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Nez Perce Summer, 1877







current topic 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

Bear's Paw: Attack and Defense

Bear's Paw: Siege and Surrender



Appendix A

Appendix B


Nez Perce Summer, 1877
Chapter 2: Eruption and White Bird Canyon
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Chapter 2:
Eruption and White Bird Canyon (continued)

The White Bird Canyon fight almost instantly became the subject of controversy regarding the soldiers' performance and the leadership exhibited by Captain Perry. In the weeks that followed, General Howard sympathized with Perry's management of the battle, but described it as a "rout . . . , a kind of Bull Run on a small scale." [39] Sergeant McCarthy summarized the deficiencies of the combat:

Many of the guns choked with broken shells, the guns being rusty and foul. We were in no fit condition to go to White Bird on the night of the 16th. We had been in the saddle nearly 24 hours and men and horses were tired and in bad shape for a fight. To cap the matter, we were marched into a deep cañon and to a country strange to us, and familiar to the enemy. If there was any plan of attack, I never heard of it. The troops were formed in line and about a third advanced in squads and the remainder very soon afterwards retreated in column up a ridge and out of the canon. The detached advanced squads, each acting independently and extended over considerable ground, were attacked in detail and scattered and scarcely any escaped out of the cañon. . . . Many of these men could have been saved if the retreat of the main column had not been so rapid. [40]

The Mount Idaho volunteers also came under criticism for having largely evacuated their position at the first shooting. [41] The post-battle assessment would continue for years, with most debate centering on Perry's leadership, the problem of numerical inferiority when one-fourth of a cavalry command had to hold horses, and the dearth of training that hurt the soldiers at White Bird Canyon and further demoralized them afterwards. "The explanation . . . is simply that the men had not been drilled, could not manage their horses, and knew little of the use of their arms," wrote one critic. [42] Persistent criticism of Perry's performance, principally at White Bird Canyon, but also at the later engagements at Cottonwood and Clearwater, led to his request for courts of inquiry, which themselves generated controversy but found Perry's conduct acceptable under the circumstances. Despite this cloud, in later years Perry and Parnell received brevet promotions for their service at White Bird Canyon, and Theller won posthumous notice "for brave and soldierly conduct" in the events resulting in his death. [43]

Three days after the debacle in White Bird Canyon, Perry and his command, accompanied by a contingent of citizens, reconnoitered out of Grangeville toward the battlefield, but went only as far as the head of the canyon. No Indians were seen. The troops rested at Henry C. Johnson's ranch, the place where they had stopped on their retreat on the seventeenth, then passed back into Grangeville. That evening, the first medical personnel arrived from Fort Lapwai. General Howard had learned of Perry's debacle on the afternoon of June 17. One of the first reports came from two Company F soldiers, Corporal Charles W. Fuller and Private John White, who had fled at the opening of the battle, racing their mounts all the way back to Fort Lapwai with the earliest—though erroneousnews of the defeat.

More accurate reports arrived soon after, [44] and since then, Howard had busily mobilized reinforcements from throughout his department and the Department of California. Besides four companies of cavalry and three of infantry already available at Fort Lapwai and Lewiston, Howard could expect auxiliaries in the form of six companies of cavalry, five batteries of artillery (intended to function as infantry), and three companies of infantry, for a total of about 960 men. In addition, he directed that Major John W. Green's troops at Fort Boise march north to watch the area of the Weiser Valley and keep tribesmen from that region from joining the Nez Perces. And with divisional approval, Howard arranged for troops to be sent from the East Coast.

Some of the department force was on hand and moving out of Fort Lapwai by June 22, and when Howard departed the next day to personally lead the campaign, his immediate command consisted of 227 regular soldiers of Companies E and L, First Cavalry; Companies B, D, E, I, and H, Twenty-first Infantry; and Battery E, Fourth Artillery, outfitted as infantrymen, plus a unit of volunteers from Walla Walla under Captain Thomas Paige. Other troops were to follow two days later.

Reaching Norton's Ranch at Cottonwood at 1:30 p.m. on the twenty-third, Howard noted the rampant destruction at the place: "There is the clothing cut and torn and strewn about—the broken chairs, the open drawers, the mixing of flour, sugar, salt and rubbish—the evidences of riot run mad." [45] On Sunday, Howard sent instructions to Captain Trimble at Grangeville to proceed with Company H to Slate Creek to assist the Salmon River settlers. [46]

On Monday, June 25, Howard and his cavalry visited Grangeville and Mount Idaho, greeting wounded soldiers hospitalized in the hotel and meeting citizens and inspecting their makeshift barricades before moving on to Johnson's Ranch, where the infantry troops had preceded him. Early the next morning, the command began a reconnaissance into White Bird Canyon, cautiously entering the defile leading toward the Salmon with skirmishers advanced. On the battle site, the troopers stood over their dead comrades in the hills and ravines and dug their graves, a horrid, detested job that filled them with anguish. Many corpses had grown disfigured and decomposed over the nine days of exposure since the combat. "One body of a cavalry soldier gave us some anxious moments," wrote an officer, "for it was thrust so hard into a small hawthorn tree, in the full and life-like position of firing that we did not approach without guns cocked." [47] Late in the afternoon, in the midst of a driving thunderstorm, the men found Lieutenant Theller's remains lying where he and his small force had been entrapped. The body was wrapped and carefully interred where it lay. [48]

