Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields
Historical Review, by John Doerner
Chief Historian, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Webmaster's Note: The following is a paper that Mr. Doerner presented in October, 2002 during a conference at Big Hole National Battlefield. The presentation is entitled: "To Intercept or Pursue, And Capture And Destroy Them: The Seventh Cavalry In The 1877 Nez Perce War."
When I was asked to present a talk on the Seventh Cavalry during the 1877 Nez Perce Campaign several months ago, I began to search for first-hand accounts, records, and reports that may exist, to do justice to the story. Being used to the thousands of books, letters, articles, and artwork on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the events of the 1876 Sioux Campaign which had taken place just one year before; I was surprised at the lack of material and coverage dedicated to the Mee Poo Crisis! Unlike the Battle of the Little Bighorn, relatively few authors have devoted ink to the memorable and courageous trek by Chief Joseph (Thunder Rolling in the Hills) and his people 1,700 miles from their ancestral homeland on the Wallowa Plateau in Oregon, to their fateful encounter with, and eventual surrender to, forces under Col. Nelson A. Miles, and General Otis Howard (including a battalion of the 7th Cavalry) at Snake Creek; just 40 miles south of the Canadian line! This story as I found out while doing my research, was just as compelling as the 1876 Sioux War! As you will soon note, my talk relies heavily on first hand accounts by actual participants which I feel, best tells this truly remarkable story!
The previous summer, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Seventh Cavalry had suffered what would be the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Army west of the Mississippi River in action against American Indians. Hunkpapa Lakota political and spiritual leader Sitting Bull and his allied Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne, had defeated the regiment in two separate battles along the Little Bighorn River. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and five companies (210 soldiers, Indian scouts and attached personnel) were killed, with the balance of the regiment under Major Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, entrenched above the Little Bighorn, with 53 men killed and 59 wounded. However, by September 30, 1876 the Seventh had been brought back up to regimental strength of 938 officers and men, including 18 new replacement officer's, and 896 enlisted men. 2nd Lt. Hugh L. Scott recalled that upon its return from the Little Bighorn that fall : "The regiment [7th Cavalry] had got back from its post on the Yellowstone only a short time before and was in reorganization; with 30 new officers,…500 new recruits, and 500 new horses had just arrived from the east...It was in the air that we were to take the field again in a short while…"
The winter of 1876-1877 was a cold one on the northern plains, too cold and stormy for drill out of doors or target practice. Lt. Scott recalled that the new men were not sufficiently disciplined and "They were a rough lot who had enlisted in cities under stress of the excitement caused by the Custer Fight, and were called the 'Custer Avengers'."
With the coming of spring, the regiment soon regrouped from winter quarters, and left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 2, 1877, crossing the Missouri River and marching up the east bank in a westerly direction to join forces with Col. Nelson A. Miles on the Yellowstone River. Their mission: aid Miles in his renewed pursuit of Sioux and Cheyenne. This included patrolling the Yellowstone River; escorting supply wagons; recovery of the remains of Lt. Col. Custer and fellow officers killed on the Little Bighorn River and reburial of the rest of the command; round up any stray bands of non-treaty Sioux in the region; and also prevent any large bands that escaped to Canada the past winter from slipping back across the border from their refuge in Canada. It was not known at the time but Sitting Bull would escape into Canada within a few short days after the regiment left Ft. Lincoln.
Nelson Miles ca 1876-1877
courtesy, Brian C. Pohanka
In command of the Seventh was the 55 year old colonel of the regiment, Samuel D. Sturgis, (West Point Class of 1846), a hard tobacco chewing cavalry veteran of the old army. Sturgis had been captured at Buena Vista during the Mexican War. After his release, he gained experience in the western theater of operations fighting a new type of adversary, Apaches, Kiowa and Comanche. During the Civil War, he fell in disfavor with the Army after being routed by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest at Brice's Cross Roads, Mississippi. Sturgis had sat out the rest of the war awaiting orders. In 1869, he took command of the Seventh Cavalry and spent most of the next six years away from the regiment on detached service. The previous year (1876) had been difficult for Sturgis with the tragic loss of his oldest son Jack, a young 2nd Lt. in Company E, 7th Cavalry; killed with Custer at the Little Bighorn. Sturgis would soon face another difficulty; one that would test the fighting ability and human endurance of his men and horses; and change the destiny of a people.
