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.
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.
On September 30, Miles attacked the Nez Perce. Both sides took heavy losses, but the Indians were trapped. The battles continued for five more days until Howard arrived with his soldiers. The Nez Perce had managed to kill 20 percent of Miles' forces, but they had not been able to get past him. With the new enforcements, what little headway the Nez Perce had gained was gone.
During the night, Chief White Bird and more than 200 of those fit for travel skirted past the Army and crossed the border into Canada. The next day Joseph surrendered and uttered his famous words: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Contrary to promises made, the captured Indians were not permitted to return to the Idaho reservation. Instead, they were sent to Oklahoma.
The Trail Today
The trail from Big Hole to Bear Paw is well documented in the guidebook Following the Nez Perce Trail, written by Cheryl Wilfong. Much of the Montana parts follow faint trails through remote country. Of course the part through Yellowstone is all paved and does not actually follow the path taken by the Indians or the army.
Lone Writer and Happy Jack followed the trail into the Missouri Breaks in Montana by way of a town called Winifred. They got within view of Cow Crossing at the Missouri River, but there is no bridge at that point. They backtracked to the Stafford Ferry but it was out of service due to floods earlier that year. They then attempted to cross the river by following the Lower Two Calf Road but the road was completely washed away at Two Calf Creek. All of that traveling took a lot of time, but it was well worth it. The dirt roads and two track trails in the Missouri Breaks offer spectacular views and great camping opportunities.
Lone Writer and Happy Jack finished their trip to Bear Paw by crossing the Missouri River at Judith Landing. After making that crossing, they picked up the Nez Perce Trail on the north side of the Missouri Breaks. The Bear Paw battlefield is located in a remote hilly area. There is a hiking path through the battlefield with historic markers along the way.
|Navigation: GPS Positions|
|45 38.2588||113 38.5663||Big Hole Battlefield|
|44 48.8464||113 16.3245||Bannock Pass|
|47 33.5646||109 22.4722||Winifred, Montana, is the only place in the area with gas pumps. They are not 24-hour pumps, so time your visit during business hours or carry your own gas with you.|
|47 46.4985||109 0.9468||The Nez Perce went down the canyon wall at this point. They crossed the river at Cow Crossing.|
|47 38.6820||108 47.1492||Two Calf Creek was washed out at this point. If it has been repaired, the road goes through to Highway 191.|
|47 56.1542||109 23.9190||If the Stafford Ferry is back in operation, you could have used it to get to this point from Winifred.|
|48 22.6189||109 127582||This is the Bear Paw Battlefield Park. A picnic area is available and a hiking trail through the battlefield has been constructed. Watch for rattlesnakes in warm weather.|
Much of the information used in this story was obtained from a well-written guidebook called Following the Nez Perce Trail by Cheryl Wilfong. This book contains many of the actual stories as told by those who participated in the war.
Additional information was obtained by watching the 1975 made-for-TV movie, I Will Fight No More Forever, which can be found on the Internet.
Maps and other information were provided by the Nez Perce Trail Foundation: 194 Hwy 28, Salmon, ID 83467, (208) 940-0053. You are invited to join the foundation. Your membership fees help to support improvements to the trail.
The Xterra Pro-4X driven by Lone Writer is provided by Nissan. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and mapping software is provided by DeLorme. For more information, visit www.lone-writer.com.