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 proceeded down the Clark's Fork toward Yellowstone. By 1:00 PM, Sturgis’s force had covered over 30 miles, despite meager supplies and hunger. At 4:00 PM, Sturgis camped about 8 miles above Clark’s Fork's 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 the group as they circumvented Sturgis and evaded Howard in the mountains and foothills. The Nez Perce finally recognized the futility of attempting union with Crows, whose tribal interest dictated their continued allegiance with government. They decided to head north for safety in Canada instead. The Nez Perce continued downstream of Yellowstone to grassy flats bordering Canyon Creek. Here they encamped for the night, unaware that Sturgis was gaining on them.
September 13, 1877, Early Raid on Homesteads
An early morning party of warriors started down Yellowstone Valley to forage for supplies and encountered several newly established homes. Near the mouth of Canyon Creek, the warriors alarmed settlers Elliot Rouse and H. H. Stone, who fled downstream to a neighboring ranch. Warriors stopped at a stage station on the east side of Canyon Creek about ½ mile from the Yellowstone. The driver of the arriving stage coach scurried into the brush as warriors set fire to the buildings and haystacks, scattered the mail, and tried to destroy a mowing machine. Some warriors then mounted the coach and drove it over the prairie for amusement.
Further downstream, the warriors found Bela B. Brockway’s ranch and burned his hay house and corral. Most settlers found refuge in the bushes. Five miles below Canyon Creek was the ranch home of 30 year old Joseph M.V. Cochran. Two wolfers, Clinton Dills and Milton Summer, occuppied a tent on the property and were killed by Nez Perce. Cochran was upstream toward Canyon Creek with some loggers when the Nez Perce arrived. Armed with a rifle he approached and talked with the warriors. The warriors took his horses but did not harm Cochran. When Cochran arrived at his ranch later, he discovered the two dead wolfers.
September 13, 1877, Race to Canyon Creek
Sturgis’s command descended Clark’s Fork and crossed the stream to a plateau lying between it and the Yellowstone. Soldiers turned north and located a good area to ford (near where the present-day bridge crosses into Laurel), and at about 10:00 am began swimming horses across the Yellowstone.
As Sturgis’s forces waited on the left bank of Yellowstone for pack mules and rear guard, a Crow scout arrived to announce that the Nez Perce lay just below and were headed toward the troops. Soon after one of Sturgis’s white scouts appeared with news that main group was “going in a northwesterly direction” up Canyon Creek six miles away.
Sturgis veered his men north, away from the Yellowstone, and toward bluffs rising sharply 4 miles north to try and head off the Nez Perce somewhere along Canyon Creek. Major Lewis Merrill led an advance of 150 men with Bell, Nolan, and Wilkinson in charge of companies.
September 13, 1877, Shots Fired
Before noon, a warrior fired a shot at Wilkinson as the American troops attempted to skirt a ridge and head off the main body of Nez Perce. The Americans assembled into a mounted skirmish formation as they advanced up the slopes of the ridge, firing as they went. Gaining elevation, the command could see the Nez Perce column bearing up the north side of Canyon Creek. The Americans saw that the Nez Perce were bound diagonally northwest, apparently headed for the mouth of the canyon.
As the troops moved up ridge, the warriors delivered rapid fire but ultimately withdrew in direction of the continually moving caravan. Army scouts found themselves in front of ascending troops and were momentarily caught in a crossfire.
On top of the plateau, soldiers dismounted and quickly crossed the broad tract to continue shooting at warriors from the northwestern edge. The warriors returned fire from ravines and washes. After nearly thirty minutes of largely ineffective firing from brim of the plateau, Merrill’s dismounted skirmishers pressed down the plateau's slopes and proceeded through sage covered flat, pushing the warriors back toward Canyon Creek and the Nez Perce column.
September 13, 1877, New Strategy
Sturgis decided his new primary objective was to cut off the horse herd that was being driven by the women and children. If he could block the entrance to the canyon, the horses would not be able to enter. This would theoretically weaken the Nez Perce. Sturgis sent Captain Frederick Benteen to ride to the west, skirting around the ravines to reach negotiable ground near the base of the hills. The captain followed his intended route until he reached a point beneath Horse Cache Butte, from the top of which warriors delivered a blistering volley that dropped several men from their saddles as the troop passed.
