Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 5: Kamiah, Weippe, and Fort Fizzle

The Battle of the Clearwater was indisputably a watershed in the army's campaign against the Nez Perces. By not pressing them in their retreat from their village, General Howard lost both the initiative and an opportunity to finally curb the nontreaty Nez Perces and end the war. He later claimed that he had driven the tribesmen away from the settlements, thus ending the threat along the Salmon River and on the Camas Prairie. But Clearwater proved only a temporary setback to the Nez Perces; despite the loss of their homes and supplies, they were enabled to continue to pursue their apparent objective of reaching the buffalo plains beyond the Bitterroot range. In failing to intelligently predict that course, Howard could not properly capitalize on his victory by blocking and thereby denying to the Indians the strategic umbilical posed by the Lolo trail—the primary route leading from the rugged Idaho fastness to the open plains of Montana. From a military perspective, it was a failure of colossal proportion that was to haunt the army through the next twelve weeks.

On July 13, after much delay in moving the howitzers down from the bluffs east of the river, and after burning and otherwise destroying the Nez Perce village and its contents, as well as the rich caches of supplies, Howard's troops took up their march along the Nez Perces' trail about 9:00 a.m. They skirted a corner of the Camas Prairie, then bore north past McConville's vacant Misery Hill post toward the subagency at Kamiah along the north side of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. Howard had received word that the warriors were threatening the reservation tribesmen. Yet his movement proceeded slowly over the nine-mile course, the cavalry halting periodically to permit the foot soldiers to keep up with them. Finally surmounting the hills overlooking the river opposite the agency about midafternoon, the command saw the tribesmen already across the stream. "From where we were halted," wrote Sergeant McCarthy, "we could see the main body of the Indians. They were in line mounted on a hill about half a mile back, and along the hill were some stoneworks." [1] The troops spotted an immense herd of livestock on the bluffs behind the agency buildings. [2]

Instantly, Howard directed the gun battery forward, and Lieutenant Wilkinson's detachment descended ready to open the howitzers and Gatlings on the tribesmen, who had by then completed their passage. At the same time, the cavalry was rapidly deployed, Perry and Whipple veering right and toward the river while Howard with Jackson's company skirted the base of the bluffs and headed to the river. Companies F and L rode down the bluffs and advanced on the riverbank in a maneuver that elicited the first gunfire from the Nez Perces. Captain Whipple described the movement:

Passing down the bluffs, Captain Perry with his company and mine kept a half mile or so to the right until near the river, then changing direction to the left marched down the river to join the main column which had halted. When within about 300 yards of the main column, a brisk fire was opened upon Captain Perry's column from the enemy concealed on the other side of the river, and that officer ordered the gallop and, as soon as out of direct range, the halt. Three men became demoralized at the first volley, dismounted, and came in on foot through a grain field on the left. This was the first and only instance of panic, fright or unsteadiness I saw among the men on the entire campaign. [3]

Another observer commented that "the horses became wild and unmanageable for a time, so that many men dismounted from them and let them go." [4] Yet another noted that the cavalrymen "walked into an ambush. . . [which caused] a great stampede for a short distance." [5] Correspondent Thomas Sutherland watched as Perry's and Whipple's men buckled under "a very brisk fire (say fifty shots in two minutes)." "The men jumped from their horses and took to the grain fields on their left," eventually reaching the ford where Wilkinson's Gatling guns responded. [6] The performance of the cavalry at Kamiah disgusted Howard, who complained to Perry. [7] Despite the long-distance shooting, the gunfire remained lively. Two soldiers were injured in this exchange, one sustaining a severe head wound. [8] Trumpeter Bernard A. Brooks commented: "One man was shot within ten feet of me . . . and the bullet whistled dangerously near my own head." [9] One account said that army sharpshooters killed two Indians eight hundred yards away, but this was questionable. [10] Meantime, the artillery pounded the woods on the north side of the river without apparent effect and stopped after an hour. Because the reservation people had removed all their boats to the north side to keep them from falling into the hands of the nontreaty people, Howard could not immediately cross his command. Regardless, such a venture at that time would have been risky. The troops withdrew several hundred yards and went into camp, remaining there for the rest of the day. That night and the following day, the soldiers bathed and washed their uniforms—the first time in several weeks that they had clean persons and clothing. During the fourteenth, the pickets occasionally fired their weapons, but the warriors did not respond. [11]

