Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields
The Battle of Bear Paw, By Bob Reece
Photos courtesy Bear Paw Battlefield
Before entering the landscape of the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, Joseph’s people survived fierce fighting at Canyon Creek and left the battlefield with General Howard far behind. They were unaware, however, of a new threat coming toward them from the southeast. Moving rapidly were about 520 officers, soldiers, scouts and civilians under the command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles.
The Nez Perce made camp on September 29, 1877 along Snake Creek in the Bear Paws. They now numbered about 700 people, with more than 200 warriors. The weather turned cold, but as they made a place to sleep they felt somewhat secure protected by the rolling hills and their belief that Howard’s soldiers had given up the chase at last. Knowing Canada was only about 40 miles north, they began at last to feel as if they would reach safety. But unknown to the sleeping Nez Perce, Miles' Cheyenne and Lakota scouts were searching frantically for their camp. Many of these scouts had fought against Miles only a year earlier during the Sioux War of 1876.
The Nez Perce Village Is Found
Early the next morning, scouts Young Two Moon, Hump and Starving Elk under command of Louis Shambo crept close to the ground, being careful not to expose themselves as they followed a few Nez Perce back to the village. The scouts carefully peered over the brow of a hill and for the first time spotted the Nez Perce pony herd. They did not see the village, sited on lower ground, but they had found the horses and that was enough. They rushed back to tell Miles they had at last found the elusive Nez Perce.
Like Custer before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Miles worried that the Nez Perce, which the army had tried to drive into a corner for 1,500 miles, might slip away as they had so many times before, only this time across the border into Canada.
The Battle of Bear Paw Begins
Miles placed the 2nd and 7th Cavalry on the front line from left to right with the 5th Infantry (mounted on horseback) covering the rear. With the village at last in view the scouts veered left toward the prized pony herd. The cavalry charged.
Vigilant Nez Perce had spotted the approaching danger and warriors had had time to conceal themselves in ravines and coulees. The non-combatants moved out of the way, north along Snake Creek. The soldiers, facing the Nez Perce for the first time with little understanding of their tactical skill, imagined the Indians were on the run. When the 7th Cavalry reached the brow of the hills they were met with devastating rifle fire that stopped the charge and pushed the attackers back. As the cavalry retreated they left their wounded between the lines, either unable to move or afraid to crawl away for fear of being killed. The Nez Perce might have had an opportunity to escape again, but because the scouts had captured the horses a daylight flight was impossible.
Intermittent fighting continued with both sides testing each other without a decisive victory. At the close of the first day of the Bear Paw Battle the Nez Perce still controlled their village. They dug shelter pits for the non-combatants in the coulees along Snake Creek while the soldiers established positions completely surrounding the village.
The Cold Night
Under cover of darkness the Nez Perce fortified their positions as best they could while the officers and soldiers planned and prepared for the following day. The army kept a strong vigilance to prevent the village from escaping into the dark.
Soldiers who had been hit lay between the lines overnight suffering from the terrible cold. Some of the badly wounded died during the night. Those still alive heard quiet but resolute footsteps approaching, followed by looming shadows of warriors bending over them. Soldiers protected behind the lines imagined a horrible death for their wounded comrades.
In his definitive history of the Nez Perce War, Nez Perce Summer 1877, Jerome Greene explains that the warriors, searching for weapons and ammunition, had no intention of harming the soldiers. Greene relates a poignant story of one soldier who continually cried out for water to his comrades behind the lines. A warrior approached, took the soldier’s ammunition belt but left him a can of water. The Nez Perce war remained a different kind of Indian war right up until the end.
The Second Day
The next morning Miles' scouts approached the Nez Perce lines to negotiate a meeting. Not long afterwards, under a flag of truce, Yellow Bull approached the soldier lines and from there carried the first message from Miles to Joseph asking to talk. These efforts were successful and Joseph and Miles met. During this brief truce both sides recovered their wounded and dead.
For reasons never clarified by Miles, Joseph was taken prisoner immediately after negotiations ended. In a strange circumstance of fate, Lt. Lovell Jerome had been allowed entry into the Nez Perce camp and was roaming unharmed. When the Nez Perce learned Joseph was being held, they captured the young lieutenant. Rather than killing him as some in the village wanted to do, the Nez Perce offered to trade him for Joseph. Whatever plan Miles had for Joseph was forgotten. On the morning of October 2, Jerome and Joseph were exchanged under a flag of truce.
That evening a 12-pounder Napoleon gun arrived accompanied by much needed supplies for the command. This cannon, which fired explosive shells, would play a pivotal role in the final chapter of the Nez Perce journey.
Placed where it had an unobstructed view of the ravines where the non-combatants were hidden, the 12-pounder started firing the next morning. The Nez Perce awoke under a barrage of fire they had never experienced. As powerful and frightening as the weapon was, it could not drive the Nez Perce from their fortified positions but it did cause them to believe the end was near.
During the two days of fighting, Miles lost 21 soldiers killed, 26 wounded (three of whom later died), and two scouts wounded. Nearly all of his casualties occurred on the first day during the failed cavalry charge. Yellowstone Kelly, a well-known frontier scout serving with Miles, lost a good friend, Corporal John Haddo. Two 7th Cavalry officers who had survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn without a scratch were wounded here.
The total Nez Perce killed is unknown, but probably 20 to 25 killed with about 50 to 60 wounded. But among the dead were three of the leaders -- Looking Glass, Toohoolhoolzote, and Joseph’s brother, Ollokot. At a place known today as “Death’s Point of Rocks,” where fighting was particularly heavy, five warriors were killed.
The Nez Perce debated between surrendering, continuing to fight, or retreating. Joseph refused to attempt a breakout because it would mean leaving the wounded, the sick and the old people. Artillery fire continued through October 4, killing some children and elderly women, and the Nez Perce resolve began to wane.
Behind the soldier’s lines, an unexpected visitor walked up to Miles and shook his hand. General Howard, with about 20 men, had completed his mission to meet up with Miles. Howard reassured Miles that he did not intend to assume command. During the officers' meeting that evening, Howard suggested using two of his Nez Perce scouts to encourage the Nez Perce to surrender, and Miles agreed.
Early morning October 5, 1877, Howard’s Nez Perce scouts, Jokais (Captain John) and Meopkowit (Old George) hailed the Nez Perce village. Welcomed as family, they discovered the Nez Perce were tired of their long journey, the endless fighting, the many dead, dying, and missing. Most were finally ready to surrender.
Captain John and Old George ran statements between Joseph, Miles, and Howard translating for each in turn. Once he and other Nez Perce leaders were confident their people would not be harmed, Joseph sent his last message to the commanders through Captain John. As translated by interpreter Arthur Chapman and recorded by Lt. Charles E. S. Wood, Howard’s adjutant, Joseph said:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead.
Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Here me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.