Just across Interstate 15 to the west of the Centennial Valley lies the Big Hole Valley. A serene looking valley - not a whole lot more developed than the Centennial - and best known for its blue ribbon trout stream, the Big Hole River. Today as one fishes the quiet stream, it's hard to imagine a volley of gunshots and cries of pain echoing from the banks of the Big Hole River. Yet, in 1877 a clash between U.S. Government troops and the Nez Perce Indians made this horrid vision all too real. A nice 'day-trip' from Elk Lake Resort, the Big Hole Battlefield and Bannock Montana (a ghost town) give you opportunities to step back into the past.
Big Hole Valley Montana:It is hard to imagine the spacious open valley we see today ever looked anything but serene. Willows, cottonwoods, and lodgepole pines mark the passing of the river. Sagebrush and prairie grass carpet the benchlands. Wildflowers sprinkle color across the landscape. Area wildlife go on about their day-to-day business. Trophy trout meander lazily through river shadows.
Even the dramatic mountain backdrop, whose snowcapped heights remind us life can get 'harsh' in the valley too, seem too placid to account for the violence which they witnessed. Looking north and west one gazes upon the timbered foothills of the Sapphire Mountains. Turn around and your gaze is met by the towering peaks of the Beaverhead Mountains. To the east lie the Pioneer Mountains - fading off into the distance. To the northeast, the Pintlar Mountains. Their snowy caps speak of age, not cruelty.
At nearly 7,000 foot elevation, the valley's harsh winters delayed white settlement. Lewis and Clark's expedition visited the valley in 1805, and mountain men trapped along the waterways and in the timberline in the 1820's and 30's. Gold found on Ruby Creek brought a brief flurry of activity to the area early in 1862. By late summer, however, the sluice boxes were abandoned. Only the cattle, brought into the valley in 1874, would spend much time there for many years to come.
(Big Hole Valley photo courtesy of Big Sky Fishing)
Although rough trails led from the upper Bitterroot Valley to the Big Hole, these were nearly impassible for wagons. Most commerce - thus most of the growth - occurred along Montana's primary transportation route - the Corinne-Virginia City Road. Forking along the Red Rock - Beaverhead River, one branch led to Virginia City and Helena. The other skirted the southern edge of the Big Hole at Horse Prairie, on its way to Bannock and Deer Lodge.
The Nez Perce called the place "Izhumzizlakikpah" after a small rodent which was abundant there. In 1877 their trails were nearly the only 'marks' made by man in the valley. (Big Hole Valley photo courtesy of Big Sky Fishing)
"In the second week of August 1877, about 750 Nez Perce made camp in a lush meadow on the south side of the North Fork of the Big Hole River. Known to their white adversaries as the 'non-treaty Nez Perce', most of the group had been on the move since early June, forced by the U.S. Army to leave their homelands in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and to resettle on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. En route to the reservation, several young men in the group attacked and killed 14 or 15 white settlers in Idaho, and U.S. Troops under the command of General Oliver O. Howard began their pursuit. Joined by other disaffected bands of Nez Perce, the non-treaty Nez Perce had fought a series of battles and skirmishes in Idaho during the latter half of June and the first part of July, before crossing the Bitterroot Mountains." (all the information in this article - and all the direct quotes - come from a well-written and researched presentation on the National Park Service site - However, the direct link to this online book no longer exists. If you wish to read more, cut and past the first sentence into your browser window. This will bring it up.)
Intending to camp several days on the Big Hole, most of the Nez Perce relaxed. In their minds their battles were finished. They thought in 'tribal terms' not 'national terms', thus their war with the people in Idaho was past. They were in Montana now. There peaceful travels through the Bitterroot Valley, where they purchased fresh supplies and ammunition from white traders, only fortified their sense of security.
The site of their encampment was not chosen as a defensive position. They arranged their 89 lodges in the form of a 'V' with the apex pointing upstream. This was the way they usually laid things out. It put them in good position for grazing their stock and collecting more trees for travois and lodge poles.
Chief Looking Glass advised his people to rest and relax. As the women began gathering firewood, and preparing lodge poles, the men broke into hunting and fishing parties. Although a few Nez Perce remained uneasy, the leaders insisted they were no longer at war. So certain were they of their safety, the night before the attack they did not post any sentries.
However, the Americans had no intention of letting things lie. As the Nez Perce relaxed and tended to the everyday duties of life, General Howard marched his force over the Bitterroot Range and Colonel Gibbon pursued them with a force of 17 officers and 146 enlisted men. In addition, a cavalry made up of mostly volunteers and under the command of Lt. James H. Bradley, was sent ahead to scout for the Nez Perce.
Once he learned the Nez Perce camp location, Gibbon laid out his plan. They would flush the Indians out onto the open ground near the river bottom, separating them from their horses. During the night of August 8th, while the Nez Perce slept peacefully in their lodges, Gibbon moved his force into position above and to the west of the camp. He deployed his men shortly before daylight, to work their way along the flanks of the Indian camp. However, a Nez Perce herder unwittingly approached their lines before they had reached their objective. In a volley of shots the man went down.
