The Battle Of Bear Paw

 

The last fight of the Nez Perce War, The Battle of Bear Paw took place between September 30 and October 5, 1877, near Snake Creek in Blaine County, Montana. Many of the usual tactics involving Plains Indians and the US Army conflicts were noticeably absent here. The US Army settled in for a siege of the Nez Perce Indians, lead by Chief Joseph, leading to a conditional surrender.

Chief Joseph was leading the Nez Perce Indians, from the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, in a winding trek through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The Nez Perce had won a battle with fierce fighting at Canyon Creek, defeating US Army Troops under the command of Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, and were fleeing to Canada. The Nez Perce knew that General Oliver Otis Howard was pursuing them, but that they had a substantial lead. Unfortunately for the Nez Perce, they were unaware that approximately 520 soldiers and scouts lead by Colonel Nelson A. Miles, later to be promoted to General Miles, were heading them off from the southeast.

The Nez Perce made camp on September 29, 1877 along Snake Creek, unaware of General Miles' advancing contingent of US Army 7th Cavalry Troopers. The Nez Perce, who were only about forty miles from the Canadian border, numbered about 700 people, with more than 200 of them warriors. The Indians felt they could they hide in the rolling hills, and perhaps felt General Howard had given up the chase due to distance and cold weather.

Little did they know, Cheyenne and Lakota Us Army Scouts were working feverishly to discover their lair. Ironically, most of these scouts had fought against General Miles in the Sioux War of 1876. Scouts Young Two Moon, Hump and Starving Elk observed the Nez Perce pony herd from a hilltop on the morning of September 30, 1877. Fearful they would be discovered, the Indian Scouts did not advance further to actually see the village. After the Indian Scouts reported the Nez Perce pony location, General Miles and the 7th Cavalry moved to block their trek to Canada and freedom.

Just as the US Army Indian Scouts had discovered the Nez Perce, the Nez Perce had discovered the US Army advancing. The Nez Perce did not have time to break camp and flee, they did have time to fortify their location however. Meanwhile, the non-combatants were moving north along the Snake Creek. General Miles charged with the 2nd Cavalry and 7th Cavalry in the front with the horseback mounted 5th Infantry in the rear. The US Army Indian Scouts left the troopers to capture the prized pony herd.

Spotting the large number of non-combatants moving along Snake Creek, the soldiers thought the Indians were fleeing and pressed on. Once again the tactical skill of the Indian leaders were underestimated. The Nez Perce Warriors had concealed themselves in ravines and coulees, and dug trenches. When the 7th Cavalry came within rifle range, they were met with a hail of rifle fire that stopped the charge and the Cavalry retreated. The Cavalry wounded was stranded between the lines, unable to move due to Indian gunfire. Unfortunately for the Nez Perce, they were also stranded when the US Army Indian Scouts had captured or drove off their ponies.

Intermittent fighting continued through the day and ended with neither side having an advantage. The Nez Perce continued to dig more rifle pits and pits for the non-combatants to hide in. The US Army also dug in and moved to establish positions completely encompassing the Indians. A terribly cold night took a further toll on the Troopers pinned down between the two warring factions, many of them died from their untreated injuries and the bitter cold. In addition, Nez Perce Braves ventured out into the carnage to locate weapons and ammunition. Some of the Army wounded met their fate at the hands of these Braves. Historian and author Jerome Greene told the story of one wounded soldier who had continually begged for water through out the night. A Nez Perce Brave went to him, took the Trooper’s ammunition belt and left a can of water in return. I never cease to be amazed at acts of kindness that pop up in times of humanity at it’s worst.

The following morning, Chief Joseph and General Miles met under a flag of truce. While the two leaders spoke, both sides gathered their wounded and dead. When the meeting concluded, Chief Joseph was seized for reasons that to this day have never been fully explained. Lt. Lovell Jerome, who was in the Nez Perce camp looking for captives, was taken captive himself when it was discovered Chief Joseph was being held. Ignoring the pleas of some in the camp to kill the young Lt., cooler heads seized upon the idea to exchange the Army Officer for Chief Joseph. Under another flag of truce, Lt. Jerome and Chief Joseph were exchanged on the morning of October 2nd.

Later that day, near evening, the arrival of a United States Army 12-pound Napoleon artillery piece was to provide the Nez Perce with a new wartime experience. The morning after it’s arrival, exploding rounds from the cannon pummeled the Nez Perce fortifications, but failed to dislodge the determined Indians. The frightening and powerful new weapon did lead some Nez Perce Indians to believe the battle was nearing it’s inevitable conclusion. Some Nez Perce wanted to attempt a breakout through the extended Trooper perimeter but Chief Joseph nixed the idea. Chief Joseph would not leave the wounded, and carrying the sick and elderly would slow them down far too much to make an escape.

General Howard arrived at the battlefield on October 4th but allowed General Miles, still a Colonel at that time, to retain command. As the artillery fire continued, and as more non-combatants perished, the Nez Perce resolve waned. Early on the morning of October 5, 1877, General Howard’s US Army Nez Perce Indian Scouts called out to the besieged Indians and were allowed into the Indian camp. The US Army Indian Scouts were told by their Nez Perce brothers that many were ready to surrender. The long flight, the fighting, the dead and dying had taken their toll.

The US Army Nez Perce Indian Scouts went back and forth between the two camps relaying messages. Before his surrender, the noble Chief Joseph sent the following message to the white leaders:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

When Chief Joseph surrendered he met with General Howard and General Miles using the US Army Nez Perce Indian Scouts as translators. Chief Joseph handed his Winchester rifle to General Howard, who motioned for him to give it to General Miles. The honorable Chief Joseph then turned and shook General Howard's hand. Chief Joseph promised that he and his followers would surrender peacefully. After fighting and fleeing for 1,500 miles through four states, only to be halted 40 miles from sanctuary in Canada, the Nez Perce were done fighting. Chief Joseph could not promise the same for White Bird and about fifty followers who had managed to breakout and continue their flight to Canada. The Battle of Bear Paw had come to an end.

The exact number of Nez Perce killed is unknown, but generally though to be 20 to 25 killed and 50 to 60 wounded. Chief Joseph’s brother, Ollokot, was among the dead. The US Army had 31 soldiers killed, 47 wounded, along with two Army Indian Scouts wounded. Most of the US Army losses occurred during the first days cavalry charge. Two 7th Cavalry Officers who had fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn were in the wounded count .

The US Army was astonished at the fighting ability and tactics of the Nez Perce. Generals Miles and Howard had much praise for Chief Joseph and his people, not just as warriors, but as human beings. General Miles promised Chief Joseph that he and his people could return to reservations in their homeland. Indian hater General William ("The only good Indian is a dead Indian") Tecumseh Sherman wouldn’t allow it and the Nez Perce were sent to Kansas Indian Territory, in spite of protests of by General Howard and General Miles. In 1879, in one of the most famous Indian speeches given in Washington, DC, Chief Joseph stated "If General Howard had given me plenty of time to gather up my stock and treated Too-hool-hool-suit as a man should be treated, there would have been no war."

In 1885 the Nez Perce Indians were returned to Washington. Chief Joseph longed to return to Oregon’s Wallowa River Valley but was denied, eventually dying on a reservation in Washington. For the remainder of their lives, General Miles and General Howard would quarrel over the credit for Joseph's capture.  

 

General

Nelson A. Miles

Chief Joseph

General

Oliver Otis Howard

 

Bear Paw Battlefield

 

Surrender Monument

Bear Paw Battlefield

 

 

 

 

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