Montana: Big Hole National Battlefield

The Nez Perce camp at the Big Hole
The Nez Perce camp at the Big Hole

Courtesy of National Park Service

As American settlers moved west and justified westward expansion as the nation's Manifest Destiny, the Nez Perce had no alternative except to share their ancestral lands. Eventually, Americans’ interest in the land's riches and cultural conflicts between the settlers and the Nez Perce led to a series of bloody battles. One of the many battles, the Battle of the Big Hole in Wisdom, Montana changed the outcome of the Nez Perce War of 1877. Today, Big Hole National Battlefield continues to tell the story of that battle and honor the memory of the Nez Perce men, women, and children and the American soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of the Big Hole.

In 1855, to remain in their homeland and maintain peaceful relations with white settlers, the Nez Perce agreed to a treaty that allowed their people to continue living in their ancestral lands. Initially, the American Indian reservation was sizeable, and according to the terms of the treaty, the Nez Perce had the authority to decide whether non-Indians could live on their reservation. These conditions would change after the discovery of gold influenced settlers to expand further into the Nez Perce homeland, and by 1863, a new treaty reduced the Nez Perce reservation and forced a third of the tribe’s people out of their homes. While some of the chiefs reluctantly signed the treaty, others refused when they learned that their lands lay outside the new reservation.

The five Nez Perce bands that disagreed with the terms of the new treaty would remain in their homeland until the Indian Bureau instructed General Oliver O. Howard to move the Nez Perce who disagreed with the treaty to a smaller reservation.  By May of 1877, after Howard issued an ultimatum that ordered the Nez Perce to leave their lands in 30 days, Chief Joseph requested that the general grant more time for the nontreaty bands to gather their stock. Wanting to make the trek to the new reservation easier for his people, the chief suggested that Howard allow the Nez Perce tribes to travel in the fall when the river waters were low. When the general denied his request, Chief Joseph and the other nontreaty chiefs reluctantly persuaded their people to gather their possessions and immediately began their journey through the swollen Snake and Salmon Rivers.

On June 15, having almost met their deadline, a group of young warriors broke away from the tribe and attacked several white settlers they encountered on their journey. What was an act of revenge against white settlers, who in the past had killed American Indian families, soon became a death sentence for the non-treaty Nez Perce. Fearing retaliation, the five bands fled to White Bird Canyon to defend themselves against General Howard’s forces, and on June 17, the Nez Perce defeated the American troops. Following the skirmish, the Nez Perce continued on their journey, but were unsuccessful at avoiding the army, and on July 11, Howard’s forces came across the Nez Perce near Clearwater River. Eventually, after a two-day battle--which neither side won--the Nez Perce withdrew their forces.

Having recognized that their people could no longer escape the army of the Idaho Territory, the Nez Perce bands agreed to join Chief Looking Glass, who had advised them to travel to Montana and meet with their allies in the buffalo country. By early August--having crossed their ancestral hunting trail, the Lolo Trail--the Nez Perce reached the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, where their proximity to their allies and distance from General Howard gave the Nez Perce hope for the future. Unaware that the army of Montana Territory had orders to pursue the Nez Perce, Chief Looking Glass slowed the pace of travel, which allowed Colonel John Gibson and his troops to draw near the Nez Perce campsite.

Before dawn on August 9, as Gibson’s forces waited for the first light of day to commence their attack on the Indian campsite, Natalekin--a Nez Perce tribe member--came across the soldiers hiding as he was on his way to check on his horses. The Battle of the Big Hole began prematurely after Gibson’s men killed Natalekin when he discovered the army. Immediately after, Gibson’s troops started to cross the river and fire shots at the Nez Perce village, killing mostly women, children, and elders. Nevertheless, the Nez Perce warriors managed to take defensive positions and launch a successful counterattack. By the end of the day, Gibson’s men retreated and returned to the other side of the river, where some of the Nez Perce warriors proceeded to seize Gibson’s post at Battle Mountain. At the same time, a separate group of warriors withdrew from the battle and helped Chief Joseph bury the dead, care for the injured, and guide the Nez Perce families out of the battleground.

The Battle of Big Hole ended on August 10, 1877, after the remaining warriors fired their last shots and joined the Nez Perce people who had left the previous night. The Nez Perce may have won the battle, but they suffered greater losses. The Nez Perce knew that to prepare for the next battle, they would need to head to Shoshone country to obtain further recruits. With the additional warriors, the Nez Perce, from August through September, managed to defeat Howard and Col. Samuel D. Sturgis’ armies at Camas Meadow, Yellowstone National Park, and Canyon Creek. Their luck changed on September 30, when Colonel Nelson A. Miles and his troops surprised the Nez Perce bands 40 miles south of the Canadian border. After a five-day battle on Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, Chief Joseph—the only surviving chief—surrendered to Miles.  Soon after, the Nez Perce War was over.

Of the 800 Nez Perce who began their journey in Oregon, only 400 surrendered in Montana. Among the victims of the war, the Nez Perce lost four of their chiefs, including Chief Looking Glass, and only 200 survivors managed to reach their destination in Canada. In the end, had the Nez Perce not suffered heavy losses at Big Hole, and had their people not lost their morale, the war might have ended differently. Today, Big Hole National Battlefield not only represents the events that occurred at the Battle of Big Hole, but is also a memorial to the soldiers of the United States 7th Infantry and the Nez Perce warriors, women, children, and elders who died or were present at the historic battle that changed the course of the Nez Perce War.

Visitors can look at photographs, artifacts, and films about the Battle of Big Hole at the visitor center and learn about the historic battle while walking along nature trails toward the Nez Perce camp and the siege area.

Big Hole National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park System, is located 10 miles west of Wisdom, MT on State Highway 43. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The visitor center is open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The battlefield is open from sunrise to sunset. Admission to the park is free. For more information, visit the National Park Service Big Hole National Battlefield website or call 406-689-3155.

Last updated: August 7, 2017