Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
NPS Logo

Chapter I:


In 1862 he started to Warren with a posse of men and on the head of the Owyhee river they rescued a man and his wife from the Indians by killing the Indians.


On the Salmon River a few miles above the mouth of White Bird Creek is the grave of a white man killed by Nez Perces at the outbreak of hostilities. The history of the case as told by a half-blood of good repute is that before the war a young married Indian couple were met in their forest camp by this same white man, who, having the ascendency in arms tied up the husband and subjected the woman to unwarranted indignities. For this was his life forfeited.


The blood that cried for vengence of his murdered kin and clan.


The Indians, White Bird's Band, were raised around here and had lived and trafficked with the whites, who were nearly all storekeepers, for a good many years. Many causes of dissension had grown up amongst them, and in nearly every case the whites were to blame. They were in fact crowding the Indians, taking forcible possession of every little plot of ground that would grow anything along the river and the creeks flowing into it, and covering the hills with their stock. I could not for anything be the apologist for the Indians, but could not shut my eyes to what I saw and also my ears to what I heard, and in my opinion the white people were to blame for the trouble.


It is the old story of aggression by the whites on lands which the savages believed to be by right their hunting-grounds; of unavailing efforts by the Government to induce roving bands to live upon a reservation; of threats to employ force; and of a sudden and revengeful outbreak on the part of the Indians, attended by horrible massacres of settlers and their families.

— THE TIMES (London), July 3, 1877

It was bad men on both sides who made the trouble.


On June 13 the Nez Perce remained in camp near Tolo Lake. In only 24 hours they had to stand within the boundaries of the new reservation or feel the wrath of General Howard, but there was no sense of urgency among the warriors. They had agreed to move, but they intended to do it in their own fashion and with dignity. The young men were sullen but under control. To pay tribute to their camping place and bid it a final farewell, the chiefs decided to stage a war parade. Perhaps they were also aware of the therapeutic value of a warlike demonstration in purging pent up feelings of resentment and hatred.

One of the positions of honor in the parade was behind the end of the horse column. In conditions of war the chiefs selected some of their best men to bring up the rear in order to prevent the enemy from launching a surprise attack. In the ceremony two warriors mounted on a single pony were the honor guard. Shore Crossing and Red Moccasin Tops were happy when they heard the news: the place of courage was theirs.

Shore Crossing was the son of Eagle Robe, a chief who had been killed in March of 1874 by a rancher named Larry Ott in a property dispute. [1] According to the Nez Perce he was slow to anger but a formidable enemy when fully aroused. Indeed few rivaled him in strength or valor. Red Moccasin Tops was the son of Yellow Bull and the grandson of Tomahas, one of the Cayuse murderers of Marcus Whitman. The men were first cousins, or brothers in Indian parlance. Shore Crossing held the reins, and Red Moccasin Tops mounted behind him. In passing through the village, the horse they were riding stepped on a piece of canvas covered with drying kouse roots and scattered them in every direction. The owner of the property, Yellow Grizzly flew into a rage. "See what you do!" he cried. "Playing brave you ride over my woman's hardworked food! If you so brave, why not go kill the white man who killed your father?" A moment passed. "You will be sorry for your words," was the reply as Shore Crossing urged the horse forward. [2]

After the parade Shore Crossing retired to his lodge and brooded over the incident. With his dying words Eagle Robe had asked his son not to seek revenge, but the words of Yellow Grizzly were an insult to the manhood of a proud warrior. They stirred deeply in his being and old wounds became fresh. Liquor recently obtained from an unprincipled white man helped to make things clear, and Shore Crossing soon reached a decision: his father would be avenged. [3]

Red Moccasin Tops agreed to join in the vendetta. The warriors needed a third man to hold their horses when they went into action. Swan Necklace, the 17-year-old nephew of Shore Crossing, was their choice. [4] The boy was alone when his uncle found him. Receiving instructions to follow, the would-be warrior obeyed. He mounted behind Shore Crossing, and without explanation the riders moved out of camp in the direction of Salmon River. [5]

The Indians took an old trail that wound up the north side of White Bird Hill and then descended into the little valley watered by White Bird Creek. From there they could follow the stream to its confluence with the Salmon. Six miles upriver on the west bank of the Salmon stood the home of Larry Ott. When the men reached the homestead of J. J. Manuel on White Bird Creek, they paused to sharpen their knives on the rancher's grindstone. Manuel found them friendly and felt no alarm. [6]

