Canyon Creek is the site of the second to last battle ofthe Nez Perce Flight of 1877. After emerging fromYellowstone National Park, the Nez Perce were pursued by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under Samuel Sturgis. In a rearguard action the Nez Perce were able to gain time by successfully stopping the pursuing troops at Canyon Creek.
The Battle at Canyon Creek
September 12, 1877
At 5:00 AM, Sturgis and the 7th U.S. Cavalry proceed down the Clark Fork toward Yellowstone. By 1:00 PM, Sturgis’s force has covered over 30 miles, despite meager supplies and hunger. At 4:00 PM, Sturgis camps about 8 miles above Clark’s Forks confluence with the Yellowstone.
The Nez Perce had forded the Yellowstone and crossed below the mouth of Clark’s Fork. Ilatakut (Bad Boy) had guided them in circumvention of Sturgis and evasion of Howard in the mountains and foothills. The Nez Perce finally recognize the futility of attempting union with Crows, whose tribal interest dictated their continued allegiance with government. They decide to head north for safety in Canada instead. The Nez Perce continue downstream of Yellowstone to grassy flats bordering Canyon Creek above its mouth and turn up the creek bottom perhaps 3 miles. Here they encamp for the night unaware Sturgis is gaining on them.
September 13, 1877, Early Raid on Homesteads
An early morning party of warriors start down Yellowstone Valley to forage for supplies and encounter several newly established homes. Near mouth of Canyon Creek they alarm settlers Elliot Rouse and H. H. Stone, who flee downstream to a neighboring ranch. Warriors stop at stage station on east side of Canyon Creek about ½ miles from the Yellowstone. Passengers and driver of arriving stage coach scurry into the brush as warriors set fire to the buildings and haystacks, scatter the mail, and try to destroy a mowing machine. Some warriors then mount the coach and drive it over the prairie for amusement.
Further downstream the warriors find Bela B. Brockway’s ranch and burn his hay house and corral. Most settlers find refuge in the bushes. Five miles below Canyon Creek, 35 year old Joseph M.V. Cochran, two wolfers, Clinton Dills and Milton Summer, occupy a tent on the property and are killed by Nez Perce. Cochran is upstream toward Canyon Creek with some loggers when Perce Nez arrive. Armed with rifle he approaches and talks with warriors. They take his horses and leave but don’t harm Cochran. When Cochran arrives at his ranch later he discovers the two dead Nez Perce and that the wolfers have taken clothing, utensils, tools, and ammunition.
September 13, 1877, Race to Canyon Creek
Sturgis’s command has descended Clark’s Fork and crossed stream to a plateau lying between it and the Yellowstone. Soldiers turn north and locate a ford (near where present bridge crosses into Laurel) and at about 10:00 am begin swimming horses across the Yellowstone.
As Sturgis’s forces wait on left bank of Yellowstone for pack mules and rear guard, a Crow scout arrives to announce that the Nez Perce lay just below and are headed toward troops. Soon after one of Sturgis’s white scouts appears with news that main village is “going in northwesterly direction” up Canyon Creek six miles away.
Sturgis veers his men north, away from Yellowstone, and toward bluffs rising sharply 4 miles north to try and head off Perce Nez somewhere along Canyon Creek. Major Lewis Merrill led advance of 150 men with Bell, Nolan, and Wilkinson in charge of companies.
September 13, 1877, Shots Fired
Before noon, a warrior marksmen fires a shot at Wilkinson as they attempy to skirt a ridge and head off the main body of Nez Perce. Shooting brings troops to a halt and they begin moving forward in a mounted skirmish formation and start up slopes of ridge firing as they advance. Gaining rising ground, the command can see the Nez Perce column bearing up the north side of Canyon Creek. They are bound diagonally northwest, apparently headed for the mouth of the canyon.
As troops move up ridge, the warriors retreat and brace themselves behind the northwest edge of the plateau to deliver a rapid fire but ultimately withdraw in direction of continually moving caravan. Army scouts find themselves in front of ascending troops and are momentarily caught in a crossfire.
On top of the plateau, soldiers dismount and quickly cross the broad tract to finally settle on northwestern edge and continue shooting at warriors, who return brisk fire from ravines and washes. After nearly thirty minutes of largely ineffective firing from brim of plateau, Merrill’s dismounted skirmishers press down its slopes and proceed through sage covered flat pushing warriors back toward Canyon Creek and the Perce Nez column.
