Commemoration and Preservation:
An Administrative History of Big Hole National Battlefield
NPS Logo

Chapter One:
The Battle and Its Aftermath (1877-1883)

Big Hole National Battlefield is both a memorial and a historic site. At this place in southwestern Montana on August 9, 1877, U.S. soldiers and citizen volunteers clashed with Nez Perce "hostiles" in one of the last and most dramatic of Indian Wars in the American West. Since that day, the battlefield has possessed an evocative power for Indians and non-Indians, battle participants and their descendants, locals and out-of-state visitors, U.S. citizens and foreigners. As a memorial, the quiet scene on the North Fork of the Big Hole River has engendered veneration of various kinds: grave marking, monument-building, commemorative ceremonies, and physical preservation. The battlefield is "sacred ground." [1] It is imbued with meaning not only by the events that took place on August 9, 1877, but also by the symbolic actions of the thousands of people who have visited the site in the 120 years since that day.

Big Hole National Battlefield is also an historic site. Beginning with the after-battle reports of Lt. Colonel John Gibbon and Brig. General O. O. Howard, people have been concerned with documenting and reconstructing what happened there. Battlefield visitors have come to learn, and battlefield caretakers have sought to interpret. First the U.S. Forest Service, then the National Park Service, managed the site to preserve historic features and cultural artifacts.

Like other American battlefields that have been preserved, Big Hole National Battlefield combines the qualities of a memorial and a historic site. Bridging the two, battlefield preservation has come to involve certain conventions that bear a complex relationship to historical time. Visitors expect the battlefield to evoke the feeling on the eve of the battle (a peaceful landscape, a lost world), and to present cues for visualizing the battle itself (named features, interpretive signs), and to memorialize the battle's legacy (graves, monuments, a place of solemn remembrance). In protecting, developing, and interpreting the battlefield, site managers have had to balance the demands of memorialization and historic preservation.

The Battlefield on the Eve of the Battle

On the eve of the battle the scene along the North Fork of the Big Hole River appeared much the same as it does today. The valley was spacious and open. Willows and occasional cottonwoods and lodgepole pine marked the meandering course of the river, while sagebrush and a sparse growth of prairie grasses covered the benchlands and the valley above the floodplain. Wildflowers were probably still in bloom in August. If wildlife was observable, it probably included much the same variety of animals that were recorded in the area in recent times: Columbia brown squirrel, jackrabbit, porcupine, badger, skunk, weasel, and other small mammals typical of this type of intermountain locale, together with a large number of bird species including swallows, warblers, sparrows, marsh hawks, and ducks. Mule deer and elk were probably reduced in numbers in the Big Hole in 1877 as they were throughout much of their range.[2] Bison, which had once occurred in the Big Hole, were gone from the valley by this time. [3]

From the top of the bench where the National Park Service visitor center now stands, a person's gaze is drawn from the battlefield to the mountains that frame this beautiful valley. Immediately to the north, across the river bottom, one sees the heavily forested foothills of the Sapphire Mountains, which run along the northwestern edge of the Big Hole and define the northern perimeter of the battlefield itself. Looking in the opposite direction, the Beaverhead Mountains jag down the west side of the valley and the Pioneer Mountains run down the east side, both fading into the distance to the south. The Pintlar Mountains form yet another rampart to the northeast. The Beaverhead, Pioneer, and Pintlar ranges are all topped by numerous peaks that rise above timberline. The highest of these shelter snowfields even in late summer. The scene affords an overall feeling of spaciousness, scenic beauty, and – to the modern observer – breathtakingly pristine conditions befitting this historic site.

The Twin Trees, where Nez Perce sharpshooters are said to have positioned themselves during the battle. Photo by K.D. Swan, October, 1921. Courtesy, U.S. Forest Service.

At nearly 7,000 feet elevation, the valley is prone to long, hard winters of bitter cold and deep snows. The harsh climate discouraged white settlement of the valley prior to 1877, and it has limited the amount of settlement since that time. Although the Big Hole is now a patchwork of private ranch lands dotted with haystacks, these features are relatively inconspicuous around the battlefield. The land remains so sparsely settled that one can easily imagine the way it appeared at the time of the battle. It adds immeasurably to the power of the scene to contemplate how little it has changed since 1877.

