Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 3: Looking Glass's Camp and Cottonwood

On July 1, boats having arrived from upstream, the troops, horses, pack animals, ammunition, and mountain howitzers of Howard's command negotiated the churning and boiling Salmon to the other side. By then, the Nez Perces had withdrawn into the highland recesses, leaving the army to follow their trail and try to divine their intentions. The region chosen by Howard occupied the lofty terrain lying between the deep gorges of the Salmon and Snake rivers, south of the point where the Salmon angles its flow westward toward the Snake. It is partly dissected plateau, partly steep and rugged canyon breaks, of varying grass and pine forest growth and sharply changing altitude, and partly level grass prairie, in all making river navigation slow and difficult. After fording the river, the soldiers marched for the Snake. In their course of July 2, Captain Trimble and his First cavalrymen and McConville's volunteers joined Howard, having forded at Horseshoe Bend. All pushed toward the summit of Brown's Mountain, where heavy sleet and rain pummeled their bivouac. Several pack animals were lost in surmounting the steep and slippery grades, and the artillerymen, unused to campaigning, complained bitterly as they tried to keep up. The Indian trail, well marked by the passage of their fifteen hundred ponies, was easily followed, but the rugged terrain kept progress to an average of ten or twelve miles per day. Sergeant McCarthy observed that "the command was strung out all the way from base to summit of divide."

Howard believed that the Nez Perces had possibly divided into two groups, with one headed south, and he anticipated that the troops from Boise under Major John Wesley Green might encounter them. (Howard was unduly optimistic about these troops; they had not yet departed Boise.) The other group moved in his own front; his troops had discovered caches of their flour, clothing, and supplies—even abandoned ponies—leading the general to believe that the Nez Perces planned to return to the Wallowa and Imnaha valleys. On the afternoon of July 4, however, while in the process of camping opposite Rocky Canyon, Howard received word that Nez Perce warriors had struck the soldiers posted at Cottonwood on Camas Prairie. Thinking that these tribesmen were but a raiding party from the main group quartered somewhere near the Snake, Howard dispatched McConville's and Hunter's volunteers to ford the river and go in support to Cottonwood.

In fact, the entire body of Nez Perces had gone back across the Salmon, having forded at the then-defunct Craig's Ferry, opposite Billy Creek and some twenty-five miles downstream from White Bird Creek, evidently when they learned that the soldiers had gained the south bank. Realizing that, Howard tried to move back across the raging Salmon on the morning of the sixth, but failed, and he sent word to Whipple that his raft had been swept away by the current. After shooting twenty ponies that the Nez Perces had left behind, Howard's command started on a "Horrible retrograde march" for his earlier fording point miles away and nearly opposite the mouth of White Bird Creek. [1] Sergeant McCarthy recalled the frustration of the moment:

We were in a bad fix, with no means of crossing the river. We could not cross like the Indians. Our force, except our company, were foot troops. A part of the next day was spent in trying to swim the Cavalry [and their horses] but it was a failure. A raft was tried but it was a failure also. How the whole tribe of Indians with horses, women, papooses, etc., got across was a puzzle. It is yet a puzzle. We didn't seem to have engineering skill enough to devise ways and means to cross and the command marched back two days' march to White Bird Crossing. [2]

Howard's orders to Captain Whipple to arrest Looking Glass proved of dire consequence for the army, as well as for the chief and his people. Until June 29, when he issued instructions for neutralizing those people, however, Howard remained unconvinced that Looking Glass would seriously factor into the conflict, and had written the treaty chief, James Lawyer: "I am glad to hear that Looking Glass remains at home. If the others who gave me promises had kept their word there would have been peace and prosperity—and not war." [3] Howard's change of mind came with reports from Mount Idaho that four volunteers scouting toward the Middle Clearwater had found evidence that Looking Glass's Nez Perces had sacked two homesteads, one between the forks of the Clearwater owned by Idaho County commissioner George Dempster, which they burned, and the other owned by James T. Silverwood. They had also driven off livestock. When the four volunteers tried to approach the Nez Perce camp on Clear Creek, about six miles above Kamiah, the tribesmen motioned them away.

