In the summer of 1877 five bands of Nez Perce Indians-about 800 people, including 125 warriors-began a 1,300-mile journey from north-eastern Oregon and central Idaho over the Bitterroot Mountains and through the MontanaTerritory. Though they were herding more than 2,000 horses and carrying whatever possessions they could manage, the Nez Perce made this long and difficult trek in less than four months—not because they were eager to reach their destination, but because they were being chased by United States Army troops under Gen. Oliver O. Howard with orders to place them on a reservation. The Nez Perce had hoped to elude the Army but they were forced to stop and face their pursuers several times. One of the major encounters of this epic odyssey, the battle with the most loss of life, took place in the Big Hole Valley of southwestern Montana. The Battle of the Big Hole was a tragic turning point of what came to be called the Nez Perce War of 1877.
The Nez Perce arrived in the lush Big Hole Valley on the morning of August 7, and their principal leader, Chief Looking Glass, chose an old campsite at which to stop and set up their tipis. Believing that they were far enough ahead of Howard’s soldiers to be out of danger, Looking Glass did not post guards. Unknown to the Nez Perce, a second military force— Col. John Gibbon and 162 men of the 7th U.S. Infantry out of Fort Shaw and four other western Montana forts—had joined the chase and was advancing up the Bitterroot Valley toward them.
Gibbon’s scouts spotted the Nez Perce tipis on the afternoon of August 8. Before dawn on the 9th, most of the soldiers and 34 civilian volunteers were forming a skirmish line on the west bank of the North Fork of the Big Hole River, within 200 yards of the Nez Perce camp. Here they would wait tensely for first light when they would attack. The attack started prematurely, however, when alone Nez Perce, out to check his horses, stumbled onto the concealed soldiers and volunteers and was shot and killed. When the troops crossed the river and fired into the village, some of the Nez Perce scattered quickly while others were slow to awaken. In the confusion of the faint pre-dawn light, men, women, and children were shot indiscriminately. The soldiers soon occupied the south end of the camp, while the Nez Perce warriors, urged on by Chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, quickly took up sniper positions. Their deadly shooting eventually forced Gibbon’s men to retreat back across the river to a point of pines projecting from Battle Mountain. The troops dug in and were pinned down for the next 24 hours. The soldiers suffered many casualties.
During the attack, some of Gibbon’s men had been struggling to haul a 12-pounder mountain howitzer through the dense lodgepole pine forest. They managed to place it on the hillside above the siege area just as the soldiers were digging in. The crew fired two rounds before a group of Nez Perce horsemen galloped forward, captured the gun and dismantled it, and rolled the wheels down the hill.
As the siege continued, some of the Nez Perce warriors began withdrawing to help Chief Joseph and others care for the injured, bury the dead, gather their horses, and break camp. Others remained to keep the soldiers under fire while the bands headed south, leaving much of their belongings behind. Finally, in the early morning of the second day of fighting August 10th, the remaining warriors fired parting shots and left to join their people. The battle was over.
General Howard’s troops arrived the next day and found Gibbon wounded and his command out of action. In a miIitary sense, the Nez Perce had won the battle, but the “victory” was a hollow one. Sixty to ninety members of the tribe had been killed, only about thirty of whom were warriors: the rest were women, children, and old people. The Nez Perce now realized the war was not over, that they must flee for their lives. Eventually, they decided to go to Canada and join Sitting Bull.
The military’s losses were also high, with 29 dead and 40 wounded, but they knew that they had greatly damaged the fighting ability of the Nez Perce. Furthermore, the 7th Infantry had not retreated, like other units of the army that fought the Nez Perce had been forced to do. Subsequently, seven enlisted men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and those officers who survived received brevet promotions. But the horrors of what they had seen at the Battle of the Big Hole would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Reprinted from National Park Service Brochure.