On the move since May 1877, the Nez Perce set up camp in the Big Hole Valley on August 7th, 1877. The United States Army had been trying to move the Nez Perce onto a reservation since May of that year. The Nez Perce were reluctant and rightfully so. As agreed upon in 1855, the Nez Perce were to be moved to a 7.5 million acre reservation. In early 1877 it was decided to reduce the 7.5 million acre reservation to a 10th of it’s size, to allow Anglo-settlers access to the gold they had located on part of the original reservation.
Once the Nez Perce reached the Big Hole Valley they set up at an old site on the 7th of August in 1877. Chief Looking Glass of the Nez Perce tribe believed they were more than a day ahead of the army and felt confident that they had enough time to set up camp. This over-confidence lead to not setting up lookouts which definitely attributed to the events of August 9th. Although General Howard was notorious for being a day late, even earning the nickname “Day Late Howard”, the Nez Perce did not expect the army to send out a second set of troops. 163 troops and 34 civilian volunteers were in pursuit of the Nez Perce from Fort Shaw, near present day Great Falls Montana, under the command of Colonel Gibbon.
In the afternoon of August 8th, Gibbon and his troops spotted the Nez Perce tipis and started planning their attack for the next morning. The plan did not go well as early the next morning a Nez Perce named Natalekin was out checking on his horses that were up on the hillside. Natalekin discovered the army, who shot and killed him and the battle began.
The army infiltrated the camp, firing into the village, shooting men, women and children. The Nez Perce were quick to orchestrate their counterattack, pulling together their warriors led by Looking Glass and White Bird. They were able to push back Gibbon’s troop for 24 hours.
Again, just as they were at the battle at White Bird, the army was disorganized and obviously not properly trained on using some of the equipment. During the battle the army was using a cannon like weapon called a howitzer. They set it up on the hillside and shot off a few rounds towards the Nez Perce village but they forgot to ignite the cannon ball. There were 6 men running this cannon and all 6 of them forgot to ignite the cannon ball. Embarrassing. The Nez Perce eventually surrounded the 6 men, took the cannon carrier apart and scattered the parts. They then took and buried the cannon. The army came back a few days after the battle to retrieve the cannon as it was made of bronze and deemed to expensive to leave behind.
The battle ended on August 10th. The casualties on the Nez Perce side were high, 60 to 90 killed with only about 30 of those being warriors. The military lost 29 men and of those 7 were shot by a single Nez Perce sniper. The sniper was never identified and it was believed he was not as the tribe worried he would be punished for what he did. 40 soldiers were also injured, including Colonel Gibbon.
If you are wondering about General “Day Late” Howard and if he ever showed up… he did 3 days later, arriving on August 11th.
If you want to visit the Big Hole Battlefield there is a visitors center along with interpretive signs and an informative movie. Although the information in the visitors center is comprehensive I found the ranger led talk on the outside patio the most interesting part of my visit. The important locations of the battle were pointed out to us visually as well as using artist renditions to explain the battle. I highly recommend trying to catch the ranger talk if you visit. There is also a driving tour with a few trails that lead you around the battlefield. I did not take any of the trails and in hindsight I wish I would have.
This park is free to visit and open daily during the summer from 9am to 5pm MST. During the winter they are open 10am to 5pm. The visitors center is closed most holidays. The park is located 10 miles west of Wisdom Montana off of Montana Highway 43.