A treasure hunt for phantom cannons in the Evergreen State

Oct 27, 2021, 10:50 AM | Updated: 2:00 pm
Phantom cannons Washington...
A fully-assembled "mountain howitzer" much like several that were buried, at least temporarily, in Washington Territory in the 1850s. (National Park Service)
(National Park Service)

A long-ago October military battle in Eastern Washington. Dusty old books describing a hasty retreat, with American soldiers disabling and burying a prized – but heavy – piece of artillery so they could get away faster.

Add to this some old newspaper clippings reporting phantom sightings of lost cannons, and it’s a story that just about anyone who loves history – and a good old-fashioned treasure hunt – can’t help but get pretty worked up about.

Shane Riley lives in Pierce County. On social media earlier this month, he posted about a lost cannon – something called a “mountain howitzer” – with a barrel made of bronze, about three feet in length, weighing a few hundred pounds and typically carried, by horse, in three separate pieces. This piece of artillery, Riley’s post said, was supposedly buried by Major Granville O. Haller as part of his retreat from the battle of Toppenish Creek in the Yakima Valley in October 1855.

Toppenish Creek is sometimes called “Haller’s Defeat.” Five American soldiers died, and 17 were wounded; and it’s believed that there were approximately 20 casualties among the Indigenous combatants. It’s considered the first formal military engagement in the Treaty Wars of the 1850s, when the U.S. Army was part of the effort to quash Indigenous resistance following a dubious treaty process, and an influx of settlers and miners into what had been home to native people for millennia.

While not a key part of the social and political story of the Treaty War, the burying of the howitzer is mentioned in several volumes of local history dating back more than a hundred years – seemingly to underline the hastiness of Major Haller’s retreat.

Riley – who spoke with KIRO Radio earlier this year about a mystery headstone in Buckley – shared some of his research about the buried cannon, including a newspaper clipping from the Goldendale Sentinel from June 1941 detailing a sighting of Haller’s lost howitzer at a spot called Potato Hill, which is also called “Potato Butte” on some more recent maps.

“’The cannon said to have been hidden near what is now known as Potato Hill has been the object of many futile searches,’” Riley said, reading from the old clipping. “’Arthur Vincent, pioneer Goldendale sheepman, says he recalls that as a boy herding sheep in that area, he once discovered the old cannon, but made no effort in bringing it back to camp.’”

Riley stumbled across the story of Haller’s lost cannon while he was chasing down a rumor about another allegedly lost piece of artillery, this time on the west side of the Cascades – which, it turns out, has its own twisted history – or, maybe a better word is “mythology.”

“I only became interested in this because I used to work for the Forest Service, and one of the old-timer employees was telling me there was a cannon above Greenwater on the Naches Trail,” Riley said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, I feel like I would have heard of that before.’”

“So, I started looking it up on the internet,” Riley continued. “And there is no record of [a cannon] being abandoned along the Naches Trail, but that [other cannon] repeatedly popped up – Haller’s cannon.”

But this didn’t mean the “cannon above Greenwater” had gone away.

“I made that post, and there’s another guy who says, ‘Yeah, up by Government Meadows, on the Naches Trail, above Greenwater, a hunter found a cannon up there,’” Riley said. “So there might actually be two abandoned cannons.”

Gideon Pete is in his 60s and lives in Puyallup. He’s a volunteer at Historic Fort Steilacoom, and he’s been participating in reenactments of 19th century military activities for years, with a group he and friends founded around the time of the 1976 bicentennial called “Company M, First U.S. Artillery.” It was Gideon Pete who commented on Shane Riley’s social media post. Pete and his fellow reenactors used to camp out at Government Meadows back in the 1970s, and spent considerable time searching for the cannon purportedly buried there.

“There is a guy in our unit called Bob Urie, and he was copying down all sorts of articles from the old Pioneer and Democrat [newspaper] back when it was all on microfiche,” Pete told KIRO Radio, which, Pete says, is how the group learned about Government Meadows.

Government Meadows, Pete says, “is a high, thousand-acres series of meadows at the top of the Naches Pass, and it was a common refreshing area for the mountain men from Fort Nisqually, Indians, as well as the U.S. Army going back and forth to Eastern or Western Washington.”

“They could stop up at the top of the pass – there’s really lush grass – to put some weight back on their horses before going back down the other side,” Pete continued.

“And so we thought we’d go up there and check it out,” he said. “And we’d heard at that time of rumors – unsubstantiated, not documented – of the Army, on one of their trips during the Puget Sound Indian Wars, abandoning a mountain howitzer up there. So we thought, ‘Well,  good. That’s a good excuse to go up and take a look at this thing.’”

