Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
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Chapter V:


Morning of June 14. Eventless, not a thing to break the monotony, except misquitoes. A chorus of them sang me to sleep last evening but the music is too touching.


Like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, came the news of a hostile attack.


War, bloodshed and other horrible stories are in the mouths of everyone.

June 15

I immediately had boots and saddles blown, and ordered the pack mules to be packed with five days rations I had on hand, which preparation was made in half an hour. In the meantime I hurried to the Post and reported for orders.


Then there was a pallor like the pallor of death itself, which seemed to seize the countenance of those knowing agents of the government. All business of Watkins's Court was quickly suspended, and there was a gathering to and fro, in hot haste, and orders given and dispatches sent for troops, and the fullest evidence given that no preparation had ever been made by Howard for any emergency whatever.


The time of busy preparation had come. As before a battle, when men are often pale and thoughtful, and little is spoken by one to another, so now, officers and men were mostly silent, but in constant motion. Arms, ammunition, provision, means of transporting, everything was being put in readiness with skillful and steady nerves, without over haste, and without confusion.


General O. O. Howard docked at Lewiston at 8 o'clock on the morning of June 14. [1] With him were his aide-de-camp, Lt. Melville Wilkinson, and Indian Inspector Erwin C. Watkins. [2] Howard and his companions had left the Headquarters of the Military Department of the Columbia in Portland on May 30 to visit a number of trouble spots in the Northwest. The general had arranged the trip so that the trio would arrive in Lewiston one day before the Nez Perce were supposed to nave completed their journey to the reservation. Watkins wanted to inspect the agency near Fort Lapwai, and as departmental commander, Howard wanted to be close at hand in case of an emergency.

In the early 1860's Lewiston had been the home of miners, gamblers, desperadoes, and harlots, but by 1877 the village had settled into comparative quietness and respectability. Howard found its setting especially charming and later described it in his book:

The hills behind this pretty town, and close to it, look like regularly constructed fortifications. The line of the table-land is just above the chimneys, and nearly horizontal; and the white fence of a burying place on the top, in the distance, adds to the idea of a constructed parapet. [3]

Lewiston stood near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, and the town could boast of several well-to-do merchants, a mill, and a newspaper.

On hand to meet the party were Capt. David Perry, the commanding officer of Fort Lapwai; his wife; Capt. Joel Trimble, commander of Company H of the First Cavalry; Lt. Peter Bomus, [4] the post quartermaster; Charles Monteith, clerk at the agency and a brother of the agent; and a host of prominent townsfolk. After the formalities of greeting were over, Howard turned to the business at hand. "How is Chief Joseph?" he asked. Putting the general at ease, Captain Perry replied: "All right, at last accounts. The Indians are, I think, coming on the reservation without trouble." [5] Others in the party confirmed the statement, and a few enlarged upon it. The situation appeared to be so well in hand that Howard decided to stay in Lewiston while Watkins made his inspection. Perry, however, convinced his commander that a rest at Fort Lapwai would be more enjoyable, and the general agreed to make the journey to the post, which lay 12 miles southeast of town. Mrs. Perry remained in Lewiston in order to board a steamer going down the river. She had made arrangements to visit friends at The Dalles.

The trip was a pleasant one. The quality of the road and the beauty of the landscape impressed the general, and soon they drove through the gate of Fort Lapwai to find relaxation in Perry's quarters. Later in the day, after Howard was comfortably settled, Perry decided to get in some target practice and left for the range, a short distance from the garrison.

About 6 o'clock that evening, the first courier from Mount Idaho came galloping into Fort Lapwai. In the absence of Perry, who was still at the range, Lieutenant Bomus received the message. The young lieutenant found that it was from L P. Brown and read the communication with interest. After finishing the letter, he looked up to see that Captain Perry had returned from his outing and was walking towards his quarters. Quickly Bomus closed the distance between them and handed him the envelope. [6] Perry opened it and read:

MOUNT IDAHO, June 14, 1877

COLONEL PERRY:--DEAR SIR: Mr. Overman, who resides at or near the head of Rocky Canyon, eight miles from here, came in today and brought his friends. They are very much alarmed at the action of the Indians, who are gathered there. He says there are about sixty lodges, composed of the Salmon River Indians, Joseph and his band, with other non-treaties, and that they are insolent, and have but little to say to the whites, and that all their actions indicate trouble from them. Mr. Overman is regarded as a very truthful man, and confidence can be placed in all his statements. Some of the other neighbors have likewise moved over this way, where there are more people.

