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The Nez Perce Trail: Part IV

Nissan Xterra
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted June 1, 2012

"Fight No More Forever"

Colonel John Gibbon's surprise attack on the Nez Perce camp in Big Hole, Montana, on August 9, 1877, did not produce the desired result. His U.S. Army soldiers killed many women, children, and elderly, in addition to some warriors, but he was driven back and pinned down by sharp shooters. By nightfall of the 10th, all surviving Nez Perce were gone and the battle was over (this is part four of the Nez Perce Trail series).

Until the Big Hole massacre, the Nez Perce were traveling relatively peacefully without going out of their way to attack settlers along the way. That changed with the battle of Big Hole. From that point on, they became offensive and went looking for revenge.

General Oliver Howard arrived in Big Hole the day after the battle ended. He found bodies from both sides scattered throughout the valley. His soldiers pursued the fleeing Indians into Camas Meadows. They were only a day behind and closing the gap. That all changed in the darkness of the night. Warriors doubled back and made off with 150 pack animals while the soldiers slept. The Army came to a stop and waited four days for supplies to come from Virginia City while the Nez Perce crossed into Yellowstone National Park.

Riding on Empty
Yellowstone National Park had been designated five years earlier and tourists were already visiting the area to enjoy its wonders. Some of those tourists were captured by the Nez Perce. Some were killed and others were set free. There were also ranchers, miners, and fur trappers who felt the wrath of the raiding parties. Many of the Indians who lost family at Big Hole were eager for revenge while others simply wanted to get out of the country.

With replenished supplies, Howard resumed his pursuit of the Nez Perce. He did not have women, children, and the elderly to slow him down, but he did have a problem with supplies. The Nez Perce were scaring off all the game they did not use and Howard was unable to feed his troops off the land. By the time he exited the east side of Yellowstone Park, he was no more than a couple days behind them, but his supplies were nearly gone

Howard thought he had another ace in the hole. His last telegraph had instructed Colonel Samuel Sturgis from Montana to box the Nez Perce in by blocking a canyon they were passing through. He did not know that Sturgis left the canyon before the Indians got to that point. When Howard exited the canyon, Sturgis was not there and the Nez Perce were long gone. Howard established a camp near Belfry, Montana, to wait for supplies.

Sturgis caught up to Howard at that camp. The colonel was verbally scorned for his failure and left camp in one last charge to catch the Nez Perce. He drove his troops hard and caught up to the Indians about 9 miles north of Laurel in Canyon Creek Canyon. Nez Perce warriors were waiting for him. They killed three of his soldiers and wounded twelve more. A few well-positioned sharp shooters kept him pinned down while the rest of the Indians continued heading north. The battle of Canyon Creek ended Sturgis' involvement in the fight. He hunkered down to wait for General Howard.

Cut Off
Howard had taken on a new tactic. He purposely slowed down his pace to encourage the fleeing Nez Perce to do the same. In the meantime, he contacted Colonel Nelson Miles in Miles City to get in front of the Indians and block their path to Canada.

Chief Joseph took the bait. They were only 40 miles from the border and if they had pushed forward, they would have made it to Canada. With Howard's troops no longer threatening him, Joseph brought his band to a stop at Bear Paw. His people were tired and many of them were sick or wounded. Many others tried to persuade him to continue, but with no immediate threat in sight, he refused.

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