakes and the Battle of Spokane Plains.
Note, for example, the differences between the reports of the total number of Indians who participated in the battle (a monument claims "5,000," while historians Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown state the number was closer to 500). Or the version of the engagement as portrayed in the illustration above.
Wright, over the course of his long career, participated in many such engagements, from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War. But it was his actions following the Spokane-area conflicts that cemented his legacy. Not only did he oversee the hanging of several Indian braves, including most famously that of Qualchan, but he also ordered the killing of hundreds of horses.
White settlers at the time cheered Wright. But as the years have passed, the soldier's harsh actions have been discussed and debated to the point where a number of people would like to see Wright's name purged from public property, such as Fort George Wright Drive.
That debate is likely to continue tonight at 7 at Auntie's Bookstore Author Donald R. Cutler will present his book "Hang Them All": George Wright and the Plateau Indian War, 1858" (University of Oklahoma Press, 392 pages). Besides running down the events behind Wright's actions, "Hang Them All" asks a pertinent question (posed in the book's press material): "Do historically based names honor an undeserving murderer, or prompt a valuable history lesson?"
Show up for the talk and Cutler will likely offer his version of an answer.