Nez Perce
National Historical Park
NPS Arrowhead logo Big Hole
National Battlefield

Chapter 7: Camas Meadows

Colonel John Gibbon's active involvement in the Nez Perce conflict was largely finished after his bloody confrontation with the tribesmen at the Big Hole. All day long on August 12, his wounded men received treatment from Howard's medical officers while the Bannock scouts who accompanied the general's advance showed their disdain for the fallen Nez Perces by digging up and desecrating the bodies buried beneath a collapsed river bank. On the thirteenth, Gibbon departed for Deer Lodge, ninety miles away, the nearest place where the injured of his command, drawn forward in travois, could obtain extended medical care. Before leaving, he assigned fifty men under Captain Browning, First Lieutenant George H. Wright, and Second Lieutenant John T. Van Orsdale to continue the pursuit with Howard in wagons as far as Bannack City, sixty miles away. Gibbon reached Deer Lodge in two days, followed by the balance of his men on August 16. [1]

Howard's cavalry pulled out on the Nez Perces' trail on the thirteenth. Most of his infantry and artillery, following behind, camped near the battlefield on August 14 and continued after Howard the next day, although fifty men comprised of Batteries A and E of the artillery under Lieutenant Humphrey and Company H, Eighth Infantry, under Captain Daniel T. Wells, rolled forward in wagons and reached the general's bivouac on the evening of the thirteenth, twenty-three miles from the battleground. [2] Major Mason, in a letter to his wife, explained what was doubtless Howard's thought on pressing the chase:

I think a few days will determine whether we will pursue the hostiles further. If they go east after passing Bannack City or go over the old Mormon Road and down past the Salmon River and thus sweep around through Pleasant Valley—between Market Lake and Henry Lake [west of present Yellowstone National Park]we will send word by telegraph to General McDowell that having chased the Indians through the Dept. of the Dakota, into the Dept. of the Platte, we will give up the chase—as the Indians are in General Crook's Dept.who is so well able to take care of them. [3]

At his camp of the thirteenth, Howard received word via couriers from Bannack that the Nez Perces had killed some citizens on Horse Prairie Creek and were likely on their way back into Idaho, having passed farther to the west than Howard had supposed they would. The news made Howard think that the tribesmen perhaps intended to head back to the Snake River country in his department, where he might combine with Major Green to close on them. If they, however, continued east, Howard—citing his "extraordinary marches"questioned the advisability of pursuing "unless General Terry or General Crook will head them off and check their advance. . . . Without this cooperation," he notified McDowell, "the result will be, as it has been, doubtful." [4] Nonetheless, Howard sent word to Captain Miller, with the balance of the command, hoping "that you will be able to overtake us before we become engaged with the enemy." [5]

In fact, after leaving the carnage of the Big Hole, the Nez Perces had traveled slowly over long days to put as much territory as possible between them and Howard's troops. It was a difficult journey, the people saddened by their losses in the fighting as well as the deaths of many wounded along the trail. Their route, evidently in no way modified because of their recent confrontation with the soldiers, [6] took them up the Big Hole River, southwesterly and west of the present communities of Wisdom and Jackson, and within ten or twelve miles of Bannack City. They crossed Bloody Dick Creek and Horse Prairie Creek, camping at the west edge of Horse Prairie, traditionally familiar to the Nez Perces, and historically the site where Lewis and Clark acquired horses from the Shoshones in 1805. As the Indian vanguard appeared in their country, many white settlers in their path fled for safety into Bannack City. [7]

On the evening of August 12, in a post-Big Hole rage reminiscent of the initial outbreak and evidently aimed at all manifestations of white culture, some warriors attacked a ranch owned by Messrs. W. L. Montague and Daniel Winters where several families resided, the women and children having been evacuated to Bannack. Killing Montague and Thomas Flynn in the house, the warriors ransacked the place and shot to death two more men, James Farnsworth and James Smith, working in a field. Daniel Winters and two men escaped by hiding and fleeing, and they eventually reached Bannack. Five miles farther the warriors surprised four men, John Wagoner, Andrew Meyers, Alexander Cooper, and a Mr. Howard near a ranch, killing Cooper while the others managed to escape to some willows and hide until the Nez Perces left. Of course, at both places the raiders took horses, too, apparently totaling about forty. They also pilfered and destroyed the ranch of John and Thomas Pierce in the area. [8]

Leaving Horse Prairie on August 13the same morning that Howard was leaving the Big Hole battlefield, approximately two days' march behind them—the Nez Perces dropped south and crossed the Continental Divide through Bannock Pass, reentering Idaho Territory not far from the Lemhi Indian Reservation and briefly passing along the bottom of the Lemhi, a branch of Salmon River that separated Montana's Bitterroot Range from Idaho's Lemhi Range. [9] Whereas, before the Big Hole encounter with the soldiers, by common consent Looking Glass's regulation had prevailed, that disaster resulted in his subordination as far as the daily marches were concerned. By mutual consent of the band leaders, general direction of the caravan devolved on Poker Joe, who had joined the people near Stevensville in the Bitterroot and who was recognized for his familiarity with the region the tribesmen would traverse in gaining the plains. As the warrior Wottolen said, Poker Joe "would have the people up early in the morning, and travel till about ten o'clock. Then he ordered a stop and cooking was done while the horses filled up on grass. About two o'clock he would travel again. Kept going until about ten o'clock at night." [10] Looking Glass, especially regarded for his military acumen, maintained the people's confidence in that discipline but was likely chagrined at his subordination after Big Hole. Probably, too, Ollokot gained in prestige for his military experience in the wake of Big Hole, while Joseph, known for his diplomacy, continued his oversight of the Wallowas and the nonmilitary aspects of the overall train. While their hierarchical marching system probably remained the same as before, with scouts well out ahead of the column, the primary leaders in front, followed by secondary leaders, common men, women and children with the baggage, and finally the driven horse herd, after Big Hole the marching and camping followed a strict regimen that ensured awareness of all around them. [11]

