From July 4 to a cold Oct. 5, 1877 morning, about 700 Nez Perce Indians evaded armies being led by such high profile U.S. generals as Miles, Sheridan and Howard. The fleeing Nez Perce covered more than 2,735 km, from the Wallowa Valley near the borders of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to the Bear Paw Mountains near Chinook, Montana, only about 90 kilometres from the Canadian border. Along the way the Nez Perce old men, women, children, about 200 young warriors and 2,000 mainly appaloosa horses, a breed created by and exclusively bred by the Nez Perce', continually evaded, or defeated, the best of the U.S. Cavalry. A year earlier at Little Bighorn Custer's 7th Calvary had,been wiped out by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall. The Nez Perce were heading north to Canada to join Sitting Bull.
Throughout the three-month chase all the Americas focused on the Nez Perce and their symbolic leader Chief Joseph, raised to prominence above his station by the pursuing generals. Actually the true role of Joseph, in his 30s, was the man responsible for the safety of women, children and the valued horse herd. Joseph was known as a diplomat, not a war chief. No Feather, a Nez Perce warrior was later quoted as saying Joseph was a hard drinker and was often drunk in his younger days. This was backed up by Yellow Bull, another Nez Perce warrior. In later writings he said Joseph "was a drunken, carousing sort of a fellow in his youth and we had little confidence, in him." He also said Joseph had no experience in war and did not take part in any fighting until the final Bear Paw battle.
The flight of the Nez Perce stemmed from discontent with reservation life, dating back to 1863 and skirmishes with white settlers. Finally a handful of warriors and Indian haters clashed in Oregon. That was the final straw, the army moved in. Rather than return to reservation life the Nez Perce chose to head to the eastern plains. Along the way the army either lost or at best fought to a draw with the Nez Perce in a number of battles.
On July 4-5 there was the battle of Cottonwood, followed by the Clearwater battle July 11-12 and the White Bird battle July 17. The groups didn't clash again until Aug.9 at Big Hole, in the Montana mountains. At Big Hole the Nez Perce camp, at rest, was spotted by an army patrol. The next morning troops under Col. John Gibbon overran the camp. The surprised warriors recovered and drove the troops back burying their dead and then breaking camp. This battle convinced the Nez Perce the army would never leave them alone and they became determined to reach the sanctuary of the Canadian border.
On Aug. 20 they fought again at Camas Meadows, a few kilometres from Yellowstone Park.
Gen. Howard wanted to stop the Nez Perce before they crossed the Continental Divide at Targhee Pass. After stealing about 200 army mules and horses the Nez Perce, pursued by three conpanies of Howard's men, took up a position and fought off the army. The result was any momentum gained from Big Hole was lost, the blockade of the pass failed and Howard was forced to chase the Nez Perce for another six weeks.
The two sides also fought Sept. 13 near Canyon Creek along the Yellowstone River in Montana. The Indians' rear-guard actions greatly slowed the pursuing troops. The Nez Perce then quit their winding ways and headed straight north, through the Judith Gap to the final confrontation Sept. 30 to Oct. 5 at the Bear Paw battlefield.
The end came on those cold October days when General Nelson A. Miles swept down on the camp, coming off a forced march from Miles City, about 300 km to the southeast. The Nez Perce were only about 90 km from their goal, the Canadian border. Miles' charge left Joseph's brother's Ollokot dead, along with many other Indians and about 20 per cent of Miles command. With the failure of the attack Miles imposed a siege, lasting six days, after which Joseph finally surrendered.
Joseph had been separated from the main battle, along with his 12-year-old daughter, later known as Sarah Moses. The daughter joined White Bird as he fled north in the night and Joseph returned to the fray, the first time he actually took up arms and fought.
That final night of the siege, as the wounded on both sides were treated and dead buried, White Bird and close to 200 Nez Perce slipped away, headed for the Canadian border.
Joseph and 87 men, 184 women and 147 children subsequently surrendered to General Howard.'
Among the thoughts credited to Joseph when he surrendered was the statement,' "From where the sun now sets I will fight. no more forever."
The Nez Perce were eventually taken to Fort Keogh and then shipped to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, A year later they were relocated in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
After eight years of pleas and intervention by people like Gen. Miles the Nez Perce were allowed to return to their northwest homelands - 118 went to Idaho and 150, including, Joseph, to the Colville Reservation in Washington. The extended chase and resulting incarceration could not be considered much of a victory by the army.
Joseph died in 1904, still not living in his original Wallowa Valley homeland. Many of the Nez Perce in Canada became part of the Peigan Nation.
Today the Bear Paw Battlefield is a new American national park, not too far north of the Little Bighorn National Park. It memorializes the hundreds of Nez Perce and 2nd and 7th Cavalry and 5th Infantry men who met in battle there. The lands were designated as a National Historic Site in 1989. The park includes a self-guidid hiking trail through the Nez Perce camp and battlefield. Park officials and Nez Perce leaders would now like to meet with relatives of' White Bird's people in Canada. They would like to have a memorial service in the Pincher Creek area where the band was based for quite some time-
The Custer battlefield is a remembrance of a great Indian victory, the Bear Paw is a testimony to Indian perseverance and the U.S. cavalry's frustrations.
The Flight tof the Nez Perce - An Introduction
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