Nez Perce fight Battle of the Big Hole

Nez Perce fight Battle of the Big Hole

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Having refused government demands that they move to a reservation, a small band of Nez Perce tribesmen clash with the U.S. Army near the Big Hole River in Montana.

The conflict between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce was one of the most tragic of the many Indian wars of the 19th century. Beginning with the tribe’s first contact with the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the peaceful Nez Perce had befriended and cooperated with the Americans. Even when hordes of white settlers began to flood into their homelands along the Snake River (around the present-day intersection of the Oregon, Washington and Idaho state borders), most of the Nez Perce peacefully moved to a reservation.

However, about a quarter of the Nez Perce, most of them stockmen and buffalo hunters, refused to accept internment on a reservation. Government pressure to force these last resisters to comply finally led to the outbreak of the Nez Perce War of 1877. A small band of warriors—never more than 145 men, though burdened with about 500 noncombatants—fought U.S. soldiers at four major battles.

The third battle of the Nez Perce War occurred on this day in 1877. Fleeing eastward with hopes of escaping to Canada, the Nez Perce made camp in the Big Hole Basin in present-day western Montana. At 3:30 a.m., Colonel John Gibbon attacked the sleeping Indians with a force of 183 men. Raking the Indian lodges with withering rifle fire, the soldiers initially seemed to be victorious. The Nez Perce, however, soon counterattacked from concealed positions in the surrounding hills. After four days of sporadic fighting, the Nez Perce withdrew.

Both sides suffered serious casualties. The soldiers lost 29 men with 40 wounded. The army body count found 89 Nez Perce dead, mostly women and children. The battle dealt the Nez Perce a grave, though not fatal, blow. The remaining Indians were able to escape, and they headed northeast towards Canada. Two months later, on October 5, Colonel Nelson Miles decisively defeated the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains. Those who were not killed surrendered and reluctantly agreed to return to the reservation. The Nez Perce were only 40 miles short of the Canadian border.

READ MORE: When Native Americans Briefly Won Back Their Land

Flight of the Nez Perce

Summer 1877 brought tragedy to the Nez Perce (or, in their language, Ni-Mii-puu). Many of their tribe had been removed from homelands to a reservation. Now the U.S. Army was ordered to put the remaining Nez Perce there. These bands objected because they had not sold their land to the U.S. government nor signed a treaty. Nez Perce leaders decided to lead their people in search of a new home. The trek of more than 800 people and 2,000 horses was to be peaceful. But warriors killed Idaho settlers as revenge for earlier murders, which caused the Army to chase the Nez Perce. Their trek became a flight marked by skirmishes and battles, the last of which stopped them more than 1,000 miles away from their homeland and less than 40 miles from safety in Canada.

The Nez Perce traveled northeast from their homeland in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, across a raging Snake River, then into north-central Idaho. After the battle at Clearwater, they followed well-worn trails across the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, entering Montana near Lolo Pass. They moved without conflict south to the Big Hole, where the Army caught them by surprise and killed Nez Perce of all ages. After that, the Nez Perce moved as quickly as they could through more mountains, across Yellowstone, then north toward Canada.

The Nez Perce entered Yellowstone on August 23rd. They knew the park well, having visited often to hunt and gather food or while traveling east to the buffalo hunting grounds of the Great Plains. During the two weeks they crossed the park, the Nez Perce encountered all 25 people known to be visiting the new park at that time. To obtain supplies, they attacked or took hostage several tourist parties—with no intention of harming the visitors. But as revenge for the deaths at Big Hole (an earlier battle on their trek) warriors killed two visitors, and left a third for dead. The group continued traveling through the park and over the Absaroka Mountains. They eluded Army troops in a deep, narrow canyon of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River. At Canyon Creek, near Billings, they engaged in another battle with the Army, then continued their flight toward Canada. The last battle occurred in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains, less than 40 miles from the Canadian border, in October. After fierce fighting, the U.S. Army laid seige to the Nez Perce camp. Some Nez Perce escaped into Canada, but the rest surrendered on October 5. This is where it is believed that Chief Joseph said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The 1,170-mile flight had ended.

The flight of the Nez Perce is commemorated at 38 sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana as part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. The sites include Big Hole National Battlefield and Bear Paw Battlefield, a National Historic Landmark. In addition, Congress recognized the trail’s national significance by designating it as the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. The trail includes the portion traversing Yellowstone National Park, which crosses or approaches the main park road in four places: Nez Perce Creek, Otter Creek, Nez Perce Ford, and Indian Pond (see map on the other side). The Nez Perce entered the park along the Madison River, traveled up Nez Perce Creek past Mary Mountain, crossed the Yellowstone River at Nez Perce Ford, traveled up Pelican Valley, then likely moved through the Hoodoo Basin and across the Absaroka Mountains in the northeast part of Yellowstone. If you travel other parts of this trail outside the park, look for booklets and exhibits explaining events of the Nez Perce flight along each segment. Wherever you encounter the trail, you will be following the Nez Perce route and portions of many trails walked by generations of Native Americans over thousands of years. The Nez Perce route was used in its entirety only once, but they consider the trail to be part of their sacred land.

10 Replies to &ldquoNEZ PERCE FORCED TO FIGHT&rdquo

I am a resident of southeast Idaho, living near the Camas Meadows. While hunting elk several years back I came across a military grave marker west of I-15 near the Idaho-Montana border. It read:

Samuel A Glass
New York
2 US Cavalry
August 23 1877

I have searched for information on this man for some time. After learning that the 2nd Cavalry engaged Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce warriors on 8 Aug 1877 my research brought me to this website. I always presumed that Samuel Glass died of wounds sustained in this battle, but cannot confirm this. The otherwise excellent summary written of this battle does not list the casualties by name. Can anyone help me to locate this information?

