The Nez Perce War, Part 3: Native America’s Most Epic Run For Freedom

In 1876, after a series of battles suppressing Native resistance to incursions of its citizens, the U.S. government demanded the Nez Perce move to a much smaller reservation to make room for the new immigrants. Under pressure to move, the tribe split into two groups: one side accepted the relocation, the other, Chief Joseph’s band, refused to give up their fertile land in Idaho and Oregon. Bowing to the inevitable, they started on a journey that has become a classic example of persistence against overwhelming odds.

Chief Joseph and his band’s flight to freedom began The Nez Perce War of 1877. On June 15, Chief Joseph, Looking Glass (eventually), and others led men, women, children, and livestock on an epic trek to reach sanctuary in Canada. Confrontations with army troops along the way are detailed in Parts 1 and 2 previously published on this blog.

Into the Yellowstone

Colonel Sturgis

On the evening of August 20, the Nez Perce headed east into Yellowstone National Park near the present-day west entrance. General Oliver O. Howard’s command did not immediately pursue the Nez Perce into the park, electing to regroup in the vicinity of Henry’s Lake. While Howard rested, his superior, General William Tecumseh Sherman laid a trap for the Nez Perce by effectively surrounding the park. Lieutenant Gustavus Doan and about one hundred men plus Crow scouts guarded the north entrance of Yellowstone Park at Mammoth Hot Springs. Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis with 360 men guarded Clark’s fork on the east. Major Hart with 250 cavalry and one hundred Indian scouts staked out the Shoshone River exit also on the east. To the south, Colonel Wesley Merritt with 500 men was positioned on the Wind River. To the North at Fort Keogh in Montana, Colonel Nelson Miles waited in reserve. Over twelve hundred troops and several hundred Indian scouts awaited the Nez Perce band which never exceeded two hundred warriors.

Poker Joe, half White and fluent in English, guided the Nez Perce through Yellowstone. Against two thousand soldiers plus hundreds of Indian scouts, the Nez Perce fighting men numbered fewer than two hundred. Their collective leadership was drawn from each of the five tribal bands of the refugees. At this point, Chief Looking Glass was probably the most influential war leader. Although Chief Joseph is credited with being the overall leader of the Nez Perce, his role at this point was more focused on the management of the camp of women and children than fighting.

Looking Glass

Hostile Encounters

Eight or nine tourist parties totaling at least thirty-five persons occupied the park, plus several groups of prospectors were in the park when the Nez Perce entered Yellowstone. Nine tourists from Radersburg, Montana, were camped in the park on August 23. A second group of young men, the Helena party, camped near Yellowstone Falls. On the Yellowstone River, guide “Texas Jack” led a small party of English tourists. Two of these parties would experience hostile encounters with elements of the Nez Perce.

The Radersburg Party

In the late afternoon of August 23, a small scouting party led by Yellow Wolf captured prospector John Shively and forced him to act as a guide for the Nez Perce through Yellowstone. On the morning of August 24, Yellow Wolf’s scouting party rode into the Radersburg party camp and forced the group to accompany them to the main Nez Perce camp. Poker Joe convinced the Nez Perce chiefs to release the hostages on the condition they abandon all their supplies and horses to the Nez Perce. About 30 minutes after release, the party encountered another group of Nez Perce stragglers who demanded they return into custody of the chiefs. Shooting erupted: two were shot and others scattered into the forest except for three who were returned to the Nez Perce camp and were given the protection of Chief Joseph.

On August 25, late afternoon, the Natives crossed the Yellowstone near Mud Volcano at what has become known as Nez Perce Ford. That evening, the tribe released three hostages who then safely made their way north where they found protection from Lt. Doane’s cavalry. Two men remained in custody as forced guides. On August 30, Howard’s forces recovered the two guides alive, but in poor condition. Over the next couple of days, stragglers from the Radersburg party made their way out of the park into the safety of General Howard’s forces at Henrys Lake.

The Helena Party

The Helena party’s location was disclosed to Looking Glass. At dawn on August 26, the Nez Perce raided the camp, shot one tourist dead, then wounded and captured another. Uninjured members of the party fled into the forest. The captured tourist bribed his release with money and a silver watch and made his way north out of the park. On August 27, the main Nez Perce force moved farther east from the tourists and the army. By the end of the day, all but two tourists were accounted for. Two men went to find them. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the Indians chased them into the forest where they successfully evaded capture.

On the morning of August 31, the tribe attacked the Henderson Ranch, a homestead a mile north of the park. The owner and his employees abandoned the ranch for the safety of the river while the Nez Perce sacked and burned the buildings. Lt. Doane drove the warriors back into the park who then found and killed four men.

The Escape

Looking Glass led his column east and reached the Continental Divide on the evening of September 5. The next morning, men, women, children, dogs and horses headed northeast toward the Great Plains.

Sherman’s trap was set, but, Looking Glass was about to outfox both Howard and Sturgis.

The Trap

To prevent any intelligence of their location getting to the army during their difficult passage down from the summit of the Absaroka Mountains, the Natives hunted down and killed ten prospectors and hunters they encountered to ensure the the tribe’s secure passage.

Sturgis had planned for Nez Perce trickery and set up his base on the Plains from where he could view and move quickly toward either the Shoshone River or Clark’s Fork River. Still, Sturgis discounted Clark’s Fork as an escape route because of its deep, narrow gorge with 800 feet vertical walls, stating “no trail could possibly lead through it.”

Clark’s Fork River

On September 6, the tribe descended via that very same narrow defile, an unknown and most difficult route over the Absaroka Mountains reaching an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Scout Fisher followed them and later said it was “the roughest country I ever undertook to pass through. About every foot of it was obstructed with dead and fallen timber and huge blocks of granite.”

After Fisher and his Bannock scouts had a skirmish with the rear guard of the Nez Perce, they broke off the chase and turned back to report to General Howard. Howard then crossed the Yellowstone River by an easier route and reached the northeast corner of the park at Clark’s Fork on September 7. He then continued down the Clark’s Fork River expecting to trap the Nez Perce between his force and that of Sturgis waiting below.

On September 8, Looking Glass reached a point six miles from Sturgis’s force on top of a ridge and observed the soldiers far below. To hide the tribe’s 2,000 horses and 700 people while on the march, Looking Glass took them on a route going south toward the Shoshone River, then milled their horse herd in a big circle to confuse their trail. They then stole back north on a route concealed by heavy timber, and descended one thousand feet down a steep-sided slit barely wide enough to allow two horses side-by-side to the Clark’s Fork River.

Sturgis took the bait and led his soldiers away from the Clark’s Fork to the Shoshone River and the Nez Perce entered the Great Plains unopposed. Sturgis quickly realized his error and met up with Howard on September 11, but the two military forces were now two days and 50 miles behind the Natives.

“In a cleanly executed maneuver,” in the words of one military historian, “the Nez Perce had countered an extremely serious threat and won a brilliant, though temporary respite.”

In Part 4, three more conflicts and the effects of a 1,100 mile journey finally bring an end to the Nez Perce epic fight for freedom. Not surprisingly, one of America’s most arduous journeys spawned, at its end, one of the most moving speeches in American history.

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