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Nez Perce Summer, 1877







Eruption and White Bird Canyon

Looking Glass's Camp and Cottonwood


Kamiah, Weippe, and Fort Fizzle

Bitterroot and the Big Hole

Camas Meadows

The National Park

Canyon Creek

current topic Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon

Yellowstone Command

Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense

Bear's Paw: Siege and Surrender



Appendix A

Appendix B


Nez Perce Summer, 1877
Chapter 10: Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon
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Chapter 10:
Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon (continued)

The Nez Perces had approached the Missouri River (which they called Seloselo Wejanwais—colored paint—or Attish Pah—place of the Cave of Red Paint) after having passed through the Judith Basin, where they had encountered Dumb Bull's Crow encampment. From that point, they had veered slightly northeast, stopping at Reed's Fort, a trading post on Big Spring Creek (just west of modern Lewistown), and traveled west of the Judith Mountains, passing close to where the modern community of Winifred stands today. [23] Most likely they crossed familiar terrain visited often in times past in their pursuit of the buffalo herds. At Cow Island, at about 2:00 p.m., some of the people moved upstream to ford the river; others crossed below and directly opposite from the landing while Sergeant Molchert and his party watched, withdrawing into their defenses in preparation to receive them. [24] The passage was orderly and controlled, with twenty warriors riding in advance to meet any attack, followed by the pack animals and families who were in turn guarded by the remaining warriors on the south bank. Once across, the procession moved two miles away and went into camp. Then two of the Nez Perces approached the landing to ask for food. Clerk Michael Foley, who claimed a knowledge of Indians, advanced and spoke with them, but returned to tell Molchert that the tribesmen wanted to talk with the person in charge of the soldiers. Molchert went forward unarmed and was surprised to learn that the tribesmen "spoke English as well as any one could" and readily expressed their friendship. Molchert refused to allow them to approach closer than one hundred yards from the defenses. When the Nez Perces requested provisions from the freight deposit, the sergeant turned and walked away, whereupon the tribesmen called him back to beg for food. Molchert returned to his defenses, got a sack with some hardtack and placed a side of bacon with it, then walked back and handed it over. Then he shook hands with the Nez Perce leader, whom he later declared was Joseph. [25] The Indians withdrew. Years later, Molchert described what happened next:

Things went along for a while quietly till we saw an Indian coming between our breastworks and the foot hills stripped naked, when we know this means fight. Having previously distributed the ammunition and giving each man his place, we were standing around and taking our supper as I jokingly remarked to the men that this might be their last sow belly and hard tack, when without any warning they commenced to fire from the hills, the balls going in every direction between us but luckily nobody was hurt. This was sun down and from that time on till day break we were fighting for our lives. Of course the freight we could not save as it was piled right up against the bluff. The agent had a hospital tent there for his quarters with 500 sacks of bacon piled against it, which they set on fire that lit the country up for miles. . . . They charged us three times during the night through high willows, impossible to see any one. [26]

Two civilians, E. W. Buckwalter and George Trautman, were wounded in the opening volley on the party in the entrenchments. [27] The warriors apparently approached the supply dump via a coulee located on its opposite side, so that their movements went largely undetected by the soldiers and citizens. There they took whatever food, tinware, and other supplies they desired. "We had privilege to do this," reasoned Peopeo Tholekt. "It was in the war." The igniting of the sacks of bacon—the work of "bad boys," said Yellow Wolf—produced an enormous blaze that enabled the defending party to witness the proceedings and most likely kept the Nez Perces from approaching the earthworks too closely. "I believe the fire was what saved us," said Foley. That night he composed a message for Agent Clendenin, although it was not likely delivered until the next day after the warriors had departed. The message read:

Rifle Pit at Cow Island,
September 23, 1877, 10 a.m. [p.m.?]

Col: Chief Joseph is here, and says he will surrender for two hundred bags of sugar. I told him to surrender without the sugar. He took the sugar and will not surrender. What shall I do? [28]

In the morning the firing died down, evidently at the instigation of the Nez Perce leadership, and by 10:00 a.m. the people had departed Cow Creek and the river canyon, passing up a ridge to the benchland and heading in the direction of the pass between the Bear's Paw and Little Rocky mountains. The tons of supplies continued to burn well into the afternoon, when Agent Clendenin arrived from downstream. "Calicoes, stationery and other drygoods, were strewn over the surrounding hills and through the gulches for miles." [29] No fatalities had occurred on either side in the skirmish at Cow Island; besides the two injured civilians, one warrior—Wounded Head—had been grazed in the head by a piece of wood splintered by a bullet. [30]

