online book

cover to document
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

Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon

Yellowstone Command

current topic Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense

Bear's Paw: Siege and Surrender



Appendix A

Appendix B


Nez Perce Summer, 1877
Chapter 12: Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense
NPS logo

Chapter 12:
Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense (continued)

Yet the break in the shooting was brief, for when their maneuver exposed the flank of Companies A and D, the warriors opened again, this time raking and inflicting heavy losses among the men of those units. Moylan and Godfrey, who was again mounted, led their troops through a veritable rain of bullets toward where Hale and his men were engaged about one hundred yards from the Indians. Adjutant Baird, en route with an order for Hale respecting the holding of his position, took a bullet in the left arm that shattered the bone, while another tore off part of his left ear. Entering the large ravine immediately to the right of the plateau on which A and D had charged forward, the dismounted men found themselves easy targets for the Nez Perces. [20] Godfrey remembered that the overcoats encumbered his soldiers, but they could not take the time to remove them as they hurried ahead. As Godfrey stepped up the bank of a ravine, a bullet struck him in the side; within minutes, he slid from his mount, grabbed the pommel of the saddle, and used it as support as he made his way to the rear seeking medical aid. [21] Shortly thereafter, as Company A arrived on the scene, Captain Moylan dismounted to get instructions from Hale and took a bullet in his upper right thigh that "sent him springing around." Moylan headed to the rear seeking treatment for his wound. And Captain Hale, who had been encouraging his men, had just completed reloading his revolver behind the skirmish line when a bullet tore through his neck, breaking it and killing him instantly, leaving Lieutenant Eckerson as the only commissioned officer still engaged of the three Seventh Cavalry companies. When the soldiers reported their ammunition running low, Eckerson mounted, raced to the rear, and brought forward a new supply, despite his horse being wounded in the effort.

Lieutenant Oscar Long, who in continuance of the wounded Baird's mission had arrived with instructions for Hale to attempt to connect with Companies A and D, temporarily took charge of the dwindling members of Company K and ultimately effected the union. [22] As in the past, the Nez Perces had successfully targeted commissioned and noncommissioned officers. "Any insignia of rank was almost a death warrant," noted a correspondent. [23] Already, the three first sergeants of the battalion (George McDermott, Company A; Michael Martin, Company D; and Otto Wilde, Company K), along with several more sergeants and corporals, lay dead or dying on the field. Eventually, the horse holders let their animals go and assumed positions on the line. "Our horses went back without leaders," remembered Private Allen. "Every man stayed and fought. . . . After the battle that morning our horses were found grazing back in the rear." [24] Dr. Tilton, who with his assistant surgeon managed to move over the field attending the stricken troops amid the galling fusillades, depicted the scene: "Riderless horses are galloping over the hills; others are stretched lifeless upon the field; men are being struck on every side, and some so full of life a few moments before have no need of the surgeon's aid." [25]

Captain Snyder's mounted infantrymen, meanwhile, had completed their deployment by the time Companies A and D of the cavalry began their pedestrian movement to join Company K. Leading their Indian ponies by lariats, the foot troops pressed forward over the ground that A and D had charged in on during the initial assault and took position on the bluff overlooking Snake Creek. From this vantage, the Fifth soldiers, lying prone, began firing volleys against the warriors still sheltered in surrounding draws who were harassing the Seventh troopers to their right front across the coulees. At one point, Company G of the Fifth began to deploy in skirmish order "by the right flank" to gain a more advantageous position on the line. Lieutenant Romeyn described what happened:

The Bugler was ordered to sound the deployment. "I can't blow, sir; I'm shot!" said the brave fellow, and a glance toward him showed him on the ground, with a broken spine. Another man lay still when the movement began, his head toward the enemy. A Sergeant in his rear, creeping crab-wise toward his new position, was directed to have him move along. "He can't do it, sir; he's dead," was the reply. [26]