Gideon Pete and his buddies searched Government Meadows many times in the late 1970s but never had any luck finding any trace of a cannon. However, a few years after the last of those expeditions, Pete was staffing a booth at the Puyallup Fair to recruit new reenactors. A man came to the booth and told Pete, unprompted, a curiously relevant tale.

The man and some friends had been hunting several years prior, and were caught in snowstorm at Government Meadows, he said. He told Pete that he and his friends had to make a quick bivouac camp to get out of the extreme weather. They holed up under the trees and built a fire to keep warm.

“'[When we were] sitting around the fire,’” Pete said the man told him, “’I saw something that didn’t look like a log, but it looked like a log outside the firelight.’ And they went over there and it was this little cannon barrel. It looked like it was brass or bronze and it was about three feet long.’”

“Well, that immediately got my attention,” Pete continued. “I said, ‘Well, what’d you do?’ And he said, ‘Well, of course, there so much snow, and we’re going to have to get out of there ourselves, and we couldn’t pack this heavy cannon with us. But we made a motion to go back and get it in the spring.’”

“He said, ‘We looked all over for it in the spring, and couldn’t find it,’” Pete recounted. “And I said, ‘Well good, that makes two of us up there looking for it.’”

Jo Miles is an author and historian based in Yakima. He wrote a book a few years ago called Kamiakin Country: Washington Territory in Turmoil 1855-1858, and he really knows his stuff about the Treaty War and the military activity during those years in the Yakima Valley.

When KIRO Radio asked Miles about the rumored Greenwater cannon and the Potato Butte cannon, he knew the details and backstory of each, and he quickly added that those aren’t the only two stories he’s heard about phantom artillery in Washington.

“When you talk about two cannons being buried, there was another battle, the Steptoe Battle up near the Spokane area,” Miles said, referring to another U.S. Army defeat and retreat, which is also known as the Battle of Rosalia or the Battle of Pine Creek, and which took place late in the war in 1858.

“It turns out that [Colonel Edward J.] Steptoe also had to bury cannons,” Miles said, to lighten the load as the officers and soldiers headed south. “And in his instance, he did bury two cannons before he made his retreat back to Fort Walla Walla.”

Jo Miles says a lot of the stories of buried cannons in Eastern Washington that persist to the present day likely trace back to the 1888 publication of a memoir by General Philip Sheridan.

General Sheridan, a Civil War figure who spent earlier years of his career in the Pacific Northwest, mentions Major Haller’s travails at Toppenish Creek, but writes, incorrectly, that there were two cannons lost there. Rumors of the Government Meadows cannon, Miles said, can be traced to 1913, when an article appeared in an Olympia newspaper with speculation about a cannon buried somewhere on the west side of Naches Pass.

This fueled speculation not about Major Haller’s howitzer, but instead about other notable U.S. Army figures in the Northwest in the 1850s: controversial figure Captain George B. McClellan and Lieutenant William Slaughter – the one-time namesake for what’s now Auburn.

As it turns out, there are likely good reasons why no solid evidence has ever turned up when it comes to hidden cannons on either side of the Cascades – Goldendale sheepman Arthur Vincent and Gideon Pete’s mysterious hunter notwithstanding.

Over the past few decades, Jo Miles has systematically debunked all of the rumors surrounding buried artillery in the Evergreen State. He located the official record of Major Haller burying a single cannon in October 1855 during his retreat from Toppenish Creek, but then Miles found the official record of that same cannon being recovered later by the Army – and the same goes for Colonel Edward J. Steptoe’s two cannons south of Spokane in 1858.

As for the Government Meadows cannon, Miles says both McClellan and Slaughter did indeed travel over Naches Pass in the 1850s, but neither had a cannon in their possession (nor would they have had need to bury it).

How did all of this get so mixed up?

Documentation wise, everything was pretty cut and dried and very clear,” Miles said. “But when people started talking about those incidents and the different soldiers involved, it looks to me like they started transposing the names of officers and the locations of the cannons, and that’s how this oral history started to go kind of wild.”

Human nature is such that with stories like these – rich with classic elements of history, mystery, and lost treasure – it’s easy to understand why the mixing of fact and fantasy is so irresistible, and perhaps even unavoidable.

But maybe that works two ways? With all the various threads and fallible humans keeping those military records, could Jo Miles imagine a scenario whereby there might be at least one phantom howitzer out there, waiting to be discovered, somewhere in the wilds of Washington?

“I personally don’t believe so, because for the last 30 years, I’ve seen people with metal detectors, just poring all over, you know, areas of interest throughout the state,” Miles said. “One of those guys would have found it by now, I believe, if it existed.”

“It’s kind of like a Sasquatch,” Miles said, chuckling.

Of course, as any Northwest history buff knows, that may not be the best choice of words to discourage further searches.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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A treasure hunt for phantom cannons in the Evergreen State