The Big Hole Valley showed few traces of human use or occupancy in 1877. Among Indian peoples it had long been used as a summer hunting ground, a traditionally neutral zone frequented by plains tribes to the east and plateau tribes to the south and west. The Nez Perce people regarded the Big Hole as a middle ground between their homeland on the Clearwater River and the buffalo country east of the Rocky Mountains. [4] They called the place "Izhkumzizlakikpah" after the small rodent that was abundant there. [5] Indian use and occupancy were visible mainly in the few wide Indian trails that traversed the valley. [6]

White settlers had not yet moved into the Big Hole in 1877. The Lewis and Clark expedition traversed the valley from north to south in 1805, and mountain men set their trap lines through the Big Hole in the 1820s and 1830s. Non-Indians had little more use for the area until 1862, when a party of prospectors discovered gold on Ruby Creek, a tributary to the Big Hole River. Located near the Continental Divide, the gold strike was approximately ten miles from the future site of the Battle of the Big Hole. The discovery produced a small flurry of activity that included the construction of a sawmill and some sluice boxes. The placer deposits, named the Pioneer Diggings, were abandoned that summer. [7] Cattlemen began grazing their livestock in the valley in 1874. [8]

Most of western Montana's non-Indian residents lived in the mining towns of Butte, Helena, and Virginia City and the trading towns of Deer Lodge and Missoula in 1877. Agriculture in Montana was confined to the vicinity of these towns, a few valleys such as the Bitterroot, and a handful of Indian agencies. Although we do not have a census of Montana Territory for 1877, an estimate of Missoula County's white population by the commanding officer at Fort Missoula in 1879 gives a fair impression. The officer gave the total white population as 1,875, distributed as follows: Missoula, 500; Frenchtown, 180; Stevensville, 150; Corvallis, 100; Skalkaho, 75; rural Bitterroot Valley, 400; Hell Gate and Grass Valley, 300; mining camps, 160; Flathead Lake country, 20; Horse Plains, 10. The Indian population, meanwhile, was mostly removed to the Jocko (Flathead) Reservation – except in summer when many groups returned to their traditional grounds for hunting, fishing, and gathering edible plants. The same officer gave the number of Indians as 1,000 Pend d'Oreilles, 500 Kootenais, and 120 Flatheads on the reservation, plus 350 Flatheads of Chief Charlot's band who had refused to leave their home in the Bitterroot Valley. [9] In addition, 11 lodges of Nez Perce under Eagle-from-the-Light – numbering no more than 50 people – lived with the Flatheads in the Bitterroot Valley. [10]

Montana's main transportation routes also contributed to the Big Hole's isolation. Montana's primary transportation route in 1877 was the Corinne-Virginia City Road, which ran north and south from the nearest railhead at Corinne, Utah, to the goldfields around Bannack and Virginia City. The road forked along the Red Rock-Beaverhead River, with one branch leading to Virginia City and Helena, and the other skirting the southern edge of the Big Hole at Horse Prairie on the way to Bannack and Deer Lodge. In the Deer Lodge Valley the road connected with Montana's second important wagon road, the Mullan Road, which followed the Clark Fork River to Missoula and went on into Idaho. Rough trails led from the upper Bitterroot Valley to the Big Hole via Skalkaho or Big Hole Pass, but these were nearly impassable for wagons.

The Nez Perce Encampment

In the second week of August, 1877, about 750 Nez Perce made camp in a lush meadow on the south side of the North Fork of the Big Hole River. Known to their white adversaries as the "non-treaty Nez Perce," most of the group had been on the move since early June, forced by the U.S. Army to leave their homelands in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho and to resettle on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. En route to the reservation, several young men in the group attacked and killed 14 or 15 white settlers in Idaho, and U.S. troops under the command of General Oliver O. Howard had begun their pursuit. Joined by other disaffected bands of Nez Perce, the non-treaty Nez Perce had fought a series of battles and skirmishes in Idaho during the latter half of June and the first part of July, before crossing the Bitterroot Mountains.

