Nez Perce
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Chapter 6: Bitterroot and the Big Hole

The negotiations at Woodman's Prairie, a mile west of Fort Fizzle, and the aftermath of that event made it seem apparent to the Nez Perces that their departure from Idaho and arrival in Montana meant that past conflicts lay behind them—that a new beginning was at hand and that the settlers of the Bitterroot Valley could be assured of their peaceful intentions. Many of them had traveled back and forth through the area for years, and many individuals were well known among the white populace. But their newly felt relief proved fleeting. Their false sense of security was based as much on a misunderstanding of the role and regional responsibility of the United States military as it was a tragic miscalculation that other tribes on the northern plains would receive them with friendship. Both beliefs would be shattered completely in the days and weeks ahead.

On the evening following the passage around Captain Rawn's barricade on the Lolo, the Nee-Me-Poo leaders met to deliberate again over their objectives. According to tribal testimony, the council came about at the urging of Joseph and Toohoolhoolzote. There was obvious friction among the leadership about where to go; this friction carried over from the Weippe session of two weeks previous. Into that mix came reports from three Nez Perces who had been among the Crows scouting for the army against the Lakotas of the eastern Montana plains. The leader of the three, Grizzly Bear Youth, admonished the headmen of the military presence to the east, urging them to travel north of Missoula through the Flathead Reservation and by Flathead Lake to the British Possessions. [1] The advice implicitly countered the leaders' view that conflict with the army lay in the past and that the peoples' longstanding relationship with the Crows would somehow benefit them.

In the council, Looking Glass, White Bird, and the others debated whether to continue toward the buffalo plains or go north into Canada. White Bird and Red Owl favored the latter course, but it appears that the others were not so inclined and that the discussion regarding Canada died quickly. Most of the talk then turned on how best to reach the plains, and while there were various routes to be considered—particularly one that ran more or less directly east up the Big Blackfoot River, through Cadotte Pass, and down Sun River to near Fort Shaw—Looking Glass, as before, argued forcefully for going by way of the Big Hole Basin and ultimately east down the Yellowstone River to the land of the Crows. [2] Looking Glass claimed a superior knowledge of this route over others, and he may have been interested in bypassing the various posts and mining camps. Yet objections to this course arose, with a man identified as Pile of Clouds [3] disputing Looking Glass and complaining that the Crow country was too open for fighting. Pile of Clouds urged the chiefs to go back to the Salmon "where there are mountains and timber, and we can fight." Throughout the discussion about Canada and going to the plains, Joseph had remained silent, possibly because he was interested in neither course. When he did speak, he counseled against further fighting, for Montana was not his country. "Since we have left our country, it matters little where we go." Quite possibly he entertained the notion of Pile of Clouds, which would entail the tribesmen's continuing along the Bitterroot and then returning through Nez Perce Pass to the Salmon River country. [4] Ollokot's position on the matter is unknown, and Toohoolhoolzote, Five Wounds, and Rainbow apparently aligned with Looking Glass. [5] Eventually, after the council closed, Looking Glass's seniority and respected abilities in military matters again prevailed, and the group collectively yielded to his preference. Despite the real potential for fragmentation of the body, White Bird urged unity, saying, "If we go to the Crows, we must all go." And although the Canadian option had clearly emerged during the conference, it was just as clearly not yet the favored alternative. [6]

At this stage, two tribes—the Flatheads and the Crows—figured importantly in the Nee-Me-Poo effort to get to the plains. The Flatheads were old friends of the Nez Perces who shared peaceful passage of the Lolo trail in treks to the west to harvest salmon. They were intermarried with the Nee-Me-Poo. Whether the Flatheads would present an obstacle following their show of support to the army and the Bitterroot volunteers in Lolo canyon needed to be determined. In reality, Charlo's people had no good alternative to the course that he had selected for them. As chief, Charlo had to put on a good show and control his young men lest he reap local white retaliation. With Charlo's friendship now in question, some of the Nez Perces apparently advised against going north of Missoula for fear that the Flatheads might attack them. The reality was that the Flatheads, disarmed and dependent on the whites for protection, were themselves fearful that the Nez Perces would strike them, and were perhaps more interested in obtaining horses than in fighting. At any event, as long as the Nez Perces remained in the Bitterroot Valley, the Flatheads refused to deal with them. [7]

