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By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Final Days of the Nez Perce War

 

The battle at Big Hole was a devastating loss for the Nez Perce. They had been unprepared for Colonel John Gibbon's surprise attack believing, as Looking Glass had assured, that by leaving Idaho Territory they would be safe. Nearly every Nez Perce family had been affected by the battle leaving family members either dead or wounded. And among the many wounded was Chief Joseph's wife.

The killing of men, women and children by U.S. troops changed the face of the Nez Perce War from being a fight for their homeland and freedom to one of revenge for the death of family that the warriors had fought to protect. If Chief Joseph and the other leaders had thought that they could find sanctuary in Montana Territory they now surely realized that peace, if possible, would come at a high cost.

After the Battle of Big Hole, Chief Joseph led his people south, back into Idaho Territory and through the Bitterroot Mountains at Bannock Pass, instead of the more familiar route directly east across the Rocky Mountains. General Howard continued his pursuit, with more than 300 soldiers, on a route parallel to the Nez Perce on the Montana side of the Bitterroots. Howard hoped to intercept the Nez Perce in Idaho Territory at Camas Creek before they crossed into Wyoming Territory at the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

As General Howard advanced he was joined by a group of Virginia City volunteers and a company of the Second Infantry under the command of Captain Norwood. The addition of volunteers and Infantry brought Howard's total number of combatants to a little more than 400 men, more than enough to subdue the fleeing hostiles and put an end to their stubborn resistance. General Howard was a day late when his forces reached Camas Creek. The Nez Perce had already been there, and left, and were now a day ahead of the Army and camped 15 miles away at Camas Meadows.

In an attempt to put General Howard's troops afoot, the Nez Perce organized a raiding party with the sole purpose of capturing the army's horses. A group of no more than 30 warriors backtracked to Camas Creek and in a predawn raid attempted to cut the picketed horses loose and run them off. Unfortunately a sentry, who heard the rustling of brush and the soft wicker of a horse shouted, "Who goes there?" At about the same time one of the camp scouts inadvertently fired off a round and the entire camp was alerted. With the accidental sounding of alarm the Nez Perce only managed to cut loose a few horses and a couple hundred mules that were stampeded toward their own camp.

In the confusion and early morning darkness, heavy gunfire between troopers and Indians was a waste of powder and lead, no one was injured. Despite the confusion it took only minutes for three companies of cavalry to be mounted and as the rising sun cast its first rays of light 150 troopers were at the gallop, in pursuit of their stolen stock, and the raiding party that drove them north.

Being several miles ahead of the troops, the Nez Perce set up a rear guard to intercept and engage the cavalry while allowing the stolen stock and those still in camp to assemble and continue their flight that would take them through Yellowstone Park. When the three companies of troopers reached the Nez Perce line of resistance they realized that they had ridden into a well-entrenched force that put them under fire from three sides. Taking stock of their predicament, the command to retreat was given and two of the three companies withdrew. The third company, with 50 men under Captain Norwood, refused the order to retreat and were pinned down as the Nez Perce surrounded them.

When General Howard finally arrived with the remaining troopers the Nez Perce withdrew from the battle. During the several hours that Captain Norwood had been under fire, one soldier was killed and two would later die of their wounds. The Nez Perce suffered no casualties.

Although the Nez Perce raid at Camas Creek was not as successful as they had hoped, the 200 mules and handful of horses significantly impacted the mobility of Howard's troops. Perhaps it was a combination of the loss of mules and the lack of any decisive victory over the Nez Perce that General Howard chose not to pursue them. That evening an additional 280 troopers under Captain Miller arrived at Howard's camp and two days later, with General Howard still encamped, a group of 50 Bannock's led by Buffalo Horn joined the troopers. The Bannock's had been promised all the Nez Perce horses they could capture as incentive for them to join the fight. As the Bannock's scouted ahead, General Howard and his troops followed slowly behind. When it was reported that the Nez Perce had entered Yellowstone National Park, Howard halted his troops and camped at Henry's Lake for several days.

While passing through Yellowstone Park the Nez Perce were both hospitable and brutal. Some tourists and settlers they encountered were greeted friendly while others were attacked and killed. In an effort to keep anyone from informing the army of their location, the Nez Perce killed any prospectors or hunters they encountered.

Knowing that the usual exits of the park would be well covered, the Nez Perce chose to exit by way of a relatively unknown route over the Absaroka Mountains.

On Sept. 9, the Nez Perce exited Yellowstone Park, undetected by any U.S. troops. By the time it was realized that they had missed the opportunity to stop them, the Nez Perce were more than two days and 50 miles ahead.

On Sept. 13, Colonel Samuel Sturgis and Captain Frederick Benteen engaged the Nez Perce at Canyon Creek. With more than 500 men Sturgis and Benteen managed to capture more than 400 of the Nez Perce horses and reduce the number of combat able warriors by seven killed and 10 wounded. But still the Nez Perce managed to escape the soldiers and continue north.

Refused sanctuary by their Crow allies, Chief Joseph and other leaders decided that their only chance for survival was to continue north into Canada where they might find safety with the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his people.

ßOn Sept. 30, 1877, Colonel Nelson Miles and General Howard caught up with the Nez Perce who believed they had successfully outdistanced the U.S. Army and were resting near the Bear Paw Mountains before they made the final 30-mile trek to Canada.

Miles' attack began mid-morning and continued throughout the day. By nightfall 18 of Miles' men were dead and nearly 50 suffered serious wounds. The Nez Perce had lost 22 warriors, including leaders Ollokot (Joseph's brother), Toohulhulzote and Poker Joe. Additionally, several women and children had been killed or wounded.

That night was cold and snowing and in the darkness, both soldiers and Indians dug pits for shelter from the weather and from the bullets that would be flying the next morning. The first day of October 1877 was the first day of what would be a 5-day siege that never gave any advantage to either side.

On the morning of Oct. 5, the battle ceased and a parlay was held between spokesmen for Miles and Joseph. Colonel Miles promised food and blankets for the besieged Nez Perce and assured Chief Joseph that none of the Nez Perce fighting men would be executed. Additionally Miles promised that Chief Joseph and his people would be returned to the Lapwai Reservation. Under these conditions Chief Joseph agreed to surrender and spoke his famous reply, "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

But Colonel Miles' promises, like many 'treaties' were broken when General William Tecumseh Sherman refused to honor Miles' terms.

Thunder Rolling Down the Mountains, would never get to return to the land where the bones of his ancestors were buried.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com.

 

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