Yesterday they had a grand parade. About a hundred were mounted, and well armed, and went through the manoeuvres of a fight--were thus engaged for about two hours. They say, openly, that they are going to fight the soldiers when they come to put them on the reservation, and I understand that they expect them up on Friday next. A good many were in town to-day, and were trying to obtain powder and other ammunition. Mr. Scott told me to-day that they offered him two dollars and half for a can of powder, up to this time, I think they have been buying all the arms, &c., that they could get, but do not believe they can make any purchases now. They have a strong position at the head of the canyon, among the rocks, and should they make any resistance could give the troops much trouble. I do not feel any alarm, but thought it well to inform you of what was going on among them. Early this morning one Indian came here, and wanted to know when General Howard was coming up. As the stage came up last night, they perhaps thought we might know when he would be up. They are evidently on the lookout for the soldiers. I believe it would be well for you to send up, as soon as you can, a sufficient force to handle them without gloves, should they be disposed to resist. Sharp and prompt action will bring them to understand that they must comply with the orders of the government. We trust such action will be taken by you, so as to remove them from the neighborhood, and quiet the feelings of the people.

I write this for your own information, and at the suggestion of many settlers who are living in exposed localities.

Very respectfully yours,

L. P. Brown [7]

Perry immediately took the letter to Howard. Perry trusted Brown's judgment that the situation was not yet critical, and Howard held the same opinion. Before taking drastic action, Perry suggested that they send a detachment to Mount Idaho to investigate the matter, and Howard assented. [8] The detail consisted of Cpl. Joseph Lytte and Pvt. John Schorr of Company F of the First Cavalry, and the post interpreter, a half-breed named Joe Rabusco. [9]

As dawn broke on Friday, June 15, the little detachment rode out of Fort Lapwai. After traveling only 12 miles, their mission came to an abrupt and exciting end. As Lytte and his companions neared Craig's Mountain, they saw horsemen approaching at great speed. They turned out to Nat Webb and Putonahloo, friendly Nez Perce who were bringing news of the killings on the Salmon. Webb had been visiting in the camp near Tolo Lake when the avengers returned from their initial raid. He had immediately decided to ride to Fort Lapwai with the news, but he feared that a quick departure flight arouse the suspicions of the nontreaty Nez Perce and lead to his capture and possibly his death, so he spent the night in the village and then left as soon as daylight appeared. As the young Indian drew near the detachment, he began to shout for the soldiers to stop. He told them that fighting had broken out and that it was useless to go any further. Wheeling their mounts to the rear, Lytte, Schorr, and Rabusco joined the couriers of doom in their race to Fort Lapwai. [10]

At exactly 11 o'clock, the messengers came in sight of the post. As they rushed through the cavalry camp a short distance from the fort, one of the riders relayed the news to Captain Trimble, who happened to be about. "The Indians are killing the citizens at Mount Idaho," was the cry as the party swept by. Trimble immediately called for his trumpeter, and in a short time the notes of "Boots and Saddles" roused the camp into hurried movement. Trimble issued orders to load the pack mules with five day's rations and galloped to post headquarters for orders. [11]

Howard and Perry listened intently as Rabusco attempted to interpret the foreboding tale told by the Indian messengers. The half-breed had some difficulty in making the translation, and the officers were not quite sure just what had happened. Apparently three or four Indians had committed a murder on Slate Creek, and the killing had something to do with Larry Ott. Howard and Perry decided to take the Indians to the agency, located four miles north of the post, and have them repeat their story for Inspector Watkins and Agent John E. Monteith. [12] This time Perin Whitman, the agency interpreter, did the translating, but he was unable to clarify the account. [13] One thing was certain: all of the men feared that trouble was coming, unless they acted swiftly. It appeared that the killing was an isolated incident, but the hatred it had generated might explode into widespread violence at any moment. [14] To stem the rising tide of hostility, Monteith suggested that Jonah Hayes, the acting head chief of the treaty Nez Perce, ride to the camp at the mouth of Rocky Canyon and urge constraint and compliance. Joseph's brother-in-law, another agency Indian, volunteered to go with Jonah, and it was not long before the Indians left on their errand of peace.

Perhaps an hour had passed when the emissaries returned to Fort Lapwai accompanied by Mr. West and Tucallasasena, who carried dispatches from Mount Idaho. Although West had left the hamlet an hour earlier than Tucallasasena the Indian had overtaken the half-breed on the road, and they were together when they met the Indian ambassadors sent by Monteith.

A crowd gathered on Perry's front porch shortly after the messengers rode into the fort. All the officers were there, and the ladies of the post soon arrived. Included in the assemblage were a number of agency Indians who had been in the nontreaty village on June 13, but who had left after it had become obvious to them that some of the warriors were serious in their claims to resist any attempt to put them on the reservation. Howard felt the excitement of the moment, and aware of the need to maintain his poise, he made an effort to appear cool and self-possessed as he opened the packets and read, first to himself, and then to his officers, the letters from Mount Idaho.

