Big Hole Battlefield: Montana

WHILE THE BATTLE AT THE LITTLE BIGHORN RIVER CAPTURED the attention of the American people,
a conflict that took place one year later on the North Fork of the Big Hole River in
southwestern Montana wrote an equally important chapter in the history of America’s Indian
wars. It was between five bands of the non-treaty Nez Perce Indians, who were fleeing
westward, and soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry, led by Colonel John Gibbon, who had been
ordered to stop them. Little has changed at the Big Hole National Battlefield since the
summer of 1877. The North Fork of the Big Hole River continues to flow by the camp set up
by the Nez Perce, and the wooded area where military troops took cover is still pocked with
the shallow holes they dug to escape the deadly accurate aim of the warriors. The loss of
life was devastating to both sides, but neither could really claim a clear victory. It is a
site well worth visiting because it tells the story of a desperate struggle for freedom and
an equally desperate need to conquer. Your first stop should be at the visitor center.
After viewing an introductory video explaining how the battle was fought, take a tour of
the small but excellent museum of artifacts from the conflict, as well as the opposing
sides. You’ll see a drinking horn used by Wounded Head, a warrior who carved a notch in the
horn for each of his tribe members he found dead. There’s also a photo of Chief Looking
Glass, who was leading the five bands in their flight. Colonel Gibbon’s foot locker also is
in the museum. Out on the deck, you can look over the peaceful countryside where the Nez
Perce paused for a respite during their arduous journey, unaware of the impending battle.
Near the entrance to the site is a road leading to another parking lot. From there, two
trails encompass the battle area. A self-guiding booklet that corresponds to numbered sites
is available at the trailheads. To fully appreciate what took place during the two-day
battle, take both trails if possible. The 1.2-mile Nez Perce Camp Trail, which follows the
river, explains the attack from the Indians’ point of view. They were seeking a few days to
replenish their strength and their provisions. The meadow provided a place for their horses
to graze, and from the nearby forest, they could cut new tepee poles. It was a peaceful
place to establish a camp for a much-needed rest. They knew they were in relatively
peaceful Montana territory, and thought the war with the whites was over. As you walk along
this trail, you will come to an encampment village with tepees set up much as they were on
the morning of the attack. The 89 tepees used by the 800 Nez Perce were arranged in a
north-south configuration, with the greatest concentration of tepees near the river. These
were Indians who had refused to abide by the terms of a treaty that reduced their
reservation to a tenth of its original size. The new treaty had been ordered after gold was
discovered in the area. Feeling they were safe, the Nez Perce let down their guard. Little
did they know that soldiers and volunteers had taken a position within four miles of the
village, with plans to attack at dawn. But before daylight on August 9, a tribesman was
found checking on his horses, and the shots that killed him awakened the camp and led to a
less-than-organized attack by the soldiers. In the chaos that followed, men, women and
children attempted to take cover in the willows near the river. Chief Looking Glass called
on his warriors to resist the attack. After a vigorous battle fought in camp, many from
both sides were left dead or wounded. Standing in the middle of the encampment, visualize
the soldiers attacking in the early morning, coming across the river and encountering the
tepees from the south. One of the first tepees they came to was a maternity lodge. Although
it was still standing after the battle, it was silent. Inside were the bodies of a mother
holding her newborn baby and the midwife. The attack proceeded to the central part of the
camp, where the two sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat, allowing time for the women and
children to escape into the willows that still grow today beside the river. One account of
the battle was from a 9-year-old Indian boy who later recalled standing in the water and
hiding behind the screen of willows. When the child and his mother were discovered, the
mother put the boy under the water and begged for mercy, and the soldiers turned away. When
it became apparent that his men could not subdue the warriors, Gibbon ordered them to
retreat back to the wooded area on the other side of the river. To fully appreciate what
followed, return to the parking lot and take the Siege Area Trail. It is an .8-mile round
trip that gains about 50 feet in elevation. As the soldiers retreated, they found warriors
waiting for them. They realized that if they were to survive, they were going to have to be
out of sight. Those who could hastily dug shallow trenches for themselves and the wounded,
sometimes using kitchen knives that were used by the volunteers for weapons. Many lost
their lives as the Indians shot at them from a vantage point across a gulch. There are
markers along the trail pointing out the shallow shelters that provided little protection
from the warriors. Today, the shallow pits and trenches are partially overgrown and filled
with pine needles and cones. Once in a trench, the soldiers were reluctant to emerge or
even raise their heads. However, it became necessary for some of them to make their way
down to the river during the night. In their haste and with the assurance the battle would
be swift, the soldiers did not go prepared for their plight, taking little in the way of
provisions. Their thirst was made even greater by the glistening river they could see from
their hideout. During the night, some of those who were not wounded managed to make their
way down to the river and returned with as many canteens of water as they could carry.