Arriving in Montana, Sturgis and the Seventh, fell under the direct command of Colonel Nelson A. Miles. Miles and his Fifth Infantry had wintered at a new cantonment (later called Ft. Keogh) they had built at the mouth of the Tongue River. Miles had recently been given an independent command over a new district in Montana, the District of the Yellowstone and now faced two challenges: to prevent Sitting Bull from returning to the U.S. and joining the Nez Perce; and capture or destroy the Nez Perce.
Miles sensing that the Nez Perce may try to pass through the Judith Gap north of the Yellowstone River between the Little Belt and Snowy Mountain ranges, ordered Sturgis to:
On May 23rd the Seventh was ferried across to the north side of the Yellowstone. Miles assumed command of Co. H, D, & K where they conducted routine patrols. Company I left for the Custer Battlefield while Captain McDougal and Company B would remain on the south side but under direct command of Co I. Nelson A. Miles. Col. Sturgis would use their newly established camp on Cedar Creek as a base of operations for what turned out as fruitless patrols. Sturgis and his two battalions would soon move toward Yellowstone Park against Chief Joseph and face a formable adversary.
Captain Frederick Benteen, a veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, wrote to his wife Kate: "No one can tell much what is going to be done by the Indians [Sioux and Cheyenne]. I think there are more of them south than there are north of [the Yellowstone], that none of them will fight if they can help it, to which only getting on their village will push them. Of course this is all guess work…" He was right in that no encounters with Lakota Sioux either from Canada or on the reservation occurred that summer. What Benteen did not know, was that just the day before he wrote this, Chief Joseph and his people were beginning their epic breakout toward freedom in Canada and that the 7th would soon have two fateful encounters; not with Sitting Bull's Sioux, but Chief Joseph's Nez Perce!
Joseph's Breakout from Yellowstone Park
After his victory over Col. John Gibbon at Big Hole, Joseph through masterful countermoves and deception, continued to elude General Otis. Howard who they called "One Armed Soldier Chief', and headed out of Yellowstone National Park toward Crow Country and a hopeful alliance with their old friends. The Crow's however had served Gibbon and Custer faithfully as U.S. Indian Scouts the summer before and would do so again. Even the Assiniboine and Cheyenne (the later enlisted as U.S. Indian Scouts) would turn against the Nez Perce.
Sturgis meanwhile marched to the mouth of Clark's Fork to block the Nez Perce. Skillful maneuvering and deception soon proved a match for Sturgis, who left Clarks Fork for the vicinity of Stinking Water (Shoshone River) while Joseph headed through the Sevenths former camp and on to the plains and Yellowstone valley with a 45 mile head start.
Now the only obstacle between them and the freedom of the Canadian border was Sturgis and Miles; two army colonels who would like Howard and Gibbon, be put to the ultimate test of their fighting ability and the endurance of their men and horses.
Although he didn't admit it in his official report, Sturgis had underestimated Joseph and he had been tricked by the skillful maneuver of the Nez Perce. Private Jacob Homer, Sturgis' orderly spoke freely of it as did others in the regiment especially Captain Benteen.
Feeling confident that they had out distanced the soldiers, Joseph slowed their pace. Sturgis in the meantime had reported to Howard and requested reinforcements. After picking up the Nez Perce trail about 12 miles from the outlet of Stinky River on Clark's Fork Canyon, the Seventh began a two day forced march in drizzling rain in an effort to overtake the Nez Perce who had a two day head start on them. At mid day, a halt was made and officer's call sounded. Benteen suggested to Sturgis that there was one way to overtake the Indians, "By marching forty miles that day and fifty the next if necessary." Sturgis embarrassed by his earlier blunder at Clark's Fork, consented and soon pushed men and horses to the very limit of endurance; 48 miles on August 11th until the horses were almost run into the ground! By 10 AM (September 13th) Sturgis finally halted.