Are you still interested in information reference Samual Glass? I am very knowledgeable of the Camas Meadows fight and of Trooper Glass. I live in SE Idaho, as well. You can reach me at [email protected]

Glass was gut-shot when the nez perce attacked at camas praire. the nez perce stole many horses and mules from the army/civilian volunteers. Gen Howard sent the civilians back to virginia city, mt (where they were from). Glass was too sick to travel too long, so the civilians volunteers left him with the Dr (name?) at the pleasant valley stage station (the railroad wasnt there yet). Glass was cared for by the dr, the station owner, and two ladies. he died a day or two later.

you have any more info? I am working on finding all details. [email protected]

Thank you for the additional information. I have forwarded it to Joe Valasquez and hopefully he will respond.

Joe sent me some photos of Sam Glass’ grave site and headstone he took years ago and then he returned to take recent photos for me only to find that the headstone had been damaged by gunfire. It was obvious from the photos that someone has been caring for the site and bringing flowers. It is a lone site on a dirt road off the main highway out in the middle of nowhere, but there is a house nearby that may be tending to the site.

There is a first-person account of Sgt. Glass in the book “Saga of Chief Joeseph” by Howard. On page 268 they describe the Sgt. as having been shoot in the bladder on August 17th, 1877. I was at the grave last week and we are planningto repair the fence sometime before the winter sets in.

I find it rediculas that the Nez Perce are referred to as savages. After all Lewis & Clark (Corps of Discovery) found the Nez Perce to be the most civilized, honest, and friendly Native Americans they had met. The facts are that the White population that was encroaching upon Nez Perce (Wallowa Band) legally owned land were the real savages. Court house records and historical documents show that it was the whites steeling land and prized horses from the Nez Perce. Murder of Nez Perce was also a problem. The Nez Perce alway attempted to utilize the “Rule of Law” and the courts to help but that was like a black man in the south in the 1800’s attempting to use the courts for justice. That wasn’t going to happen by a long shot. President Grant caved in to the white “voters” and allowed the home of the true Native Americans to be stolen. Now who was the real savage here.

White men were the savages here president grant on down

These are the facts about Private Samuel A. Glass, “L” Company, 2nd Cavalry, casualty of the American Indian War.

After the Battle of the Bighole, troops from Company L, 2nd Cavalry were sent from Fort Ellis, Montana Territory to join General Howard in the pursuit of Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce band. A few days later, the Battle of Camas Meadows occurred. The best version of the battle, as it relates to Samuel Glass was one of his fellow company L troop, Private Fred Munn:

[Fred Munn, Veteran of Frontier Experiences, Remembered the Days He Rode With Miles, Howard and Terry’, by Fred Munn as told to Robert A. Griffen. Montana the magazine of Western History, Spring 1966.]

page 60: “We joined General Howard’s command at Horse Prairie on about the 15th (August), after a killing ride from Virginia City, nearly 150 miles in something 40 hours. This was about six days after the Battle of the Big Hole in which General Gibbon was wounded in the thigh, and a number of officers killed and wounded. There is no doubt that Howard’s close proximity to the scene of the Big Hole fight caused the Nez Perce to withdraw. If they hadn’t, most likely the troops would have suffered a worse defeat.
We followed Joseph’s broad trail to the southeast and finally came up to about fifteen miles of his camp at Camas Prairie, Idaho. He was headed Tacher (Targhee) Pass and down the Yellowstone to buffalo country. Our first night at Camas Prairie the Indians struck our camp before dawn, driving off most of the horses and mules belonging to the volunteers, who were camped across Camas Creek with a small field. They went through the camp of the civilians, scattering them and their field piece, which went into the creek.
Sammy Glass and I slept under one of the freight wagons that night and when the Indians shooting and yelling struck, we jumped out with our guns in our hands, he on one side and me on the other side of the wagon. As Sammy got to his feet, he called, “Fred, they got me.” I got to him in a few minutes, propping blankets under his head. The bullet struck his belt of cartridges tearing a hole in his abdomen in which four fingers could be inserted.”

9/1/1877 Virginia City Madisonian:
“On the following morning, the 21st, arrangements were made for placing Glass, Trevor and Garland, the three who were the most severely wounded in Norwood’s fight of the 20th, under the medical care of Doctor E.T. Yager, and their transportation to Virginia (city) under escort of the volunteers. The company left Camas Meadows about 8 a.m., and arrived at Pleasant Valley without adventure that evening.”
“On arriving a Pleasant Valley station, Glass was found to be in such a condition from the effects of his wound that it was deemed unadviseable to carry him any further, and Dr Yager remained with him there until his death, which took place on the morning of the 23.”
“Glass was a native of New York, a man of considerable intelligence, strictly temperate in his habits, and possessed the high esteem of the officers and men of his company. He was the company blacksmith.”
“When the wagon with the wounded men arrived at Pleasant Valley Station, the proprietor, Mr. L. A. Harkness, immediately set about procuring comfortable beds for them, and assisted by two ladies who were staying there, whose names we did not learn, supplied their every want, attended to them with all possible care during the night, and when the two men , Trevor and Garland were gone, and Dr Yager and Glass remained, bestowed upon them ll the attention that kindness could suggest or the place afford, and upon the death of the latter prepared the coffin and grave, and buried him as decently as the surroundings permitted, firmly and utterly refusing all compensation for anything that had been done.”
“Such an instance of liberality and kindness is worthy of high praise, and shows the whole world kin is not always obliterated by the rugged surroundings of mountain life.”
“The volunteers arrived in Virginia City the evening on 24th.”

