The Battle at White Bird Canyon
Captain David Perry, commanding officer of the First Cavalry, was sent from Fort Lapwai to investigate reports coming from the Camas Prairie with orders to arrest the perpetrators of the Salmon River raids and escort the remaining Nez Perce to Lapwai. Perry led 106 cavalry men from Companies F and H, accompanied by eleven civilian volunteers. Upon arrival, Perry was told the Nez Perce had left Tolo Lake for White Bird.
Pressed by settlers in Grangeville, Perry continued his advance on the evening of June 16. By this time the nimí·pu· lodges could be seen along White Bird Creek.
June 17, Daybreak
Nimí·pu· scouts kept watch on Captain Perry's column as it moved deeper into the canyon. As Perry advanced, the alarm was raised in the camps. Despite having taken advantage of whiskey that was liberated from local homesteads, the nimí·pu· responded. Close to seventy warriors participated in the battle.
As the soldiers descended the canyon on a wagon road, Ollokot, Chief Joseph's younger brother, and Two Moons sent small groups of men along the bluffs that paralleled the route they expected the soldiers to take. It was late spring and lush, waist high grass covered the hillsides, offering the Nez Perce some concealment as they prepared to meet the soldiers.
Perry sent Lieutenant Edward Theller and an eight man scouting party ahead of the main column. As Theller approached the rise, the Nez Perce sent a peace party of six men led by Wettiwetti Howlis or Vicious Weasel to parley with the soldiers. They had strict instructions not to fire unless fired upon. For a few short minutes, the decision for peace or war hung in the balance.
June 17, Opening Moves
Lieutenant Theller's scouting party came across this ridge, and far down the canyon they saw wisps of smoke marking the location of the nimí·pu· encampments along White Bird Creek. As Theller took stock of the situation, he noticed a nimí·pu· peace party approaching, flying a white flag. Arthur 'Ad' Chapman, a volunteer came up to Theller's position or close by and for reasons that cannot fully be explained, opened fire on the peace party. The nimí·pu· responded and bullets began to fly. Before Theller could give instructions to his Trumpeter, John Jones was shot and killed by Otstotpoo or Firebody, adding to the initial confusion.
Out of sight of the unfolding action, Perry was not completely aware of what was happening ahead of him; all Perry heard was the crack of rifle fire. He ordered Company F to dismount their horses and form a loose line of men known as a skirmish line as they continued to move forward.
An opportunity for a parley and peaceful solution evaporated in a moment. The die was cast and the first battle of the Nez Perce War began.
June 17, The Critical Moment
The volunteers, led by George Shearer, responded to that first shot by leaving the main column and heading toward the village. As they approached the heavily wooded White Bird Creek, the volunteers began to receive heavy fire from the nimí·pu·, driving them back to this knoll. The volunteers may have only stopped here briefly before continuing their retreat back up the canyon. Seeing the volunteers run had a demoralizing effect. Some of the troopers in Company F interpreted the withdrawal of the volunteers as an order to retreat. Perry was quickly loosing control of his command.
Once the volunteers were dislocated from these knolls, the Nez Perce occupied them and began to pour fire into Company F which was deploying across the slope of the ridge on foot. Captain Perry also wanted Company H to deploy further up the ridge line, forming a loose line of soldiers across the ridge top. With one Trumpeter dead and the other useless (he had lost his trumpet on the trail down into the canyon), Perry lost the ability to communicate to his men. Moreover, Perry did not know that the volunteers had fled the battlefield and that his men were now in a precarious position.
June 17, Company H Joins the Fray
As Captain Perry attempted to sort out the deployment of Company F, upon hearing the rifle fire, Captain Joel Trimble ordered Company H to assume a position on the far right of the Perry's line on the ridge top.
Due to the nature of the terrain, rather than forming a solid line of soldiers, there was a rather substantial gap of perhaps 200 yards between Company H and F. In a bold move, the Nez Perce stampeded horses up hill toward the right of Trimble's position. Three warriors in conspicuous red coats, Sarsis Ilppilp, Wahlitis, and Tipyahlahnah Kapskaps were amongst the stampede, disrupting Trimble's desperate attempt to keep his men calm and focused.
Having lost the volunteers, with rifle fire pouring into their flanks, Company F was beginning to panic. In less than thirty minutes, the courage and daring of the nimí·pu· warriors put Perry in an untenable situation. Faced with a growing number of wounded and killed soldiers, Perry had few options left but to retreat back up the canyon.
June 17, McCarthy's Point
As Captain Trimble deployed the men of Company H, he sent a detachment of six men led by Sergeant Michael McCarthy to this bluff to protect the rear and far right flank of soldier's position. As the thin line of soldiers began to break and pull back from the ridge top, McCarthy left his position, but was ordered back by Captain Trimble. McCarthy remained on the bluff to support a stand that never materialized; McCarthy was left behind. He evaded nimí·pu· warriors combing the battlefield for weapons and made it to Grangeville two days after the battle.
June 17, Retreat
Unable to stem the nimí·pu· advance, Perry's command split into two groups. Captains Perry, Trimble, and a small number of men retreated up the steep sides of the canyon. Lieutenants Theller and Parnell followed the wagon road they had descended earlier that morning. Theller and seven men went off the road into a ravine and became trapped and were killed; Parnell's group survived.
Perry and Parnell eventually met at the top of the Canyon and continued their retreat across the Camas Prairie to Johnson Ranch. They ultimately returned to the community of Mt. Idaho where the survivors of the battle were reinforced by volunteers and subsequently retired to Grangeville. The long, deadly day had finally come to an end.
As Perry gathered his shattered command at Mt. Idaho, he left behind thirty-four dead. An additional two soldiers and two volunteers were wounded.
Three nimí·pu· suffered wounds, but no one was killed. They were able to retrieve approximately 63 carbines, pistols, and ammunition that had been left behind by the fleeing soldiers. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Nez Perce quickly broke camp and crossed the Salmon River as General Howard gathered his forces for a pursuit that would continue for the next four months.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.