Bloodshed at White Bird
During the month of May in 1877, General Howard of the U.S. Army ordered Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe to move onto the established reservation within 30 days. The Nez Perce would be moving from lands where their people had lived for generations. Those lands now include parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The Indians were heartbroken and full of hatred for the white man and his army. (This is part two of the “Nez Perce Trail” that began in the March issue of this magazine.)
The first week of June in 1877, 800 Nez Perce people, including women and children, herded 2,000 horses across the Snake River at Dug Bar. They made their way to Tolo Lake in Idaho where they met with several other Nez Perce bands who were being forced onto the reservation. While the chiefs of those bands met to search for options, life within the camp proceeded as usual.
Earlier that year, an Indian called Eagle Robe had been killed by white men who wanted his land. Although the case went to a court, there had been no retribution and the men were set free. Eagle Robe’s son, Wahlitits, was among those camped at Tolo Lake. As young men discussed their past and future, Wahlitits decided it was time to settle a score for his father’s death. He convinced two other relatives to join him. They left camp on June 13.
When word reached the chiefs that Wahlitits and his friends had killed some settlers, they knew the army would be quick to respond. They packed up their camp and moved to White Bird. Along the way, young warriors within the band killed more settlers. The Nez Perce hatred for those who were taking their land was no longer contained.
On June 17, an army of 106 soldiers and 11 volunteer settlers under the command of General Perry approached the White Bird camp. Perry’s assignment was to arrest those who were involved in killing the settlers and to escort the rest of them to the reservation.
The chiefs did not want to give up their sons and did not want to live on a reservation, but most of all, they did not want a war. They sent riders with white flags to meet the army. One of the volunteers with Perry, Arthur Chapman, had no intention of talking. He fired at the riders. The riders dropped the white flags and returned fire. That single shot from Chapman had eliminated all hope of a peaceful solution. The first battle began between the army and the Nez Perce. The army lost 36 soldiers that day. The Nez Perce lost none.
In those days, orders from the commander were communicated to the soldiers using a bugle. On this day, the Nez Perce first shots took out the buglers. General Perry had no way to communicate his battle plans to his army.
After gathering all the weapons left behind by the soldiers, the Indians crossed the Salmon River and attempted to put time and space between them and the pursuers they knew would come. Apparently, the Salmon River was quite a challenge to cross in those days, but the Indians knew where the safe crossings were. When General Howard arrived, he could see his prey on the other side but could not get to them.
The Nez Perce continued to use the Salmon River to keep their distance from the main army. They wiped out a scouting party of 12 soldiers in one battle and a party of 17 volunteers in another. While warriors moved around quickly drawing fire, the Nez Perce families crossed the Camas Prairie and began the flight that would eventually end in Montana.