Massacre at Big Hole
The war between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Native Americans became fully engaged beginning with the White Bird battle on June 17, 1877 (this is Part III of the series that began in the March issue of this magazine). The Nez Perce were made up of bands led by five different chiefs who refused to move onto the reservation with boundaries defined by the Army.
They won that first battle but they knew they were outnumbered and outgunned. The war could not end in their favor. Warriors in the band drew the attention of the soldiers by attacking them from every possible position. In the meantime, the rest of the band moved across the Camas Prairie as fast as 800 men, women, and children could travel while herding 2,000 animals.
The Army caught up with them again near Kamiah, Idaho. Another battle took place but casualties were low. When the fighting subsided, General Howard’s men were on the west side of the Clearwater River, but the Nez Perce crossed to the east side. Once again, a raging river acted as a boundary between the two forces. The Nez Perce knew where the safe crossings were located and the Army did not. While the soldiers searched for a crossing, the Nez Perce headed east and entered the Lolo Trail.
Today, the Lolo Trail is a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes the Lolo Trail corridor, the Nez Perce Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Lolo Motorway. The Nez Perce called it the K’useyneisskit, which means “Trail to the Buffalo.”
General Howard eventually crossed the river, but then waited for reinforcements. His numbers grew to 600 troops before he resumed his pursuit into the mountainous terrain of the Bitterroot Range. They found the Lolo Trail to be in horrible condition. Fallen trees lay across the road from both sides. To get the wagons through, the road had to be cleared. General Howard fell farther behind his prey.
Into the Valley
The first week of August, the Nez Perce crossed the Continental Divide and entered the Big Hole Valley. They thought the soldiers were far behind and no longer a threat. The five bands of Nez Perce led by five chiefs were exhausted from their flight. They were in friendly territory camped in a place where they had camped many times before.
They had an agreement with the people in that valley to live in peace. As they had done for years, they traded with the settlers and the chiefs kept the young braves from causing any trouble. The Nez Perce felt safe and saw no reason to post sentries.
The people in the valley did not trust the Nez Perce. When Colonel Gibbon arrived from a new fort in Montana, people from the valley joined his Army as volunteers. Gibbon was intent on attacking the Nez Perce without waiting for General Howard to catch up. Using a pass that now bears his name, Colonel Gibbon entered the valley known as Big Hole.
On August 7th and into the 8th, Gibbon’s soldiers crossed the pass using cover of the night and descended on the camp in Big Hole. The night of the 8th, they formed a line hidden in heavy brush outside the camp. Before daylight on the morning of the 9th, an Indian walked away from the camp and discovered the soldiers hidden in the brush. Shots were fired. The battle began. Soldiers charged into the camp killing many of the Nez Perce still in their beds. No effort was made to spare anyone, including the women and children.
As Nez Perce warriors emerged from their tents, a counter attack was formed and the soldiers were forced back into the brush. Gibbon had underestimated the fighting skills of his prey. He had grabbed the tail of the proverbial tiger.