His grave was marked with wooden tombstone, until 1937 when it was replaced with a official government stone.

Samuel A. Glass bio info (courtesy of Mary Hocking):

1848 born about 1848 in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada [1]. (Contrary to his enlistment papers, which say born Erie County, NY)
1858 moved to NY [2]
1860: living with his father, step-mother, and siblings in Elma, Erie County, New York. [3]
1869: enlists in the army for 5 years.
1870: living as a soldier at the US Military Post in Buffalo [4]
1874: discharged from army.
1875: boarding with John W. Mitchell, a railroad conductor, and his family in Buffalo. Glass’s occupation is painter and blacksmith. [5]
1875: re-enlists in the army.
1877: shot in the bladder during fighting with the Nez Pierce.[6]

[1] Various census and army records. Assuming he was born in Uxbridge, Ontario, only because that’s where he was living three years later.
[2] His younger brother, George, was born in 1858/59 in New York, which means the family immigrated at some point before then.
[3] 1860 US Census
[4] 1870 US Census
[5] 1875 New York State Census and 1875 Buffalo City Directory
[6] Army records

My name is Jay Hill. I have been the Project Manager on a project to totally renovate the grave-site, as it was in deplorable condition. We finished the project in July 2018 and will be re-dedicating the grave in September 2018. People that have seen the old grave-site will hardly recognize it as it currently exists.

Big Hole Battle continues to resonate 140 years later

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Big Hole National Battlefield is the site of unimaginable tragedy as well as a sacred site to the Nez Perce people. The battle, near present-day Wisdom, took place 140 years ago. (Photo: Tribune photo/Amie Thompson) Buy Photo

WISDOM — In the 140 years since the Battle of the Big Hole, the site of the battle has remained a spiritual place to many who visit.

Teepee poles on the 655-acre Big Hole National Battlefield give silent testimony to the Nez Perce who gathered in along a fork of the Big Hole River.

A marble monument honors the American soldiers and Bitterroot Valley volunteers who fought the Nez Perce. About 2,000 American soldiers fought the Indians at different points along their flight.

"These places hold power," Park Superintendent Mandi Wick said. "There's something to say about being on the place where these tragedies happened."

The Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom is one of 38 sites in the Nez Perce National Historical Park. (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/KRISTEN INBODY)

On Aug. 9, 1877, Col. John Gibbon arrived from Fort Shaw with 161 men and a howitzer, which fired 12-pound shells. They attacked at dawn.

Gibbon's men caught the Nez Perce by surprise. The Indians, on their way to sanctuary in Canada, were lulled by a largely peaceful passage through the Bitterroot Valley into believing they would be able to travel safely through the Montana Territory.

&ldquoThese places hold power. There's something to say about being on the place where these tragedies happened.&rdquo

Park Superintendent Mandi Wick

The soldiers stormed from the forested hillside into the village, firing indiscriminately into and then burning teepees.

The surviving Nez Perce rallied and fought back, collecting retreating soldier's weapons. The soldiers dug in, while Nez Perce women packed up camp and retreated, covered by warrior sharpshooters.

The Nez Perce lost perhaps as many as 90 people, about 10-12 percent of the group, with women and children taking heavy casualties. Of the 700 who remained, fewer than 200 were warriors. Many of the best fighters died at the Big Hole.

The force from Fort Shaw saw 23 soldiers perish in the fight, with six volunteers from the Bitterroot dying, too. Another 40 were wounded. Gibbon, injured in the battle, and his men left the Nez Perce to Gen. O.O. Howard and his men, who picked up the pursuit after the Big Hole.

Blue camas blooms at Big Hole National Battlefield. (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/JULIA MOSS)

"It's hard to believe events like this can happen in places that seem so serene," Wick said.

Located between the Anaconda and Pioneer mountains, the battlefield is known for its camas blooms, adding a sea of blue flowers to the landscape in the early summer. It was the Nez Perce who introduced the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by then desperately hungry, to the plant, a staple of their diet. (Though the explorers liked the sweet root, they ended up sick.)

Wick recommended visitors watch the 26-minute film at the visitor center to understand the battle. Summer weekends feature cultural demonstrations and guided tours.

The Big Hole National Battlefield visitor center is framed by tipi poles. (Photo: TRIBUNE PHOTO/JULIA MOSS)

After the battle, the Nez Perce had to discard the idea they could fight the U.S. to agreeable terms and the war took a more ferocious turn, though the Nez Perce had been significantly weakened, wrote Alvin Josephy in "The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest."

The journey to the Big Hole began in the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon.

The Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu/Children of the Coyote, territory covered about 17 million acres, land in what would become Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

Big Hole National Battlefield is the site of unimaginable tragedy as well as a sacred site to the Nez Perce people. The battle, near present-day Wisdom, took place 140 years ago. (Photo: Tribune photo/Amie Thompson)

Tribal leaders signed treaties in 1855 and 1863 setting the Nez Perce land at 7.5 million and then 750,000 acres. Then came the discovery of gold and pressure from westward-marching trappers and settlers.

Chief Joseph described white men stealing horses and cattle, seemingly "on purpose to get up a war. They knew we were not strong enough to fight them." He described young men whom he struggled to keep from "doing rash things."

He and his band of Nez Perce stayed in the Wallowa Valley as others moved to the much-reduced reservation.

In May 1877, General O.O. Howard ordered Chief Joseph and all Nez Perce living off the reservation to move there within 30 days and jailed elder Toohoolhoolzote.

Big Hole River (Photo: Tribune photo/Amie Thompson)

Young Nez Perce men gathered at a camp on June 14 on their way to Fort Lapwai in Idaho Territory and reservation life decided to take revenge on some white men, killing four and raiding settlements. The chance for peace had passed, and Howard sent 130 men to meet them, punish them and deliver them to the reservation.

