Inland Northwest History and Culture  >  Indian-White Encounters  >  Spokane: 1877-1890

Smoke Signals and Scare Tactics:

The perception against Indians created by the Spokane Falls Review in April-May 1886

The Spokane Falls Review from April 1886 to May 1886 waged a war of misinformation filled with rumor, conjecture and out-right lies which suggested the worst about the Indian population surround the Inland Northwest. This coverage is illustrated in the paper’s reprinting of a Walla Walla Union article April 10, 1886 regarding the discovery of a skeleton by a city driving park road supervisor named Thomas Moore. The paper reported that “Three large stones had been placed on the body which was in a reclining posture with the knees doubled up, almost touching the head.” The newspaper then suggested that “it was probable the skeleton was that of an immigrant who died while camped on Mill creek a short distance away.” Aside from all of these possible motives, the paper concluded with “In the vicinity, a fight between whites and Indians occurred in 1846.”[1] This type of reporting, by concluding with a suggestive sentence which incriminates Indians as the culprit of a crime is common, especially during the Spokesman’s reporting during this time.

This theory of Indian involvement continued with the next reprinted Walla Walla Union report on April 15, 1886 in which the Spokane Falls Review used the suggestive headline “It Was Murder.” The paper reported that the skeleton was “probably that of a victim of the Indian fight which took place on the ground in 1856…” The report changed the date of the supposed fight between Indians and whites by a decade, thus creating an urgency about the situation, as if it had happened only a week prior. The Walla Walla Union’s theory, reprinted by the Spokane Falls Review, thus shared, hinged on the “number of old times who participated in the action to draw upon their memories, and none of them have any recollection of a white man being buried on the ground.” The paper then reported that the skeleton was possibly that of a white man, killed by another white man, over cows.[2] However, the suggestive nature of the reporting, incriminating local Indians or their ancestors as culprits before the paper explained the true possible crime, casts a shadow of doubt on Indians in general. This type of reporting by the paper helped tarnish the 1886 public to Indians and may have helped promote fears of Indians by the Spokane locals.

This mentality of associating Indians as suspects to a crime continues in the Spokane Falls Review May 2, 1886 article entitled “The Rusk Case.” Though there was no evidence to support the theory advanced by the paper on who killed Officer R.J. Rusk on April 22, 1886, the report suggested that every type of rumor, including that Rusk had been seen at a party some time after April 22.[3] However, without any proof that there was Indian involvement in the apparent-murder of Rusk, the paper’s editorial May 4, 1886 wrote that “The brutal murder of Officer Rusk, following the shooting of [Charles] Geiger by the Indians a few months ago, a crime equally as revolting, and the rape of a white woman, should have the effort of amassing the people of this locality to some decisive action.” Though Geiger was allegedly murdered by a Calispel Indian named Sam on June 20, 1885, the number of Indians who committed the alleged attack on Geiger increased to large quantity.[4] By also including a “rape of a white woman” and the “brutal murder of Officer Rusk” with the Geiger shooting, the paper is suggesting that there was Indian involvement in those cases too.

The paper does not finish with a mere suggestion of Indian involvement in the Rusk murder in the May 4, 1886 editorial, continuing with “An Indian can commit a heinous crime, fly to the mountains, take up his quarters with a neighboring tribe, and laugh to scorn the pursuit of officers – We are the last to suggest violence; instinctively, we shrink from the resort to retaliation, but there is a point among the most peacefully inclined, beyond which forbearance ceases, and the blood of our fellow men cries out for vengeance.” Though the paper has no evidence of Indian involvement in either the rape of a white woman or in the murder of Officer Rusk, it is willing to suggest that retaliation against Indians for those crimes may exist. The editorial continues by begging its readers to “say to the Indian department, take care of those Indians, remove them, ferret out the murderers, or there will be no Indians to care for...”[5]

The paper continues its march toward the guilt of Indians with a small blurb May 6, 1886, entitled “Who Has It?” The report states that “Last week an Indian sold a revolver to a white man in this city. So far the officers have been unable to find the purchaser. The gun may be a clue that would lead to the apprehension of the murderers of R. J. Rusk.”[6] This continues the perception that there was Indian involvement in the murder of Officer Rusk, though there was no proof to back this up. And though the paper admitted May 8, 1886 in the article entitled “Murdered!: The Mystery Surrounding R.J. Rusk’s Disappearance Now Cleared Up” that the crime “could have been done by white men,” the damage was already done.[7]

The perception that Indians were the prime suspects in the Rusk murder was enough to help a young white man near Cheney May 13, 1886. He protested to law enforcement that he had nothing to do with the Rusk murder, though he had several of Rusk’s possessions with him when interviewed. His alibi was credible enough; he said Indians had told him where Rusk’s things were buried and what type of revolver had been used in the crime. Even though the paper reported that the young man “seems too well acquainted with all of the circumstances not to have been a party to the murder,” he was hidden by the officers, for his own safety, as a witness.[8] After all, both the officers were convinced, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, that Indians were the culprits of the Rusk murder. And for the officers, out somewhere were Indians to catch.

Written by: Troy Kirby, Graduate Candidate, Department of Physical Education, Eastern Washington University, December 2005.

[1] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “Skeleton Found.” April 10, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 92. p. 4.

[2] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “It was Murder.” April 15, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 96. p. 4.

[3] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “The Rusk Case.” May 2, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 110. p. 2.

[4] Spokane Falls Evening Review, “Killed: An Indian Shoots An Inoffensive White Man.” June 22, 1885, Vol. III, No. 10. p. 3.

[5] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “The Rusk Case.” May 2, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 110. p. 2.

[6] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “Who Has It?” May 6, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 114. p. 2.

[7] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “Murdered!: The Mystery Surrounding R.J. Rusk’s Disappearance Now Cleared Up.” May 6, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 114. p. 2.

[8] The Morning Review (Spokane Falls). “Murder Will Out and Rusk’s Murders Will Be Captured.” May 13, 1886, Vol. IV, No. 120. p. 2.