Merrill was supposed to guard Benteen's movement toward the herd, but Merrill's command had become too far separated from their horses. Further confusing matters, some Crow warriors appeared and Merrill wanted to keep space from them until he could determine why they'd come. For these reasons, Merrill was unable to bring his men ahead as planned, so Benteen and his men became separated from the Nez Perce horses. Some sources suggest that the Nez Perce actually did lose 100-400 horses at the canyon mouth, but that these horses were captured by the Crow.
Merrill’s men pushed on afoot and reached the mouth of the canyon after the Nez Perce, who had left a rear guard of warriors to stiffly contest any further advance by the soldiers. The Nez Perce also had sharpshooters in position to prevent soldiers from entering. Sturgis turned his attention to clearing the heights.
Ten soldiers, led by Sergeant William Costello, rode west across the valley to scale Horse Cache Butte, evading the Nez Perce warriors who were already positioned on it. Sturgis directed Benteen to lead his troops across the valley and position themselves on the same butte, beyond Costello's men. Benteen circled Horse Cache Butte on the south side, passing through a narrow saddle-like aperture where warriors again fired down on the men from atop the butte.
The soldiers continued up the slope by horse until the horses could no longer continue and then continued by foot to the top of the plateau. By the time Benteen's men reached the top of the plateau, most of the Nez Perce had withdrawn down into the canyon.
The warriors were driven slowly from point to point up the gulch. When it became impossible to drive them up further, the soldiers decided to withrdraw. Merrill’s men moved to the north side of Canyon Creek. Fuller and Nowlan led their units 1800 yards to the rim rock along east side of the valley. There, they scaled the bluffs and secured a lodgment. Captain Bell led a company back up the canyon to guard against any surprises by the Nez Perce against Fuller and Nowlan.
Although warriors tried to counter this movement, they found it physically impossible. Wilkinson’s covering gunfire proved ineffective because the warriors were well hidden behind overhanging rocks. Fuller withdrew to protect military resources. Nowlan and Wilkinson in turn rode to the relief of Bell, who was at that point engaged with warriors in the upper part of the canyon.
The major fighting which had begun about 11:30 am was over by 4:30 or 5:00 PM. By nightfall the Nez Perce had departed, leaving the troops to return to the mouth of the canyon, where Sturgis had set up his field hospital. That night soldiers buried two casualties: Private Nathan Brown and Private Frank Goslin. Another man, Private Edgar Archer, died of his injuries later.
Most Nez Perce accounts of the fighting at Tepahlewam Wakuspah (Place Similar to the Split Rocks at Tolo Lake) suggest that the appearance of the troops was a surprise. Perhaps they thought the Americans were so far behind that scouts were not needed, or perhaps the scouts were occupied with foraging. In any case, it is likely that if the Nimiipuu had not already been packed up and on the trail at the time Sturgis attacked, the attack would have been devastating. Yellow Wolf, who was a young warrior during the Nez Perce Flight of 1877, said later in his memoir, "I saw soldiers near and across the valley from us. The traveling camp had nearly been surprised."
Yellow Wolf (and perhaps other Nimiipuu as well) had also interpreted Benteen's movement to cut off the horses as an attempt to capture the women and children.
Sturgis claimed that sixteen Nez Perce had been killed at Canyon Creek, but the sole fatality the Nez Perce acknowledged was Tookleiks (Fish Trap), an elderly man who was trying to retrieve a horse when he was shot by the Crows.
The Nez Perce said the loss of many of their horses at Canyon Creek was debilitating. The remaining animals had to compensate to do the work of the horses the Nimiipuu had lost, so their overall pace was slower after Canyon Creek. This might have contributed to the US Army being able to overtake them at Bear Paw shortly after the Canyon Creek battle.
The Crows' betrayal was also difficult to deal with. Nez Perce elders, especially Looking Glass, had considered the Crow to be allies.
At the time of the Battle of Canyon Creek, the Nimiipuu had already been on the trail for 3 months. They were physically and mentally exhausted due to the difficult weather and terrain and the uncertainty about their future.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.
Plan your trip to Canyon Creek Battlefield, part of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877's. Located near Laurel, MT.
Nez Perce Trail Auto Tour
The staff at the Nez Perce National Historic Trail have developed auto tours with travel instructions for retracing the route of the Nez Perce along with maps, graphics, and details about the confilct at sites you can see along the way. Download Auto Tour 7 for more details about the Battle of Canyon Creek, or email us to receive a free printed copy.