After passing through Yellowstone National Park (see Part 3 of The Nez Perce War (June – October 1877)) the Nez Perce followed the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone Rivernorth out of Wyoming into Montana. Chief Joseph shepherded the tribe’s 700 women, children, belongings, guard and baggage dogs by the hundreds, and 2000 horses, most of them the tribe’s treasured Appaloosas.
During that September, the days were agreeable with highs in the 60s and nights chilly in the 40s. Sunrises and sunsets both glowed gold and orange on the high clouds of the Montana sky. But, these travelers were refugees and had no time to enjoy the beauty of the land – they were on the run.
Chief Joseph’s people were fleeing forced relocation from their Native lands on theWallowa Riverin northeast Oregon to a reservation in west-central Idaho far from home. By mid-September, the Nez Perce had trudged nearly one thousand miles and fought battles in which they defeated or stalemated U.S. Army forces that outnumbered and still pursued them.
The eyes-to-the-ground marchers walked in silence. Elders and children struggled at a grueling pace in a line two to three miles long. Even the dogs, wolf/malamute-like creatures carrying loads on their backs or pulling travois carrying household items, were quiet. Some limped on trail-ravaged paws.
Only the oldest and sickest rode among the herd that led the line. The horses plodded, heads low, snatching bites of prairie grass as they walked. The animals snorted and blew out while walking on stiff legs and bruised hooves. In their dulled eyes, the herders sensed their fatigue. The budding of the horses’ winter coats foreshadowed cold weather.
General Otis O. Howard had chased the Nez Perce unsuccessfully for three months and had reassigned the pursuit to Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis. Sturgis was miles (few knew how many) behind the Indians and closing. Sturgis had 360 men divided into two battalions, one commanded by Major Lewis Merrill and the second by Captain Frederick Benteen (a career officer, survivor of the Little Bighorn battle a year earlier, and later, convicted of drunkenness by a military tribunal). Howard reinforced Sturgis with fifty additional cavalrymen, two mountain howitzers, twenty-five white scouts, as well as Bannock and Crow scouts.
Nez Perce tactical leader, Chief Looking Glass, believed they would find asylum and safety among their friends, the Crow, who lived near the Yellowstone River. However, the Crow declined the request for fear of retribution by the Army. Moreover, a few Crow warriors joined Sturgis as scouts with an eye on the large Nez Perce horse herd. At this point, Looking Glass realized that their one hope for safety was to join the Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull (a refugee himself from the Little Bighorn battle) in Canada 250 miles to the north.
The Battle of Canyon Creek
The Yellowstone River, above and below the mouth of Clark’s Fork, is bounded on the north bank by cliffs 400 feet high. One passage through the cliffs is called Canyon Creek. Following the creek upstream through open country, about five miles from the Yellowstone River, the cliffs close in on either side and the creek splits into three forks, each running through a canyon only a few hundred feet wide. It was among these multiple canyons and the ridges overlooking them that the battle would take place.
The Nez Perce camped September 12 near the entrance to the narrow canyons of Canyon Creek. On the morning of September 13, many of the warriors were raiding ranches for supplies and horses up and down the Yellowstone River when they discovered Sturgis nearby.
Sturgis’ men were exhausted and saddle sore. They needed a rest after they crossed the Yellowstone River that day, but Crow scouts reported the Nez Perce were moving up Canyon Creek six miles away. Seeing an opportunity, Sturgis sent Major Merrill and his battalion ahead atop a long ridge to head off the tribe traversing the shallow canyon below. Benteen’s battalion followed, while Sturgis stationed himself with the rear guard.
Merrill was halted on the ridge by a scattering of rifle shots from Nez Perce warriors. In the words of his civilian scout, Stanton G. Fisher, Merrill’s battalion dismounted and deployed “instead of charging which they should have done.” Fisher was right. In battle, the first thing a soldier does is charge into the gunfire, not seek cover.
A single Nez Perce rifleman held up Benteen’s advance for ten minutes. The caution of the soldiers was perhaps due to the intimidating reputation of the Nez Perce for marksmanship. Gale-force winds impacted marksmanship, a factor explaining low casualties on both sides.