The Nez Perce intended to remain in their camp on the North Fork of the Big Hole River for several days. They believed that the war was behind them. Having eluded General Oliver O. Howard in Idaho and crossed Lolo Pass into Montana, they thought the U.S. soldiers would cease their pursuit. Proof of this, it seemed, lay in the Nez Perce's successful maneuver around Fort Fizzle on the Montana side of Lolo Pass, where the soldiers who had been called up from Fort Missoula let them pass without a fight. "Thinking in tribal terms, rather than national," historian Aubrey Haines explains, "their war had been with the Idaho people; there was no need to fight the Montanans, who had always been their friends." Adding to their newfound sense of security, they had traveled through the Bitterroot Valley without serious incident, buying fresh supplies of ammunition from white traders along the way. [11]

They arranged their 89 lodges in the form of a V with the apex pointing upstream. On the other side of the river, in the intervening area between the village and the foot of the mountain, stretched a stand of willows about one-quarter mile wide laced by an irregular pattern of shallow sloughs and grassy patches. Pine forest covered most of the mountainside, making the camp vulnerable to a surprise attack from across the willow-covered bottomland. [12] The site of the encampment was not chosen as a defensive position, but rather because it was a familiar site to the Nez Perce who had passed this way before on their way to the buffalo country. There was a part of the mountainside across the river that was bare of trees, making excellent pasturage for the horses. There were also plenty of trees nearby which could be cut and dried to make travois and lodge poles.

Making their camp on the North Fork of the Big Hole, Chief Looking Glass counseled rest and calm. While the women gathered firewood, cut and peeled lodge poles, and laid them out to dry for several days, the men formed hunting and fishing parties. A few Nez Perce remained uneasy about the threat of attack, but the leaders insisted that the bands were no longer at war. [13] On the night before the dawn attack, the Nez Perce did not post any sentries. [14]

The Battle of the Big Hole

Contrary to the Nez Perce leaders' hopes, the American officers had no intention of letting the renegade bands of Nez Perce alone. While General Howard marched his command over the Bitterroot Range, Colonel Gibbon took up the pursuit with a force of 17 officers and 146 enlisted men from various posts across Montana. Trailing the Nez Perce up the Bitterroot Valley, Gibbon's force was augmented by volunteers from the Bitterroot settlements. The volunteers were added to a small detachment of cavalry under Lt. James H. Bradley. It was this cavalry detachment that Gibbon sent ahead to scout for the Nez Perce, and which discovered the camp on the North Fork of the Big Hole River. [15]

Gibbon's plan was to surprise the Nez Perce, flush them onto the open ground east of the river bottom, and separate them from their horses. During the night of August 8, he moved his force into position at the foot of the mountain, above and to the west of the camp. Shortly before the first light of morning, about 3:30 a.m., the men began to deploy along the foot of the mountain at the edge of the willow flats flanking the encampment. Before they were fully deployed, however, a Nez Perce herder unwittingly approached the enemy line. There was a volley of shots, the man went down, and the soldiers rushed the village. [16]

Nez Perce men, women, and children scrambled out of the lodges. Many of them, realizing that the high ground to the east of the village would afford no cover, ran for the willows or jumped into the river even though these were in the direction of their attackers. Others hid in the sloughs and concavities between the camp and the bench located immediately to the east of the tepees. In the dark amidst this pandemonium the warriors had to find their weapons – or to strip them from the enemy. Yellow Wolf recalled how he saw a "soldier crawling like a drunken man" and struck him with his war club, seizing his rifle and cartridge belt. [17]

The southern end of the village was quickly overrun, but the soldiers' advance on the northern end of the village stalled with the death of Lt. Bradley. Apparently unaware that the victory was incomplete, Gibbon ordered the men on his right flank to burn the tepees, while the men on his left flank had not yet dislodged their opponents. The tepee covers were damp and did not ignite easily, and this curious distraction in the heat of the battle gave the Indians just the chance they needed to rally. [18]

