Nez Perce
National Historical Park
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National Battlefield

Chapter 9: Canyon Creek

On August 26, General Sherman wired Sheridan in Chicago: "I don't think Howard's troops will catch Joseph, but they will follow trusting to your troops heading them off when they come out on the east of the mountains." [1] Among the commands assigned by Sheridan to head off the Nez Perces as they emerged from the national park was that of Brigadier General George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte. Both the Indians and General Howard's soldiers were presently operating in his administrative jurisdiction. Uncertain as to the exact direction the tribesmen were traveling, but nonetheless responding to the reports of scouts and other observers that they perhaps intended to reach the buffalo country via Wind River, Crookon orders from Sheridan—prepared to confront them accordingly in the area south and east of the park. Crook planned an offensive from Camp Brown, Wyoming, to include six companies of the Fifth Cavalry and one of the Third, most of them permanently stationed at Fort D. A. Russell near Cheyenne. [2] These troops would cooperate with a battalion of five companies of the Fifth under Major Verling K. Hart. This battalion was already afield from Cantonment Reno on Powder River and was searching the area of north-central Wyoming for vestiges of the Lakota-Cheyenne alliance left from the Great Sioux War. At Sheridan's direction, a contingent of Oglala Sioux scouts started from Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, for Hart's command, which on September 6 got underway for the Bighorn River and the site of Fort C. F. Smith, abandoned since 1868. Originally, Crook was to personally lead the expedition, but problems arising at Camp Robinson, Nebraska, and environs after the death of the Lakota leader, Crazy Horse, took precedence, and Colonel Wesley Merritt, regimental commander of the Fifth Cavalry, assumed the command. [3]

Sheridan's design called for Major Hart and his four companies (7 officers and 239 enlisted men) to converge on the Stinking Water River (present Shoshone River) if the Nez Perces came down that stream. [4] If they exited the park and traveled down Wind River, Hart and/or Merritt would proceed there to stop them. On September 10, Crook reported to Sheridan that his scouts had found no sign of the Nez Perces on the Stinking Water, but that the Nez Perces had told the Bannocks with Howard that they were en route to join the Crows. "The fact of their loitering around the mountains in the Yellow Stone country would indicate that they were holding communication with other Indians so as to determine what their future movements should be," said Crook. [5]

Despite Crook's belief that the Nez Perces would not come south, Merritt moved out of Camp Brown (north of present Lander, Wyoming) with his seven companies (approximately five hundred officers, men, scouts, and teamsters) on September 9, hoping to cooperate with Hart and keeping fifty of the eighty-four Shoshone scouts under Chief Washakie posted well in front to intercept any news of the Nez Perces' approach. [6] With wagons instead of pack mules to carry its rations, the column on September 12 had difficulty surmounting the summit of the Owl Creek Mountains in a rainstorm and only slowly proceeded northwest toward the Stinking Water. Two days later, Merritt cut loose from his wagons, and on the fifteenth, the troops passed through a snow squall en route to crossing the Greybull River and trailing up Meteetse Creek to reach the Stinking Water on September 17, where a recent cavalry trail was discovered. Camping between the forks of that stream (above present Cody, Wyoming), Merritt sent out scouts who identified the trail as having probably been made by Sturgis's command operating from the vicinity of Heart Mountain, just twelve miles away. Later, the scouts established contact with Hart's battalion, which had ridden west from Fort Smith and then south through Pryor Gap in the Pryor range to reach the Stinking Water. The scouts led them back to join Merritt at the forks of that stream. The combined force then marched for Clark's Fork, but arrived far too late to join Sturgis and Howard, now well across the Yellowstone, and found only a few abandoned cavalry mounts. The aptly named Wind River Expedition concluded with the return of the eleven companies to Camp Brown on September 28, having been too late and too far removed to help find and subjugate the Nez Perces. [7]