Benteen growing frustrated with the lack of progress in overtaking the Nez Perce requested permission to go on independently with three companies without the slower moving pack mules. Sturgis, denied Benteen permission showing caution and restraint after the recent defeat of Gibbon here at Big Hole, and remembering the painful lesson that the regiment learned at Little Bighorn when Custer divided the 7th and overextended the command, which had ultimately contributed to the regiments defeat and the loss of his son.
Renewing the march, the Seventh reached the Yellowstone River and crossed over to the north side. While waiting for the slower pack mules and rear guard to cross over, smoke was observed down the valley and a Crow scout reported that the Nez Perce were downstream and attacking. The Nez Perce had attacked and burned a stage station, captured a stagecoach taking it for a brief ride over the prairie, and set fire to some haystacks.
Sturgis, taken completely by surprise ordered the trumpeters to sound "To Horse" and advanced at a trot down river. After advancing about two miles, it was learned that the Nez Perce were moving rapidly to the northwest up Canyon Creek the head of a large 200' high canyon of sandstone, that is approximately 10 miles from the Yellowstone, just north of present day Laurel, Montana.
Battle of Canyon Creek September 13, 1877
The little know Battle of Canyon Creek took place on Thursday September 13th and lasted from 10 AM until dark, and was essentially a running fight against Nez Perce sharpshooters who fought a fierce almost text book rear guard action against the Seventh. Sturgis set up a command post below the canyon and as Private Jacob Homer vividly recalled, "He was standing beside Gen. Sturgis, who was viewing the action with his field glasses from his tent at the rear. ... The colonel was nervously chewing tobacco and “spitting in every direction, the other officers moved away to avoid him."
Major Lewis Merrill was ordered to charge the rear guard and drive them toward the main body which was fleeing up Canyon Creek toward the mouth of the canyon. Merrill, however came under the accurate warrior fire and discounted his command miles short of the main vanguard.
Sturgis seeing that Major Lewis Merrill had stopped his charge and dismounted miles short of the canyon, ordered Homer to bring the horses closer. "I was no orderly, just a butcher but he gave me this order…I mounted and headed toward the puffs of smoke…The bullets were whining over the field...I spurred on to where I thought I might find the major. Suddenly I recognized him in the grass. The sun sparkled on his glasses. I knew it was him. I yelled the order and he acknowledged it with a grunt."
Making it back to Sturgis Homer marveled at the Nez Perce fighting ability, "They lay on the sides of their horses and fired at us under the horse's neck going at full speed…After the battle we found some of their horses with many bullets in their shoulders showing that our troops had fired accurately."
Yellow Wolf recalled, "I saw soldiers near, and across the valley from us. The traveling camp had nearly been surprised. Soldiers afoot-hundreds of them. I whipped my horse to his best, getting away from that danger."
Teeto Hoonnod with the help of Yellow Wolf, held the soldiers at bay with accurate rifle fire at the head of the canyon. Homer recalled "We found a rock with about 50 shell cases behind it. A Nez Perce marksman had used it as a firing post."
F.G. Fisher, chief of scouts for General Howard recalled, "The troops drove the Indians slowly down the wash, which was cut by small ravines and dry washes… The heaviest fighting was among rocks and cottonwood timber skirting the creek…The wind was blowing a gale and the ground was wet and most of the firing at long range."
Homer recalled that Benteen upon seeing Major Merrill's situation, asked Sturgis for permission to lead a force into a ravine to drive the Indians out. "I will get them out in five minutes,” Benteen received permission and Homer recalled made good on his promise! However, Merrill's failure to continue his charge up the canyon resulted in the escape of the Nez Perce and the Seventh's opportunity to end the epic flight right there.