Instead, at the Battle of White Bird Canyon, the Nez Perce won, but they were on the run. It was the first of 18 engagements, among them four major battles.

After the Big Hole Battle, the Nez Perce continued their flight to Canada via Idaho and into Yellowstone National Park. In Crow country, they found their former allies were unwilling to aid them and continued north through the middle of Montana.

Gen. Nelson Miles (Photo: NPS PHOTO)

Just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, Brigadier Gen. Nelson A. Miles from what would be Miles City caught up with the Nez Perce. His troops came from the Second and Seventh Cavalry and the Fifth Infantry, along with Lakota and Cheyenne scouts.

On Sept. 30, they attacked the Nez Perce and fought to a stalemate, broken when Howard arrived at the Bear Paw Battlefield. On Oct. 5, Chief Joseph surrendered and vowed to "fight no more forever."

Some Nez Perce escaped to Canada. Those who surrendered were promised they could return to their reservation, but Gen. William Sherman ordered them to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a 1,200-mile trek on foot, boat, horse and rail.

They lived in swampy, malarial land in Kansas, and Chief Joseph, by then a national celebrity, pleaded they be allowed to return to the reservation or be granted land in Oklahoma.

Josiah Red Wolf (Photo: NPS PHOTO)

Eight years after their surrender near the Bear Paws Mountains of Montana, the 268 Nez Perce who survived returned to the Pacific Northwest, though Chief Joseph was not allowed to return and died in exile in 1904 on the Colville Indian Reservation northwest of Spokane, Wash. It's home to a confederation of 12 tribes.

Chief Joseph spoke for justice to his last days, arguing:

"Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases."

11 people to know

Chief Joseph
The most famous Nez Prece, Chief Joseph was in charge of guarding camps along the retreat. He gave the formal surrender and is immortalized for the speech that ended, "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

Chief Joseph in 1877 (Photo: NPS PHOTO)

Chief Ollikut
Younger brother of Chief Joseph, Ollikot was "he who led the young men” and died at the Battle of Bear Paw.

Peopeo Tholekt
At the Battle of the Big Hole, this warrior helped capture a howitizer, which fired on the Nez Perce camp. He escaped to Canada but later returned to Idaho, living there until his 1935 death and preserving stories of the war.

Chief Looking Glass
Killed at the Battle of Bear Paw, Chief Looking Glass was a military strategist during the war. He led a band settled in a village on the Nez Perce reservation but was arrested on suspicion he would join Chief Joseph and his village was burned. He and followers escaped to join Chief Joseph and he was Nez Perce leader during the Battle of the Big Hole, losing his position as head of the band after the surprise attack.

Josiah Red Wolf
The last living link to the Nez Perce War, Josiah Red Wolf, five in 1877, witnessed the attack that launched the Big Hole Battle. He died in 1971.

Gen. O. O. Howard
A Union general who lost an arm during the Civil War, Howard was known for his piety and work bettering the lives of freed slaves during Reconstruction. He helped found Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was superintendent at West Point. He pushed the Nez Perce onto a smaller reservation with no notice or time to prepare, perhaps precipitating the flight to Canada. .


Gen. Nelson A. Miles
A Civil War Medal of Honor winner and future military governor of Puerto Rico, Miles revenged Gen. Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, forcing the Lakota onto a reservation. He led his troops on the flight across Montana to intercept the Nez Perce.

C.E.S. Wood
A West Point graduate, Wood was an infantry officer and later author who transcribed, and rumor says embellished, Chief Joseph's surrender speech.

Col. Samuel Sturgis
The father of a soldier killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn the year before, Sturgis and his troops were supposed to be part of a trap to catch the Nez Perce when they emerged from Yellowstone but they escaped. They met up at the Battle of Canyon Creek west of Billings.

Col. John Gibbon
A Civil War veteran, Gibbons was stationed in Fort Shaw when he got word from Howard to cut off the Nez Perce retreat. He met them near the Big Hole River and was wounded in the battle, ending his pursuit.

Emma Cowan
Among a few dozen tourists in Yellowstone National Park during the Nez Perce flight and celebrating her second anniversary, Cowan of Radersburg was captured with her siblings and her husband was shot in the head (he survived and they returned to the park three decades later).

Visit the Big Hole National Battlefield

The Big Hole National Battlefield is open sunrise to sunset daily. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter, except on federal holidays during the off-season. Entry is free. Find the battlefield 10 miles west of Wisdom in the Big Hole Valley.

Continue the journey

The Nez Perce story is told across 38 sites in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington that make up the Nez Perce National Historical Park, from Wallowa Valley, Ore., to the Bear Paw near Chinook, 1,170 miles away.

Big Hole Battlefield Superintendent Mandi Wick said some people visit the whole trail and combine it with the Lewis & Clark Trail.

The Nez Perce National Historical Park visitor center in Spalding, Idaho, (11 miles east of Lewiston) tells Nez Perce history and gives context for the war and the land.

The Forest Service's Nez Perce National Historic Trail connects the sites of the battles of Bear Paw and Big Hole in Montana Joseph Canyon in Oregon/Washington Clearwater, Camas Meadows and White Bird Canyon battlefields and Weippe Prairie and Camp Chopunnish in Idaho, and the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite in Oregon.

The Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center in Fort Benton is home to Chief Joseph's surrender rifle, which he presented to Miles at the Bears Paw Battlefield south of Chinook.