Two Nez Perce chiefs, Looking Glass and White Bird, exhorted the warriors to stand and fight. As the tide of battle turned, the soldiers found themselves caught in a deadly crossfire. Some of the Nez Perce were hidden amongst the willows; others had taken cover southwest of the village along the sweep of the riverbank or in the trees on the slope overlooking the village. Gradually Gibbon and his force fell back. After about an hour and a half or two hours of fighting, the colonel ordered his men to move back to the timber from which they had originally deployed. [19]

The soldiers retreated to a low promontory at the edge of the timber. Gibbon had noted the defensive advantages of this Point of Timber (the Siege Area) while moving his men into position. It was hardly an ideal defensive position, but it afforded some cover and modest high ground on three sides. The men used the limited supply of rocks and downfall to form breastworks and they dug rifle pits with their trowel bayonets. The Nez Perce warriors slowly encircled them, one warrior getting behind a log within fifty yards of their position. Meanwhile, some distance away, Gibbon's single 12-pounder mountain howitzer and gun crew were attacked on their way to support the assault on the village and the gun was captured. With no help in sight, Gibbon ordered his men to conserve their ammunition and prepare for a siege.

With Gibbon's force pinned down across the river, the Nez Perce gathered their dead from the village and the surrounding area. "As the people mourned," writes Merrill D. Beal, "they wept with such feeling that the battle-toughened men in the trenches listened and trembled." Some thirty Nez Perce – men, women, and children – were slain in the village and many more, perhaps as many as sixty, died while trying to escape or counterattack. Nearly every family lost someone. Joseph and Ollokot both lost wives. The Nez Perce buried the dead as well as they could, wrapping them in buffalo robes and placing them under cutbanks. [20]

At the end of the long day, Gibbon sent three runners out under cover of darkness in the hope of obtaining help from General Howard and medical supplies from the town of Deer Lodge. Some 20 or 30 Nez Perce warriors maintained the siege of Gibbon's position through the night and into the next day, while the rest of the bands made haste to get away before the arrival of General Howard's troops. Finally, about 11 a.m. on the second day, the warriors lifted their siege and melted away.[21]

Remains of rifle pits dug by soldiers and volunteers in the Siege Area. Photo by K.D. Swan, October, 1921. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

The End of the Nez Perce War

The Battle of the Big Hole was a turning point in the Nez Perce War. Although the Nez Perce avoided defeat and capture, they sustained grievous losses. Moreover, they now knew that the U.S. Army would not give up its pursuit. After the battle, the Nez Perce fled south and east in the vain hope of finding sanctuary on the Crow Reservation in eastern Montana, then north in a desperate bid to reach Canada. Howard summoned other forces to head them off, and at the Battle of the Bear's Paw in north central Montana the Nez Perce were once more attacked and brought to surrender after a six-day siege.

Despite their captors' promise that they would be allowed to return to their homeland, most of the non-treaty Nez Perce were exiled in Oklahoma. There, many of them died of malnutrition. When the survivors were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest many years later, some settled on the Colville Reservation in Washington, others on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. Later, some went to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. The Nez Perce War exacerbated differences between the treaty and non-treaty bands of Nez Perce. The bitter legacy of war and exile left the Nez Perce a divided people. Tragic in its own right, the persistence of intratribal differences would profoundly affect administration of the battlefield site throughout the twentieth century.

The Battlefield after the Battle

When dawn came on August 11, Gibbon's force was in possession of the field. But he could hardly claim victory. His losses in the Battle of the Big Hole were heavy: 29 dead and 40 wounded. The volunteers had sustained a 30 percent casualty rate, the officers 50 percent. Although two volunteers reported the whereabouts of the fleeing Nez Perce cavalcade – distinguished by the dust cloud rising on the west edge of the valley about 30 miles to the south – Gibbon's force was in no shape to pursue. [22]

Most of the non-Indian dead lay among the willows where the initial attack had occurred or at the Point of Timber, to be known henceforth as the "Siege Area." Most of the wounded lay in the rifle pits. When General Howard arrived with his advance party of cavalry about 10:00 a.m. on the 11th, he found the place resembling a hospital guard:

