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 nimí·pu· (Nez Perce) spent a long and arduous summer fleeing U.S. Army troops first toward Crow allies and then toward refuge in Canada. After the skirmishes at Canyon Creek, the nimí·pu· arrived at C’aynnim Alikinwaaspa (Place of the Manure Fire, now known as the Bear Paw Battlefield), a mere forty miles short of the Canadian border. Following a five-day battle and siege, the nimí·pu· 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."
The Battle at Bear Paw
September 29, 1877
Abundant game and fresh water offered by Snake Creek made C’aynnim Alikinwaaspa a good place to camp and gather supplies. With General Oliver Otis Howard far behind them the nimí·pu· thought they had time to rest their weary hearts, bodies, and horses, and to hunt and butcher some bison before the final push to Canada.
Their tipis destroyed at Big Hole left little else for protection. The people spent the night huddled in crude lodges and lean-tos, warmed only by blankets and fire pits burning bison dung.
September 30, 1877
The morning found the non-treaty nimí·pu· preparing to break camp and head north. A rider pulled his horse to a halt on the south bluff waving a blanket to warn everyone that soldiers would be upon them in moments. Colonel Nelson Miles commanding 450 men had traveled approximately 260 miles in 9 days in an attempt to intercept the nimí·pu·.
Some nimí·pu· attempted to escape. Warriors rushed to the bluffs above the camp to defend it. Others ran into camp to aid with the defense. The families trapped in camp sought shelter. Some, knowing the horses were critical to their escape, rushed to protect the herd. Black Eagle recalled: "I left going for the horses. I saw our horses not far away. The horses were wise to the shooting and all began to stampede."
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 nimí·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 secured the southern bluff but the warriors kept the soldiers from the camp and their families. Though the army was stopped, the nimí·pu· suffered serious losses as 26 died the first day including Chiefs Ollikut (Joseph's younger brother) and Lean Elk.
As a cold night fell, both forces found themselves in a stalemate. The nimí·pu· could not escape without their horses and the soldiers could not dislodge the nimí·pu· from the camp. Both sides dug rifle pits and the lines were drawn for a prolonged siege. The nimí·pu· families used tu’kes (digging sticks used to harvest camas roots), knives, and trowel bayonets they had captured from the army during earlier engagements to dig shelter pits.
October 1, 1877
Dawn brought fresh snow on the ground and ice in water buckets. That day under a white flag of truce, Chief Joseph met with Colonel Nelson Miles and both sides ventured forth to gather dead and wounded. At the end of the meeeting, Joseph turned to leave. He was called back by Miles and was placed in chains to use as leverage. Seeing this occur the nimí·pu· made Lieutenant Jerome, who was very close to their camp on reconnaissance, a guest of theirs. By his account, he was given food, blanket, shelter, and allowed to move freely about the Nez Perce camp while retaining his pistol.
October 2, 1877
The prisoners were exchanged and both returned to their home camps. The military supply train arrived with the 12-Pound Napoleon Cannon.
Yellow Wolf remembered October 2 as the day Chief Looking Glass was killed. "Some warriors in [this] pit with him saw at a distance a horseback Indian. One pointed and called to Looking Glass, 'Look! A Sioux!" Looking Glass stepped quickly from the pit. Stood on the bluff unprotected. A bullet struck his left forehead and he fell back dead." Looking Glass was hopeful help had come from the camp of Sitting Bull in Canada.
October 3, 1877
The fighting continued. The army targeted the area where the families were sheltered with cannon fire.
October 4, 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 nimí·pu· still in camp. As far as they knew, a second army was on its way.
October 5, 1877
That morning the two remaining hereditary leaders, White Bird and Joseph, met two Nez Perce men from the bands honoring the 1863 treaty were serving General Howard at this time. They had entered camp to convince the remaining non-treaty nimí·pu· to quit fighting. Joseph and Whitebird were told that they would be returned to Idaho, the leaders will not be killed, and, most importantly, the army wanted to quit fighting.
White Bird mistrusted the army's promises, and refused to surrender. However, Joseph returned to camp to tell the people that they could be saved by ending the fighting. This important decision was up to each individual. Choices are few and none are favorable. Can the nimí·pu·continue the fight? The supply of soldiers is endless. Should the nimí·pu· try to escape on foot under cover of darkness through the lands of traditional enemies? Not everyone can make this trip. Many are too weak. Who will care for the elders, children, and wounded? Will they be able to bury our dead? Will they be allowed to go home?
At 2pm Joseph met with Miles and Howard, handed over his rifle, and made his now famous speech:
"I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tulhuulhulsuit is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No”. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
Afterwards, other nimí·pu· hand their weapons over to Miles in an understood mutual decision to lay down arms and negotiate peace. As to their destination, Miles told Joseph: "Which is the place that you love to stay in? I want you to tell me, as I have the power to remove these white people, and let you live there." Miles also promised: "I will give half of them [weapons] back to you after awhile."
All told, over 400 nimí·pu· agreed to quit fighting and turn themselves over the military care. Another group of 30 to 50 nimí·pu· left with White Bird that night; the last of between 200 and 300 people who did make it to Canada. The 126 day flight was over, but the plight of those capture and those who escaped to Canada was not even half way over in terms of time and distance.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.