When Sturgis arrived at the battleground, he sent Benteen to the left to plug the exits from the canyon and trap the women, children, and horses. Merrill advanced into the canyon to threaten the rear of the Native column, but the Indians held the high ground. Their snipers, armed with captured Springfield Model 1873 rifles, halted his advance. Benteen also ran into opposition and was unable to capture the Indians’ horse herd. The rearguard of braves held off the soldiers until nightfall. Most of the horses, women, and children reached the plains and continued north. Scout Fisher, among others, was dismayed by Sturgis’ overly cautious management of the fight.
On September 14, Sturgis’ men were joined by a large number of Crow riding fresh horses. They rode ahead with the Bannock scouts, who succeeded in stealing about 400 of the Nez Perce herd. Sturgis and his cavalry followed behind and journeyed 37 miles that day, but at the cost of exhausting their horses and putting themselves on foot. The Crow and Bannock declined to share their captured, war-prize horses with the soldiers. After another long day of travel Sturgis was forced to halt on the banks of the Musselshell River to await supplies and General Howard who arrived two days later.
Sturgis’ suffered three killed and eleven wounded, one of them mortally. He claimed to have killed sixteen Nez Perce, but Yellow Wolf said that only one warrior and two old men were killed, and those by the Crow.
Winners Again: Running Out of Energy
Once again, the Nez Perce escaped from a cavalry force outnumbering them at least two to one. However, the loss of the horses to the Crow and Bannock was a blow and after three months on the run, the people and remaining horses had become physically exhausted.
A garrison of twelve men under Sergeant William Molchert was deployed at the steam boat mooring at Cow Island Landing with four civilian freight clerks to guard the supplies. Fifty tons of freight lay under tarpaulins at the supply point awaiting shipment by wagon to Fort Benton and other corners of Montana Territory.
An advance party of twenty braves crossed the Missouri on September 23. The main body past the soldiers without incident and camped about two miles up Cow Creek. A small group of Nez Perce rode to the supply point. They asked for some of the stockpiled food. The sergeant’s reluctance reduced them to begging. Finally the sergeant gave them one bag of hardtack and one side of bacon. At sundown, gunfire broke out from Indians who had positioned themselves on higher ground and the soldiers were pinned down. Two civilians were wounded.
As night fell, the Indians filtered into the area where the food was stockpiled, broke into the supplies, took what they wanted, and set the piles of goods on fire. The supplies burned brightly for most of the night. The Indians and the soldiers exchanged sporadic gunfire through the night until about 10:00 in the morning, after which the Nez Perce moved up Cow Creek.
Elsewhere that morning, a small Army relief force under Major Guido Igles approached the rear of the Nez Perce assemblage on Cow Creek. Major Igles had come from Ft. Benton to the aid of the outpost at Cow Island Landing. He led a handful of soldiers and civilian volunteers. After reaching Cow Island on September 24, he continued on the trail of the Natives.
When they discovered Major Igles, some warriors went down the canyon to attack the wagon train. One teamster was killed, and the others fled. The main body of the tribe helped themselves to goods in the wagons, set eighty-five tons of supplies on fire, and continued up Cow Creek.
Meanwhile, Nez Perce snipers had taken up positions on heights facing Major Igles’ small force in Cow Creek Canyon and fired into his position. Knowing he was greatly outnumbered, Igles withdrew to Cow Island Landing, then sent couriers reporting the enemy location to Colonel Miles who was advancing with fresh troops. Two Indians were wounded in the encounter. Five soldiers and one civilian were killed, and one was wounded.
The Nez Perce then proceeded upstream along Cow Creek the next morning toward the Canada–U.S. border. The Nez Perce encountered a wagon train with more supplies, which they looted and burned. Igles sent a message informing Colonel Miles of the location of the Native forces.
The tribe had thwarted an effort by fifty soldiers and civilian volunteers under Igles to pursue them. In their raids around Cow Creek, the Nez Perce killed five men and stole or destroyed at least eighty-five tons of military supplies. Although they gained necessary food and ammunition, Looking Glass had lost a day of travel and allowed Miles to close within striking distance.
Oh Canada! Eighty Miles to Go and It’s Falling Apart
The Nez Perce never had unified leadership during their long fighting retreat: Looking Glass was the senior military leader and strategist. The French-Nez Perce mixed-blood guide Poker Joe had become prominent as an interpreter during the march. Chief Joseph was responsible for camp management and, thus, for the welfare of his people. While camping on the evening of September 24, dissension broke out among the three leaders.