Thus, for the moment, as the Nez Perces passed through and out of the national park, it remained for Colonel Samuel Sturgis to assume the principal role of confronting them. Sturgis's involvement in the campaign would constitute an important change in the direction and conduct of the army's pursuit of the tribesmen, for with the introduction of the aggressive Colonel Nelson A. Miles and his Yellowstone Command onto the scene (of which Sturgis's Seventh Cavalry was a major component), it now became a matter only of time and opportunity for the war with the Nez Perces to conclude. Anticipating the Indians' goal of gaining the buffalo grounds north of the Yellowstone, and perhaps uniting with the Sioux under Sitting Bull near the British line, Miles, on August 12, as mentioned, had sent Sturgis and part of the Seventh Cavalry west from their camp opposite the Tongue River Cantonment (on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Tongue) to strategically poise themselves in the Judith Gap, a stretch of prairie land lying north of the Yellowstone and between the Little Belt and Big Snowy mountain ranges through which the Nez Perces might logically attempt to pass. Miles's orders to Sturgis were as follows:

With six companies of your regiment and the Artillery Detachment [a bronze twelve-pounder Napoleon gun] with your command you will proceed by rapid marches, via the valley of the Yellowstone and Musselshell Rivers to the vicinity of Judith Gap, sending forward rapidly to Fort Ellis, M.T., to obtain all possible information regarding the movements of the hostile band of Nez Perces. . . . It is the object of your movement to intercept or pursue, and capture or destroy them. . . . The Crows and Nez Perces have hitherto had friendly relations, but it is deemed probable that the former will act with your force against the Nez Perces, as they are hostile to the Government. You will please use your discretion as to the extent to which you can rely upon them (the Crows) for the object you have in view, being careful to avoid exciting hostility on the part of the Crows. . . . Your command will be provided with thirty six-mule teams, two ambulances and the pack train now at your camp. . . . In addition, . . . you will have driven with your command Beef Cattle for 25 days supply. [8]

Miles next day followed up with the comment: "I think it desirable that as much force as possible be brought to bear against the Nez Perces, with a view to striking a decisive blow and bringing them into complete subjection to the Government." [9]

Fifty-five-year-old Samuel D. Sturgis (1822-1889) graduated from West Point in 1846. He had gone immediately as a lieutenant of dragoons into the war with Mexico, where he was captured before the Battle of Buena Vista and not released until its conclusion. Until the Civil War, he served primarily in the West, where he garnered experience in numerous campaigns against Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches. During the war, Sturgis fought in many engagements in the eastern and western theaters, rising to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers after his performance at Wilson's Creek, Missouri. He fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg in 1862. But his reputation as a commander faded after his rout by the Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi, and after an investigation, Sturgis spent the rest of the war "awaiting orders." Appointed to command the new Seventh Cavalry in 1869, Sturgis endured Custer as a subordinate (unless assigned detached service elsewhere) until after the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, which saw half his regiment annihilated and his beloved son, Second Lieutenant James G. Sturgis, a recent graduate of the military academy, among the killed. Following that tragedy, Sturgis assumed personal command of the regiment, leading it west from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota, the following spring to participate in Miles's closing operations against the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes, thus availing his troops to counter the Nez Perces. [10]