At 6:00 a.m., Sunday, July 15, Howard led a command composed of Companies B, F, H, and L, First Cavalry, and forty volunteers who had arrived the previous day under Colonel McConville, in a march of twenty miles downstream to Dunwell's Ferry. He planned to ford the troops, then overcome the Nez Perces on their side of the river and cut them off while his remaining men under Captain Miller crossed at Kamiah and closed on their rear. But the plan proved short-lived. Four miles out of Kamiah, the column halted when the general was suddenly called back to the camp opposite Kamiah by word that a messenger from Joseph wanted to see him. Perry's Company F returned with Howard, while the remaining units, under Captain Jackson, kept on. Later, Company H was recalled and returned to the camp about midnight.

The parley with Joseph's messenger, a man named Kulkulsuitim, occurred on the south side of the Clearwater, a short distance from the army encampment. Major Mason joined Howard in the discussion. The meeting raised expectations that the Nez Perce leader was about to surrender, reportedly on the unconditional terms proposed by Howard, and the general made extensive preparations to receive the chief. But as the officers talked with the messenger near the river, shots rang out, reportedly from the north bank, and the meeting ended. Nonetheless, Howard remained optimistic, penning the following dispatch to divisional headquarters:

Joseph has promised to break away from White Bird and give himself up to-morrow. He said he was forced to move to-day. The indications are that they have but little ammunition or food, and sustained large losses of everything in their hurried crossing of the river here at our approach. I see evidence of the band's breaking up, and shall pursue them a little farther with vigor. [12]

Howard also wrote another, less definite, statement that suggests that he was not as sanguine about the outcome:

Joseph may make a complete surrender to-morrow morning. My troops will meet him at the ferry. He and his people will be treated with justice. Their conduct will be carefully investigated by a court composed of nine (9) officers of my army, to be selected by myself. [Brevet Lieutenant] Colonel M. P. Miller is designated as the officer to receive Joseph and his arms. [13]

But Joseph never appeared, and Howard became convinced that the event was but a ruse designed to further impede the army while allowing the tribesmen time to move their noncombatants and livestock toward the Lolo trail. [14] Instead, seventeen warriors, including a leader named Red Heart, came in with twenty-eight women and children. These people, recently returned from the buffalo country, had met with White Bird, Joseph, and the others at Weippe, about twenty miles north, and had decided against aligning themselves with the nontreaty Nez Perces. They brought with them another leader, Three Feathers, and a few of his people who did not want to continue the fighting. Red Heart's people turned in two guns. They reportedly claimed that other Nez Perces would soon follow their lead and that Joseph had been compelled over his objection to go with White Bird and the others to the buffalo lands. Some of the Indians were considered reservation dwellers. Despite this and the previous noninvolvement of most in the fighting, all were arrested and taken to Fort Lapwai and jailed. [15] These surrenders led some officers to conclude that dissension had set in among the people and that "the war seems virtually ended." [16]

