The Big Hole National Battlefield is the location of the battle that took place on August 9th and 10th during Nez Perce Flight of 1877. By early August, over 800 nimí·pu· (Nez Perce) and over 2,000 horses were passing peacefully through the Bitterroot Valley after crossing Lolo Pass into Montana. Their leaders believed the military would not pursue them even though many had premonitions warning otherwise. When the nimí·pu· arrived at ?ıckumcılé.lıkpe (known today as Big Hole National Battlefield) on August 7th, they did not know the military was close behind them. On the morning of August 9, 1877, U.S. troops surprised the sleeping nimí·pu· with a dawn attack on the encampent.
1. Nez Perce Camp
hímı.n maqsmáqs (Yellow Wolf) described that night: “The warriors paraded about camp, singing, all making a good time. It was the first since war started. Everyone with good feeling. Going to buffalo country! . . . War was quit. All Montana citizens our friends.” Meanwhile Colonel John Gibbon reported “All laid down to rest until eleven o’clock. At that hour the command . . . of 17 officers, 132 men and 34 citizens, started down the trail on foot, each man being provided with 90 rounds of ammunition. The howitzer [cannon] could not accompany the column. . . . Orders were given . . . that at early daylight it should start after us with a pack mule loaded with 2,000 rounds of extra [rifle] ammunition.”
2. U.S. Military Attacks
hú.sus ? ewyí.n (Wounded Head) told what happened before dawn August 9: “A man . . . got up early, before the daylight. Mounting his horse, he . . . crossed the creek, when soldiers were surrounding the camp . . . he was shot down. The sound of the gun awoke most of the band and immediately the battle took place.” Corporal Charles Loynes recalled, “We received orders to give three volleys [low into the tipis], then charge—we did so. That act would hit anyone, old as well as young, but what any individual soldier did while in the camp, he did so as a brute, and not because he had any orders to commit such acts.”
3. Warriors Drive U.S. Military Back
“These soldiers came on rapidly. They mixed up part of our village. I now saw [tipis] on fire. I grew hot with anger,” recalled hímı.n maqsmáqs (Yellow Wolf). “Those soldiers did not last long. . . . Scared, they ran back across the river. We followed the soldiers across the stream. . . . the soldiers hurried up the bluff.” Amos Buck, a civilian volunteer, told: “Here we began to throw up entrenchments. The Indians quickly surrounded us and were firing from every side, while we were digging and firing.”
4. Warriors Capture Army Howitzer
Colonel Gibbon recalled: “Just as we took up our position in the timber two shots from our howitzer on the trail above us we heard, and we afterwards learned that the gun and pack mule with ammunition were . . . intercepted by Indians.” wewúkıye?ılpílp (Red Elk) also described the capture: “We saw the warriors closing in on the cannon. Three men, one from above and two below . . . None of the three stopped from dodging, running forward. The big gun did not roar again.”
5. Warriors Besiege Soldiers
Some warriors kept the soldiers and volunteers besieged while others raced back to camp. “I started back with others to our camp,” explained hímı.n maqsmáqs (Yellow Wolf). “I wanted to see what had been done. It was not good to see women and children lying dead and wounded. . . . The air was heavy with sorrow. I would not want to hear, I would not want to see again.”
6. Surviving Nez Perce Familes Flee
The nimí·pu· buried their dead and prepared to move. Most warriors went with the camp to protect it. The battle continued and some warriors stayed behind, including hímı.n maqsmáqs (Yellow Wolf), who told: “The night grew old and the firing faded away. Soldiers would not shoot. . . . We did not charge. If we killed one soldier, a thousand would take his place. If we lost one warrior, there was none to take his place.” Near dawn they saw a man ride up to the soldiers. “We did not try to kill him. . . . The soldiers made loud cheering. We understood! Ammunition had arrived or more soldiers were coming. . . . We gave those trenched soldiers two volleys as a ‘Good-by!’ Then we mounted and rode swiftly away.”
The battle at Big Hole was a turning point in the Flight of 1877, for the nimí·pu· no longer considered "all Montana citizens our friends." Between 60 and 90 nimí·pu· men, women, and children were killed during the battle, with an unknown number wounded, some killed or injured by Bitterroot civilians who the nimí·pu· recognized. Of the military and civilian volunteers, 31 were killed, 38 wounded.
After the battle, the nimí·pu· fled south, crossing back into Idaho over Bannock Pass before heading east towards Yellowstone National Park. They attempted to avoid towns and ranches, but when they did encounter settlers, the nimí·pu· no longer trusted them. The military caught up to the nimí·pu· for the first time after this battle on August 20 at Camas Meadow, west of Yellowstone National Park.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.
Camas Meadows History
The Nez Perce were able to steal more than 200 of the Army's pack horses and mules, halting the Army's advance during the Flight of 1877.
For More Information
Official Big Hole National Battlefield Map and Brochure
The official brochure and map for Big Hole National Battlefield is available for download below.
Last updated: March 8, 2021