MOUNT IDAHO, 7 A.M., Friday, June 15, '77


Last night we started a messenger to you, who reached Cottonwood House, where he was wounded and driven back by the Indians. The people of Cottonwood undertook to come here during the night; were interrupted, all wounded or killed. Parties this morning found some of them on the prairie. The wounded will be here shortly, when we will get the full particulars. The whites are engaged about forty of them, in getting the wounded. One thing is certain: we are in the midst of an Indian war. Every family is here, and we will have taken all the precautions we can, but are poorly armed. We want arms and ammunition and help at once. Don't delay a moment. We have a report that some whites were killed yesterday on the Salmon River. No later word from them; fear that the people are all killed, as a party of Indians were seen going that way last night. Send to Lewiston, and hasten up. You can not imagine people in a worse condition than they are here. Mr. West had volunteered to go to Lapwai; rely on his statements.

Yours truly,

L. P. Brown

MOUNT IDAHO, 8 A.M., June 15, 1877


I have just sent a despatch by Mr. West, half-breed. Since that was written the wounded have come in,-- Mr. Day mortally; Mrs. Norton with both legs broken; Moore shot through the hip; Norton killed and left in the road, six miles from here. Teams were attacked on the road and abandoned. The Indians have possession of the prairie, and threaten Mount Idaho. All the people here, and we will do the best we can. Lose no time in getting up with a force. Stop the stage and all "through travellers." Give us relief, and arms and ammunition. Chapman has got this Indian, hoping he may get through. I fear that the people on Salmon have all been killed, as a war party was seen going that way last night. We had a report last night that seven whites had been killed on Salmon. Notify the people of Lewiston. Hurry up; hurry! Rely on this Indian's statement; I have known him for a long time; he is with us.

L. P. Brown

P.S.--Send a despatch to town for the express not to start up, unless heavily escorted. Give the bearer a fresh horse, and send him back.


Howard then examined West, who spoke English, and the messenger gave a graphic account of the murders and outrages that had been committed. After making arrangements to forward the messages to Inspector Watkins and Agent Monteith, Howard wrote a note to Brown, informing him that help was on the way. He sent his aid-de-campe to Walla Walla and the closest telegraph station to communicate his orders for troops and supplies to headquarters. Finally he dispatched Quartermaster Bomus to Lewiston to procure pack animals to carry supplies for Perry and his command, who prepared to move to the scene of the outbreak. [15]

Howard's way was clear. Necessity forced him to send immediate relief to Mount Idaho; he had to stop the killings and insure the safety of those living in the vicinity. He had only two companies of cavalry available at Fort Lapwai for duty but they would have to suffice. The small contingent, he hoped, might also serve another purpose--that of containment. He wanted to keep the Indians occupied while he marshalled troops to deliver a crushing blow. His orders would start two more companies of cavalry marching from Wallowa and a detachment of infantry steaming up the river from Walla Walla. Additional troops and supplies would be forthcoming from more distant posts under his command. It would take time to assemble the strength he needed, and time was precious, but above all Howard did not intend to "feed the enemy with driblets." [16] Much depended on Captain Perry and his men.

When Bomus had not returned from Lewiston by the time that retreat sounded, Perry felt that he could wait no longer and asked for permission to begin without the pack train, and Howard granted the request. [17] The force consisted of Company F and Company H of the First Cavalry. Perry commanded Company F, and he selected 1st Lt. Edward R. Theller of the Twenty-first Infantry for his junior officer, since Howard wished to retain Bomus at Lapwai to continue his duties as post quartermaster. There were 49 enlisted men in Company F, and they carried cooked rations that would last them for three days. Captain Trimble commanded Company H, and his first lieutenant was William R. Parnell, a very capable officer who had a great deal of combat experience. Fifty-four men were available for duty in Company H. Their pack animals carried rations good for five days. Each of the soldiers carried 40 rounds of ammunition. [18] To complete the complement, Perry enlisted the aid of Joe Rabusco and a number of friendly Nez Perce, including Jonah Hayes, Abraham Brooks, Joe Albert, Robinson Minthon, Frank Husush, Henry Yumushakown, Amos Wapsheli, Itskea Levi, Matthew Sottoks, Yuwishakaikt, and Wishtashkat. [19]

When everything was in readiness, Perry turned to Howard:

Good-by, general!

Good-by, colonel. You must not get whipped.

There is no danger of that, sir. [20]

A few horses plunged and reared and bucked, but soon the men had them under control, and the column moved off into the darkness. Mrs. Theller was the only wife left at the post to bid her husband adieu. Mrs. Perry was on her way to The Dalles and would soon receive a message from her husband that would send her to Portland to stay with Mrs. Howard. The wives of Trimble and Parnell were both at Walla Walla. After troops left, the period of waiting began. To receive himself from anxiety, Howard read, wrote, studied maps, counted days for the marches, and paced his room. But Howard did have confidence in his men. In a dispatch, which he had given Wilkinson, he had written: "Think they will make short work of it." [21]

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Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003