About three miles above the mouth of White Bird Creek, the warriors stopped at a store owned by Harry Mason and attempted to trade a horse for a rifle, but the trader declined. Mason was a bit apprehensive and kept a hand on a revolver under the counter as he dickered with the Indians. He had administered a whipping to two Nez Perce in the spring, and although a council of arbitration ruled in his favor, Mason was still uneasy in the presence of young warriors who might hold a grudge. After pricing some other items, the Nez Perce departed. [7]

Crossing the Salmon the warriors drew near the Ott ranch early in the afternoon. It was then that Swan Necklace fully understood the purpose of the trip. [8] But Larry Ott was nowhere to be found. [9] After a thorough search of the area failed to disclose their prey, the warriors decided to vent their spleen on another white man whom they hated. He was Richard Devine, a retired sailor who lived near the mouth of Carver Creek many miles upriver. The Nez Perce had accused him of the murder of a crippled Indian, and to the avengers he appeared to be a worthy substitute for Larry Ott.

Continuing their journey the Indians later recrossed the Salmon to pick up the main trail on its east bank. Four miles farther upstream they stopped to buy food from Charles F. Cone, a friend of the Nez Perce who owned a ranch near the mouth of Slate Creek. [10] The warriors also tried to purchase ammunition, but Cone refused them. He thought it strange that the young men were traveling up the river so late in the day, especially since two of them rode the same horse. He also noted the poor quality of their mounts. The Indians usually selected their best animals when taking a long trip. [11]

Covering another six miles the warriors came to the Henry Elfers ranch, which stood on the bank of John Day Creek not far from its confluence with the Salmon. Elfers and two others were busy milking cows when the party appeared. Not being able to see clearly in the twilight, Catherine Elfers headed toward the house to inspect her rental rooms. She thought that perhaps the travelers might wish to engage them, since it was almost dark. Returning from her chore, she saw that the men were Indians. The purpose of their visit--so they said--was to inquire after some horses that had strayed from their camp on Camas Prairie. Receiving a negative reply they rode off down the trail. [12] Their next stop was the cabin of Richard Devine. [13]

According to War Singer the Indians reached the Devine ranch late at night. Leaving the horses in charge of Swan Necklace, the avengers entered the shack where they found the old man awake. He was no match for the young warriors, and they killed him with a bullet from his own rifle. [14] Following the murder the party decided to retrace its steps and pay a return visit to Jurden Henry Elfers. The German had some fine horses and his heart had not always opened to the Nez Perce. [15]

Early on the morning of June 14, Elfers started for his hayfield and pasture located on an elevated plateau behind his homestead about two hundred yards southwest. After driving the stock to pasture, he intended to try out a new mowing machine on his hay crop. Elfers sent his 21-year-old nephew, "Harry" Burn Beckrodge, ahead with the calves. [16] Robert Bland, a hired man, followed with the cows, and Elfers brought up the rear with the horses. Perhaps half an hour elapsed between the time Beckrodge left the corral and Elfers reached the pasture. [17]

When Shore Crossing, Red Moccasin Tops, and Swan Necklace reached the Elfers ranch, they secreted themselves near the path leading to the pasture. To attract the attention of anyone who might pass by, they staked their horses in a little patch of oats that bordered the trail. As each man approached the hiding place, he was picked from the saddle by a bullet from Devine's rifle. Red Moccasin Tops was the one who dispatched Henry Elfers and ended the killing. [18]

While the avengers worked their will on the unsuspecting rancher and his helpers, Catherine churned butter in the milk-house on the bank of John Day Creek. The sound of rushing water drowned the noise of death as she went about her work. Later she returned to the house. [19]

After rounding up the finest of Elfers horses, the Nez Perce began a hunt for arms and ammunition. They entered the ranch house and found a rifle belonging to a man in Warren, which an expressman had left at the ranch a few days before, and a handful of cartridges. Taking the loot, the young men departed. Continuing northward they rode down the trail leading to Slate Creek. Catherine saw the Indians leave but did not suspect that anything was wrong. [20]

At least three men saw the smoke emitted by Devine's rifle when the shots were fired. Not all of them, however, attached the same significance to the occurrence. A packer, John T. Johnson, who viewed the smoke from the mountain prairie far above the hayfield, concluded that some boys were after coyotes and continued his journey. Victor, a Frenchman working a claim on the bank of Salmon River, also observed the telltale sign. Suspecting foul play, he left his claim to gather his colleagues and investigate. A third man named Whitfield, who had been hunting in the vicinity, apparently saw the smoke that marked the end of the drama. Rushing to the site he discovered the bodies of the three men. They lay upon the trail only a few yards apart. [21]