While the events at Cow Island progressed on September 23, troops from Fort Benton—alerted to the presence of the Nez Perces in the region—were moving close at hand. On September 21, on receipt of news that the advancing Nez Perces were threatening the defenseless trading post of Fort Clagett, on the south side of the Missouri below the mouth of the Judith River, Major Guido Ilges, post commander at Fort Benton, started a force downstream to its relief. The garrison of Fort Benton, reduced to a single depleted company of the Seventh Infantry, required Ilges to enlist volunteers from among the adjacent citizen population, each man to furnish his own horse, gun, and ammunition. Second Lieutenant Edward E. Hardin, with thirteen men of Company F plus two citizen volunteers and a mountain howitzer, boarded mackinaw boats and set out down the Missouri, reaching Fort Clagett in the forenoon of the twenty-second. Accompanied by thirty-eight citizens and a single enlisted man, Private Thomas Bundy of Company F, all mounted, Ilges started overland for the well-fortified post, which he reached late in the afternoon of the twenty-second.

After determining from his scouts that the tribesmen had gone toward Cow Island, Ilges at dawn on the twenty-fourth directed his force sixty-five miles downstream "to protect people and property (both private and public) against the hostile Nez-Perces." The command reached the south bank opposite the Cow Island landing past sundown, long after the warriors had lifted their siege of Molchert's party and departed, although the destroyed freight was still burning. En route down the river from Clagett, Lieutenant Hardin picked up Sergeant Molchert and his men, who were trekking to Dauphin Rapids, and brought them back to Cow Island. [31] The next morning, Tuesday, September 25, Ilges used the mackinaws to ferry his men and horses across the Missouri. At 9:30 a.m., he started with his mounted civilian force on the Nez Perces' trail up Cow Creek amid reports that a wagon freight train bound for Benton, and a light wagon containing military personnel and civilians, including four women, lay ahead on the road. Ilges hoped to rescue any members of either group who might somehow have escaped from the tribesmen. "Any one who has ever traveled through Cow Creek Canyon, with its 31 crossings, its narrow bottom, its high and precipitous sides, shutting off the traveler from the outside world, will know what a task was before the volunteers should the Indians still be in the canyon and disposed to dispute its passage," averred the publisher of the Fort Benton Record after interviewing a member of Ilges's expedition. [32]

A Prussian soldier immigrant possessing extensive Civil War and frontier service, [33] Major Ilges led his command only ten miles north of the Missouri before his scouts sighted the Nez Perces, whose warriors had surrounded the wagon train and its eight men in Cow Creek Canyon. The train, which included a herd of cattle, belonged to Messrs. O. G. Cooper and Frank Farmer and had left Cow Island on September 22, camping on the benchland above the Missouri. On the twenty-third the train moved on, but muddy roads and the numerous crossings of Cow Creek made progress slow, and it was but a matter of time before the Nez Perces caught up with it after they had left Cow Island. Some warriors approached the wagons unthreateningly, and the entire Nez Perce assemblage camped the night of the twenty-fourth within one and one-half miles of the train. In the morning, as Farmer and Cooper went up the creek to look after the cattle, some of the warriors shot and killed a teamster named Barker, and at the sound of the firing the two men ran into the hills, where they found most of the other teamsters.

The warriors had shot Barker seemingly at the approach of Ilges's men, and the seven other teamsters managed to flee into the willows as the combat began, all unaware for the moment that the shooting involved the volunteers from Fort Benton. The warriors simultaneously set the train afire and started down the canyon to meet the command. A thousand yards from Ilges and his force, they split into small groups, disappearing from view as they sought advantageous positions on the high ground in Ilges's front and among the hills on his right, from which they opened a long-range fire on the men. The major distributed his force as appropriately as the topography of his position in the canyon would allow, placing his wagon and horses in the creek bed, and commenced to return the fire. His position generally lay exposed to Nez Perce marksmen shooting from the surrounding heights, and as the fight opened, Ilges dispatched Private Bundy, the only other soldier present, to go back to the landing and bring forward Lieutenant Hardin and his men and the mountain howitzer. Bundy, traveling by foot, succeeded in reaching the river, and Hardin started immediately. The exchange between Ilges and the Nez Perces, which started at noon, lasted for about two hours, during which one of the citizens was killed. Another, Judge John J. Tattan, was saved when a bullet struck his belt buckle, merely bruising his abdomen. Finally, the warriors stopped shooting and withdrew up Cow Creek Canyon. Fearful that the Indians, by their disappearance, might be attempting to flank his command by the left, and recognizing his decided disadvantage in numbers compared to the warriors, Ilges himself began a slow and cautious withdrawal down the canyon floor. Three miles from the Missouri, he and his men joined the advancing troops under Hardin and returned to the Cow Island entrenchment at 6:00 p.m.

