Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 10: Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon

The Nez Perces' successful deliverance up Canyon Creek Canyon after the fight with Colonel Sturgis enabled them to reach the high plains that rolled gently away to the Musselshell River, twenty-five miles north. They probably camped the night of September 13 in the area of present-day Molt, Montana, and Big Lake Basin before traversing the open ground and multiple tributaries to reach the area of modern Lavina, where they turned west to about where Ryegate is today. There they forded the Musselshell and continued toward the Big Snowy Mountains. The trek was not easy, given their depleted condition and loss of horses coming out of the Canyon Creek encounter, and the pursuit by Sturgis—and especially by the Crow scouts—made it even worse. Some Nez Perces later claimed that after Canyon Creek Joseph began to exude more authority than heretofore; that his assertiveness increased measurably as the tribesmen left Sturgis farther behind and they became more confident that they would reach Canada safely; and that, as the intratribal unity that had been born of the common threat and danger began to fray, disputes and disharmony broke out with greater frequency. [1]

Sturgis started on the trail with pack mules at dawn on the fourteenth, and early into the day's march, a large party of 150 Crows caught up with the command. [2] They were "gaudily arrayed in war costume, but more eager for Nez Perce ponies than for Nez Perce blood," wrote the colonel. [3] Because their own horses were so fresh, Sturgis sent them ahead, hopeful that they might catch the tribesmen and somehow hold them until the troops arrived. The scouts raced forward, but were unable to stop the Nez Perces. They did harass them sufficiently to cause them to abandon about four hundred more ponies (some that were recovered proved to be mules taken from Howard's command at Camas Meadows), and, joined by some Bannocks, they kept up a running skirmish with the Indians' rear guard that resulted in their killing five Nez Perces. [4] Also, on the fifteenth, the Crows and Bannocks tried unsuccessfully to cut off and capture the families, but were prevented by the Nez Perce guards. "My heart was just like fire," recalled Yellow Wolf.

I do not understand how the Crows could think to help the soldiers. They were fighting against their best friends! Some Nez Perces in our band had helped them whip the Sioux who came against them only a few snows before [in 1874]. This is why Chief Looking Glass had advised going to the Crows, to the buffalo country. He thought Crows would help us. [5]

The moving encounter with the Crows, coming on the heels of the Canyon Creek engagement in which those scouts had appeared, must have confirmed to the Nez Perce hierarchy the propriety of finally adapting their course toward the British Possessions. [6] Theodore Goldin witnessed the distant affair and years later recollected what he saw:

The Crows had come up with a considerable body of the enemy and were hotly engaging them near the edge of a belt of timber, but the fighting seemed to be at fairly long range. As we watched the fight, still spurring forward with the hope that we might soon have a part in it, we were surprised to see the Nez Perces ride out of the timber in almost perfect line of battle formation; there were possibly a couple of hundred of them and for some distance they moved forward in what appeared to be perfect alignment, then the two flanks opened out into a perfect skirmish line with the seeming purpose of flanking the Crows. This style of fighting was too much for our allies; they couldn't understand it, and as practically all of them were young warriors, they fired a few hasty shots and then broke and fell back in great confusion. In fact by far the larger part of them kept on falling back until they reached the reservation miles away. [7]

Following far behind, Sturgis's officers also caught glimpses through their field glasses of the Nez Perce procession moving far ahead of their rear guard. During the march, the troops came across the bodies of two dead Indians on the trail, evidently having died of wounds received the previous day.

After making about thirty-five miles, by nightfall Sturgis's soldiers were so fatigued that men and horses were strewn over the back trail for ten miles, with at least one-third afoot. "Captain Bendire's detachment," reported Sturgis, ". . . did not arrive in camp until late at night, with every officer and man on foot." [8] That evening a courier brought orders for Howard's troops to return to the Yellowstone, and next day Major Sanford with Bendire's company (along with Fisher and his scouts, whose one-month enlistment time had expired) started back while Sturgis with the Seventh Cavalry pushed ahead to the Musselshell, which they reached on Saturday, September 15. By then, the condition of the horses and the men had become so critical that Sturgis decided he could go no farther. The men had been on half rations for the past few days and now were reduced to eating pony meat. Ninety-three of the Seventh's horses had been lost, either killed in the fighting, wounded and abandoned, or played out and abandoned on the trail, leaving an equal number of the men dismounted. Compounding this, a painful hoof disease appeared among the remaining cavalry mounts, making them too sick to carry their riders, most of whom had themselves become too weak even to walk. [9] "Under these circumstances," declared Sturgis, "I felt compelled to suspend further pursuit, in order that both men and animals might rest, and the troops provide themselves with game until our supplies [en route by wagon from Fort Ellis] should overtake us." [10] He sent a letter to Howard notifying him that the Nez Perces were heading toward the Judith Basin and that he was reluctantly abandoning "a hopeless pursuit before my horses are completely destroyed." [11] The fact that the Nez Perces faced similar afflictions with the loss of even more of their horses, and that he believed that they, too, would commensurately slow their progress after the troops stopped pushing them, made Sturgis's decision all the more palatable. On the nineteenth, the colonel's adjutant read aloud an order acknowledging his men for their hard service"a bombastic card of thanks," recalled one Seventh cavalryman. [12] Sturgis remained in camp on the Musselshell and one of its tributaries until September 22, during which period his men continued to subsist on pony, mule, and buffalo meat, along with locally available buffalo berries, "which we broke off in great clusters as we rode under the trees that bore them," remembered Redington. "Those berries are certainly the best puckerers on earth. They put on a pucker that never comes off." [13]