The arrival and placement of the Hotchkiss gun on the brow of the ridge immediately west of the south bluff was intended to bombard the Nez Perce positions, but the muzzle of the piece could not immediately be lowered sufficiently to be effective and the precise shooting by the warriors in its front soon forced its temporary abandonment. Throughout the opening phase of the action, Miles rode back and forth in the rear observing and directing operations, sending staff officers ahead with orders to the commanders of the Seventh Cavalry and Fifth Infantry. Tilton described him as riding "here, there, and everywhere. When the first horse is blown a fresh one is mounted, and off again." [27] Lieutenant Long reminded Miles years later that "the fire of the Indians was often concentrated on you, so much so, in fact, that Colonel [then Captain] Snyder, Captain [then Lieutenant] Carter and others begged of you to dismount for their sake as well as your own, for on your safety that of the whole command depended." [28] Miles nonetheless ranged over the field, occasionally calling to the tribesmen to surrender and stop the fighting. [29] At one point he approached the position of the beleaguered Seventh Cavalry engaged at the far right. "I was shocked to see the lifeless body of that accomplished officer and thorough gentleman, Hale, lying upon the crest of a little knoll, with his white charger beside him. A little further on was the body of the young and spirited Biddle." [30] A crisis in leadership of the Seventh Cavalry troops now facing him, Miles directed Lieutenant Romeyn of the Fifth to move forward through the gullies on the right with his own Company G and take command of the crippled battalion of the Seventh. [31] At the same time, the effective shooting of Snyder's infantrymen poised on the bluff sent the Nez Perces to find cover, thereby relieving the cavalrymen sufficiently to allow them to begin a semblance of withdrawal from the catastrophic field. [32]

Nez Perce recollections of the opening assault by Miles's force present an indelible account of the terror it aroused among the people and their reaction to it. But for the quick response of the warriors to warnings by their scouts of the imminent strike, the camp would have been defenseless. Like many others preparing to move, the young man, Black Eagle, had started toward the herd when the commotion arose in camp. "Turning, I saw everybody in confusion; those scattered rushing back to camp and getting their guns. . . . I knew well what that meant, and I ran for the horses." Black Eagle recalled, "I had soldier shoes on which were too large and heavy for the swift going. I stopped and took them off, leaving them there on the ground." [33] When Joseph heard the tumult, he was still with the horses. He told his young daughter to catch one and flee with the others starting north from the camp. Then he raced back, the bullets from soldiers tearing through his clothing and wounding his horse. "As I reached the door of my lodge, my wife handed me my rifle, saying: 'Here's your gun. Fight!'" [34] The warrior, Shot in Head, remembered the shouting: "'Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers! Soldiers have come!' Then the crack of guns filled the air. Everybody was outside, running here, there, everywhere." Shot in Head with several others, in their enthusiastic fighting, later got outside the soldiers' lines and had difficulty returning to protect the camp. [35]

In the initial confusion following the alarm, Yellow Wolf, like the others, ran to the herd intent on saving the horses. From the high ground of the plateau above the village, he looked across to the plain beyond camp and saw "hundreds of soldiers charging in two wide, circling wings. They were surrounding our camp." [36] Yellow Wolf joined about twenty other warriors in the dash for the top of the bluff south of the village. When the Seventh troopers charged forward, it was this group that fired into them and stopped the assault. "We were only a little way from the soldiers," said Yellow Wolf. "We had a fight. We stood strong in the battle. We met those soldiers bullet for bullet. We held those soldiers from advancing. We drove them back." [37] During the first part of the battle, few of the warriors were hit; one who died was Joseph's brother, Ollokot, the respected military leader shot in the head by a soldier's bullet. [38]

While all of this action had been occurring, Captain Tyler's battalion at the outset of the attack had diverted left to sweep around and isolate the herd of about five hundred animals (horses, ponies, and mules) grazing on the high plain three hundred yards west of Snake Creek and the Nez Perce village. But fording the creek and negotiating some adjoining broken terrain retarded Tyler's movement until after the Seventh had become engaged. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne and Lakota scouts, being far out in front of the troops, initiated contact with the Nez Perces as they approached the herd. [39] Following a discussion over the propriety of their attacking before Tyler's men appeared, Young Two Moon led the assault, which consisted of the scouts' approaching the camp apparently from the southwest and firing on it from some distance away. [40] According to Young Two Moon, "the Nez Perces all rode out and looked. Then they began to shoot and the scouts began to charge back and forth in front of the camp." The Nez Perces mounted two feints toward the scouts, but fell back after the Cheyennes shot one person from a horse. [41] All the scouts then advanced for a charge across Snake Creek and into the camp, but only three—Young Two Moon, Starving Elk, and Little Sioux—actually carried forward, mounting two sallies at the camp, evidently with little or no shooting. During the second rush, as many as seventy Nez Perces, probably responding to the cavalry assault south and east of their camp, began evacuating to the northeast with a body of horses. [42]

