A visual History: Visiting the Big Hole National Battlefield
Descending from the Continental Divide at Chief Joseph Pass, Montana Hwy 43 weaves through a forest of Douglas Fir and cuts through walls of sedimentary and metamorphic rock before following Trail Creek in a narrow canyon. A bend in the road reveals a lush, green valley where the nickname “Big Sky Country” is manifested overhead. Here, the creek twists and turns its way through the vast plain, its banks lined with the bright, vibrant yellow of young willow stems. It is a remarkably peaceful place—the soft sounds of the trickling creek and the grass rustling in the wind could lull a visitor to sleep, and that’s exactly what Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce were doing one early morning when they awoke to the sound of gunfire.
The Nez Perce war of 1877 is a story inseparably woven into the rugged landscape between the Cascade and Rocky mountains—the historic homeland of the people who call themselves the Niimiipu. The Big Hole National Battlefield in modern-day Beaverhead County, Montana, serves as a remembrance of the lives lost here at a major turning point in the war, and the broken promises that led up to it.
For at least 11,500 years the Nez Perce occupied a plateau of ancient volcanic rock where Idaho, Oregon, and Washington meet. In this territory and beyond they hunted, fished, traded, fought, and governed for millennia before the arrival of the first white explorers in the early 19th century.
In the fall of 1805, the Nez Perce provided supplies, nourishment, and navigational guidance to the expedition party of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. On their way back from the coast in the spring of 1806, the explorers again stopped in Nez Perce country and received crucial aid from the tribe in especially trying times.
The Nez Perce had maintained these friendly relations with newcomers for decades, even as Americans began to gradually establish settlements in the region. In 1855, they agreed to a treaty with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens that set aside 7.5 million acres of their 17.3 million-acre historic homeland as an established reservation.
With the discovery of gold in Nez Perce country in 1863, everything changed. A new treaty slashed the 7.5 million-acre reservation to about 750,000 acres in modern-day Idaho—a tenfold reduction to accommodate the influx of miners and fortune seekers that would soon pour into the region. Those who lived within its proposed boundaries agreed to the deal, and the Nez Perce who refused to sign (labeled non-treaty Indians) lost most or all of their homeland to the government. Claiming it was a fraudulent act or a "thief' treaty made by Chief Lawyer and the Indian commissioners, the non-treaty natives returned to their homes.
Among the dissenters was a band of Nez Perce inhabiting Oregon’s Wallowa Valley. Included in this group was the renowned warrior and military strategist Looking Glass as well as the influential leaders Chief Joseph and his son, who was given the same name and authority after his father’s passing in 1871. Despite their refusal to relocate to the Idaho reservation, they continued to live in relative peace with the encroaching American settlers.
In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an executive order designating about half the Wallowa Valley as a “reservation for the roaming Nez Perce Indians.” Then in the summer of 1875, under pressure from settlers, President Grant reversed his previous decision and removed their reservation status. This edict outraged the non-treaty Nez Perce, who had already been experiencing periodic violence from incomers that had gone unpunished as more and more Americans moved west.
After failed negotiations, in May 1877, General Otis Howard issued an ultimatum, giving all Nez Perce bands 30 days to move with their herds to the Idaho reservation. Considering he had no choice but to accept the terms Joseph stated, “I did not want my people killed. … I said in my heart that, rather than have war, I would give up my country. I would give up my father’s grave.”
In frustration and anger, some young warriors in Chief Joseph’s band attacked settlers as the Nez Perce were forced to evacuate the Wallowa Valley.
This retribution marked the beginning of the war; the first full-on battle took place at White Bird Canyon on June 17th, 1877. The following four months saw Chief Joseph’s band handily outpacing Colonel Oliver Otis Howard and his troops as they fled through familiar terrain toward what is now the Montana border. There, they hoped to secure military support from their allies in buffalo country.
After finding their way through the Bitterroot Mountains, the Nez Perce fled south through the adjacent valley to avoid more densely populated settlements like Missoula. Just after crossing the Continental Divide, however, the Nez Perce camp was caught by surprise. While the Nez Perce successfully left their pursuers from the west in the dust, they were unaware that on July 28 Colonel John Gibbon and the 7th Infantry had embarked on a campaign from Fort Shaw.
The 7th Infantry ambushed the sleeping Nez Perce in the early morning of August 9th. The camp scattered in all directions as not only warriors but unarmed women and children were slaughtered in the valley. The Nez Perce death count after the Battle of Big Hole was between 80 and 90.
Once the Nez Perce warriors armed themselves and regrouped, they were able to lead Gibbon’s men away from the camp and into a dense stand of conifers at the base of a hill just south of Trail Creek. This proved tactically advantageous for the Nez Perce; the 7th Infantry retreated after 31 soldiers had fallen and 39 were wounded.
Following Colonel Gibbon’s retreat, the Nez Perce fled on. With their numbers and morale already reduced, Chief Joseph, Looking Glass, and all of the non-treaty Nez Perce experienced further frustration when the Crow refused to fight by their side due to pressure from the U.S. Army and from federal Indian Agents. In desperation, Chief Joseph’s band fled north towards the Canadian border as the deadly cold of winter crept slowly but surely towards them.
On September 30th, 1877, just short of the Canadian border at the base of the Bear Paw Mountains, the US Army intercepted the fleeing Nez Perce, inciting another armed conflict. The battle was followed by a six-day siege which ended in Chief Joseph’s conditional surrender, contingent upon his people being allowed to return to the now-reduced reservation near Lapwai, Idaho, where the other Nez Perce resided. In meeting with the generals Miles and Howard on October 4, Chief Joseph gave his oft-recounted speech:
“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."
Again, promises were broken—the non-treaty Nez Perce were transported by military force down the Missouri River to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and later exiled to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. It wasn’t until eight years later in 1885 that the exile ended; of the 500 Nez Perce that were relocated to Oklahoma, only 300 survived and made it back to the Northwest.
The view from the Big Hole National Battlefield Visitor Center is both stunning and sobering. The valley is surrounded by awe-inspiring peaks; with the Anaconda Range, the Beaverheads, and the Bitterroots all within view, one can see why the Big Hole Valley seemed a perfect place for much-needed rest before the Nez Perce continued on their strenuous journey.
Where their camp was ambushed, bare tipi poles stand and plaques display some names of the brave and valiant members of Chief Joseph’s band. Walking through the battlefield reminds visitors of the ambush experienced by the Nez Perce on that fateful August morning in 1877 and serves as a memorial to the lives lost on both sides.
The Nez Perce still exercise their sovereignty in the United States, and many tribal members live on their reservation in north-central Idaho. They have remained resilient and dedicated to the preservation of their language, their way of life, and their homeland.
By Patrick Shea
This is Montana Editor