The Bear Paw Battlefield is the location of the final battle of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877. Following the breakout of war in Idaho, approximately 800 Nez Perce spent a long and arduous summer fleeing U.S. Army troops first toward Crow allies and then toward refuge in Canada. Forty miles short of the Canadian border and following a five-day battle and siege, the Nez Perce ceased fighting at Bear Paw on October 5th, 1877, in which Chief Joseph gave his immortal speech: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
September 29, 1877
The non-treaty bands camped at C’aynnim Alikinwaaspa (Place of the Manure Fire). With General Oliver Otis Howard far behind them the Ni·mí·pu thought they had time to rest their weary hearts, bodies, and horses, and to hunt and butcher some bison.
September 30, 1877
The morning finds the non-treaty Ni·mí·pu preparing to break camp and head north. A rider pulls his horse to a halt on the south bluff waving a blanket to warn everyone that soldiers will be upon them in moments. Colonel Nelson Miles commanding 450 men travelled approximately 260 miles in 9 days in an attempt to intercept the Ni·mí·pu.
Some Ni·mí·pu attempted to escape. Warriors rushed to the bluffs above the camp to defend it. Others ran to the horses to protect the herd. Others ran into camp to aid with the defense. The families trapped in camp sought shelter.
The attack came in two sweeping wings. The 2nd Cavalry hit the horse herd to the west of camp and in a five mile running battle captured most of the Ni·mí·pu horses. The 7th Cavalry charged directly towards the bluffs above the camp; warriors rose up from just below the edge of the bluff and stopped the charge cold. The fighting was intense with soldiers and warriors locked in close combat. With the aid of the 5th Infantry the soldiers secure the southern bluff but the Ni·mí·pu warriors kept the soldiers from the camp and their families.
As a cold night fell, both forces found themselves in a stalemate. The Ni·mí·pu could not escape without their horses and the soldiers could not dislodge the Ni·mí·pu from the camp. Both sides dug rifle pits and the lines were drawn for a prolonged siege. The Ni·mí·pu families used pots, pans, knives, and captured trowel bayonets to dig shelter pits.
October 1, 1877
Dawn brought fresh snow on the ground and ice in water buckets. That day as a white flag went up, Chief Joseph met with Colonel Nelson Miles. Both sides ventured forth to gather dead and wounded. The army captured Chief Joseph to use as leverage. Seeing this occur the Ni·mí·pu made Lieutenant Jerome, who was very close to their camp, a guest of theirs.
October 2, 1877
Both prisoners were exchanged. The military supply train arrived with the 12-Pound Napoleon Canon.
October 3, 1877
The fighting continued. The army targeted thearea where the families were sheltered with canon fire.
October 4, 1877
October 4,1877 ended up being one of the most pivotal moments of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877. General Howard arrived with a small retinue; as the remainder of his army had already been sent home. This information was not conveyed to the Ni·mí·pu still in camp. As far as they knew, a second army was on its way. Two Ni·mí·pu men from the bands honoring the 1863 treaty were serving General Howard at this time. They enter camp to convince the remaining non-treaty Ni·mí·pu to quit fighting.
The Ni·mí·pu were told that they will be returned to Idaho, the leaders will not be killed, and, most importantly, the Army wanted to quit fighting. Agreeing to quit fighting vs surrendering was something easier to consider for most, but some could never trust the soldiers or government. This important decision was up to each individual, and they had the night to ponder it.
October 5, 1877
Starting with Chief Joseph who vowed to “fight no more forever” over 400 Ni·mí·pu agreed to quit fighting and turn themselves over the military care. Another group of 30 to 50 Ni·mí·pu left with White Bird that night;the last of between 200 and 300 Ni·mí·pu who did make it to Canada.
For many the last day of the seige at Bear Paw marked the end of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877; however, for those Ni·mí·pu who turned themselves over to military care it was not even half way in terms of distance and time. Despite the terms of the agreement, those Ni·mí·pu were sent to Leavenworth that winter, and exiled then to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) the next summer. During their time in captivity they suffered from disease, malnutrition, and a longing for home. It took an additional eight years before the Ni·mí·pu were able to return to the Northwest. Some were allowed to return to the reservation in Idaho, while others, including Chief Joseph, were relocated to Washington State due to threats of violent reprisal from the citizens of Idaho.
The dream to live as they always had in their ancestral homelands in peace was to never be realized.