Presently, Tyler's force came onto the scene, their horses moving at a gallop over the open ground west of Snake Creek as they attempted to cut the herd off from access to the village occupants. The animals reacted sluggishly, perhaps because of the sickness afflicting many of them, [43] and one officer remembered kicking at them to get them to run. Tyler's maneuver succeeded in corralling most of the 500 animals and driving them away from the camp, although perhaps 250 others had been taken by the mounted tribesmen moving northeast in their attempt to flee the village. (Still other horses were present in the village when the troops attacked.) When Tyler's men sighted these people, they were approximately one-half mile from the camp. Acting on orders from Miles sent via the wounded Baird to stop the tribesmen and capture their horses, Tyler sent Lieutenant McClernand's Company G ahead. These troops opened a long-range running encounter, forcing the Indians—who McClernand identified as "mostly men and boys" but who in reality included women and small children, too—over the course of about five miles to relinquish many of their ponies which were then confiscated by the soldiers. [44]

According to a Cheyenne account, the Nez Perce men were out in front, trying to keep the horses from being run off, while the women followed. The troops and scouts tried to get between the two parties,

but the women would not stop and the Nez Perces crowded the scouts so closely that they had to get out on the other side of the Nez Perces. The soldiers did not reach the Nez Perces men. The Nez Perces were very brave and crowded on the soldiers, who after a little while mounted and rode off. [45]

McClernand recalled: "As the men had to be detached from time to time to guard the ponies the Indians were forced to abandon, the enemy finally became stronger than what remained of the troop, and began to work around on our flanks and rear." [46] This factor, as well as the sounds of distant shooting from the direction of the village, prompted McClernand to start back immediately. He described the withdrawal in considerable detail:

For the purpose of covering our retreat as well as possible, a long and deep ravine leading down to the creek near to the Indian camp was selected, and into this were driven the two hundred and fifty ponies captured since leaving Tyler. The troops then moved into the ravine and dismounted. At this time the Indians closed in from all sides except immediately in the rear, where they had not yet time to get. When the troop was dismounted, there were not more than thirty men with it, and these divided into two platoons alternately took position in the lateral ravines that put into the main one. The first platoon would hold the enemy in check until the second had taken position several hundred yards to the rear, when the first platoon would fall back, and so on. By this means a disaster, which seemed imminent at the commencement of the retreat, and of which some of the men had begun to speak, was averted. [47]

Nez Perces who took part in the encounter with the cavalry north of the village recalled their tumultuous attempt to escape. A young boy, About Sleep, had left the village just as the shooting started and got caught up with the herd and the Cheyenne scouts. About Sleep fled with the group heading north, his brother mounted behind him.

Our warriors are passing shots with the cavalrymen. They are close together, mixing up. Soldiers continue sending shots at us, but they cannot stop us. My little brother, holding right to me, has one braid of hair shot off close in his ear. Two soldiers pursue us but are driven back before they catch us. [48]

Another youth recalled trying to get from the herd to the camp when he encountered the same group. "About this time I looked and the high bank back of the camp was black with soldiers." His immediate party succeeded in eluding the pursuers and continued north. "We camped that night . . . on the same creek on which the battle was fought. That afternoon we killed two buffalo and roasted the meat that night and had plenty to eat. All of us were mounted. The next night we camped on Milk River and from there we went on into Canada." [49]

McClernand's maneuvering to capture the stock occupied two or three hours, during which his soldiers crossed to the east of Snake Creek. [50] By the time they returned to the vicinity of the battlefield, the firing had died down. He posted Company G "to hold in check the Indians who had been following us." Most of these people managed to get back into the village and assist in its defense, although some who had left the village earlier evidently stayed away. From his unit's position in the hills northeast of the camp, McClernand went afoot to find Tyler and the balance of the command, encountering some dead and wounded of the Seventh Cavalry on the way. "One wounded sergeant begged me piteously for a drink of water, which I did not have to give. He could not move, or give me any information about our position." [51] Eventually, McClernand returned to his company and removed to a nearby position designated by Colonel Miles. [52]

Continued >>>

top Top

History | Links to the Past | National Park Service | Search | Contact

Last Modified: Thurs, May 17 2001 10:08 pm PDT

ParkNet Home