Historical Review Part 3: Battle of Canyon Creek September 13, 1877
The little know Battle of Canyon Creek took place on Thursday September 13th and lasted from 10 AM until dark, and was essentially a running fight against Nez Perce sharpshooters who fought a fierce almost text book rear guard action against the Seventh. Sturgis set up a command post below the canyon and as Private Jacob Homer vividly recalled, "He was standing beside Gen. Sturgis, who was viewing the action with his field glasses from his tent at the rear. ... The colonel was nervously chewing tobacco and “spitting in every direction, the other officers moved away to avoid him."
Major Lewis Merrill was ordered to charge the rear guard and drive them toward the main body which was fleeing up Canyon Creek toward the mouth of the canyon. Merrill, however came under the accurate warrior fire and discounted his command miles short of the main vanguard.
Sturgis seeing that Major Lewis Merrill had stopped his charge and dismounted miles short of the canyon, ordered Homer to bring the horses closer. "I was no orderly, just a butcher but he gave me this order…I mounted and headed toward the puffs of smoke…The bullets were whining over the field...I spurred on to where I thought I might find the major. Suddenly I recognized him in the grass. The sun sparkled on his glasses. I knew it was him. I yelled the order and he acknowledged it with a grunt."
Making it back to Sturgis Homer marveled at the Nez Perce fighting ability, "They lay on the sides of their horses and fired at us under the horse's neck going at full speed…After the battle we found some of their horses with many bullets in their shoulders showing that our troops had fired accurately."
Yellow Wolf recalled, "I saw soldiers near, and across the valley from us. The traveling camp had nearly been surprised. Soldiers afoot-hundreds of them. I whipped my horse to his best, getting away from that danger."
Teeto Hoonnod with the help of Yellow Wolf, held the soldiers at bay with accurate rifle fire at the head of the canyon. Homer recalled "We found a rock with about 50 shell cases behind it. A Nez Perce marksman had used it as a firing post."
F.G. Fisher, chief of scouts for General Howard recalled, "The troops drove the Indians slowly down the wash, which was cut by small ravines and dry washes… The heaviest fighting was among rocks and cottonwood timber skirting the creek…The wind was blowing a gale and the ground was wet and most of the firing at long range."
Homer recalled that Benteen upon seeing Major Merrill's situation, asked Sturgis for permission to lead a force into a ravine to drive the Indians out. "I will get them out in five minutes,” Benteen received permission and Homer recalled made good on his promise! However, Merrill's failure to continue his charge up the canyon resulted in the escape of the Nez Perce and the Seventh's opportunity to end the epic flight right there.
Sturgis in his official report greatly exaggerated Nez Perce losses, "The loss to the enemy in this engagement was 16 and in pursuit the next day 5, making a total of 21. The number of wounded is a matter of speculation…The number of ponies lost by them in the engagement and during the pursuit is estimated at between 900 and 1,000…Our losses were 3 killed and 11 wounded." Actual Nez Perce casualties which occurred the following day, according to most accounts was approximately 5. However Jerry Greene in his new classic "Nez Perce Summer" lists only one warrior named Fish Trap killed, and only three wounded. The loss of the pony herd was devastating. Yellow Wolf recalled, "We lost a large part of our herd of horses. This was a serious blow to us." Yellow Bird also commented on the loss, "At Canyon Creek fight we lost many horses, and crippled our transportation, making it hard work for us to get along."
Although the Nez Perce had gotten away, the loss of the horses and three months of almost continuous fighting, had a profound physical and psychological effect on their people and would contribute to the fatigue that caused them to rest and be overtaken later by Col. Miles. Looking Glass, Joseph's brother, also began to lose favor. He had predicted help from the Crow who now turned against their old friends.
Sturgis was forced to give up the pursuit at nightfall. Nearly out of ammunition and supplies (Some of the Nez Perce horses were eaten by the troops) the Seventh camped on the battlefield and then resumed the pursuit the following day. At the Musselshell, the Seventh went into camp for five days, to await much needed supplies from Ft. Custer.