Sturgis in his official report greatly exaggerated Nez Perce losses, "The loss to the enemy in this engagement was 16 and in pursuit the next day 5, making a total of 21. The number of wounded is a matter of speculation…The number of ponies lost by them in the engagement and during the pursuit is estimated at between 900 and 1,000…Our losses were 3 killed and 11 wounded." Actual Nez Perce casualties which occurred the following day, according to most accounts was approximately 5. However Jerry Greene in his new classic "Nez Perce Summer" lists only one warrior named Fish Trap killed, and only three wounded. The loss of the pony herd was devastating. Yellow Wolf recalled, "We lost a large part of our herd of horses. This was a serious blow to us." Yellow Bird also commented on the loss, "At Canyon Creek fight we lost many horses, and crippled our transportation, making it hard work for us to get along."
Although the Nez Perce had gotten away, the loss of the horses and three months of almost continuous fighting, had a profound physical and psychological effect on their people and would contribute to the fatigue that caused them to rest and be overtaken later by Col. Miles. Looking Glass, Joseph's brother, also began to lose favor. He had predicted help from the Crow who now turned against their old friends.
Sturgis was forced to give up the pursuit at nightfall. Nearly out of ammunition and supplies (Some of the Nez Perce horses were eaten by the troops) the Seventh camped on the battlefield and then resumed the pursuit the following day. At the Musselshell, the Seventh went into camp for five days, to await much needed supplies from Ft. Custer.
Cow Island & Bear Paw
After defeating the Seventh Cavalry at Canyon Creek, Chief Joseph headed north to the Mussel Shell and Missouri River fighting a rear guard action with the Crow and Cheyenne scouts. On September 23rd they reached the crossing at Cow Island on the Missouri River and were able to seize much needed army and citizen supplies stored there. As Joseph moved off, an Irishman named Michael Foley is said to have penned the following facetious note to his Commander Col. Clendenin:
Rifle Pit at Cow Island September 24, 1877 – 10 am.
Chief Joseph is here, and says he will surrender for two hundred bags of sugar. I told him to surrender without the sugar. He took the sugar and will not surrender. What shall I do?
Sturgis far back on their trail, no longer posed an immediate threat.
Continuing their trek north and badly in need of rest, they made temporary camp along Snake Creek in the Bear Paw Mountains and prepared buffalo meat and hides (killed along the way) for the coming winter. Yellow Wolf recalled, "We knew General Howard was more than two suns back on our trail. It was nothing hard to keep ahead of him." What they didn't realize was that Howard would now deliberately slow his advance while Miles got into position to head them off.
Earlier on September 17th from his Cantonment at Tongue River, Miles sent the following dispatch to Howard:
Acting on the supposition that the Nez Perce will continue their movement north, I will take the available force I have, and strike across by the head of Big Dry, Musselshell and Crooked Creek and Carroll, If I do not get any information before. I fear your information reaches me too late to intercept them, but I will do the best I can. Please send information of the movement and course of the Indians.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Nelson A. Miles,
Colonel Fifth Infantry, Brevet Major General
United States Army, Commanding
Miles now left his cantonment with every available man, including the Fifth Infantry which Miles had mounted and soldiers nicknamed the 11th Cavalry; the Second Cavalry; and three companies of the Seventh (F under Captain Owen Hale; D under Capt, Edward S. Godfrey; & A under Capt. Myles Moylan).
Battle of Bear Paw, September 30 - October 5, 1877
Finally on September 30th, after 200 miles of forced marching, Miles finally caught up to the Nez Perce, and as Miles put it in his report, "Surprised the camp.” Benteen would later write to his wife after the fight, "You may possibly surprise those fellows...but I guess they don't stay surprised worth a cent."
The morning of September 30th was a cold one. Capt. Snyder, Fifth Infantry wrote in his diary that day, "Off early this morning. Ground frozen and ice upon streams. After marching five or six miles discovered Indians to front and left... the entire command moved forward to charge . . ."
Miles had his scouts out in advance looking for Joseph. Cheyenne Scout Brave Wolf, who had fought Custer at the Little Bighorn discovered the camp seven miles out, and in a daring move actually entered it undiscovered before reporting back to Miles! Yellowstone Kelley, Lt. Manus and several scouts also saw a heavy trail on the eastern edge of the Bear Paw Mountains, and were soon discovered by Nez Perce scouts.