While Sturgis rested his troops on the Musselshell, General Howard with his own force moved to catch up. On learning by courier of Sturgis's encounter on Canyon Creek, Howard left his command near Rocky Creek in charge of Major Mason and rode thirty-five miles through the night with fifty mounted men, reaching the battlefield on the morning of the fourteenth after Sturgis had departed in his pursuit of the tribesmen. He notified Sturgis that he expected supplies from Fort Ellis and that he had brought forward five hundred pounds of freshly slaughtered beef for Sturgis's men. Howard then sent to the Bighorn Post (Fort Custer) for supplies for his own troops, and after the balance of his command got in (including the troops sent back by Sturgis), he started with the Canyon Creek wounded down the Yellowstone to Pompey's Pillar on September 17. From there, two days later, the column started north over the prairie, reached the Musselshell on the twentieth, and marching west joined Sturgis the next day. [14]

With the certainty that Colonel Miles would march diagonally northwest from the Tongue River Cantonment based on the information contained in Howard's September twelfth dispatch, Howard and Sturgis continued purposefully to slow their pace, thereby causing the Nez Perces to correspondingly decrease their own rate of advance, ultimately to the benefit of Miles's movement. (Although most evidence for this purposeful delay by Howard and Sturgis appeared in writings and documents filed after the fact of most of the Nez Perces' containment and surrender at Bear's Paw, there is indeed pre-Bear's Paw documentation to support it. However, all contemporary evidence suggests that their troops and animals were likely too severely fatigued to continue the march even had they been disposed otherwise, and that the intended delay was more of a happy coincidence. [15]) With Sturgis's soldiers now constituting a part of Howard's command, and the supplies from Fort Ellis having arrived, the weary troops crossed the Musselshell on the twenty-second and plodded their way west, up Careless Creek toward Judith Gap, amid rumors that their campaigning was at an end. "The latest scheme for our return," wrote Captain Stephen P. Jocelyn, ". . . is to march from here north to the Missouri River at the mouth of the Musselshell. There or at Fort Peck (east down the river) we take steamer to Omaha." [16] Grazing the animals was difficult because the buffalo herds the troops had seen there in August had eaten almost all the grass. On the twenty-fourth, the men moved eight miles to Elk Creek, and next day skirted the Big Snowy Mountains and entered the Judith Basin. There the scouts came on a recently vacated camp of River Crows with several dead inhabitants lying around; according to Redington, it was the village of Dumb Bull, upon which the Nez Perces had taken vengeance on September 21 by attacking, wrecking their property, taking their dried meat, and running off their ponies. [17] Reaching Beaver Creek on September 26, Howard next day sent Major Sanford's four First Cavalry companies homeward, believing that Sturgis's Seventh companies would suffice for the duration of operations. [18]

Also on the twenty-seventh, a courier brought word that the Nez Perces had crossed the Missouri at Cow Island. Deeming it no longer necessary to follow directly on the trail, Howard now determined to get to the Missouri River and find a steamer to transport him upstream. Over the succeeding four days, Howard's column followed the road to the trading settlement of Carroll City, located on the south side of the Missouri about twenty miles above the mouth of the Musselshell. There he learned of Miles's movement from the Tongue, and on October 1, the general and one hundred foot soldiers boarded the steamer Benton and started for Cow Island, forty miles west, resolved to there pick up the Nez Perces' trail; the rest of his command would remain with Sturgis at Carroll pending Howard's further communication with Miles. "The plan is to turn over the closing of the campaign to Miles and then start for home," wrote Major Mason. [19]

Cow Island, situated in the Missouri River about 120 miles downstream from the river port of Fort Benton, served as the head of navigation during low-water each autumn. Cow Island, in fact, in 1877 comprised two large islands (both extensively covered with cottonwoods) and several smaller ones, located in a major bend on the south side of the stream. The width of the river to include the islands was approximately twenty-two hundred feet, although the navigable channel spanned only about five hundred feet. Across from the island proper, on the north bank of the river and west of the mouth of Cow Creek, stood Cow Island Landing, where steamboat cargoes were unloaded to await delivery upstream by freight wagons to Fort Benton for military and commercial use. A road paralleled Cow Creek to ascend the pine-dotted bluffs leading from the canyon to the open benchlands north of the Missouri. South of the river, the bluffs rose sharply in similar fashion, but without access to the river.

During the summer of 1877, a civil engineer unit upstream from Cow Island was working to remove obstructions and stabilize the river channel at Dauphin Rapids, near the mouth of the Judith River. Company B, Seventh Infantry, from Fort Benton, served as guard to the engineers. On August 18, a detail of men started for Cow Island to guard commissary supplies. No permanent buildings stood at the landing, only tents surrounded by a drainage ditch, approximately two and one-half feet deep, with its excavated dirt thrown outward forming an embankment that could double as an entrenchment in an emergency. The tents and ditch stood about four hundred feet upstream from the landing area above the mouth of Cow Creek. [20] By the afternoon of September 23, when several hundred Nez Perces appeared on the south bank, [21] the garrison at the landing numbered twelve men in the charge of Sergeant William Molchert, who had been sent down from the project just a day earlier to obtain additional rations from the army stores located there, plus four civilian disbursing clerks who represented the freighting interests in the region. One of them was Michael Foley, chief clerk for the agent of the Josephine line of steamboats, Colonel George Clendenin, Jr., a breveted former Union army officer. [22] Fifty tons of government and commercial freight lay under tarpaulins at the landing awaiting shipment by wagon to remote corners of the territory, including Deer Lodge, Missoula, Helena, and Fort Shaw.


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap10.htm — 26-Mar-2002