Standing on the bluff overlooking the river, think about the risks these soldiers and
volunteers took just to obtain water. It’s a peaceful sight today. The meandering river
looks inviting, but not knowing where the sharp-shooting Indian warriors were positioned
made the trek to the river a dangerous one. A civilian volunteer succeeded in sneaking
through the Indian lines and got word to the authorities about the dire situation at Big
Hole, but by the time reinforcements had arrived, the Indians had fled. A few warriors
stayed behind to hold the Army in the trees while the rest of the tribe buried their dead,
packed up some of their belongings and escaped. After firing a couple of shots the
following morning, the warriors left and the battle was history. When you come to a
junction in the Siege Trail, look to your left. There is a side trail that leads 1/4 mile
up to a site where a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer was positioned before the battle began. It
usually took six mules to tow the ammunition wagon and howitzer, and seven trained men to
align, aim, clean, prime and fire it. Unfortunately for the soldiers at the Big Hole, only
five men plus one mule driver had been assigned to the task, and only one among them had
any experience with the weapon. Before any damage could be inflicted by the howitzer, a
group of 30 warriors on horseback shot some of the soldiers, and the survivors fled for
their lives. The Battle of the Big Hole lasted less than 36 hours, yet it’s estimated that
between 60 and 90 Nez Perce men, women and children were killed and many more wounded. Of
Gibbon’s troop, 22 soldiers, a civilian guide and five civilian volunteers were killed, and
39 more severely wounded. Back on the main trail, you’ll come to one of three memorials
that were placed in the area. Still standing is a 6-ton granite monument erected by the
U.S. Army in 1883 as a memorial to the men who fell here. In 1928, the Nez Perce and the
Chief Joseph Memorial Association placed the sculpted bust of a Nez Perce warrior nearby,
and in 1951, a third memorial was smuggled onto the battlefield by a local historian to pay
tribute to the Indian infants, children, women and old men who were wounded and killed by
white soldiers. To counter weathering and vandalism, the two latter memorials have been
moved into the visitor center, where they are on display. Was this battle that had no
victor fought in vain? Most would agree that little was accomplished at the Battle of the
Big Hole River. Had the battle not taken place, the bands of Indians might have made it
across the border into Canada, but they were weakened in body and spirit. For the first
time, they realized that the Army would hunt them down wherever they went. Only a month
later, just 40 miles short of the border and the freedom they sought, most of the remaining
Nez Perce joined Chief Joseph in surrender. He spoke for all his people when he said, “I
will fight no more forever,” ending one of the most poignant chapters in the history of the
conquest of American Indians. Before You Go The Big Hole National
Battlefield is located 10 miles west of Wisdom, Montana, on State Route 43. There is ample
parking for large vehicles at the visitor center and the trailhead parking lot, where
visitors also will find picnic tables. However, overnight camping is not permitted on the
battlefield site. Campgrounds can be found in the Beaverhead National Forest and in
surrounding communities; check www.tldirectory.com. This year marks the 125th anniversary
of the battle, and on August 10, descendants of the Nez Perce, soldiers and volunteers will
come to the battlefield to commemorate those who fought here. For more information,
contact: Big Hole National Battlefield, P.O Box 237, Wisdom, Montana 59761; (406) 689-3155;
www.nps.gov/biho. For Treasure State travel information: (800) VISIT-MT; www.visitmt.com.

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