At the same time, a group of Seventh Cavalry officer's were gathered together talking. Captain Owen Hale made a prophetic comment that sobered the men. "My God! Have I got to be killed this cold morning?" When he began to say this the men took it as facetious, but when he ended he was serious and his remark was received by the others in silence." Ironically, Hale would be killed later that very morning!
Joseph's camp was situated in a kidney or crescent situated on the east bank of Snake Creek. Three sides were undulating grassland; the upper end of the crescent rose some 25' higher and created a natural obstacle for cavalry in that direction. Wottolen, one of Joseph's warriors had a similar premonition. In a haunting dream the night before the battle, he saw Snake Creek running red with the blood of the soldiers and his people. Yellow Wolf said that the scouts had warned the camp earlier after seeing buffalo stampeding, a sure sign of soldiers. Looking Glass, however, told the people to "take their time in packing and make sure the children finished eating." As the soldiers attacked another scout waved the blanket signal, alerting the village. Yellow Wolf recalled the stir in camp that morning and the shouts of his Uncle Joseph that could be heard above all the noise, "Horses! Horses! Save the Horses!"
One can only imagine today the sound of 600 cavalry horses thundering toward the camp. Yellow Wolf remembered "a rumble like stampeding buffaloes…Hundreds of soldiers were charging in two wide, circling wings. They were surrounding our camp."
Captain Edward S. Godfrey vividly recalled, "At 9:15 word was received that the Nez Perce village was located on Snake Creek bottom and the command was ordered to march at the trot. The Cheyenne scouts were ahead. The 2nd Cavalry battalion. . . . was ordered to take the advance after the scouts and charge through the village. The 7th Cavalry battalion was ordered to follow the 2nd Cavalry as support and charge through the village.
The 5th Infantry battalion (mounted) with the mountain howitzer and pack train was ordered to follow as reserve. Colonel Miles rode with the 7th Cavalry during our advance. After getting into the valley of Snake creek and when two or three miles from the village, we were ordered to gallop."
As the command passed the divide it formed into line; first at the trot, then the gallop. When the charge was sounded the troops were due south of the camp which was hidden from view by old cutbanks. However the horse herd was visible on the prairie to the west (left) of line. Lt. Romeyn recalled seeing "a portion of the lodges had been struck and about 100 ponies packed for the days march. These guided by women and children and accompanied by 50-60 warriors, were at once rushed out and started northward." After a chase by Lt. McClemand, Co. G, 2nd Cavalry to cut them off, a brief battle ensued and encumbered by captured ponies and heavy fire, McClernand was forced to fall back to the main command. Capt. Tyler of the 2nd Cavalry swung to the left and captured 600-800 ponies. Joseph recalled, "the captains dash cut our camp in two, and captured nearly all of our horses." With the left pivot by the 2nd Cavalry, the Seventh swung in to strike the south end of the camp. Miles now ordered a charge "with pistols."
In a classic cavalry charge right out of a John Ford western, the Seventh in line, thundered down on the camp. Capt. Moylan's A on the left, Capt. Godfrey's D in the center, and Capt. Hale and Lt. Biddle with K wheeling around to the right making first contact. Nez Perce warriors rallied and waited until the soldiers got within 200 yards and then rose and opened up with deadly accuracy on Hale's Company K. Hale's charge was repulsed with light casualties.
The warriors then concentrated their fire at the other two companies charging head on toward the high bank that overlooked the camp. Due to the nature of the high ground, Moylan ordered the command to fall back executed by the command "fours left about." Some confusion occurred during this order and luckily a heavy depression in the ground protected most of the command, and Nez Perce rifle fire over shot the men.
After the withdrawal the two companies reformed right of line of the Fifth Infantry who had dismounted and began pouring in an accurate fire with their Springfield Rifles.