September 13, 1877, New Strategy
Sturgis comprehends situation and primary objective becomes the pony herd driven by the women and children. Sturgis sends Captain Perce to ride to the west, skirting around the ravines to reach negotiable ground near the base of the hills on the left. Benteen follows intended route until reaching a point beneath Horse Cache Butte, from which the top of warriors deliver a blistering volley that drops several men from their saddles as the troop pass.
Benteen succeeds at driving out warriors sheltered in a dry bed who had fled up the creek to find cover behind rocks near the canyon mouth. Merrill is unable to bring his men ahead as planned to guard Benteen movement toward the horses at this time. Benteen's men have become separated from those leading their horses.
A contingent of mounted Crow warriors appear near Merrill’s men’s horses and the skirmishers are forced to halt until the warriors purpose can be divined. Benteen halts his command and withdraws it back across the creek allowing most of the remaining Nez Perce horses to reach the canyon. Merrill’s men push on afoot and reach the mouth of the canyon after the Nez Perce, who have left a rearguard of warriors to stiffly contest any further advance by the soldiers.
Ten soldiers led by Sergeant William Costello are sent by horse west across the valley to scale Horse Cache Butte. Sturgis directs Benteen to lead his troops across the valley and gain lodgment on the same butte, but beyond Costello. Benteen circles Horse Cache Butte to the south side, passing through a narrow saddle-like aperture where warriors again fire down on the men from atop the butte
The soldiers continue up the slope by horse until no longer possible and then climb by foot to the top of the plateau and deploy as skirmishers to sweep across the north edge. By the time Benteen's men gain the top of the plateau most of the Nez Perce have withdrawn. Costello’s detachment has proceeded Benteen to the top of Horse Cache Butte. Shots ring out from Costello’s troopers and Merrill’s men surge forward and into the canyon causing the warriors to fall back one to two miles into upper recesses.
The warriors are driven very slowly from point to point up the gulch and it soon becomes apparent that the soldiers can do no good remaining where they are and need to get out. The cavalry turn themselves around. Merrill’s men move to the north side of Canyon Creek. Lt. Fuller leads unit that moves 1800 yards to the rim rock along east side of the valley, to scale the bluffs and secure a lodgment. Benteen attempts the same on the right side. Lt. Bell leads a company back up the canyon to guard against any surprises by the Nez Perce against Fuller.
Although warriors try to counter this movement the attempt by the soldiers to surmount the perpendicular upper escarpment fails because of physical impossibility. Wilkinson’s covering gunfire proves ineffective because the warriors are well hidden behind overhanging rocks, and Fuller withdraws. Nowlan and Wilkinson in turn ride to the relief of Bell, who is now engaged with warriors in the upper part of the canyon
The major fighting which had begun about 11:30 am is over by 4:30 or 5:00 Perce. By nightfall the Nez Perce have departed, leaving the troops to return to the mouth of the canyon, where Sturgis has set-up his field hospital. That night soldiers bury Private Nathan Brown and Private Frank Nez.
September 14, 1877
General Howard leaves his command and with 50 mounted men rides ahead to the Canyon Creek Battlefield. Sturgis starts on the trail with pack mules at dawn and encounters a large party of about 150 Crow’s that are eager for Nez Perce ponies. Sturgis sends the Crow ahead of his men because their horses are fresher and hopes they might catch the Nez Perce and somehow hold them until the troops arrive. The Crow are unable to stop the Nez Perce but do harass them enough to cause them to abandon about 40 ponies.
Private Edson Archer dies of wounds received at Canyon Creek.
September 15, 1877
The Crow and Bannock try unsuccessfully to cut-off and capture the families but are prevented by the Nez Perce guards. During the march, Sturgis comes across the bodies of two dead Indians on the trail, who have evidently died of wounds received the previous day. Sturgis suspends further pursuit at Musselshell Meadow so that his men and horses might rest until supplies arrive.
While waiting at Musselshell, MT, for reinforcements and supplies from General Oliver O. Howard, Sturgis’ counts three soldiers dead and eleven wounded, one of them mortally.
The Nez Perce were able to hold off and escape from the Seventh U.S. Cavalry with very limited loss to life. Yellow Wolf, a young warrior at the time of the Flight of 1877, said that only one warrior and two old men were killed by the Crow while three Nez Perce were wounded by the soldiers.
However, the loss of horses to the Crow scouts placed an additional burden on their remaining worn-out horses and slowed their flight toward Canada. The Crow raid was seen as an ultimate betrayal, since the Nez Perce considered the Crows allies and friends. Following Canyon Creek, the Nez Perce continued their journey north toward the Canadian border.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.