While the burials were taking place, Howard, Perry, and Captain Paige, reconnoitering the Nez Perces, saw the warriors across the river intently watching the troops. They had crossed at Horseshoe Bend and established their camp on Deer Creek. Underestimating the tribesmen's ability to negotiate both the rugged topography and rivers, the general sent word to McDowell that "the longer . . . Joseph delays with his women, children and abundant stock of horses and cattle between the Salmon and the Snake, the more certain he is shut in when Major Green presses up the Weiser and Boise trails." [49] Believing that the Nez Perces intended to keep his troops from fording, Howard planned to station a hundred sharpshooters on a ridge across from the mouth of Canyon Creek, while his other troops engaged the warriors from the front. To this end, he sent a note to Trimble at Slate Creek: "Be prepared to follow up a success from us by intercepting and obstructing trails toward Little Salmon." [50] But on the twenty-seventh, following a brief and ineffective exchange of fire with the tribesmen, the command made preparations to cross the raging stream one and one-half miles above the mouth of White Bird Creek. [51] When Howard raised the American flag at his headquarters, the Nez Perces simultaneously raised a red blanket and called for the troops to cross the river and fight. And as the troops tried to get a rope across the stream to begin ferrying themselves over, the warriors continued their baiting, waving blankets and taunting the men to come after them. [52] That evening, Howard's command bivouacked near the White Bird crossing. Despite the strain of dealing with Perry's dead, the men seemed relaxed. As Lieutenant Charles E. S. Wood observed:

Camp—singing along, telling [stories], and swearing—profanity, carelessness. Accepting things—horrible at other times—as a matter of course, such as mutilated corpses and death in ghastly forms, strewn on every side. Again there is the necessary leaving of last messages for sweethearts, mothers, and wives, telling of jokes about being killed, about not looking for "my body," &c. Firing expected tomorrow. The nerve it takes to face the probabilities by writing these last letters and leaving mementoes for loved ones is wonderful,—and one feels demoralized by such acts as these. [53]

On the twenty-eighth, after a delay that he considered unwarranted, still more reinforcements reached Howard, consisting of batteries A, D, G, and M, Fourth Artillery (serving as infantrymen), and Company C, Twenty-first Infantry, boosting the command to almost four hundred men. That afternoon, the general noted, the "Indians charged to the river, a brisk skirmish ensued, after which they left the valley for the heights beyond." [54] The next day, June 29, Howard ordered his train back to Fort Lapwai for supplies; Captain Perry commanded the escort of Company F, First Cavalry, and Paige's Washington volunteers. During the day, two small volunteer units arrived from Lewiston and Dayton, Washington Territory, commanded, respectively, by Captains Edward McConville and George Hunter. McConville's troops were sent forward to Slate Creek to support Captain Trimble's command. [55] That evening, after his men had secured a rope across the Salmon, Howard received word that Looking Glass, heretofore reported to have refrained from openly supporting the people with Joseph and White Bird, was doing precisely that and, moreover, was threatening to join in the conflict. To keep that from happening, Howard sent a force under Captain Stephen G. Whipple to "surprise and capture this chief and all that belonged to him." [56]

Certainly the Nez Perces' defeat of Perry's command must have created a powerful incentive for Looking Glass to explore the option of joining the others. Similarly, the Battle of White Bird Canyon created an inducement for the tribesmen of White Bird, Joseph, and Toohoolhoolzote to continue the fight and perhaps raised false hopes among them as to the eventual outcome. For the army, the battle produced a healthy respect for the fighting abilities of the Nez Perces. It showed that the people could—and would—fight to protect their interests and could deliver a blow swiftly and with stunning accuracy. The troops learned that the warriors were better riders than themselves and expertly adept marksmen capable of inflicting severe casualties in the ranks. Individualistic in their mode of warfare, the Nez Perces used their innate abilities to foil their tormentors and turn them back while operating within the parameters of their group objectives. They employed their ammunition economically and did not foolishly attempt to fire from horseback, as had the soldiers. Their well-trained ponies stood calmly during the tumult while the army mounts panicked and pulled their holders about. If there was any consolation for General Howard in the wake of the White Bird Canyon debacle, it lay in the knowledge that more soldiers were at hand and that the army's resources were renewable whereas the tribesmen's were not. But Howard would learn that irrepressible spirits were sufficient for the course.

Looking Glass
Looking Glass, leader of the Alpowai band of Nee-Me-Poo, as photographed by William Henry Jackson in 1871. Captain Stephen Whipple's assault on Looking Glass's village on July 1, 1877, effectually drove that chief to support.
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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