Fort Fizzle, near Lolo, was one of the first land purchases in Montana paid for with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (Photo: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO/KRISTEN INBODY)

Fort Fizzle is an unusual site in the Lolo National Forest between Lolo Pass and the Bitterroot Valley southwest of Missoula. The "fort" was a wooden barricade soldiers and civilians built to stop the advance of Chief Joseph during the Nez Perce war. The Nez Perce skirted the barricade despite the narrow valley and the effort to stop the party fizzled. Then.

The Bear Paw Battlefield 16 miles south of Chinook commemorates the battle that brought the Nez Perce flight to an end. The 140th anniversary of the battle will be marked at 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 7 at the battlefield. It's free and open to the public, but photography is not allowed during certain parts of the ceremonies.

Jacob Whiteplume, Nakia Cloud, Towatoy and Marcelle Bourgeau ride the hallowed ground where their Nez Perce ancestors surrendered 137 years ago at the Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook, Montana Saturday, October 4, 2014. Photo courtesy Terri Long Fox

Aftermath [ edit | edit source ]

Gibbon’s success in surprising the Nez Perce caused Looking Glass’s prestige as a leader to plummet. He had promised them they would be safe in Montana and instead nearly every Nez Perce family had suffered a loss in the battle. Chief Joseph seems to have resumed his role as the principal leader of the Nez Perce although Looking Glass would continue to be a battlefield leader.

For the Nez Perce the losses in the battle were grievous. They had anticipated that, by leaving Idaho, they might leave the war behind them and live peacefully. Now, they knew that all white men were their enemies and they could expect no quarter in future battles. ⎛] Howard’s forces, newly arrived on the battlefield, took up the pursuit and followed Joseph toward Yellowstone National Park. The Nez Perce would again clash with the army on August 20 at the Battle of Camas Meadows.

The battlefield is preserved in the Big Hole National Battlefield Unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Battle at Camas Meadows

August 19

General Oliver Otis Howard camped near where the nimí·pu· had been observed the day before in Camas Meadows. All day the soldiers followed a broad trail left by the nimí·pu·. After an 18-mile march across the sagebrush prairie, General Howard arrived at Camas Meadows. He camped along the high ground fringing the bottom of Spring Creek and named the camp in honor of Captain Calloway.

Eighteen miles away, the nimí·pu· scouts had returned to camp, bringing word of the soldiers’ location. Cimúuxcimux húukux (Black Hair) had a strong vision in which he saw himself and others escaping with the U.S. Army’s horses. He told the chiefs of his vision, and 28 men were organized under the leadership of ’álok’at (Chief Ollikut), ’Elelímyete’qenin’ (Chief Looking Glass), and Chief Tuxúulxulc’ut to carry out a raid.

August 20

Near midnight, the nimí·pu· warriors approached the army camp. Several crept quietly among the herd of animals, cutting them loose, and removing warning bells. The main group of warriors rode four to a column, as would a cavalry unit. The sentry mistook them for Lieutenant Bacon’s returning men. He called out a challenge that resulted in a shot being fired that awakened the troops and spurred the nimí·pu· to action. General Howard ordered Companies B, I and L, consisting of about 150, men to recapture the mules and horses that were by this time far down the trail. Captain Norwood’s Company L was ordered to follow the warriors. He caught up with them after about five miles. They dismounted to exchange shots. The skirmish lasted more than four hours. Just as the men began to realize they were being circled by the sound of firing from a flanking maneuver of the nimí·pu·, “recall” was sounded.

As Companies B and I retreated, Captain Norwood’s troops hastily built rifle pits as a defense and remained until reinforcements came. The warriors left as reinforcements arrived.

Meanwhile, the nimí·pu· warriors assessed the success of their raid. As the sun arose, the warriors realized they had captured most of the mule herd and a few horses.

Battle of the Big Hole

In the early morning hours of 9 August 1877, soldiers from the 7 th Infantry Regiment attacked the Nez Perce camp located on the banks of the Big Hole River. The Nez Perce were not native to southwestern Montana. Months earlier, several bands of the Nez Perce joined forces to counter the US government’s move to place these bands on a reservation in Idaho. Dubbed “non-treaty Indians,” these Nez Perce engaged US army troops in the Battle of White Bird Canyon, sparking a mass exodus toward Canada. For the next several weeks, the Nez Perce and US forces clashed in a series of small engagements through Idaho and western Montana.

After defeating the small US garrison at Fort Fizzle (near Missoula, Montana), the Nez Perce marched south into the Big Hole Basin. The Nez Perce reached out to locals in the region, promising to avoid violence if they could pass through peacefully. Replenishing their supplies, the Nez Perce established a camp on the north fork of the Big Hole River. Unbeknownst to the tribal leader’s soldiers under the command of Gen. John Gibbon were marching on their camp. Supported by local volunteers, Gibbon and his force reached the area on 8 August 1877. Gibbon’s orders were to defeat the tribe and take no prisoners.

Early the next morning, the soldiers began to position themselves for the attack. Launching a surprise attack across the shallow Big Hole River, the soldiers rushed the camp, killing and maiming dozens of sleeping Nez Perce. The Nez Perce warriors responded quickly to the attack, forcing Gibbon to move his troops back across the river. Taking position on a forested knoll, the soldiers dug rifle pits to avoid accurate rifle fire. As the soldiers began to establish defensive positions, Gibbon’s mountain howitzer arrived on a ridge west of the camp. The artillerymen were only able to fire three rounds on the camp before being overrun by warriors who stormed the steep ridge.