During this withdrawal, Captain Godfrey horse was shot from under him. He recalled later, "Just after we started to the right I saw an Indian taking aim to me. I was not more than 50 - 75 yards from him to my left. I was riding an iron gray horse and my men were mounted on black horses. This, of course, made me a conspicuous mark and I was quite a bit nearer to this Indian. . . [trying to find a way] to get down in column of fours. His rifle cracked and down went my horse, dead. [As we were galloping] the momentum threw me forward; and I lit on my head and shoulder. . . . but I turned a complete summersault and lit on my feet. I had my revolver in my hand and as soon as I had recovered somewhat from the daze of my stun, I thot [sic] I'd try to defend myself but when I tried to raise my pistol found my arm was disabled. ."
Capt. Moylan seeing Godfrey's predicament recalled, "Capt. Godfrey would most certainly have lost his life at this time as the Indians were advancing in his direction but for the gallant conduct of Trumpeter Thomas Herwood [a green recruit]... .who seeing Capt. Godfrey's danger, separated himself from his company and rode between where Capt. Godfrey was lying and the Indians thereby drawing the attention of the Indians to himself till Capt. Godfrey was sufficiently recovered from the effects of his fall to get his feet and join his company." Lt. Edwin P. Eckerson took over temporary command of Company D and led it back several hundred yards. Godfrey on seeing this move recalled that, "things were looking pretty squally for me."
The blood-spattered horse of Sgt. James Alberts who had just been killed was brought to Godfrey and after some difficulty, he mounted and rejoined his company, who were now dismounted and skirmishing on the right to reinforce Hale's Company. Godfrey was not out of the danger yet. As he was reeled to the right he recalled,
I had just 'jumped' a corporal whom I saw 'ducking' and I thought trying to stop in a ravine when I looked up and saw, not 50 yards away partly concealed by the bank an Indian drop to his knee and squint over his rifle. I turned my horse toward the right…at the same time the Indian fired and felt a shock as if hit by a stone or club on my left side. I was just congratulating my good fortune in having turned enough to have the bullet strike my cartridge belt and glance off.. . [when] I felt my body swaying forward and stinging pain in my side and body. I was powerless to prevent going over my horse's neck.. .My horse partly lowered his head and I slid to mother earth!
I now looked at my antagonist; he had started in my direction a few steps, stopped and seemed satisfied with his job.. .and evidently began shooting at others... then he soon ran under the bank and disappeared evidently to join his comrades now hotly engaged by the whole battalion. I thought it singular, if I was wounded, that I didn't bleed.. .In order to investigate I loosened my belt and the instant I did I felt the warm blood running down my body. So I 'cinched' up again as quick as I could.”
Holding on to his McClellan saddle, Godfrey made it back to his companies former position now occupied by the Fifth Infantry. Helped to his horse, he rode back with great difficulty to the field hospital set up 1/4 of a mile in the rear. Not long after he arrived, Moylan rode up with a wound in his right leg.
As you will recall, during the initial charge, Hale had swept to the right of line. Hale with Co. K was having a difficult time. Riding ahead on a white charger he crossed a coulee just beyond the site Godfrey would be hit, and rode up to the flat prairie on the east side of the camp. Moylan recalled, "When opposite the village he charged front and advanced toward the village, the Indians opened fire from the top of the bluff and Capt. Hale could see he could not charge thru so he dismounted to fight on foot and advanced to near the edge [of the cutbank], but the Indians pushed up the ravines on his flanks and had the troop surrounded and rushed his horse holders and led horses. The conflict then became hand-to-hand. By this time A & D were approaching...at the double time and the Indians withdrew to take position along the bluff to cover the village.
Capt. Hale reformed his line...several were wounded and the dead were left on the line…several who could not help themselves, among them Lt. J.W. Biddle were subsequently killed Capt. Moylan had just dismounted to report when a bullet struck him in the thigh...A few minutes after Moylan left for the hospital, Capt. Hale who was kneeling behind the firing line...reloading his revolver was shot, the bullet entering just under his 'Adams Apple' and passing through the neck killing him instantly."