On the sixteenth, when Jackson rejoined, the command took the entire day in fording the Clearwater "after considerable humbugging with our horses, which had to be towed across as usual." [17] By then it was virtually certain that the Nez Perces had started east over the Lolo fork trail, but Howard needed positive information. At 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Major Mason led the cavalry, along with about twenty of McConville's volunteers and a howitzer detachment, to reconnoiter beyond the intersection of the Lolo and Oro Fino trails to Weippe, a popular Nez Perce camas-gathering spot. Six Christian Nez Perce scouts accompanied the command, among them John Levi (Sheared Wolf), Abraham Brooks, and James Reuben, their leader. The march was difficult because fallen timber in the forest barred much of the way. At about noon, after traveling about twenty miles and passing across the open Weippe Prairie, the troops paused briefly for lunch. They next entered the timber on the far side, eventually reaching a summit overlooking Lolo Creek. They continued along the Lolo trail, the volunteers leading the way, and at midafternoon came to open ground. Here McConville directed the scouts ahead, and they moved quickly across the break and into the timber. As they advanced, they were suddenly fired upon, Reuben and Brooks being wounded and John Levi killed. One of the volunteers recalled seeing three of the scouts, "coming toward us, dismounted and without their guns, and motioning with their hands for us to go back. They were hardly in sight before three sharp volleys were heard from the trail ahead and the next moment the rest of them came out of the timber as fast as their ponies could run." [18] Most of the scouts raced past the volunteers, who had no interpreter, leaving them in front and anticipating a major attack. The men who fired at the scouts were warriors from the main body, which was moving several miles away on the Lolo trail. They had learned of the presence of the troops from tribesmen who had remained behind as a rear guard. At the surprise, McConville's men fell back, taking cover behind fallen trees, and waited. But nothing happened. "As the moments glided by," remembered participant Lieutenant Eugene T. Wilson, "the situation became ludicrous and we began to speculate upon the success Colonel Mason would have with a mountain howitzer in timber too thick to drag a cat through." [19] McConville was shortly joined by Captain Winters, who directed him at Mason's order to go forward, and the volunteers and Company E advanced into the underbrush, the cavalrymen arrayed as skirmishers with every fourth man holding the horses in the rear. Presently, they found one severely wounded scout (Brooks) and the body of another (Levi), then took position at the edge of the woods anticipating an attack. After awhile they slowly withdrew, half of each company mounted and the other half dismounted. Emerging from the forest, McConville saw that Mason had dismounted his entire force, "it being utterly impossible for a mounted man to make his way through the timber." [20] Gaining open ground with Lieutenant Forse guarding their withdrawal, all the men mounted, turned about, and marched to Lolo Creek. [21] The volunteers fashioned a travois for the wounded scout, and the dead man was slung across a pony and carried out. Not far from the trail, the volunteers and scouts halted while a grave was dug and the dead scout interred. McConville's men ascended the trail until near midnight when, their horses exhausted from the climb, they bivouacked. Next day they overtook the balance of Mason's command. Determining the trail to be unsuited for further cavalry operations, the major concluded to return to Kamiah. [22]

On the morning of the eighteenth, the troops reached Howard's camp, the wounded scouts borne most of the way by the volunteers. During the day, a detail searched the agency buildings and found "3 hostiles, 2 of whom were wounded," evidently during the Clearwater battle. Most of the soldiers were ferried to the south bank, Company H of the cavalry alone remaining to entrench for the night on the agency side. [23] On July 19, Howard started his troops downstream, intending to stop at Lewiston for supplies, then go north and east through the Spokan and Coeur d'Alene country—a longer but faster route—and intercept the Nez Perces at the east end of the Lolo trail. He left three companies—one each of cavalry, infantry, and artillery—to stand watch opposite the Kamiah subagency in case the tribesmen returned, and he anticipated that the arrivals of Major John Green and Colonel Frank Wheaton would further secure the region. The volunteers would return to the site of the South Fork village and finish destroying caches found there. Their duty was to continue protecting Grangeville and Mount Idaho; Howard directed them to drive several hundred excess captured ponies into Rocky Canyon near the Salmon River and kill them to ruin any possible incentive for the warriors' return to the area. [24]

Yet Howard's march was short-lived. Before he reached Cold Spring en route to Lewiston, he received notices from Watkins and Monteith that the tribesmen had turned back toward Kamiah. Further news came that warriors had burned property on the North Fork of the Clearwater. Finally, the night after Howard left Kamiah, the Nez Perces struck the subagency, running off as many as four hundred of their kinsmen's ponies and mules and killing some cattle. The soldiers on the south side of the river heard the disturbance, and a few shots were fired in their direction. Eventually "the men were dismissed with orders to lie down without undressing and to be ready at the slightest warning." [25] In the morning, the reservation tribesmen commenced to cross over into the army camp, each party waving a white flag as they approached. They reported that Looking Glass had led the raid on their homes and that head chief James Lawyer had gone into hiding for fear of losing his life during the attack. [26]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap5.htm — 26-Mar-2002