The battle would last throughout the day, with the soldiers remaining pinned down. As nightfall approached, Gibbon’s troops were running low on ammunition. They were also without food and water, resulting in some of the local volunteers deserting the battlefield that night. On 10 August, the bulk of the Nez Perce camp withdrew from the battlefield, leaving a small group of warriors behind to keep the soldiers pinned down. The remaining warriors would escape later that night. The battle proved costly for both sides. The surprise attack killed around 90 Nez Perce (mostly women and children). Gibbon’s force suffered 29 dead (23 soldiers and six volunteers) and 40 wounded. The Nez Perce would travel south toward Yellowstone National Park, where they would clash again with US forces ten days later in the Battle of Camas Creek. The Nez Perce exodus would end on 5 October 1877 near the Bear Paw Mountains, 40 miles from the Canadian border.

Look for more information regarding the Nez Perce in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #302 article “The Nez Perce War, 1877” and join the conversation on Facebook !

The 1,000 Mile Fighting Retreat of the Nez Perce – Native Americans Looking For A Place To Live

The cruel treatment of Native Americans is a long and harsh chapter in American history. Most people remember hearing about the trail of tears and the case of Indians fighting back in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Just one year after that climactic battle a string of events led to a once sprawling tribe to go on a thousand-mile journey, fighting the U.S. military along the way as they just sought freedom to live.

These people were the Nez Perce, a traveling tribe based in Idaho, and the corners of Oregon, Washington and Montana though they would travel as far east as the Dakotas and West to the Pacific. They held territory as large as 70,000 square km and were honorable and trustworthy according to those on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In 1855, the Nez Perce were settled on a large reservation roughly occupying the same area as their traditional homelands. In 1863, however, the reservation shrunk to a tenth of the size, depriving the Nez Perce of much of the grazing lands home to the Camas plant, a staple of the Nez Perce diet.

In addition, American settlers often ignored the reservation’s boundaries and built within native or supposedly shared access land. This was exacerbated after gold was found in Nez Perce territories, resulting in an influx of miners absolutely disregarding any sense of land ownership. Tensions rose over the next dozen years as many of the Nez Perce simply refused to move to the new reservation and shared lands were increasingly unofficially claimed by settlers.

When murders of Nez Perce by white men went unprosecuted the Nez Perce retaliated and raided American settlements, killing those they knew to be especially hostile to them. This along with an earlier proclamation forcing all remaining Nez Perce to their new reservation began the involvement of the U.S. army. The bands involved in the raids knew a military response was inevitable and waited in the defensible White Bird Canyon.

The proposed reservation was much less land than the Nez Perce were used to.

On June 17 th , after a two-day ride, captain David Perry led a little over 100 men into the canyon. There were about 140 Nez Perce warriors, but after securing large amounts of whiskey in raids, roughly half of them were too drunk to fight. 70 Nez Perce cavalry fought with a combination of rifles, aged muskets, and bows. As the Nez Perce were practiced with firearms by hunting, they knew the importance of making shots count and their superb accuracy quickly turned the tides of battle against the U.S. forces.

General Howard was quick to respond with a 400-man army and made a great effort to cross a river where many of the Nez Perce tribes who declined to go to the reservation resided. With their superior mobility and knowledge of the terrain the Nez Perce were able to cross the river just as Howard’s forces finished their crossing, stranding them and getting a head start eastward.

Chief Joseph was a charismatic and inspiring leader who wanted the best for his people.

The hope was to go northeast and get aid from the crow, and failing that, get to Canada. In the first weeks of July, the traveling tribe had to form a military screen to get their people past an entrenched U.S. position at the battle of Cottonwood. Nez Perce snipers were crucial to keeping enough pressure that the U.S. soldiers could not leave their positions. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed while the first Nez Perce death was recorded since the war’s start.

General Howard had caught up with the tribes after losing them in the river crossings and attempted to surprise the encamped Nez Perce. Despite having two to three times the soldiers, Howard started by occupying a ridge and firing howitzers and Gatling guns into the encampment, giving the Nez Perce time to disperse and form defensive positions. 25 Nez Perce rode up to the same ridge as Howard’s forces and built stone bunkers and sniped at Howard’s troops, preventing any advance.

This action allowed the rest of the Nez Perce to form defensive lines along the ridges of the Clearwater valley, forcing the U.S. forces to attack uphill for each position, while the Nez Perce simply retreated further back along the ridges and dug in again. After a night in which Howard’s men went without food or water, he decided to launch a full assault which succeeded in driving the Nez Perce from the valley, though with heavy losses for Howard’s army. The Nez Perce continued their journey, but Howard’s force needed a day to rest and recuperate before following.

The Nez Perce took the Lolo pass into Montana. Howard ordered a fort to be built and garrisoned at the bottom of the pass to stop the Indians. Captain Charles Rawn was charged with the defense but had only 35 soldiers and less than 100 volunteers.

When faced with the descending Nez Perce most of the volunteers left, leaving less than fifty to defend the hastily erected fort. An arrangement was made to peacefully pass through the remainder of the pass with the U.S. soldiers observing at a safe distance. The fort would soon be remembered as Fort Fizzle.

Remnants of Fort Fizzle. By John Stanton – CC BY-SA 3.0

Once in Montana, the Nez Perce found that many residents were sympathetic to their cause, or at the very least not hostile, and they were able to trade for food and other supplies with local ranchers. Unfortunately, this kindness lulled the Nez Perce into a false sense of security and they were less than prepared when the U.S. attacked in August under commander John Gibbon.

Known as the battle of Big Hole, Gibbon led 200 men into the unsecured Nez Perce position at dawn. His men shot into the tipis and set them on fire as many of the Nez Perce were still sleeping. Once they became organized the Nez Perce began sniping and targeting officers from what little fortification they could find, pushing Gibbon’s force into a nearby forest.

Battle of the Big Hole map 1877

Dozens of the best warriors kept Gibbon’s army pinned down while the rest of the tribe marched away, to be joined by the warriors later. The battle resulted in many casualties for both sides and began to wear on the resolve of the Nez Perce and their Chief Joseph.

