76 miles W of Dillon; 106 miles S of Missoula
The flight of the Nez Perce across Montana in 1877 is among the most heroic and epic stories of the Indian Wars period. About 800 nontreaty Nez Perce left the Wallowa area of Idaho in June 1877. In an attempt to join Sitting Bull in the relative safety and freedom of Canada, the Nez Perce eluded the pursuing forces of the United States until early October, when they surrendered -- not so much from military defeat but from exhaustion and starvation. On October 5, 1877, only 431 remained.
The Big Hole National Battlefield commemorates the flight of the Nez Perce over 1,200 miles of some of the roughest land in the Lower 48 states, through Yellowstone National Park, across Montana's high plains, all the while outwitting and outfighting the U.S. Cavalry. There were several battles along the way, but by far the largest skirmish took place here. Between 60 and 90 members of the band were killed. Only 12 of the dead were warriors -- the rest were women, children, and seniors. The U.S. military suffered 29 dead and 40 wounded.
The Nez Perce had traditionally lived in eastern Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. They had always maintained good relations with the white explorers, assisting Lewis and Clark in 1805 by caring for the expedition's members when they arrived in their country sick, tired, and low on provisions. They gave them food, two dugout canoes, and guides. The Nez Perce were also the subjects of the first major Protestant mission effort among the Indians, when the stern and domineering Eliza Spaulding -- an associate of the later-martyred Marcus Whitman -- urged them to give up their traditional ways in return for eternal salvation.
The Nez Perce's problems multiplied in 1860, when gold was discovered. Most were sent to reservations, but Joseph -- known as "Young Joseph" -- led a nontreaty band to live on his traditional homeland in the Wallowa Valley. Pressure from settlers eventually led to an order forcing Joseph's band onto a reservation.
In the summer of 1877, several Nez Perce braves ignored advice from the tribal elders and attacked and killed four white settlers in Oregon to exact revenge for the earlier murder of the father of one of the braves. This attack raised the ire of settlers, and the cavalry was called in to hunt down the Nez Perce. On June 1, 1877, Joseph's band joined four other Nez Perce groups and crossed the swollen Snake River, fleeing to Canada.
Battles erupted in Idaho before the Nez Perce entered Montana, fleeing from U.S. Army troops under the leadership of Gen. Oliver O. Howard. When the Nez Perce reached the Big Hole Valley, they decided to make camp, thinking all the while that they left their troubles behind them in Idaho.
However, in addition to Howard's troops behind them, a second group of soldiers, under the command of Col. John Gibbon, was advancing up the Bitterroot Valley toward the unsuspecting tribe. On the morning of August 9, 1877, Gibbon's soldiers, along with a contingent of local volunteers, attacked the sleeping tribe in what is today known as the Battle of the Big Hole. Less than 48 hours after they'd set up camp, the remaining Nez Perce once again found themselves fleeing for their lives and their freedom. They headed toward Canada, but the U.S. Army troops caught up to them at Bear Paw, only 40 miles from the Canadian border. The capture of Joseph's tattered band was the last major military effort of the Indian Wars period.
The Battle of the Big Hole is somewhat unusual among Indian fights in that a number of descriptions of the battle exist, many from the Indian point of view. André Garcia, a scout and adventurer, married a Nez Perce woman, In-who-lise, who was wounded in the battle. In his marvelous book Tough Trip Through Paradise, he says that he visited the battlefield 2 years later and human bones and skulls were still scattered everywhere.
Begun as a military reserve in 1883, the area became a national monument in 1910 and was designated a national battlefield in 1963. Today, the National Park Service maintains an interpretive center, where rangers help visitors understand the significance of the battle that occurred at Big Hole. Guided tours, a museum, exhibits, a bookstore, movies, and three self-guided walking trails are available.
Trails begin at the lower parking lot and lead to several points of interest. The Nez Perce Camp, where soldiers surprised the sleeping tribe, is considered sacred ground. The Siege Area marks the place where soldiers were besieged for nearly 24 hours as the Nez Perce fought to save their families from certain death. A fairly steep walk will lead you to the Howitzer Capture Site, where soldiers suffered a heavy blow as Nez Perce warriors captured and dismantled the military weapon. This spot affords a spectacular view of the battlefield and surrounding area.
The Big Hole Battlefield represents only a small fraction of the Nez Perce's tragic flight across the West. The 1,200-mile Nez Perce (Nee Me Poo) National Historic Trail follows the entire route of the Nez Perce War, from Wallowa Lake in northwestern Oregon to Bear Paw Battlefield in north-central Montana. Crossing four states, the trail features several Nez Perce war sites with interpretive markers telling the story of the tribe's fight for freedom. The trail is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest can provide you with an excellent map of the four-state area.