The year was 1877. The West was nearly won, as the U.S. Calvary and American settlers saw things. The Indians were just about beaten, and from a US
perspective, it had been a pretty good war. A year had passed since the defeat of General Custer at the Little Big Horn and the nation had found ways
to accept that as a one-off fluke that had it's reasons, but wouldn't likely repeat.
Enter a new problem for the Calvary to solve and one of the last but certainly not least of the Great Leaders of the Native American tribes to stand
tall and distinguish himself. The Nez Perce Tribe called it's home Wallowa Valley in Eastern Oregon territory at this point in time and would seem to
have been content where they were. The Nez Perce were known as one of the peaceful tribes in North America and believed that would spare them the
hardships they watched visited upon other tribes over the course of the Indian Wars. They were mistaken.
(Wallowa Valley, Or)
After years of various abuses by settlers, it came to a head on June 13, 1877. On this day, 3 young Braves of the Tribe chose to strike back and took
their revenge on 3 of the more notorious White Settlers in the area. Soon after, a group of Warriors raided ranches and farms up and down the Salmon
River Valley. A line had been crossed. Life had changed for their small Tribe and Chief Joseph knew it.
None of the actions taken by those Braves and Warriors were sanctioned by the Tribe. The Chief knew this wouldn't make a difference though and
choices were now very few.
The U.S. Army was immediately mobilized to deal with the 'Indian Uprising'. Thus began one of Americas most daring, courageous and brutal running
battles of the entire period. Here is a map of the path of battle as it unfolded.
Lest anyone get the idea this was just about the fighting, it was far more than that. Chief Joseph chose to lead his people to Canada and seek a
peaceful life North of the US border as the alternative to forced reservation living that his people were offered as their only option following the
events described above. The path he was forced to choose took him across some of the most beautiful and most rugged as well as unforgiving land the
North American Continent has to offer.
On June 17, the first battle was fought. More than 100 troops from the First Calvary attempted to meet and head off the fleeing Nez Perce. The truce
party the Tribe sent to talk with the troops was fired upon which opened the fighting on the spot. 34 Army Soldiers were killed with 0 casualties
among the Tribe. You'd find this spot on Highway 95 today, about Mile Marker 227 and roughly 15 miles south of Grangeville, Idaho. A marker and small
shelter sits on the spot.
The army wouldn't catch them again until July 11. This time, the Army was better prepared and opened fire with Gattling Guns and Artillery. The Nez
Perce were able to break contact and elude the Army once again and left them behind. The location as one would find it today is on Idaho Hwy 13 about
2 miles south of Stites, Idaho.
Attempting to evade pursuit, Chief Joseph guided his people south, following the Bitterroot River over about 100 miles of what is now known at US
Highway 93 in Montana. The band then turned east and came to settle for a short time in a Valley known as Big Hole, Montana. Joseph ressured his
people "War is Quit." He believed he had broken contact for good and was clear of the fighting. He was badly mistaken for a second time.
Elements of the historic 7th Calvary under the command of Colonel John Gibbon (Also a party to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and a late arrival to
Custer's Last Stand) had camped only a few miles away from where the Chief believed he and his people were safe. In the early morning hours of August
9, they launched a surprise attack on the sleeping camp. After taking serious losses from this rude surprise, the Nez Perce rallied and fought back
hard. They managed to drive Gibbon to a defensive line and held his troops in place by sniper fire while the main body of the Tribe was able to break
contact yet again and slip away. Although considered a victory for the Nez Perce, this was the first battle to draw grim casualties from both sides
and bring serious pain to the two sides fighting.
The Big Hole battlefield is a remote site to this day, with self guided tours to the area.
The Tribe found itself once again fleeing South toward the newly formed Yellowstone National Park. The troops under General O.O. Howard in close
pursuit the entire way. At this point, the fighting turned especially bitter and brutal. Tribal war parties raided settlers and killed those who
resisted. The Army for it's part, came upon a group of Tribal elders, left behind from the main body and scalped, then killed them. Whatever it
started as, the running fight had become a true run for their lives and future at this point and all knew it.
(Gen. Oliver Otis Howard)
Among the next clashes came one to demonstrate that not everything in these wars was brutality and bloody and clever guerilla war tactics were
something practiced and well known to the Tribal warriors. At Camas Meadows, the Nez Perce took the initiative and ambushed the Army. In the process,
they 'liberated' 200 pack animals which set the forces of General Howard back a bit and broke his momentum in the pursuit.
The next major conflict came at Canyon Creek Field on Sept 13, between Billings and Butte, Montana. This time, the Army's forces were superior and
the battle was not a question for outcome. While the Tribe once again managed to escape intact, they took heavy losses of both men and horses. This
location has been made into a small National Historical Park just outside Laurel, Montana.
The Chief and his people were hurting, tired, and desparate. By this time, they had been chased and run across range after range of the formidable
Northern Rocky Mountains and were just about ready for their reward. Canada.
They still had much to face.......