So many wounded; nearly half lying cheerful, though not able to move; many white bandages about the head and face; some arms in slings; there were roughly constructed shelters from the heat of an unrelenting August sun. [23]

Two doctors with Howard's command provided medical care until more help arrived. On August 13, a force of thirty-five volunteers, two doctors, and four wagons arrived from Butte. Another party of 60 volunteers, three doctors, and twenty wagons arrived from Helena. These relief parties also brought ambulances and tents. Eventually the wounded men were transported to St. Joseph's Hospital in Deer Lodge. [24]

While doctors attended the wounded, the able-bodied soldiers and volunteers buried their fallen comrades. In general, the volunteers and the soldiers each buried their own. Aubrey Haines, an historian with the National Park Service who served on the Big Hole staff in the 1960s, made a close study of both the physical and documentary evidence concerning the location of these burials. Haines concludes that the bodies were probably buried near where they lay rather than gathered together in a common grave. He quotes a statement by Cpl. Charles W. Loynes that the dead "were buried as best we could at that time." Haines notes the lack of digging tools and the difficulty of transporting bodies across the sloughs. [25]

G. O. Shields, author of The Battle of the Big Hole (1889), described the initial burials as somewhat more dignified:

Captain [Richard] Comba was sent out on the morning of the 11th with a party of men to bury the dead soldiers and citizens, all of whom were found, recognized, and decently interred. Rude head boards, obtained by breaking up cracker boxes, were placed at the heads of the graves, on which were written, or carved, the name, company, and regiment of the citizen whose grave each marked. [26]

Even if Shields' account was colored by sentimentality, it still lends support to the theory that the soldiers were buried about where they lay.

No one could report with certainty how many Nez Perce were killed in the Battle of the Big Hole. Colonel Gibbon reported that his burial detail counted 83 dead Nez Perce at the battlefield plus 6 more who died from their wounds and were found in a ravine some distance from the battlefield. [27] Like the soldiers, the Nez Perce appear to have buried most of their dead near where they lay. A number of bodies were placed along the river banks where the earth could be caved in over them. Others were buried in camas ovens – pits that the Nez Perce had dug for roasting camas. Gibbon's burial detail made some effort to deepen these graves but without much success. In the days following the battle General Howard's Bannock scouts returned to the site, broke into these shallow graves, and desecrated the remains of their erstwhile enemies. White souvenir hunters defiled the Nez Perce burials as well. [28]

The many corpses were not the only sign of battle. A number of the Nez Perce's horses lay dead and bloating in the summer sun. The battlefield was littered with equipment, clothing, blankets, and spent cartridges. There were several tepees still standing in the Encampment Area, stripped of their skin covers, and dozens of tepee poles lay scattered about where the Nez Perce women had peeled them the day before the battle. [29] Around the Siege Area, the lodgepole pines showed numerous abrasions where flying bullets had grazed the bark or embedded themselves in the trunks of these trees. The rifle pits, which the men had gouged out of the soil in desperate haste on August 9, probably still smelled of newly turned earth in the days after the battle. These impressions in the trees and earth would soon dull with exposure to rain and sun, but in muted form they would last for decades.

General Howard waited for the arrival of the rest of his command on August 12, and with the addition of 50 men from Gibbon's command he resumed his pursuit of the Nez Perce on August 13. Gibbon, meanwhile, dismissed the volunteers and led the remainder of his force, including the wounded, to Deer Lodge. [30] Three days after the battle the place was already deserted.

In the following weeks, many people from the Bitterroot Valley and elsewhere visited the battlefield to satisfy their curiosity or collect souvenirs. A circuit-riding Methodist minister, Rev. W. W. Van Orsdale, passed by the battlefield in mid-September en route from Bannack to the Bitterroot Valley. He reported the grim news that bears and other wild animals had dug up a number of the human remains and dragged them from their graves. As a result, a party of Bitterroot settlers was organized to retrieve the bodies of the volunteers for reburial in cemeteries in the Bitterroot Valley, and a detail of soldiers from Fort Missoula was dispatched to rebury the soldiers' remains at the battlefield. The officer in charge of the latter, Lt. J. T. Van Orsdale, 7th Infantry, had been in the fight. [31]