Ilges's casualties amounted to the one volunteer (Edmund Bradley) killed, along with one privately owned horse. He claimed that two Nez Perces were wounded. The major reported that "the citizens . . . behaved well during the fight, with a few exceptions, but they are not a very desirable material to handle under disadvantageous circumstances." [34] He recommended that Private Bundy receive "such recognition as the proper authorities can give to a brave and good soldier." [35] On the twenty-sixth, the troops and civilians returned to the site of their engagement to bury Bradley and Barker and to search for the other teamsters who had fled at the outset of the fight. That night the steamer Benton arrived, discharging fifty tons of freight, while the Silver City approached Cow Island landing with one hundred tons more. On the twenty-seventh, Ilges sent two of his volunteers as couriers cross country to Colonel Miles, operating near the Little Rocky Mountains, to tell him of his work and to provide concrete information of the location of the Nez Perces. "They are traveling slow and cautiously, resting and delaying daily," he wrote. [36] As insurance against future attacks, the Benton transported logs from the island to the landing to be erected into a blockhouse. [37] Lieutenant Hardin remained at Cow Island with twenty-five men and the howitzer while Ilges and the volunteers started up the Cow Creek road on their return to Fort Benton, encountering the burned-out train, its thirty-five tons of goods destroyed or removed by the Nez Perces. Over the next two days, Ilges's party found evidence of further depredations by the Nez Perces, including the body of a man killed between Birch and Eagle creeks. After long marches, Ilges and his volunteers pulled into Fort Benton on the afternoon of September 29, tired but satisfied in the success of their mission. [38] From a military perspective, of course, the Cow Island affair and its aftermath, including Ilges's fight with the Nez Perces, constituted another delaying obstacle in their movement north.

When the Nez Perces left Cow Island headed north, they were less than eighty miles from the United States-Canada boundary. Convinced that they had outdistanced Colonel Sturgis and General Howard and that the army was at least two days behind them, the tribesmen began a leisurely movement dictated as much by the condition of the families and their animals as by rifts appearing among the leadership. The grueling three-months-long journey toward oft-changing and uncertain objectives had taken a severe toll; the people had lost many friends and relatives in the various combats since leaving Idaho, and the pressure and worries connected with obtaining food and supplies while staying ahead of the soldiers amid mounting cold weather had sapped their strength and energy, if not their spirit. The freighter O.G. Cooper made a careful observation of the Nez Perces when they camped near his train on September 24 preceding its destruction the following day. Cooper's remarks represent an important appraisal of the Nez Perces late in their journey and but a few days before they encamped along Snake Creek north of the Bear's Paw Mountains:

While the Indians were around the wagons I tried to count them, but of course could not do so accurately. As near as I could make out, however, there were between seven and eight hundred men, women and children, perhaps more, and I should judge about four hundred warriors. I noticed that all the young sprightly bucks had but a few cartridges in their belts, while the old fellows, and the middle-aged, seemed better supplied; but I think they were all short of ammunition, as they were very anxious to buy from us. They had but a few lodges with them, and they cut green poles when they went into camp. They were armed with all sorts of guns, and many had cavalry carbines. . . . Their animals were very poor, and many had sore backs and feet, but they had some fine horses with them, and I think one—a fine sorrel covered with a blanket—was a race horse. I saw at least a dozen different branded horses. A brown and white pinto and a bay were branded "PI;" several had a heart on right shoulder and an "M" on left; a large bay was branded "circle a," and some mules with harness marks were branded "W.G." There were also a number of Gov. mules and horses. About twenty of their horses, crippled and dead, were left along Cow Creek. [39]

Cooper's estimate of the camp population was close to that given earlier by former captive John Shively in the national park, although his apparent inclusion of young males inflated his estimate of the number of warriors present.

Nee-Me-Poo sources indicate that the internal dissension that had marked their journey from the Yellowstone River continued after they moved north from the Missouri. One dispute among the leadership again involved Poker Joe, who had taken charge of the procession following the Big Hole battle, and Looking Glass, who now asserted his right as a chief to resume that function. On September 25, at the first camp following the skirmish with Ilges, the argument between the two flared anew when Looking Glass complained of the constant hurrying forward mandated under Poker Joe's leadership. With Canada looming ahead, the troops far behind, and with the weakened animals and the weariness of the elderly and the young so pervasive throughout the column, Looking Glass now challenged the need to keep up the pace. With approval of the interband leadership, the change was carried out. The Nee-Me-Poo emerged from the Cow Creek drainage by a natural ridge leading up to the prairie benchland. Then, moving slowly over the next few days to reserve their strength, they skirted the east and northeast edges of the Bear's Paw Mountains until they reached the bottom of Snake Creek, just forty miles south of the British line. There, on Saturday, September 29, amid heavy fog and increasingly frigid autumn temperatures, the tired and weakened people set up their camp at Tsanim Alikos Pah (Place of the Manure Fire), fully aware of their proximity to Canada and freedom from the soldiers. [40]

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