Note: William Price, an editor for a consulting firm in New York, is the author of The Potlatch Run, a novel published by Dutton in 1971, and articles on the 1858 Steptoe Battle in Washington Territory, Jack Slade, and Charley Reynolds in True West and Frontier Times.
Following their defeat of Gibbon’s army at Big Hole, the Nez Perce, led by Joseph, Looking Glass, and several others, continued east. Their refuge, they believed, would be with the Crow Indians, their former hunting companions on the plains.
Passing through the mountains of Yellowstone Park, the Nez Perce captured a group of tourists. The young warriors roughed them up and nearly killed one man, but at the insistence of the elder leaders released the others. Of two other tourist groups, two men were killed and the others driven into the brush. Trappers or settlers who could reveal the location of the Indians to pursuing soldiers were attacked and when possible killed. Nez Perce scouts searched the country ahead and the trail behind, watching for soldiers they knew would be moving fast to catch them again.
Looking Glass -- photo courtesy National Archives
The army, with the advantage of the telegraph, alerted General S.D. Sturgis, who, with six companies of the 7th Cavalry including many survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, moved into position east of the park to intercept the Nez Perce. Sturgis, though, did not know where the Indians would emerge from the park, and his scouts had too much country to watch. Hoping to be in the right place at the right time, Sturgis kept his army on the move through canyons and across rivers and over mountain passes.
The Nez Perce, in the meantime, sent envoys ahead to search for their friends, the Crows. The envoys returned with bad news. The Crows, long-time allies with the soldiers, would not offer refuge and some would even take sides against the Nez Perce. Reluctantly, the Nez Perce turned toward Canada where possible refuge lay among Sitting Bull’s people who had found safety there following the Sioux War only the year before.
The Nez Perce Flee Yellowstone
Reports from settlers and scouts alerted Sturgis that the Nez Perce had moved out of the park, but he still didn’t know where. He kept his tired army on the move and his rations couldn’t keep up. His soldiers were hungry and tired. The Nez Perce moved northeast and crossed the Yellowstone River, not far west of the current city of Billings, Montana. Sturgis, moving blindly, crossed the Yellowstone not long after the Nez Perce.
Sturgis was considering where to camp his worn-out soldiers when his scouts suddenly brought word that the Nez Perce were a few miles north, heading toward Canyon Creek. Sturgis had about 350 soldiers on the north bank ready to go: four companies of the Seventh, along with a supporting unit from the First Cavalry with two howitzers mounted on pack mules. They started out at a trot.
The Battle of Canyon Creek Begins
The Nez Perce spotted the soldiers coming and had time to figure out a defense. Looking Glass sent the young warriors to hold back the soldiers while the others hurried the women and children, the horses and packs toward the safety of narrow Canyon Creek.
The canyon was described by one of Sturgis’ scouts as a “narrow wash with banks from 10 to 20 feet high.” The creek was dry in late summer, and the canyon floor led into a narrowing valley cut with steep ravines and side canyons. The ridgelines provided good firing lines toward the approaching soldiers.
Sturgis sent Major Lewis Merrill with two companies across a series of ridges to start the fight. Merrill’s men began firing at the retreating Nez Perce and took return fire from Nez Perce sharpshooters that kept the soldiers on the ridgeline. Captain Frederick Benteen, who had been second-in-command of the surviving portion of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, was ordered to take the reserve company on a detour to the left to cut ahead of the retreating Indians and hold the open ground near the canyon’s entrance. Sturgis hoped Benteen could at least cut off the horse herd.
The Nez Perce, however, saw him coming. Benteen came under heavy fire from the sharpshooters and had to stop to fight. Merrill, sent in support of Benteen, pushed his worn-out soldiers hard over more tough country, but they couldn’t move fast enough to support Benteen. The Nez Perce abandoned about 400 of their slowest animals, which were immediately rounded up by Sturgis' Crow scouts.
Benteen, ordered now to clear the western ridgeline of Nez Perce snipers, started off on a tough climb with exhausted men and horses. They had to dodge rifle fire from the Nez Perce ahead of them and those across the canyon on the eastern ridgeline. Ultimately, Benteen gained the top of the ridge, but by then, according to one of his troopers, “not an Indian was in sight.”
A Running Fight
Making their way to the edge of the plateau, the soldiers saw a group of mounted Nez Perce on the canyon floor. Firing into them, the soldiers later claimed to have killed several and wounded others. After that, both sides settled into a long-range sniping war. Both the soldiers and the Nez Perce were exhausted after running up and down the steep hillsides all day and being shot at as they ran.
By evening, the main body of Nez Perce made it into the canyon with most of their horses. As night fell, Sturgis went into camp at the canyon’s mouth, while the Indians kept moving.
In the morning, emerging north of Canyon Creek, the Nez Perce were discovered by the Crow scouts. After a running fight over several miles, the Crows broke off the chase to go after about 500 horses that couldn't keep up with the fleeing Nez Perce. Sturgis, following with a now eager army, gave up the chase after nearly 40 miles, furious that the Crows didn’t hold the Nez Perce in place for him to catch up.
The Fighting Ends
By days end, his army was strung out over 10 miles, with worn-out horses and many of the cavalrymen on foot acting as infantry. Sturgis’ soldiers ate well that night, but it was some of their own worn-out horses that provided the steaks.
Some of the soldiers were not sorry to see the Indians get away. Before the war reached them, they had had the opportunity to follow newspaper reports of the Nez Perce flight and many had sympathy for the fugitives. Jerome Greene in Nez Perce Summer 1877 quotes a soldier: “We fought them, of course, but our hearts were not in it as in the case of the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Apaches.” Greene tells of a surgeon with Sturgis who wrote: “I am actually beginning to admire their bravery and endurance in the face of so many well-equipped enemies.”
The Crows went home with their new horse herd. Sturgis abandoned his pursuit of the Nez Perce, reporting to Howard that his army was finished. He had three dead, eleven wounded.
The Cost of War
Canyon Creek was costly to the fleeing Nez Perce. They reported only one warrior dead and three wounded, but they were nearly exhausted after three months as fugitives and the last two days and nights on the run. What may have been their greatest loss, however, were nearly 900 horses, almost half the 2,000 they had started with in Oregon and Idaho. This loss would prove disastrous the next time they met the army. They kept moving north toward Canada
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