I signed the guest book at the entrance and turned my face toward the front desk. Our eyes met and in unison, we squealed and ran toward one another. Such a blessing to meet my friend in this amazing historical place. I was overcome. I was weary and elated, all at the same time. Within an hour, Ramona had filled me in on the power of the site. It was so nice to be with her. I met Preston, Anna and Maria. I was blasted by good will and hospitality. The volunteers and employees of the Big Hole National Battlefield come from all over the United States. It is a rich melting pot of individuals who care that truth and history be revealed to all who visit. I was really impressed by the professionalism, as well as the variety of accents!
We went home from the visitor center to a slow cooked meal of pork tenderloin, apple, sweet potato and onion served on a big dollop of mashed potatoes. Before the light set, Ramona and I did a very reflective walk on the battlefields. It was as though the earth beneath my feet was vibrating…such a history.
Anna gave up her lovely room to me for the evening and took the couch for the night. Such North Carolina hospitality! Such loveliness. It just happened to be Anna’s last day and the completion of her Master’s degree.
I felt very blessed as I ‘didn’t’ drift off to sleep. As the light of day began to make its way up and over the ridge and the birds began to sing, I passed out and woke some time later to the smell of coffee and swedish pancakes. Yummers.
Click on photographs to enlarge.
I hope that some of my readers can take the opportunity to visit this location. There were no International borders at the time of these battles…these came with colonization. Instead, the peoples who lived on the land journeyed land by seasons and by availability of food. For those who wish to, follow the link to the following article posted in the Great Falls Tribune.
Gibbon’s men caught the Nez Perce by surprise. The Indians, on their way to sanctuary in Canada, were lulled by a largely peaceful passage through the Bitterroot Valley into believing they would be able to travel safely through the Montana Territory.
The Nez Perce lost perhaps as many as 90 people, about 10-12 percent of the group, with women and children taking heavy casualties. Of the 700 who remained, fewer than 200 were warriors. Many of the best fighters died at the Big Hole.
The force from Fort Shaw saw 23 soldiers perish in the fight, with six volunteers from the Bitterroot dying, too. Another 40 were wounded. Gibbon, injured in the battle, and his men left the Nez Perce to Gen. O.O. Howard and his men, who picked up the pursuit after the Big Hole.
Located between the Anaconda and Pioneer mountains, the battlefield is known for its camas blooms, adding a sea of blue flowers to the landscape in the early summer. It was the Nez Perce who introduced the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by then desperately hungry, to the plant, a staple of their diet. (Though the explorers liked the sweet root, they ended up sick.)
After the battle, the Nez Perce had to discard the idea they could fight the U.S. to agreeable terms and the war took a more ferocious turn, though the Nez Perce had been significantly weakened, wrote Alvin Josephy in “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest.”
Big Hole National Battlefield is the site of unimaginable tragedy as well as a sacred site to the Nez Perce people. The battle, near present-day Wisdom, took place 140 years ago. (Photo: Tribune photo/Amie Thompson)
Tribal leaders signed treaties in 1855 and 1863 setting the Nez Perce land at 7.5 million and then 750,000 acres. Then came the discovery of gold and pressure from westward-marching trappers and settlers.
Chief Joseph described white men stealing horses and cattle, seemingly “on purpose to get up a war. They knew we were not strong enough to fight them.” He described young men whom he struggled to keep from “doing rash things.”
Young Nez Perce men gathered at a camp on June 14 on their way to Fort Lapwai in Idaho Territory and reservation life decided to take revenge on some white men, killing four and raiding settlements. The chance for peace had passed, and Howard sent 130 men to meet them, punish them and deliver them to the reservation.
After the Big Hole Battle, the Nez Perce continued their flight to Canada via Idaho and into Yellowstone National Park. In Crow country, they found their former allies were unwilling to aid them and continued north through the middle of Montana.
Just 40 miles south of the Canadian border, Brigadier Gen. Nelson A. Miles from what would be Miles City caught up with the Nez Perce. His troops came from the Second and Seventh Cavalry and the Fifth Infantry, along with Lakota and Cheyenne scouts.
Some Nez Perce escaped to Canada. Those who surrendered were promised they could return to their reservation, but Gen. William Sherman ordered them to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a 1,200-mile trek on foot, boat, horse and rail.
Eight years after their surrender near the Bear Paws Mountains of Montana, the 268 Nez Perce who survived returned to the Pacific Northwest, though Chief Joseph was not allowed to return and died in exile in 1904 on the Colville Indian Reservation northwest of Spokane, Wash. It’s home to a confederation of 12 tribes.
“Treat all men alike. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect all rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.”
The most famous Nez Prece, Chief Joseph was in charge of guarding camps along the retreat. He gave the formal surrender and is immortalized for the speech that ended, “From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
At the Battle of the Big Hole, this warrior helped capture a howitizer, which fired on the Nez Perce camp. He escaped to Canada but later returned to Idaho, living there until his 1935 death and preserving stories of the war.
Chief Looking Glass
Killed at the Battle of Bear Paw, Chief Looking Glass was a military strategist during the war. He led a band settled in a village on the Nez Perce reservation but was arrested on suspicion he would join Chief Joseph and his village was burned. He and followers escaped to join Chief Joseph and he was Nez Perce leader during the Battle of the Big Hole, losing his position as head of the band after the surprise attack.
Gen. O. O. Howard
A Union general who lost an arm during the Civil War, Howard was known for his piety and work bettering the lives of freed slaves during Reconstruction. He helped found Howard University in Washington, D.C., and was superintendent at West Point. He pushed the Nez Perce onto a smaller reservation with no notice or time to prepare, perhaps precipitating the flight to Canada. .
Gen. Nelson A. Miles
A Civil War Medal of Honor winner and future military governor of Puerto Rico, Miles revenged Gen. Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, forcing the Lakota onto a reservation. He led his troops on the flight across Montana to intercept the Nez Perce.
Col. Samuel Sturgis
The father of a soldier killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn the year before, Sturgis and his troops were supposed to be part of a trap to catch the Nez Perce when they emerged from Yellowstone but they escaped. They met up at the Battle of Canyon Creek west of Billings.
Col. John Gibbon
A Civil War veteran, Gibbons was stationed in Fort Shaw when he got word from Howard to cut off the Nez Perce retreat. He met them near the Big Hole River and was wounded in the battle, ending his pursuit.
Among a few dozen tourists in Yellowstone National Park during the Nez Perce flight and celebrating her second anniversary, Cowan of Radersburg was captured with her siblings and her husband was shot in the head (he survived and they returned to the park three decades later).
The Big Hole National Battlefield is open sunrise to sunset daily. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter, except on federal holidays during the off-season. Entry is free. Find the battlefield 10 miles west of Wisdom in the Big Hole Valley.
It is my intention to pick up a book or two about Chief Joseph over the coming months.