Without telling Mrs. Elfers what happened, Whitfield hurried two miles up John Day Creek to notify Norman Gould of the tragedy. Gould operated the Elfers lumber mill and was a good friend of the family. Whitfield found Gould at home and in the company of George Greer, another Salmon River settler. He quickly related his story, and the three men started back to the ranch to break the news to Catherine. In the meantime Victor and his companions reached the pasture and made their own discovery of the dead. They reported their findings to Mrs. Elfers, but she refused to believe them. It was not until after Gould arrived and had the bodies brought to the house that she showed signs of accepting the fact of the death of her husband. [22] After conferring the men decided to take Mrs. Elfers and her children and seek safety among the Cones and Woods on Slate Creek. [23]

When the Indians neared Slate Creek, they left the main trail and climbed upward to a path that followed the contour of the mountain top in order to avoid passing through the tiny settlement. Two miles below the mouth of the tributary, they returned to the lower trail bordering the Salmon and almost immediately encountered Charles Cone. Warning him that the Nez Perce were on the warpath and that it was dangerous to be out alone, they continued their journey. The rancher took the Indians at their word and spread the alarm to settlers in the immediate vicinity. [24]

About one mile above the mouth of White Bird Creek, the warriors met an old nemesis, Samuel Benedict, who was out looking for his cows. Red Moccasin Tops had been wounded by the white man in a foray almost two years before, and the Nez Perce was anxious to even the score. One of the Indian bullets found its mark, but the wound was not fatal. Playing dead, Benedict escaped further injury, and the Indians left him to return to the camp on Camas Prairie. [25]

When Shore Crossing and Red Moccasin Tops reached Round Willow, they halted momentarily and sent Swan Necklace ahead with the news of their killing. Carrying a rifle and riding a roan horse taken from Henry Elfers, the boy paraded into camp and delivered the message to his people. Big Morning, the brother of Yellow Bull, relieved Swan Necklace of his plunder and, mounting the animal, rode among the lodges crying: "This is the horse and this is the gun they have brought back! You must all remember that we have to fight now.!" [26] Amidst the movement and the shouting, Shore Crossing and Red Moccasin Tops made their triumphal entrance. [27]

Volunteers for a second raid were not hard to find among the young men, and in a short time at least 17 warriors joined the ranks of the avengers. [28] Among them were Bare Feet, Red Elk, Strong Eagle, Stick in the Mud, and Geese Three Times Lighting on the Water, the only Wallowa who chose to go. Leadership naturally fell to Yellow Bull, a buffalo hunter and warrior of some repute who had been with Looking Glass in the Crow-Sioux battle on Pryor's Fork a few years before. [29] Quickly completing their preparations, the war party galloped out of camp. [30]

Joseph and Frog were absent when Swan Necklace brought the news of the raid. [31] They were busy herding cattle across the Salmon and butchering beef for a feast. The remaining chiefs went into council after Yellow Bull and the marauders made their exit. Some apparently argued that war was inevitable and they should move rapidly to prepare for its coming. Old Rainbow and others cautioned against war at this time. Before the meeting ended most of the participants apparently agreed to chart a course of neutrality. They would wait and see how the whites reacted. Perhaps there was still a chance for peace. In any event the chiefs determined to leave Tolo Lake. It was now a bad place. [32]

In the morning Two Moons stepped from the darkness of his tepee to see Joseph and Frog approaching camp leading 12 horses packed with fresh meat. Mounting a horse he rode out to greet the brothers and convey the disquieting news. The intelligence must have been painful to Joseph. The search for peace had occupied him almost constantly since the death of his father, and he saw that unless he acted swiftly and forcefully it promised to elude him forever. Hurrying to the camp, Joseph and Frog found most of the lodges already down. Riding about the tepee circle, they exhorted their people to remain. "Let us stay here till the army comes," they said. "We will make some kind of peace with them." [33] But their words fell on closed ears and the exodus continued. Soon the lodges of the Wallowas stood alone. The rest of the Nez Perce headed for a camping place called Drive-Inn, named for a large cavern near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek.

Joseph and Frog spent the rest of the day and night on Camas Prairie. A relative tried to persuade Joseph to return to Fort Lapwai and explain that the Wallowas had no part in the killing. But the chief replied: "I can hardly go back. The white people will blame me, telling me that my young men have killed the whitemen." [34] Experience had taught him that frontiersmen often had difficulty in distinguishing one Indian from another. After darkness fell the Indians reported that white raiders fired several shots into the camp, but all of the party escaped injury. In the morning Joseph and Frog decided to join their tribesmen on Cottonwood Creek. [35]

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

Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003