The Nez Perce realized that they still faced the U.S. military and General Howard was again on their trail. They successfully raided Howards cavalry and mules and stampeded many of them away, crippling Howard’s mobility. To prevent ambush, the Nez Perce took a longer route through Yellowstone Park before heading North through Montana again.

While in Yellowstone there were several incidents and multiple guests were killed in the park. Howard and the new arrival Col. Sturgis attempted to use their forces to trap the Nez Perce in the park, but skillful maneuvering by Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce out of the park with the two armies miles behind before they even realized what happened.

Once back in Montana, the Nez Pearce sought out their friendly Crow tribe for asylum but were met with disappointment. The Crow did not want to face the retribution of the U.S. army and so denied the Nez Perce and several Crow volunteers, even joined the U.S. forces tracking the Nez Perce. The Crow were able to steal several hundred Nez Perce horses while the Nez Perce once again fought off a U.S. attack. Disheartened and lacking spare horses, the Nez Pearce headed for Canada, hoping to join Sitting Bull’s tribe hiding out after their victory at the Little Bighorn.

The Nez Perce were hungry, tired and had many wounded when they reached the base of the Bear Paw Mountains in October. They knew that General Howard was a day behind them but had no knowledge of Col. Nelson Miles, who had gathered yet another U.S. army of around 520 men to cut the Nez Perce off.

The Nez Perce were very close considering their already 1,000 mile journy, they just couldnt handle yet another fully formed U.S. army.

Miles was eager to catch the Nez Perce off guard in their camp and had his cavalry charge from miles out. Once again an initial assault was successful but swift Nez Perce counterattacks pushed the cavalry back. The battle was a mess with Miles’ soldiers arriving at different times and somehow almost all of the Nez Perce’s cavalry was stolen, leaving them stranded. The battle of Bear Paw soon degraded into a siege.

The siege was a prolonged sniping affair with occasional shelling from some U.S. arterially. Only 40 miles from Canada the Nez Perce hoped Sitting Bull might send some troops down and one of the Cheifs, Looking Glass was killed by a sniper when he stood up after thinking he saw them riding on the horizon. The Nez Perce were now facing starvation and winter weather. Chief Joseph addressed his tribe and sent a message to the U.S. leaders, now joined by Howard advocating peace as follows:

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets.

The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Flight of the Nez Perce 1877 map

Though Howard had promised that the Nez Pearce would join the rest of their tribe in the previously established reservation, orders from higher up broke yet another promise as the Nez Perce were sent to a reservation in Kansas instead.

The Nez Perce had traveled over 1,000 miles and fought several battles and skirmishes almost always outnumbered in terms of total soldiers. They gained nation-wide popular support and even members of the military lamented the outcome but knew that they had to prevent the Nez Perce from “winning” especially so soon after the disastrous Battle of Little Bighorn.

A tragic tale, but the Nez Pearce culture does continue to this day and they will always be remembered for their bravery against overwhelming odds.

Miles Besieges the Nez Perce Camp

Fighting at Bear Paw continued throughout the day on September 30 with both sides suffering substantial casualties. The Nez Perce, who could expect no replacements, lost 26 people on the first day. Miles decided that rather than storm the camp he would lay siege to it. In response the Nez Perce dug trenches with camas hooks and butcher knives. “[There were] soldiers all around the camp so that none could escape,” said Yellow Wolf. “It was snowing. The wind was cold.”

Nevertheless, some of the Nez Perce were indeed able to escape north to join the Sioux in Canada. Miles used every tactic to compel surrender. He ordered the Nez Perce camp shelled. As a result, Nez Perce women and children were killed.

After five days the Nez Perce surrendered. About 300 Nez Perce made the trek to Canada to join Sitting Bull’s camp near Fort Walsh. The approximately 400 Nez Perce who surrendered were sent to live in present-day Oklahoma where many died from homesickness and disease. “Everything so different from our old homes,” said Yellow Wolf. “No mountains, no springs, no clear running rivers….All the time, day and night, we suffered from the climate.”

The Indians claimed after their final surrender that they would have held Gibbon’s command in the timber longer than they did, and would have killed many more, if not all of them, had they not learned that Howard was at hand with reinforcements. They admit that they were warned of impending danger in some form &hellip

General Gibbon moved as rapidly as his means of transportation would permit, cover ing thirty to thirty-five miles per day. In his march through the valley he was joined by thirty-six citizens who did not sympathize with the kind treatment their neighbors had shown the fugitives, but who believed that they (the Indians) should be &hellip

A visual History: Visiting the Big Hole National Battlefield

Descending from the C ontinental D ivide at Chief Joseph Pass, Montana H w y 43 weaves through a forest of Douglas Fir and cuts through walls of sedimentary and metamorphic rock before following Trail Creek in a narrow canyon. A bend in the road reveals a lush, green valley where the nickname “Big Sky Country” is manifested overhead. Here, the creek twists and turns its way through the vast plain, its banks lined with the bright, vibrant yellow of young willow stems. It is a remarkably peaceful place—the soft sounds of the trickling creek and the grass rustling in the wind could lull a visitor to sleep, and that’s exactly what Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce were doing one early morning when they awoke to the sound of gunfire.

The Nez Perce war of 1877 is a story inseparably woven into the rugged landscape between the Cascade and Rocky m ountains —the historic homeland of the people who call themselves the Niimiipu. The Big Hole National Battlefield in modern-day Beaverhead County, Montana, serves as a remembrance of the lives lost here at a major turning point in the war, and the broken promises that led up to it.