As for the Crows, whose allegiance to the troops was well known in 1877, the uppermost question for the Nez Perces was whether that allegiance to the army would take precedence over decades of intertribal friendship and mutual support. The two tribes had occasionally fought each other, but generally had been allies against hostile neighbors on the plains. Their rapport strengthened after an 1855 treaty designated the area lying between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers east of the Crazy Mountains as Nez Perce hunting grounds. The Crows also ranged this country, and inevitably the two peoples bonded even more. Intermarriages increased, and the tribes helped each other in their conflicts with the Blackfeet, Teton Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Assiniboines. [8] In the wake of the gold strikes in Idaho, the Nez Perces seemed to extend their visits among the Crows. For example, in 1871, one group of thirty-five lodges requested to stay and begin farming with the Crows at their agency at the mouth of Mission Creek on the Yellowstone River. Thus, in the turmoil that forced the Nez Perces to move from their Idaho homes, Looking Glass expected that the Crows would give them a permanent welcome. [9]

Yet there is evidence that conditions on the plains militated against the Crows' unconditional acceptance of the Nee-Me-Poo among them. The fact was that the immense herds of buffalo that attracted the tribes no longer existed, many of the animals having been slaughtered by white hide hunters. Although the Nez Perces continued to hunt the region in 1877, the diminution of the herds meant competition for all the peoples whose basic lifeways were tied to the beasts, a reality that may have cumulatively begun to affect the Crow-Nez Perce relationship by that year. Practical like the Flatheads at this point in their history, the Crows simply believed that alienating the whites constituted too great a risk to their tribal well-being. [10]

But trouble with the Crows only loomed as a possible danger as the Nez Perces set out through the Bitterroot Valley on July 29. From the mouth of Lolo Creek, the valley stretched south along the Bitterroot River for sixty-five miles to a point where the stream forked. The fertile valley was broad and flat and was nine miles across at its widest place. It had early attracted white settlers. The major community was at Stevensville, which had grown up since the 1850s around the stockaded adobe trading post of Fort Owen, long abandoned by 1877. [11] Fifteen miles up the valley was Corvallis, and farther up the Bitterroot lay Skalkaho. [12] Each of these communities took precautionary measures at word of the Nez Perces' outbreak in Idaho. Neglecting their fields and crops, the residents at Stevensville made hasty attempts to upgrade Fort Owen, generally in good shape except for parts of the front and north end, which were crumbling. "We cut green sods and built it up again," recalled Henry Buck, who also noted that the people renamed the structure "Fort Brave." At Corvallis, the people built a fort of green sod, inside of which were living rooms fashioned of tents and wagon covers and partitioned with lumber. It was named "Fort Skidaddle," after its occupants, mostly Missourians who had "skedaddled" rather than face repeated Confederate incursions during the Civil War. Similarly constructed, the post at Skalkaho was called "Fort Run," after the propensity of area citizens to rush inside its gates when it was finished. [13] Armed with obsolete muzzle-loading weapons provided by the territorial government, the Bitterroot volunteers thus set about protecting their homes and families from the Nez Perces.