With the forces of General Howard far behind the Natives after the Canyon Creek fight, Looking Glass advocated a slower pace to allow his travel-weary people and their horses an opportunity to rest. Poker Joe argued for the opposite. The disagreement came to a head at a council on September 24. Poker Joe finally yielded to Looking Glass and said, “Looking Glass, you can lead. I am trying to save the people, doing my best to cross into Canada before the soldiers find us. You can take command, but I think we will be caught and killed.”
Looking Glass assumed command of the march and moved toward Canada in slow stages for the next four days under the assumption they had time to rest and hunt. Scouts kept a close eye on Howard to the south. This proved to be a fatal mistake: they had overlooked Miles closing fast from the southeast.
Battle of Bear Paw
By September 29, the tribe camped by Snake Creek in crude lodges and lean-tos, warmed only by blankets and fire pits burning bison dung because they had lost their shelters during the months of fighting.
The next morning, the Natives broke camp to head north. A rider pulled his horse to a halt on the south bluff waving a blanket to warn everyone that soldiers would be upon them in moments. Miles had found them after marching 260 miles in nine days.
Some Indians tried to escape. Warriors rushed to the bluffs above the camp to defend it. Others ran into camp to aid with the defense. The families trapped in camp sought shelter. The horses, trained to stand by the comfort of their riders during a firefight, stampeded at the sudden sound of gunfire.
The 2nd Cavalry hit the horse herd to the west of camp and in a five mile running battle captured most of the horses. The 7th Cavalry charged directly towards the bluffs above the camp; warriors rose up from just below the edge of the bluff and stopped the charge cold. Soldiers and warriors locked in close combat. The 5th Infantry secured the southern bluff, but the warriors kept the soldiers away from the camp and their families. Twenty-six warriors died the first day including Joseph’s younger brother, as did Chief Lean Elk.
As a freezing night fell, both sides found themselves in a stalemate. The tribe could not escape without their horses and the soldiers could not dislodge them from their camp. The troops dug in while the entrapped Indians used digging sticks, knives, and captured Army tools to dig shelter pits.
The dawn of October 1 brought fresh snow on the ground and ice in water buckets. That day under a white flag, Chief Joseph met with Miles and both sides ventured forth to gather frozen dead and wounded. At the end of the meeting, Joseph turned to leave. He was called back by Miles and was placed in chains. The Natives then captured a Lieutenant Jerome, who was very close to their camp on reconnaissance. By his own account, he was given food, blanket, shelter, and allowed to move freely about the Nez Perce camp while retaining his pistol. The prisoners were exchanged, and both returned to their home camps on October 2.
The same day, a military supply train arrived with a 12-pound Napoleon cannon. The camp was bombarded with cannon fire all day. The next day, Chief Looking Glass was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the forehead.
On October 4, General Howard arrived with a small group. On the morning of October 5, the two remaining hereditary leaders, Chiefs White Bird and Joseph, met two Nez Perce men from the bands honoring the same treaty that started the tribe’s exodus. They tried to convince Joseph to stop fighting. Joseph and White Bird were told they would be returned to Idaho, the leaders would not be killed, and that the Army wanted to quit fighting.
Joseph returned to camp to tell the people that they could be saved by ending the fighting and that decision was up to each individual. Exhausted and hungry, Chief Joseph feared for the safety of his people and knew they could no longer resist. Choices were few and none were favorable. “Can we continue the fight?” he asked. “The supply of soldiers is endless. Should we try to escape on foot under cover of darkness through the lands of traditional enemies? Not everyone will make this trip. Many are too weak. Who will care for the elders, children, and wounded? Will we be able to bury the dead? Will we be allowed to go home?”
One hundred fifty of Joseph’s followers had been killed or wounded. With a heart numb from regret and as cold as that October day, he appeared at 2 P.M before Colonel Miles, handed over his rifle, and gave his now famous speech:
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say Yes or No. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad.
From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Afterwards, the Nez Perce handed their weapons over to Miles and negotiated peace.
White Bird mistrusted the Army’s promises and refused to surrender. A group of thirty to fifty Nez Perce left with White Bird that night; the last of between 200 and 300 people who actually made it to Canada. All told, over 400 people agreed to quit fighting and turn themselves over to Miles. The 126-day epic and tragic flight was over.