Sturgis's command consisted of Companies F (Captain James M. Bell, Second Lieutenant Herbert J. Slocum), G (First Lieutenant George D. Wallace, Second Lieutenant William J. Nicholson), H (Second Lieutenant Ezra B. Fuller, Second Lieutenant Albert J. Russell), I (Captain Henry J. Nowlan, Second Lieutenant Edwin P. Brewer), L (First Lieutenant John W. Wilkinson), and M (Captain Thomas H. French, Second Lieutenant John G. Gresham) and numbered about 360 officers and men. The troops were divided into two battalions of three companies each, with F, I, and L commanded by Major Lewis Merrill, and G, H, and M under Captain Frederick W. Benteen. [11] Sturgis's adjutant was First Lieutenant Ernest A. Garlington. The march along the north side of the Yellowstone to the landmark of Pompey's Pillar was hampered by a dearth of rations occasioned when a supply steamer sank above the cantonment; the shortage was relieved only by sending a detachment to obtain provisions at the Bighorn Post (later Fort Custer) then under construction at the confluence of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers. [12] (Although supplies arrived on the twentieth, the loss of proper rations haunted the troops for the duration of Sturgis's campaign.) Also, alarming rumors reached Sturgis from Miles that Sitting Bull with his Lakotas had recrossed from Canada into the United States, headed toward the mouth of the Musselshell on the Missouri River. Therefore, wrote Miles, "it is important that the hostile Nez Perces should be captured or neutralized to prevent their joining the band of hostile Sioux." And later he urged Sturgis: "Keep your force between the Nez Perces and Sitting Bull, if possible, and [I] should be very glad if the former could be struck first." [13] Sturgis reached the Musselshell on August 19, having marched cross-country from Pompey's Pillar. "At this time," wrote engineer officer First Lieutenant Luther R. Hare, "the valley was covered with immense herds of buffalo." [14] On the twenty-first, the troops continued upstream toward Judith Gap, where Lieutenant Doane was already maneuvering with his Crow scouts. A courier from Second Lieutenant Ezra B. Fuller, who with five men had previously ridden up the Yellowstone from the cantonment to Fort Ellis, brought word that the Nez Perces were still in the vicinity of Camas Meadows and, moreover, were likely en route to Wind River. [15] This news decided Sturgis to turn back toward the Yellowstone, to near the mouth of the Stillwater, and, as he notified Governor Potts, to keep watch for the Nez Perces' possible emergence into or along the Yellowstone Valley or to be ready to move his command toward the Stinking Water or Wind River. As Doane departed for Fort Ellis in accordance with instructions from Gibbon (and much against Sturgis's preference), Sturgis had hired John J. Groff and J. S. Leonard, with the Warms Springs boy, to scout the Clark's Fork and Stinking Water region and "to penetrate the park until they could bring me definite information in regard to the hostile Indians." [16] (It was these two men that Lieutenant Scott encountered in the park on September 1.) On the twenty-fifth, Sturgis forded the Yellowstone and then moved up the Stillwater to the Crow Agency, where he hired six Crows and a French guide named Rogue. These he sent forward into the Clark's Fork and Stinking Water region after receiving a telegram from Howard citing the latter stream as the likely objective of the Nez Perces.

Miles also directed Sturgis to proceed farther south "to near Stinking Water." "You may yet capture or destroy the Nez Perces," he wrote on August 26. He advised that Sturgis might initiate their surrender by "sending a small party of Crows, or any white man that knows them . . . demanding their surrender on the same terms as other Indians who have surrendered to this command, assuring them that they will receive fair and just treatment from the Government." [17] Next day, Miles changed his mind, writing Sturgis, "I would prefer that you strike the Nez Perces a severe blow if possible before sending any word to them to surrender." [18] Meanwhile, angered by the meddling of Gibbon in directing Doane up the Yellowstone ("cruel interference with my orders and plans"), Sturgis waited at the agency for his scouts to return until August 31; then, hearing nothing and fearful that the Nez Perces were passing east through the park, he moved his force toward Clark's Fork. [19] His plan, as he notified Colonel Miles, was as follows:

In case I should learn that the hostiles had moved up the East Fork of the Yellowstone [Lamar River], then I would move up the cañon of Clark's Fork, going on if necessary until we should encounter them in the Soda Butte Pass; otherwise I would establish my camp near Heart Mountain, and from that central point observe the outlets both on the Stinking Water and Clark's Fork, all depending on the information I might receive in the mean time. [20]