Lt. Baird rode up to Hale with orders from Miles and unaware that he had just been killed, saluted and salutated, "The General's compliments and he directs." which he cut short upon observing that he was saluting the dead!
The Nez Perce had picked their targets carefully that morning (Shoulder straps and Chevrons-Trouser Stripes) Of the three companies of the Seventh, only Lt. Eckerson was left on line and all the First Sergeants were killed! Eckerson reported to Miles, "I'm the only damned man of the Seventh Cavalry wearing shoulder straps who's alive."
Loses to the Nez Perce were heavy too, especially on the first day. Looking Glass was shot in the head as he stood up to greet what he thought was one of Sitting Bull's warriors.
Synder and the Fifth advanced to the cutbank vacated earlier by Godfrey and Moylan, and drove the warrior's back to their camp. The Nez Perce then began to dig rifle pits and tunnels using trowel bayonets captured from Gibbon at Big Hole, and tools taken at Cow Island.
Siege & Surrender - "I will Fight No More Forever!"
Miles realized that were unable to overrun the camp. The Hotchkiss Gun firing two-pound explosive shells at a rate of 12 a minute was brought up and began to fire into the camp. However, bold Nez Perce sharpshooters soon crawled up and shot the mules and riders of the "Jackass Battery). A deadly sniping duel ensued with Joseph's warriors.
At mid afternoon Miles saw an opportunity at the southern end of the camp where isolated lodges belonging to Joseph and his followers stood. He ordered Lt. Romeyn and Co. G, 5th Infantry to move to the south end of the camp and take over command of Companies A & K of the Seventh Cavalry.
Lt. Carter would move into position for a charge down the cut bank at the southwest comer of the flat, then down into the creek bed and camp. Romeyn waved his hat as a signal to attack. The men cheered and charged at once, some gaining the Nez Perce rifle pits before falling dead. Romeyn was badly wounded, but Company I actually made it to the lodges. Joseph stated, "10 or 12 soldiers charged into our camp and gained possession of two lodges, killing three Nez Perce and loosing three of their men...I called my men to chase them back."
Miles was shocked at the heavy loss of his key officer's and non commissioned officers. He wrote in his autobiography "The Indians occupied a crescent-shaped ravine, and it was apparent that their position could only be forced by a charge or siege... the later in my judgement would be almost sure to result satisfactory."
As darkness fell, warriors continued to dig rifle pits and tunnels. At daybreak, Monday Oct. 1st, Miles sent a scout to the camp under a white flag to parley. Miles and Joseph finally met face to face. Miles asked, "Joseph to surrender." Joseph replied, "We are willing to return to Wallowa if the white man will arrange it, but we will not surrender under any other terms." Miles insisted on an unconditional surrender... .Joseph shook his head and rode back to camp.
Miles opened up with his 12-pound Napoleon, reining artillery fire over the village, with little effect. The fight continued back and forth with a stalemate at the end by nightfall. Miles sent another emissary to Joseph for another parley that evening and Joseph complied. After both shaked hands
Miles told Joseph, "The war is over.. .All your arms must be given up. We will send you back to your homes." Joseph replied, "I can give up only half the guns…I must have half for myself." "No" Miles replied I must have them all. When you go back to Idaho, there I will return the guns to you, and the horses we have captured. The government will help you live."
Joseph studied Miles to search his heart. He then agreed stating, "It is well". Miles however held Joseph hostage. He wrote his wife, "I had Chief Joseph in my camp one night. . . unfortunately Lt. Jerome got detained in their camp. . . and Joseph had to be exchanged for Jerome." After Joseph failed to return the warriors seized Jerome who Miles had sent to conduct a reconnaissance of the camp and the number of weapons held.
Tuesday October 2
Capt. Snyder's diary entry that day: "Negotiations are still going on today. Joseph & Lt. Jerome exchanged for each other but no new signs of surrender…Snow & rain and no covering. We all suffered."
Miles opened up again with his Cannon until ammunition ran low and then both sides exchanged occasional shots. At this point the Nez Perce were holding their own. Miles waited it out and hoped for reinforcements soon from Sturgis or Howard for a renewed all-out assault.
