Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 13: Bear's Paw: Siege and Surrender

Bad weather continued through the night. "The snow descends, it hails, then freezes. . . . We have no fires to relieve the cold or dry the stiffened, frozen garments of the men," wrote Lieutenant Long. [1] Daylight Monday, October 1, opened with wind and mist obscuring distant objects. Among the troops there occurred repeated announcements of mounted columns of men being sighted on the northern horizon. "They could see black horses, pinto horses, and every other kind," said Louis Shambo, reflecting the anxiety of Miles and his soldiers over the feared arrival of reinforcements for the Nez Perces. [2] Then two lines of moving objects were spotted to the south, in the rear of Miles's command. Moving slowly forward "on either flank," they appeared at first to be troops from Sturgis's command or—more threateningly—Sitting Bull's warriors coming to help the besieged Nez Perces. "Many anxious moments were spent before we determined that they were buffalo marching in single file with all the regularity and precision of soldiers," related Tilton. [3]

This incident represented a very real concern of Miles and his officers that lasted for the duration of the siege of the Nez Perces. [4] The Lakotas of Sitting Bull were keenly aware of the location of the Nez Perces, although it is unclear if they knew yet of Miles's attack. While the siege progressed, the Sioux leaders in Canada met in council preliminary to crossing the border. But they were ultimately dissuaded from lending their aid by the forceful presence of Major James M. Walsh, superintendent of the North-West Mounted Police, who admonished Sitting Bull that Canada would no longer provide them sanctuary if they moved below the line; if the warriors departed for the Bear's Paws, Walsh told them, he would drive their women and children below the boundary. Finally, at a subsequent council session, the chiefs concluded that any extension of support for the Nez Perces would be suicidal for them; unknown to them, by that time (October 7) it was already too late to help. [5]

map of Battle of Bear's Paw Mountains: Evening
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press, do not use without permission of publisher.

During the night of September 30, the Nez Perces improved their shelters and fortifications and seemingly prepared themselves for the worst. Equipped with the provisions taken at Cow Island, and able to live on the meat of the horses killed by the soldiers, the tribesmen could be expected to hold out indefinitely. [6] Moreover, the people retained access to the water in Snake Creek by digging two waterholes, or cisterns, in the soil below the mouth of the refuge slough and northwest of Toohoolhoolzote's camp. [7] By morning, however, not all of the Nez Perce leaders were adamantly opposed to opening a dialogue with Miles to save lives, and Joseph was one of these. [8] During the previous day's fighting, Miles had ridden the line calling out and soliciting the tribesmen's surrender, requests that were initially met with defiance from the warriors. [9] Now at least some of them seemed more inclined to talk.

It appears that Miles's Indian scouts helped facilitate a meeting between the colonel and Joseph. After daylight, three of them, High Wolf, Young Two Moon, and Starving Elk, initiated contact in hopes of saving the women and children. As they approached the breastworks, three Nez Perces came out and shook hands with them. One, a young girl, gave Starving Elk a necklace of beads. Young Two Moon recollected that "the camp was a sad looking place. . . . Just outside of the breastworks were a few dead soldiers, but in the camp the bodies of the Nez Perces were everywhere." [10] The Cheyennes told the three that Miles would listen to them; then they rode back and reported to Miles. At the colonel's behest, Young Two Moon and three other scouts returned to the Nez Perces and convinced Joseph and several followers to come out. Young Two Moon remembered:

As they went up on the hill, the soldiers stood in line on either side in a V with General Miles at a distance at the angle of the V. When they reached General Miles the soldiers closed in behind them. A little later a Nez Perce rode up on a cavalry horse, which his people must have captured. He came through the soldiers to where General Miles was. He could speak English and interpreted for General Miles. [11]

Although the Cheyennes factored significantly in the initiation of talks, Miles apparently pursued other avenues, too, and what happened subsequently probably reflected a mix of several efforts. Early that morning, one of the packers hailed the Nez Perces. The warrior Yellow Bull advanced under a white flag and met the man, then took his message back to Joseph. [12] "General Miles wished me to consider the situation; that he did not want to kill my people unnecessarily," remembered Joseph. [13] Joseph initially demurred, responding that he needed time to decide. Then the scout John Bruguier, perhaps with some Cheyenne scouts, went to the Nez Perce camp, and Joseph subsequently appeared and walked over to Miles's tent, [14] situated behind the lines and likely near the head of the ravine that cut between the south bluff and the hill on which the Hotchkiss gun stood. [15] Tilton described him as "a young ALIGN="RIGHT">Bear's Paw: Siege and Surrender man of fine presence. He appeared very sad. . . . He said they were short of rations and could not move without their ponies." [16] Joseph was preceded in his approach by five men, one of them an interpreter, Tom Hill, a mixed-blood Nez Perce with Delaware lineage, who Tilton said was "a man of marked presence" with "large bright black eyes and sharp cut features." "He spoke English in a very deliberate way, uttering each word slowly without emphasizing any particular one." [17]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap13.htm — 26-Mar-2002