Settlers in the Lemhi Valley anticipated the Nez Perces' arrival and built two stockades (one at Salmon City and one at Junction) to protect themselves. Nor were the local Indians, Lemhi Shoshones under the leadership of Chief Tendoy, receptive to their age-old adversaries. After pausing several hours near Junction at the mouth of Timber Creek, during which they assured the settlers of their peaceful enterprise, the tribesmen proceeded east a short distance to camp in the mouth of a canyon where they killed some cattle and readied rifle pits in their newfound security-consciousness. [12] Next day, the Nez Perces turned up the Lemhi Valley on the old Mormon Road and passed southeast over to Birch Creek Valley, a monotonous gravelly plain bordering a tributary of the Snake River. On Wednesday, August 15, along Birch Creek, sixty miles from Junction, a group of warriors attacked a horse-and-mule-drawn freight train, killing five men—James Hayden, Albert Green, Daniel Combs, all of Salmon City, and two unidentified men (a man named Albert Lyon escaped through the creek) and burning three wagons and three trailers loaded with general merchandise, including canned goods, crockery, window glass and sash, and whiskey, en route from the Union Pacific Railroad transfer point at Corrine, Utah Territory, to Salmon City and Leesburg, Idaho Territory. Two Chinese cooks rode with the train. One of them, Charles Go Hing, later testified about the raid as follows:

We camped for dinner about noon on Birch Creek, had finished dinner and were lying under the wagons when we heard the clatter of horses' feet, looked up and saw a party of armed and mounted Indians advancing towards us at a gallop. The men all started for the wagons to get their guns, but before they could get them the Indians had surrounded us and leveled their guns and commanded us to surrender, which we did. I counted them and there were 56 of them, all well-armed and mounted. . . . The Indians after eating made us hitch up the teams and drive up to their main camp about a mile away, where they made us go into camp. The men started with some Indians to drive the animals out to feed. I never saw any of them again. The other Indians broke into the wagons and helped themselves to goods. The Indians said they were Nez Perces and belonged to Joseph's band. [13]

As the warriors celebrated, the cooks managed to get away in the night and made their way to Junction. The forty animals from the train were absorbed into the Nez Perces' herd. On the night of August 16, Tendoy and some fifteen of his Lemhi warriors caught up with the Nez Perces and in the darkness ran off seventy-five of their stock, some of which had been taken in the Horse Prairie raid. Next day, a party headed by Colonel George L. Shoup of the local Idaho volunteers (later first governor of the state of Idaho and U.S. senator, 1890-1901) arrived at the scene of the smoldering train and buried the dead. [14]

From Birch Creek, the Nez Perces began moving easterly, skirting the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and crossing Medicine Lodge Creek and Beaver Creek to reach an area twenty-five miles south of Pleasant Valley below the Montana line. Here, on August 16 and 17, they crossed the Corrine Road a few miles north of present Dubois, stopping to gather in their scattered stock and taking over the Hole-in-the-Rock Stage Station, disrupting travel on the road, and destroying the telegraph lines. Word of their presence threw a brief scare into the residents of Virginia City, Montana, sixty miles away. One man in the vicinity of the road reported seeing dust "on the trail direct to the south fork of Snake River, and which leads to the head of Wind River valley" in Wyoming. But the tribesmen, in fact, continued gradually northeast to Henry's Fork of the Snake River, then on toward Henry's Lake, hugging the boundary between the territories just west of the national park. [15]

All the while the Nez Perces were skirting the Rockies, General Howard—convinced that they "were only deviating to blind our pursuit" while resupplying their cavalcade—marched his men east and south, intent on heading them off before they reached the stage road or, at worst, Henry's Lake. On the fourteenth, with his primary infantry complement trailing two days behind in wagons, the general and his available force traveled twenty-five miles amid further word of the attack on the Horse Prairie settlers. Next morning, Howard and his men passed by Bannack City to an ovation of the townspeople, who were relieved at the presence of the troops. "Gen. Howard was the great attraction," wrote Major Mason. "We camped [on Horse Prairie Creek] about 12 miles beyond the town, but the people filled our camp all afternoon, all full of advice as to what should be done, and giving their opinions in an offensive manner." [16] While Howard collected provisions in Bannack, a message from Colonel Shoup alerted him to the presence of the Nez Perces in the Lemhi Valley and decided him on his course to intercept them near the stage road from Corrine. "We have the inside track and are very hopeful of taking them on the hip," wrote Mason. [17] Learning of the attack on the freight train at Birch Creek, Howard on the sixteenth pushed forward, momentarily bolstered by the presence of two volunteer companies from Deer Lodge that peremptorily returned home after a too-brief scouting foray. [18] He dispatched a courier to Miller, telling him to pick up two weeks' supply of provisions at Bannack. "You must not obtain more supplies than the pack train can carry, [f]or we may be obliged to drop the wagons at any point." [19] Miller's battalion, tired and weary from the constant pursuit, had trouble keeping together on the trail, and many rode in the wagons. As driver Henry Buck recalled, "My duty mostly was to pick up and haul foot-sore and worn out soldiers as we traveled along. I usually started out empty, but by camp time—say twelve or one o'clock—I would have all the men that could get into the wagon." [20]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap7.htm — 26-Mar-2002