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Idaho man follows trails of old military Indian campaigns

By Brandon Macz
Moscow, Idaho (AP) August 2010

Mahlon Kriebel tore through map after map on Aug. 6, pointing out the inaccuracies of one and the corrections he’s made using others, tracing trails of historical significance to the Northwest and the United States’ conquest of it.

A retired neurophysiologist who spent his entire career researching and teaching at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, N.Y., Kriebel came back to land between Palouse and Garfield that has been in his family for four generations in 2003.

He had spent his career researching the correlation between the synapse of nerves to muscles, he said, adding he’d even come up with a hypothesis on how neurons – nerve cells that process and transmit information using electrical and chemical signals – affect memory.

“It wasn’t very popular, because it’s a new hypothesis,” Kriebel said. “You can’t convince scientists to have a different way of looking at things.”

Wanting to focus on something else after his retirement, Kriebel said he was interested in trails. A Father Connolly in Desmet, Idaho, told him he had been trying to find the Seelah Trail, once used by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to reach spring camp at Seelah, near Stubblefield Lake.

“I said I’d keep my eye open,” he said.

The following five years, Kriebel’s eyes were opened to a number of maps as he attempted to outline the 1858 campaign of Col. Edward Steptoe that resulted in the Battle of Steptoe, where the veteran commander succumbed to the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe – that wanted to stop him from going through their spring encampment while following trails from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville – southeast of Rosalia near Pine Creek. On his journey, Steptoe made several camps and parleyed with the Native Americans, mainly Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chief Vincent, but something in Kriebel’s research bothered him.

It was in the maps and the locations recounted by those involved. Some of it didn’t make sense in the maps Kriebel was looking at. He said it took him seven maps to get it all right, adding “I’ve got so many maps they sometimes get scattered.”

But what brought it all together were maps he gathered in Washington, D.C., four years ago. It was there that he found field note maps made by topographer Theodor Kolecki, who was assisting Lt. John Mullan with a campaign by Col. George Wright, who was leading troops to force the tribes in the area to agree to a treaty four months after Steptoe failed. He added he had only meant to find Mullan’s field notes, but Kolecki’s details in his notes were “a once-in-a-lifetime find,” Kriebel said.

“That’s what really makes it exciting, when you find something like this,” he said. “I immediately saw the chance it offered to pinpoint these trails. Without the Kolecki map, you couldn’t do it.”

He admits his research and mapping has become somewhat of an obsession for him, but adds he also is correcting mistakes historians refuse to correct themselves. Part of the problem with the maps and the application to the terrain they depict, he said, was that historians didn’t take into account that magnetic north had shifted 2 degrees after 150 years.

“They couldn’t even do arithmetic,” he said. “As a neuroscientist, I was precise. So when it came to looking at a map ... you want to be just as precise as what I was trained to be.”

But that training came way before his venture into science through the teachings of his father, who was a carpenter.

“He said if you do something, do it accurate,” Kriebel said, adding maps are fine, but “You’ve got to walk it. If you don’t walk it, you don’t know where things are.”

Much of Kriebel’s research on Steptoe’s campaign was published in the Whitman County Historical Society’s journal, Bunchgrass Historian, in 2008. That journal and more are available for purchase. People can contact the historical society to find locations where they are sold.

Kriebel is now hot on the trail of Col. George Wright, who was sent back in full force by Congress to demonstrate the government’s power and to force the tribes in the area to agree to a treaty. He said he hopes to walk the entirety of the trail Wright took all the way to Cataldo where a treaty was eventually signed.

He also has solicited the help of farmers and ranchers whose property Wright’s trail once crossed. He received a call Aug. 6 he said he’d been expecting for weeks that may be linked to the gravesites of the only two soldiers who died during Wright’s campaign, which he said he is very excited about.

“The Northwest wouldn’t be the way it is without the Wright campaign and subduing the Indians,” he said.