Van Orsdale's report was unusually vague regarding locations of the soldiers' graves. [32] Since it is the only first-hand account of where the bodies were laid to rest it is quoted here in full:

I have the honor to report that in compliance with Post Order No. 54, dated Hdqrs. Post Near Missoula, M.T., Sept. 19, 1877, I left said Post with party of 8 enlisted on the morning of the 20th and proceeded via Deer Lodge to the Battlefield of the Big Hole for the purpose of re-burying the dead, etc. I found that some fourteen (14) including Capt. [William] Logan and Lieut. Bradley had been disinterred; the officers had been scalped showing that Indians as well as wolves and other animals had been at work at the dead. I reburied the same with the exception of Capt. Logan whose remains I brought to this place and deposited in the Cemetery for the time being. I examined the Field thoroughly with a view of finding out if possible the numbers of Indians killed and determined the presence of more than eighty (80) scattered from a point one mile below where the lower end of their Camp rested at time of battle to a point opposite the rifle pits constructed by troops, a total distance of nearly 1-1/2 miles. Said number included those visible or partially so.

Haines suggests that Van Orsdale placed all of the soldiers' remains in a common grave on the edge of the bluff below the point where the granite soldiers' monument would be situated six years later. He cites as evidence Colonel Gibbon's poem of the battle, in which he writes,

There is the very spot where [William] English fell,
Close by the spot where our dead soldiers sleep. [33]

Moreover, this would have been standard military practice. (Soldiers' remains were placed in common graves after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and after the Battle of the Bears' Paw in 1877.)

There is some evidence to the contrary, however. Thomas C. "Bunch" Sherrill, a Bitterroot volunteer, later served as caretaker of the battlefield and placed a number of interpretive signs around the site. A number of Sherrill's interpretive signs described not only where soldiers and Nez Perce were killed or wounded, but also where the dead were buried. "Three soldiers burried [sic] here one shot thru the head, names unknown," stated one sign. "Another soldier burried [sic] here with [Sergeant Edward] Page," read another. [34]

Captain William Logan's grave, Custer Battlefield National Cemetery (now Little Big Horn Battlefield). Logan was the only casualty of the Battle of the Big Hole to be reburied in this cemetery. Courtesy National Park Service, Big Hole NB, n.d.

Sherrill may have been ignorant of the soldier reburials; however, his description is corroborated by mountain man Andrew Garcia's description in the posthumously published Montana classic, Tough Trip Through Paradise (1967). Garcia visited the battlefield in 1878 at the behest of his young Nez Perce bride, In-who-lise, who had lost her father and sister and was herself wounded in the battle. Although Garcia wrote his account more than fifty years later – after visiting the battlefield a second time in 1930 when Sherrill's interpretive signs might have "refreshed" his memory – his description nonetheless casts doubt on the supposition that the soldiers were reburied in a common grave:

We tried to find the grave of In-who-lise's sister, Lucy, but our search was in vain. The sight was awful to see. Human bones were scattered around as though they had never been buried. Still, it looked as if the soldiers had been buried where they fell and their graves were in fair condition. [35]

Another document written in 1910 further clouds the issue of where the soldiers' bodies lie. U.S. Army Quartermaster General J. B. Alshire was asked how much area should be reserved for the War Department to protect the national monument. He replied as follows:

The only interments ever made on this site were of those who were killed in the battle of 1877. There are no marked grave sites now, and according to the best information obtainable it seems that all these bodies have since been removed. All that there is there is a monument erected in 1883 by authority of the Secretary of War, around which a protective steel fence was erected in 1909. It is thought that all that is necessary is to have sufficient ground set apart for the protection of this monument. [36]

A search of the Army Quartermaster's records at the National Archives failed to disclose what information, if any, formed the basis of Alshire's remarks. In any case, Alshire's statement appears to have resolved any doubts about how the battlefield ought to be memorialized. The transformation of this site from burial ground to national monument is the subject of the next chapter. [37]

Mountain howitzer and limber. Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, n.d.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2000