Victors No Longer
Miles told Joseph: “Which is the place that you love to stay in? I want you to tell me, as I have the power to remove these white people, and let you live there.” Miles also promised: “I will give half of the weapons back to you after a while.” He was overruled by Army headquarters in Omaha, and the Nez Perce were instead sent to Kansas and Oklahoma, where the survivors endured many more years of hardship. It was not until the mid 1880s that the Nez Perce were allowed to return to their homelands.
The Nez Perce campaign was affected by inflammatory articles released by the press. When gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, New York and Chicago press of the day encouraged the settlers to take land from the Native Americans regardless of whether it was against previously established treaties.
The media also helped to tarnish the reputation of the tribe despite the fact they maintained good relations with white settlers for longer than most tribes. Historically, they were favored above many other tribes by Lewis and Clark. As the war continued the media pushed to have General Howard replaced, saying he was too slow or old to catch the hostiles. In response, the government sent Colonel Miles to assist Howard in the chase. Howard assigned Miles the honor of conducting the surrender of the non-treaty Indians. Miles went to the press and tried to take all the credit for the successful surrender.
Throughout the summer and early fall of 1877, the fighting skill of the warriors and the military tactics of the leaders, such as Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird, enabled them to evade almost certain defeat by superior forces. Nez Perce strength during the 1877 war was estimated to be never more than two hundred warriors. They had no formal military training and traveled with many noncombatants. The Army, however, would use several thousand soldiers during the campaign. These units were commanded by veterans of the Civil War with years of military training and experience.
In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C. to see President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead his people’s case. Although Joseph was respected as a spokesman, opposition in Idaho prevented the U.S. government from granting his petition to return to the Pacific Northwest. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were granted permission to return to settle on the reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. Instead, Joseph and others were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation far from both their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and the rest of their people in Idaho.
In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. In 1897, he visited Washington, D.C. again to plead his case. He rode with Buffalo Bill in a parade honoring former President Ulysses S. Grant in New York City, but people paid more attention to his traditional headdress than his mission. Everywhere he went he pled for his people to be returned to their home in the Wallowa Valley.
Joseph’s health and his spirits slowly declined. On September 21, 1904, as he lay dying of an un-diagnosed illness, he asked his wife to get his headdress because “I wish to die as a chief.” Soon after, Chief Joseph’s long journey was over.
His name lives on in the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in Wyoming. Most poignantly, it lives on in the places he loved best: Joseph Creek, Joseph Canyon and the small town of Joseph, Oregon, in the heart of the Wallowa Valley.
Yet his tomb, marked by a tall white monument, remains in Nespelem, Washington, not far from where he died. He never achieved his dream to be buried in the land he loved.
The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho governs their reservation in central eastern Idaho through a central government headquartered in Lapwai known as the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC). Some still speak their traditional language, and the tribe owns and operates two casinos along Idaho’s Clearwater River, as well as health clinics, a police force and court, community centers, salmon fisheries, a radio station, and other enterprises that promote economic and cultural self-determination of the tribe.
The 1877 route used by the tribe, starting at Wallowa Lake and ending in the Bear Paw Mountains 40 miles from the Canadian border, is now designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
On October 18, 2020, The Spokesman – Review of Spokane, Washington, ran the following article:
Nez Perce Returning to Wallowa Valley Tribe Will Convert Cattle Ranch into Habitat for Elk, Salmon
The Nez Perce Tribe is returning to northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, where it will convert a former cattle ranch into habitat for the elk, salmon, Native grasses, roots and berries that once sustained Native culture in the area.
“It is again a homecoming – a return to an area we’ve always been,” said Jaime A. Pinkham, treasurer of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.
The $2.5 million purchase of the 10,300-acre ranch was made possible by the Trust for Public Lands, which took an option on the property when it came on the market two years ago. The national organization buys land to sell to governments and public agencies in order to preserve natural resources such as fish and wildlife, and to protect areas with scenic and historical importance.
The Bonneville Power Administration provided funds for the purchase as part of its compensation to the tribe for wildlife habitat lost when the four lower Snake River hydro-power dams were built.
The BPA also is providing $2 million to purchase another 6,200 acres, as well as funds to develop an inventory and management plan for the $4.5 million project, said Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s wildlife program.
Perhaps, after 143 years, the Nez Perce will indeed, come home.
For more information on the flight of the Nez Perce, see Parts 1 through 3 at davideknopbooks.com/