But Sturgis's difficulties were just beginning. Reaching the mouth of Clark's Fork Canyon on September 5, he continued to a tributary two miles away and went into bivouac, where his hungry men used grasshoppers to hook many fine trout. [21] The colonel had discovered, in fact, that no trail led through the canyon, and he therefore determined to march next day northwest up a stream that would lead, ultimately, to Soda Butte Pass. Word from his Crow scouts and the Frenchman, Rogue, however, that the country to his right was impenetrable, and that, moreover, the Nez Perces could not descend via that route, turned his attention toward the Stinking Water. On the sixth, Sturgis sent his wagons with twenty-five men back to the Crow Agency for provisions expected to arrive from Fort Ellis. His Crows also departed for the agency, and the colonel dispatched Rogue and a prospector named Seibert with a notice to miners in the Clark's Fork area regarding the proximity of the Nez Perces ("As they are hostile and murdering all the unarmed people who come in their way, I send this to put you on your guard."). [22] These men on the eighth met Howard's command and alerted that officer to Sturgis's location, but somehow failed to return and alert Sturgis to Howard's presence. On September 7, Sturgis marched his men again for Clark's Fork Canyon, fully intending to start for Heart Mountain, a lofty pinnacle shooting up from the plains some fourteen miles southeast from his position. Next morning, scouting parties struck out in divergent directions for the Stinking Water and the upper reaches of Clark's Fork, led, respectively, by Lieutenants Hare and Fuller. At 3:00 that afternoon, Hare returned to report having found Rogue and Seibert sixteen miles away, one dead and the other badly wounded, apparently having been attacked by Nez Perce warriors coming from the Stinking Water. The injured man was subsequently treated and sent in company with several prospectors back to the agency. [23] Fuller, too, brought word that from a mountaintop he had sighted the tribesmen moving toward that same stream before they disappeared beyond some mountains. "The guide who accompanied him," Sturgis later reported, ". . . assured me that from the point where the Indians had disappeared behind the mountain range, it was altogether impossible for them to cross over to Clark's Fork, and that they must necessarily debouch on the Stinking Water." [24]

Sturgis's next decision was inadvertently horrendous as it affected army plans to close on the Nez Perces as they emerged from the park. Apparently against the advice of some of his senior officers, he resolved to drive his force cross-country to the presumed outlet of their route and head the people before they gained the Stinking Water, then follow up on that route until he met them or turned them back onto Howard's army, "wherever it might be." Perturbed that Doane's command was unavailable to help monitor both potential routes of the tribesmen, on the evening of September 8, after sending the balance of his train and the Napoleon gun back to the agency, Sturgis set out with pack animals for the Stinking Water, moving up Pat O'Hara Creek, a tributary of Clark's Fork, and camping after fifteen miles, probably on Skull Creek, near the base of Heart Mountain. [25] Next day, his command negotiated the rough terrain west and south of Heart Mountain and forded the Stinking Water about noon east of its canyon. "The sulphur fumes are distinctly noticeable a mile from the stream," wrote Lieutenant Hare, "all coming from the sulphur-beds in the cañon." [26]

On the morning of the tenth, in a "tedious march" owing to the "continuing rarity of the atmosphere," his men recrossed the Stinking Water (both forks) [27] and turned up a tributary (probably Rattlesnake Creek) leading northwest from the North Fork of the Stinking Water. They crossed the divide to Dead Indian Creek, an affluent of Clark's Fork, where they found the trail of the Nez Perces and camped at high altitude, probably in the vicinity of Dead Indian Pass. The tribesmen's path suggested that they had turned back and descended into Clark's Fork, effectively circumventing Sturgis's troops while leading, and thus evading, those of Howard yet on the back trail coming from the park. Sturgis, wrote Hare, had been misinformed by "the ignorance of the guides and their confusion." On Tuesday, September 11, Sturgis roughly paralleled Clark's Fork Canyon to reach the river below the mouth of the canyon directly on the Nez Perces' trail. Late in the day, the troops came on an abandoned government horse bearing a First Cavalry brand, evidence that Howard's army probably lay somewhere ahead on the trail. [28]


Nez Perce, Summer 1877
©2000, Montana Historical Society Press
greene/chap9.htm — 26-Mar-2002