On July 10, Wilson B. Harlan, of Stevensville, informed the governor of the state of readiness in the valley:

Since the settlers have been supplied with arms they have confidence they can defend themselves and their homes if given a little notice of invasion. The families with one or two exceptions are at their homes. There was not the panic that was reported. Four or five families went to Missoula, and 19 or 20 to Fort Owen, while fully 50 staid [sic] at their homes somewhat uneasy but not apprehending immediate trouble. [14]

When Rawn finally called for assistance, the people herded their families into the forts before setting forth to the Lolo. After the Nez Perces had passed Rawn's fortifications, however, and following Looking Glass's profession of friendship for and peaceful intentions toward the Bitterroot residents, the volunteers returned quickly to their homes to await developments. [15] At Stevensville's Fort Owen, 258 citizens had taken refuge, and early word from the Lolo held that the men were being "cut to pieces" by the tribesmen. In time word arrived that, in fact, no fighting had occurred. [16]

From their first camp at J. P. McClain's tract, on Carlton Creek west of the Bitterroot River, the Nez Perces on Sunday, July 29, began a long procession up the valley, "apparently as unconcerned and indifferent to the circumstances as though on an ordinary journey to the buffalo country." [17] They were secure in the knowledge that Rawn would not strike them, that the Bitterroot occupants would let them pass, and that Howard's army was far behind. At 10:00 a.m. on the thirtieth, the van of the Nez Perces arrived on the flat west of the river opposite Stevensville. Witness Henry Buck described the scene:

I sat on top of the fort where I had a plain view of the caravan and watched their passing. As was always customary with Indians traveling on horseback, they jogged their ponies along on a little dog trot. Being curious enough to gain some idea of their number, [I] took out my watch and timed their passing a given point. It took just one hour and a quarter for all to move by and there were no gaps in the continuous train. There was no unusual confusion or disorder and none came over on our side of the river. [18]

The Nez Perces halted and went into camp three miles southwest of Stevensville on Silverthorne Creek, not far from the home of the Flathead leader, Charlo. Evidently, some of Stevenville's leading citizens loaded their wagons with flour and drove out to the camp and received cash for their goods. [19] Early the next day, the tribesmen crossed the river and visited the Buck Brothers general store,

[We] were busy arranging the goods on the shelves, when low [sic] and behold a band of squaws from the Nez Perce camp, accompanied by a few armed warriors, appeared. They soon made known their wants to us, saying they needed supplies and had money to pay for them, but if we refused to sell, would take them anyway. Our stock comprised but a handful of such articles as they wanted. However, we held a consultation over the matter and decided that "prudence was the better part of valor," so decided to trade with them. Flour was their main desire and we had none; but near Fort Owen was located the flour mill to where they repaired for a supply. [20]

Despite the amicable appearance of the Nez Perces, the citizens all slept in the fort that night, content that the Indians would soon be on their way.

Instead, the people stayed another day at Stevensville. The relative calm of the preceding day was shattered when Looking Glass and more than one hundred warriors arrived, all reportedly armed with repeating rifles. "We were lost to know what this day would bring forth," wrote Buck. He described their appearance as "formidable," while at the same time "the finest looking tribe of Indians I have ever seen." [21] A man passing through the community "found it full of Nez Perces, warriors, buying whatever they could get, provisions, clothing, etc., and of course wanted whisky [sic] and ammunition, both of which I believe they got in small quantities." [22] At least one shopkeeper refused their business and locked his store. [23] They paid for their purchases in gold coin, silver, gold dust, and paper currency, possibly at exorbitant prices charged by the merchants, but this day many indeed bought whiskey, which money-conscious purveyors made readily available to them. Looking Glass stationed himself on the street to police his people and keep them in hand. Two individuals, David Spooner and Jerry Fahy, were reprimanded by the storekeepers for dispensing liquor to the men. As Buck remembered: "The older people of the Nez Perce tribe were well disposed and tried in every way to keep the peace and deal squarely with us; but the younger warriors knew no bounds and were hard to control, especially when under the influence of liquor." In one instance, Looking Glass publicly rebuked a warrior involved in a scuffle and sent him back to the camp. By 3:00 p.m., the Nez Perces, having expended more than twelve hundred dollars in Stevensville, had all left town and returned to Silverthorne Creek, and it was here that some of the tribesmen purchased ammunition from whites who approached their village. [24]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap6.htm — 26-Mar-2002