The Battle of Big Hole: A Photographic Tour, by Bob Reece
All Photos © Bob Reece
Picture 1 looks north--On August 7, 1877 the Nez Perce under the leadership of Looking Glass entered the Big Hole Valley and made camp. The Nez Perce knew this area from years of passing through on the way to hunt the buffalo. The Nez Perce numbered about 800 people with other leaders including Joseph and White Bird.
Picture 2 looks SW--They raised 89 tipis, placed their horse herds on the hill to the west of the camp and settled in. Looking Glass told his people that they were safe here.
Col. John Gibbon (whose troops found the Custer dead on June 27, 1876) and about 160 soldiers and officers marched out of Ft. Shaw to intercept the Nez Perce. Passing through the Bitterroot Valley, Gibbon acquired an additional 34 civilian volunteers. Gibbon found the Nez Perce camp just after midnight August 9.
Picture 3 looks north--Moving in the dark, the soldiers prepared to attack the sleeping village from the banks of the North Fork of the Big Hole River. Suddenly, a lone Nez Perce, Hahtalekin, met them on his way to the horse herd. A shot rang out and Hahtalekin fell dead.
Picture 4 looks south--The first line of soldiers opened fire on the tipis, firing low as they stumbled in the dark through the river. The camp awoke with screaming women and children, many dying instantly in their tipis. Thick willows along the riverbank broke the soldier’s formation. Captain Logan’s Company “A” immediately moved into the battle at the southern end of the village as the Nez Perce warriors fired back. There was hand-to-hand fighting, screaming, gunfire and smoke in the dark. Looking Glass and White Bird encouraged the men to fight.
Picture 5 looks west--Some warriors took up sniper positions in trees and with deadly aim inflicted heavy casualties in the soldier’s ranks.
Picture 6 looks west--Site of Joseph's tipi. Sniper Trees can be seen on the hill behind the tipi.
Picture 7 looks south--Gibbon realized he was losing the fight for the village and pulled his men back across the river into a clump of trees about 400 yards from the village.
Picture 8 looks south--Gibbon’s soldiers quickly dug rifle pits in what is today called the Siege Area.
Pictures 9 & 10 look east--Signs of the rifle pits can still be seen today.
As the women and children came back to their village, the soldiers could hear them grieving as they buried their loved ones.
Making its way slowly behind the soldiers was the one 12-pounder mountain howitzer. Only one soldier had combat experience in firing the howitzer. They managed to fire two shots when the Nez Perce warriors came upon them and took the howitzer. The warriors dismantled the howitzer and rode off with 2,000 rounds of carbine ammunition. See our Blog post "More Photos of Big Hole Battlefield" for photos at the howitzer site.
Picture 12 looks east--Gibbon’s soldiers were hit with accurate fire from snipers along the banks and from the hills above them. This is Battle Gulch which provided the warriors covered access to fire on the soldiers.
Picture 13 looks north--As the day progressed the soldiers were in need of food and water (they brought none with them for the attack). The night of August 9 volunteers crept down to the river with canteens to bring water back to the wounded.
Picture 14 looks east--The morning of August 10, warriors kept up their fire as their families and wounded moved east from the battlefield. They carried their wounded through this ravine called Bloody Gulch.
Picture 15 looks north--Only a handful of snipers kept the soldiers and volunteers pinned in their rifle pits. Eventually, all the Nez Perce were gone. Gibbon suffered 29 dead and 40 wounded during the two-day fight. The Nez Perce lost about 90 people in the attack on the village.
The Nez Perce continued their flight across Montana and Wyoming, even traveling through Yellowstone National Park. They would finally surrender after the Battle of the Bear’s Paw Mountains in October 1877.
Picture 16--In 1883 a granite monument was placed in the Siege Area over the buried soldiers of Gibbon’s command.
Visiting the Big Hole Battlefield is a moving experience. You can walk along the river to the village site as well as visit the Siege Area. It’s hard to imagine all the death that happened in such a beautiful, pristine place—but it did.