Other reports, some brought to Howard by the Nez Perce scouts, suggested that at least twenty men from Looking Glass's village had already joined the nontreaty bands (however, these people may simply have been visitors to the lakeside convocation who stayed on after Looking Glass had departed) and that the chief and the rest of his people would soon follow. Furthermore, rumors circulated from Mount Idaho that Looking Glass's warriors would attack the settlements within days, and Inspector Watkins characterized the chief as "running a recruiting station for Joseph." Howard's orders to arrest the chief were designed to stop any prospective union and to dissuade further support for White Bird and Joseph. [4]

The directions were explicit and were delivered verbally, as recalled by General Howard:

Captain Whipple, go with your cavalry and Gatling guns, arrest the Indian chief Looking Glass, and all other Indians who may be encamped with or near him, between the forks of the Clearwater, and imprison them at Mount Idaho, turning them over for safe keeping to the volunteer organization at that place. [5]

At 9:00 p.m., Whipple departed the Salmon with Companies E and L, First Cavalry, his command totaling four officers and sixty-two men. Arriving at Mount Idaho in the early morning of June 30, the captain left two Gatling guns—crank-operated ten-barreled rapid-fire machine guns of .45 calibre, each drawn by three horses—along with a detail of probably four men to operate them. [6] After resting his troops for several hours at Mount Idaho, he pressed forward late in the afternoon toward his objective twenty-five miles away, accompanied by twenty volunteers under Captain Darius B. Randall, so that his effective strength totaled eighty-seven. [7]

The officers of the command represented diversity in their experience. Captain Whipple, who commanded Company L, was the senior, a Vermont native who had led a unit of California volunteers during the Civil War. As a lieutenant colonel, he had seen extensive duty on the California frontier, and he held a brevet for "faithful and meritorious service." Appointed in the Regular Army in 1867, Whipple continued on the frontier in Arizona Territory and joined the First Cavalry in 1870. His first lieutenant was Edwin H. Shelton, from Connecticut, and an 1870 West Point graduate, while his second lieutenant was Sevier M. Rains, an 1876 academy graduate. Captain William H. Winters commanded Company E. He had been appointed from the enlisted ranks, having served with the First Cavalry during the Civil War as a private, corporal, sergeant, and first sergeant before receiving a commission in 1865. Winters had been a captain since June 25, 1876. His first lieutenant was Albert G. Forse, who had figured in the Wallowa incident the previous September. An 1865 West Point graduate appointed to the First Cavalry in June of that year, Forse had spent ten years in the Northwest with the unit. He would be killed in 1898 at Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. Second lieutenant of Company E was William H. Miller, an 1872 graduate of the military academy, who had campaigned against the Modocs in 1873, and would one day (1890) be breveted for that service. [8]

Thus officered, the men rode through the night, planning to strike the village at dawn while the people slept, in the customary army tactic of the time used against Indians, and especially against small camps. [9] But the approach was hard, and across rugged, hilly terrain, and through some calculating error, the camp lay ten miles farther than supposed. The troops failed to arrive until 7:00 a.m. [10]well after daybreak when the occupants were awake and engaged in their daily routine. The targeted village of eleven lodges stood within the reservation boundary along the right bank of Clear Creek, a short distance from its mouth on the Middle Clearwater and two miles southeast of the present community of Kooskia, which is at the confluence of the middle and south forks of the Clearwater. [11] The site was called Kamnaka, and there the tribesmen had cultivated their land for farming; many were raising dairy cattle. [12] Some of the people, including Looking Glass, had recently returned from the Tepahlewam assembly, professing their disinclination to join in the escalating warfare involving the nontreaty Nez Perces. Looking Glass had turned away nontreaty Nez Perces who had tried to camp near his village.

This Nez Perce encampment on the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Shields River, Montana Territory, 1871, photographed by William Henry Jackson, was similar in appearance to that attacked by Whipple's troops on July 1, 1877. As the conflict dragged on, fewer lodges like these were available for the Nee-Me-Poo, and by the time of the Bear's Paw encounter many of the people were using alternative forms of shelter.
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap3.htm — 26-Mar-2002