Friday October 5, Final Day
The final day was bitter cold (exactly 125 years today!) and brought renewed firing from both sides. At about 8 AM all firing ceased. General Howard had finally arrived with 15 soldiers after receiving a dispatch from Miles. His main force was still back on the trail. He brought with him two Nez Perce elders who had daughters in the camp: Capt. John and Old George.
At the urging of Howard they went in to the camp under a white flag of truce. In council they told Joseph and White Bird that Howard's army was near and there was no point in continuing the fight. The people would not be executed and they would receive food, clothing, medical treatment, and would be allowed to return to their homeland. Not all agreed to surrender. White Bird gave his word to Joseph that he would surrender, but later broke his promise to Joseph, fleeing that night with 50 followers to Canada.
At approximately 2:30 that afternoon, Joseph, riding his war horse and escorted by two followers rode to the crest of a hill to meet Miles and Howard. As he approached Howard is said to have whispered to Miles "It's over, General -- the most amazing campaign in my career as a soldier. This
Indian is an absolute genius in the science of warfare." Miles nodded, "I have already learned that fact General!" What followed was one of the most powerful speeches. Joseph spoke from his heart:
"Tell Howard that 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-hil-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who now say yes or no. He who led the youngmen is dead (Joseph's younger brother, Alo-kut). It is cold and we have no blankets and no food. The little children are freezing to death.
My people some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets and 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! My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I shall fight no more forever. "
He then handed Miles his Winchester, finally ending the long road to surrender that began 4 1/2 months earlier. Yellow Wolf remembered, "This place we called Wolf’s Paw Mountains but the white people call it Bear's Paw, so I am told."
A total of 23 officers and men were killed in action at Bear Paw, and 52 officers, enlisted men and Indian scouts were wounded. Of these 18 of the K.I.A were from the Seventh Cavalry.
Capt. Godfrey and Capt. Moylan both received the Medal of Honor for their gallantry at Bear Paw.
Godfrey: Awarded November 22, 1894 "For gallantry on September 30, 1877 in the Snake Creek Fight Where he did lead his command in action until severely wounded in the hip.”
Moylan: Awarded on November 27, 1894 with the citation: "Gallantly led his command in action against the Nez Perce until he was severely wounded in the right thigh in the Snake Creek Fight on September 30, 1877.”
Nez Perce casualties included over 25 killed and an estimated 40-60 wounded.
Originally buried on the battlefield in 1903, the army casualties were reburied in the post cemetery at Fort Assinniboine. In 1913 the post cemetery remains including the casualties at Bear Paw made their last journey to their final bivouac; Custer Battlefield National Cemetery. Today two large granite memorials (originally erected at Fort Keogh), stand watch over the bivouac of the dead in section B, and remind visitors today of their ultimate sacrifice during those six days of hard fighting at Bear Paw Mountain. (Several memorials were also erected at Bear Paw).
In conclusion, with only 300 warriors, and opposed by some 5,000 soldiers, Chief Joseph had met on the field of battle 2,000, in 13 battles and skirmishes, of which approximately 266 were either killed or wounded. Marching 1,700 miles through hostile country with non-combatants, the story of that faithful trek over 125 years ago by one of this countries most brilliant strategist, continues to be studied as an example of human endurance, great courage and fortitude.
It is fitting that I leave you with the reflections on the end of the campaign vividly recalled by 2nd Lt. Hugh L. Scott, 7th Cavalry:
"Joseph was then  a tall, stalwart, active, fine-looking young man of great force and dignity. His life in Kansas and the Indian Territory, where many of his people died, did much to break his body and spirit; this was quite patent [sic] (apparent) at the times I saw him in Washington in after years. He and his people were among the finest Indians America produced, but they were treated most unjustly by the government, first to their lands, and secondly their deportation to Oklahoma where they could not live. These Nez Perce's received Lewis and Clark, Bonnevile and many other white men with great hospitality and kindness, but their treatment by the white man is a black page in our history."