Few places in the West are as evocative of the tragic story of the Indian Wars as Big Hole National Battlefield. This site memorializes the bravery of the Nez Perce and U.S. soldiers and volunteers who fought here during the epic flight of the Nez Perce in 1877 and preserves the scene of one of the most famous battles of the Indian Wars. Located in the lush Big Hole Valley in southwestern Montana, the beauty and tranquility of the setting add immeasurably to the solemnity of the battlefield. "One of the great ironies associated with American battlefields is that they are often quite beautiful," cultural historian Edward Linenthal observed in his book Sacred Ground. Here the picturesque natural setting has changed relatively little since the day of the predawn attack on the Nez Perce village, August 9, 1877.
Today, this national park system unit of 655 acres encompasses most of the principal features of the battlefield. Roughly rectangular in shape, it is bounded by the two-lane State Highway 43 on the south, Beaverhead National Forest on the west and north, and private ranch land on the east. Bisecting the area, the North Fork of the Big Hole River meanders in a northeasterly course through swampy bottomland. Battle Mountain rises on the northwest side of this river valley, Ruby Bench on the southeast side. Battle Mountain is backed by the forest-covered Anaconda Range, Ruby Bench by the high, open expanse of the Big Hole Valley.
The natural boundary between forest and steppe at this location, although pronounced, does not quite follow the foot of the mountains. The lower slope of Battle Mountain is marked by a treeless, grassy, open area now known as the Horse Pasture. Here, the Nez Perce grazed their horses while they were encamped along the other side of the river, and from this point came the pre-dawn attack by the U.S. soldiers and volunteers. To the west of the Horse Pasture, in a draw known as Battle Gulch, the lodgepole forest extends down to the valley floor over a low promontory known as the Point of Timber. This site was the defensive position picked by Lt. Colonel John Gibbon when he called retreat. Forced back across the river and taking the high ground within these trees, Gibbon's command dug rifle pits and threw up breastworks in a roughly circular position now known as the Siege Area.
As originally established in 1910, Big Hole Battlefield National Monument consisted of just five acres where the siege had taken place. Enlarged to 200 acres in 1939, the national monument then included all of the Siege Area plus the route of Colonel Gibbon's approach and the area along the foot of Battle Mountain from which he had launched his initial attack. Still outside the boundary of the national monument, however, was the Nez Perce Encampment Area where some of the fiercest fighting had occurred on the morning of August 9. Further additions, authorized by an act of Congress in 1963 and accomplished over the next decade, brought the Encampment Area and the development site into the unit. Bloody Gulch, where most of the Nez Perce withdrew while the warriors held their attackers at bay, remains outside on private land.
This administrative history is divided into chronological chapters, with each chapter divided into topical sections and subsections. We chose a chronological organization to highlight what we thought to be two salient themes in Big Hole National Battlefield's administrative development: first, its long evolution as a small unit assigned to a succession of federal agencies (the War Department, the Forest Service, the National Park Service) and then to a succession of other units within the national park system (Yellowstone National Park, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historical Park); and second, the close connection that exists between its land base, interpretive program, and resource management.
Since its establishment as a national monument in 1910, Big Hole has been an administrative orphan, passed from one agency or unit to another about every ten to twenty years. Prior to 1910, the War Department had a limited involvement in the administration of the battlefield. From 1910 to 1933, the administration of Big Hole battlefield was shared between the War Department and the U.S. Forest Service. Since coming into the national park system in 1933, Big Hole has been assigned to regional offices in Omaha, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco, while its unit managers have reported directly to superintendents of Yellowstone National Park, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, and Nez Perce National Historical Park. At different times the NPS has regarded Big Hole as coming within the political and recreational orbit of Yellowstone (as the nearest large national park in Montana), or within the interpretive orbit of Nez Perce Country, centered in Idaho. Frequent changes both in regional administrative boundaries and in thematic groupings of national park system units have impeded the smooth development of Big Hole's physical plant and management plans.
Throughout its history, Big Hole National Battlefield's land base has exerted a powerful effect on how the site was interpreted and protected. The soldiers' monument, erected in 1883, was explicitly dedicated to the U.S. military's role in the battle and tacitly overlooked the Nez Perce experience and perspective. This imbalance was perpetuated in the proclamation of 1910, which set aside five acres around the soldiers' monument but left the Nez Perce Encampment Area in private hands. Given the small land base, early interpretive efforts naturally focused on the drama of the siege and the valor of the U.S. soldiers and volunteers. The unit's managers came to believe that the emphasis on the siege was skewed; visitors needed to see the Nez Perce Encampment Area as well as the Siege Area and to recognize the tragedy of the event for the Nez Perce people. This search for balance drove managers' efforts to acquire more land, bring additional battlefield features under the government's protection, and broaden the interpretive focus at Big Hole. Again, it seemed that chronological chapters were the way to present this story. The unit consisted of 5 acres from 1910 to 1939, 200 acres from 1939 to 1963, and 655 acres after 1972. The size and scope of the protected area bore directly on how this battlefield was staffed, managed, and interpreted to the public.
For most of Big Hole National Battlefield's history the search for a balanced presentation has involved two kinds of historical memory: the American military tradition and the Nez Perce military tradition. The American military tradition consists primarily of written documentation and monumentation, the Nez Perce of oral storytelling and ceremony. At Big Hole, interpretation of the events of August 9-10, 1877 shows these two kinds of historical memory in juxtaposition, but it reveals an unusual synthesis, too. Nez Perce have remembered events with their own stone monument, and they have assisted efforts to document combatants' positions and movements on the battlefield with a kind of precision that is more characteristic of the American military tradition than their own. Non-Indians, both inside and outside the National Park Service, have recorded Nez Perce oral traditions and encouraged Nez Perce ceremonial observances at the site. In recent years, non-Indian "re-enactors" have developed their own form of ceremony for remembering the Battle of the Big Hole. The National Park Service (NPS) has actively supported this blending of the two traditions.
The search for a balanced presentation at Big Hole National Battlefield has also entailed a more subtle conflict between memorialization and preservation. For the most part, memorialization and preservation are complementary strategies to achieve similar goals. Both aim to protect the area from land uses that would detract from the site's intrinsic power to evoke historical remembrance. The pairing of memorialization and preservation is common to many units in the national park system. It is particularly pronounced in many Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields in the East, where site administration by the NPS followed decades of guardianship by the War Department and various national cemetery superintendents. At Big Hole, memorialization began as early as 1883 with placement of the soldiers' monument. Here, as in the East, the Park Service has integrated memorialization and preservation through an interpretive program that informs visitors not only about the battle itself, but about the history of memorialization at this site. The monuments are historic resources in their own right.
We would like to thank Big Hole National Battlefield's Superintendent Jon G. James for his enthusiastic support of this project. His passion for history was evident throughout. We are grateful to Historian Gretchen Luxenberg of the Columbia-Cascades System Support Office for facilitating this history and seeing it through with her usual aplomb. We want to thank all those present and former Park Service employees who granted us their time for interviews. Finally, we are indebted to Fred York, David Louter, Edwin C. Bearss, Barry Mackintosh, and Otis Halfmoon, as well as Jon and Gretchen, for their meticulous review of the draft report.
Last Updated: 22-Feb-2000