As the Nez Perce families poured from their lodges, the soldiers rushed into the village. Looking for cover, many Indians ran toward their attackers seeking the safety of the willows and the river. Others hid in depressions in the ground and slough areas east of their camp. In the confusion which followed, warriors who couldn't find their weapons took to stripping them off their enemies.
The southern end of the village quickly succumbed to the attack, but as the soldiers advanced north, Lt. Bradley was killed. In the confusion, Gibbon ordered his men to begin burning the teepees. Coated with dew, they didn't light easily. The ensuing delay distracted the soldiers enough to provide time for the Indians to rally.
Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird rallied their braves and called on them to stand and fight. The battle began to turn, and the soldiers found themselves caught in a deadly crossfire. Gradually the soldiers fell back. Less than two hours into the fight, Gibbon ordered his men to move back to their original position in the timber.
Although hardly an ideal defensive position, the soldiers' current location did offer modest cover on three sides. The men quickly built breastworks and dug rifle pits. The Indians drew closer. "With no help in site, Gibbon ordered his men to conserve their ammunition and prepare for a siege."
While the warriors kept the soldiers penned down, the rest of the tribe gathered their dead. "As the people mourned," writes Merril D. Beal, "they wept with such feeling that the battle-toughened men in the trenches listened and trembled." Nearly thirty Nez Perce - men, women, and children - had been slain. Many more (some estimate up to sixty) had been killed trying to escape or in the counterattack. The Indians wrapped their dead kin in buffalo robes and buried them as best they could under cutbanks.
Under cover of darkness, Gibbon sent out three runners in hopes of obtaining backup from General Howard and medical help from Deer Lodge. While twenty or thirty warriors maintained the siege through the night and into the next day, the rest of the Nez Perce fled. By 11 a.m. the following day, the warriors melted into the surrounding countryside and disappeared.
This battle became the turning point for the Nez Perce. Although they managed to escape, they realized the U.S. Army would not give up the chase. They fled south and east seeking exile on the Crow Reservation in eastern Montana. When this failed, they fled north in a desperate attempt to reach safety in Canada. However, at the Battle of the Bear's Paw in north-central Montana, 'the Nez Perce were once more attacked and brought to surrender after a six-day siege.' (Big Hole Valley photo courtesy of Big Sky Fishing)
In the aftermath of the Battle of the Big Hole, Gibbon could hardly claim victory. His losses were heavy. He'd lost 29 men and had 40 more wounded. "The volunteers had sustained a 30 percent casualty rate; the officers 50 percent."
In a sad commentary on human nature we learn General Howard's Bannock scouts returned to the battle site, broke into the shallow graves, and desecrated the remains of their enemies. White souvenir hunters defiled their graves as well. The Indians did their damage too, returning to scalp all the fallen officers.
Today the valley is peaceful again. The signs of human occupation have grown - a bit - but overall little has changed in the 100 plus years since that fateful day. Although inside Big Hole Battlefield Visitor's Center the memories of the battle come alive once more, standing on the hillside outside it is all to easy to imagine a peaceful Indian Village once more stretched across the valley floor at your feet.
Bannock Montana:Now a ghost town, in its day Bannock sat in the middle of the clash between cultures during the settlement of the American west. The first white men to explore the area were with Lewis and Clark's Expedition. Trappers and Mountain men followed their lead. Then came the missionaries and the emigrants. After the Civil War many disenfranchised and disillusioned people migrated west with the hope of wealth and a bright future.
Gold also played a role in Bannock as in Virginia City. A gold strike on Oro Fino Creek on August 8, 1860, brought an onslaught of miners onto the Nez Perce Reservation. Gold fever took hold. Men sought gold in every western valley, creek, and stream bed. One such group, led by John White, discovered gold in what is now called Grasshopper Creek on July 28, 1862. The mining camp which flourished there would eventually be named Bannock.
One group of unscrupulous gold seekers decided to search for gold on the Crow Indian Reservation along the Yellowstone River. Although they knew it was against the law, they gathered a group together and set out in the early spring of 1863. They were stopped by Red Bear and Little Crow, and advised they would be attacked and killed if they continued. The men heeded the warning and turned back. It was en route to their homes that two of the men found the gold in Alder Gulch - the 'find' which birthed Virginia City and Nevada City.
Violence and upheaval continued over the next several years and emigrants continued to pour into the area. Many conflicts occurred between white men. Several involved altercations between Indians and whites. The last major Indian War was the Nez Perce War - a segment of which took place in the nearby Big Hole Valley.
At its apex in 1864, Bannock served as Montana's first Territorial Capital. Since then things have dropped off dramatically. However, a visit to the 'ghost town' that remains and one can almost imagine life as it 'used to be.'