For at least 11,500 years t he Nez Perce occupied a plateau of ancient volcanic rock where Idaho, Oregon , and Washington meet. In this territory and beyond they hunted, fished, traded, fought, and governed for millennia before the arrival of the first white explorers in the early 19th century.

In the fall of 1805, the Nez Perce provided supplies, nourishment, and navigational guidance to the expedition party of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. On their way back from the coast in the spring of 1806, the explorers again stopped in Nez Perce country and received crucial aid from the tribe in especially trying times.

The Nez Perce had maintained these friendly relations with newcomers for decades, even as Americans began to gradually establish settlements in the region. In 1855, they agreed to a treaty with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens that set aside 7.5 million acres of their 17.3 million-acre historic homeland as an established r eservation .

With the discovery of gold in Nez Perce country in 1863, everything changed. A new treaty slashed the 7.5 million - acre reservation to about 750,000 acres in modern-day Idaho—a tenfold reduction to accommodate the influx of miners and fortune seekers that would soon pour into the region. Those who lived within its proposed boundaries agreed to the deal , and the Nez Perce who refused to sign ( labeled non-treaty Indians) lost most or all of their homeland to the government . Claiming it was a fraudulent act or a "thief' treaty made by Chief Lawyer and the Indian commissioners , the non-treaty natives returned to their homes.

Among the dissenters was a band of Nez Perce inhabiting Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. Included in this group was the renowned warrior and military strategist Looking Glass as well as the influential leaders Chief Joseph and his son, who was given the same name and authority after his father’s passing in 1871. Despite their refusal to relocate to the Idaho reservation, they continued to live in relative peace with the encroaching American settlers.

In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an executive order designating about half the Wallowa V alley as a “reservation for the roaming Nez Perce Indians.”  Then in the summer of 1875, under pressure from settlers, President Grant reversed his previous decision and  removed their reservation status . This edict outraged the non-treaty Nez Perce, who had already been experiencing periodic violence from incomers that had gone unpunished as more and more Americans moved west.

After failed negotiations, in May 1877, General Otis Howard issued an ultimatum, giving all Nez Perce bands 30 days to move with their herds to the Idaho reservation. Considering he had no choice but to accept the terms Joseph stated, “I did not want my people killed. … I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up my country. I would give up my father’s grave.”

In frustration and anger , some young warriors in Chief Joseph’s band attacked settlers as the Nez Perce were forced to evacuate the Wallowa Valley.

This retribution marked the beginning of the war the first full-on battle took place at White Bird Canyon on June 17th, 1877. The following four months saw Chief Joseph’s band handily outpacing Colonel Oliver Otis Howard and his troops as they fled through familiar terrain toward what is now the Montana border. There, they hoped to secure military support from their allies in buffalo country.

After finding their way through the Bitterroot Mountains , the Nez Perce fled south through the adjacent valley to avoid more densely populated settlements like Missoula. Just after crossing the Continental Divide, however, the Nez Perce camp was caught by surprise. While the Nez Perce successfully left their pursuers from the west in the dust, they were unaware that on July 28 Colonel John Gibbon and the 7th Infantry had embarked on a campaign from Fort Shaw.

The 7th Infantry ambushed the sleeping Nez Perce in the early morning of August 9th. The camp scattered in all directions as not only warriors but unarmed women and children were slaughtered in the valley. The Nez Perce death count after the Battle of Big Hole was between 80 and 90.

Once the Nez Perce warriors armed themselves and regrouped, they were able to lead Gibbon’s men away from the camp and into a dense stand of conifers at the base of a hill just south of Trail Creek. This proved tactically advantageous for the Nez Perce the 7th Infantry retreated after 31 soldiers had fallen and 39 were wounded.

Following Colonel Gibbon’s retreat, the Nez Perce fled on. With their numbers and morale already reduced, Chief Joseph, Looking Glass, and all of the non-treaty Nez Perce experienced further frustration when the Crow refused to fight by their side due to pressure from the U.S. Army and from federal Indian Agents. In desperation, Chief Joseph’s band fled north towards the Can a dian border as the deadly cold of winter crept slowly but surely towards them.

On September 30th, 1877, just short of the Canadian border at the base of the Bear Paw  Mountains , t he US Army intercepted the fleeing Nez Perce , inciting another armed conflict. The battle was followed by a six-day siege which ended in Chief Joseph’s conditional surrender, contingent upon his people being allowed to return to the now-reduced reservation near Lapwai, Idaho, where the other Nez Perce resided. I n meeting with the generals Miles and Howard on October 4, Chief Joseph gave his oft-recounted speech:

“ Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Again, promises were broken—the non-treaty Nez Perce were transported by military force down the Missouri River to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and later exiled to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. It wasn’t until eight years later in 1885 that the exile ended of the 500 Nez Perce that were relocated to Oklahoma, only 300 survived and made it back to the Northwest.

T he view  f rom the Big Hole National Battlefield Visitor Center  is both stunning and sobering. The valley is surrounded by awe-inspiring peaks with the Anaconda R ange,  the Beaverheads , and the Bitterroots all within view, one can see why the Big Hole V alley seemed a perfect place for much-needed rest before the Nez Perce continued on their strenuous journey.

Where their camp was ambushed, bare tipi poles stand and plaques display some names of the brave and valiant members of Chief Joseph’s band. Walking through the battlefield reminds visitors of the ambush experienced by the Nez Perce on that fateful August morning in 1877 and serves as a memorial to the lives lost on both sides.

The Nez Perce still exercise their sovereignty in the United States, and many tribal members live on their reservation in north-central Idaho. They have remained resilient  and dedicated to the preservation of their language, their way of life, and their homeland.

Watch the video: Nez Perce fight Battle of the Big Hole August 09 1877 - This Day In History