Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields
Battle of Canyon Creek Photo Tour, by Bob Reece
A very special thanks to Friends board member James Thorn for providing all photos.
Also, a big thank you to Bill Price for providing a great high-level overview of the Canyon Creek Battle. Since Mr. Price wrote his interpretation of the battle, we were fortunate to acquire Dr. Douglas Scott's archeological assessment of the Canyon Creek Battlefield (thanks Doug). Dr. Scott's assessment provides more information about solider and Indian positions from which this photographic tour is partially based. Additionally, we now have the luxury of the James Thorn photos. Mr. Thorn lives near the battlefield so he was kind to make several visits for additional photos as we needed.
References: Jerome Greene's “Nez Perce Summer 1877: The U.S. Army and the
Nee-Me-Poo Crisis”, and Dr. Douglas Scott’s 1995 report,
“Historical Archaeological Overview and Assessment of the Canyon Creek
Battlefield Area”. In Dr. Scott’s assessment, he makes recommendations
for further archaeological research that, if conducted, could redefine
Colonel Nelson Miles’ Yellowstone Command kept a watchful eye along the Yellowstone River, for it was more evident that the Nez Perce were breaking for Canada instead of Crow Country as originally thought. Miles’ troops that would face the more than able Nez Perce at the Battle of Canyon Creek were commanded by Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis – a West Point graduate -- who still grieved over his lost son, 2nd Lt. James G. Sturgis, who perished with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Ironically, on this campaign, Samuel Sturgis’ commanded the same 7th Cavalry, which included survivors from the Little Bighorn.
Campaigning under Sturgis were six companies (F, G, H, I, L, M) totaling about 360 officers and soldiers and divided into two battalions of equal companies. Captain Frederick Benteen commanded companies G, H, and M, while Major Lewis Merrill led companies F, I, and L. Sturgis also had the use of two mule-mounted howitzers, Captain Charles Bendire’s 50 men from Company K of the First Cavalry, and Lt. Fletcher with 25 scouts.
About mid-morning of September 13th, Sturgis’ command crossed to the north bank of the Yellowstone River near the present town of Laurel, Montana. Bendire’s cavalrymen and the howitzers had fallen far behind. Before they could catch up, Sturgis’ scouts reported spotting the Nez Perce not far down river. Since exiting Yellowstone National Park, the Nez Perce had successfully avoided both Miles and Sturgis until this morning.
Billowing smoke on the horizon became an ominous sign; Nez Perce warriors who had roamed away from the main body of Indians were attacking ranches along the river. Hauling spoilage, these warriors spotted the Yellowstone Command; and what must have been in great haste, they reported the immediate danger to their people.
Sturgis had to be surprised with this news of Indians within striking distance. So many soldiers coming from all different directions had continually failed to subdue the Nez Perce, but here they were just a few miles from his command. The soldier scouts reported that the main body of Indians along with their pony herd was fleeing up Canyon Creek towards the wide open mouth of its canyon. If the Indians made their escape into the canyon before Sturgis could capture them, the situation could become desperate. He knew he was facing an incredibly brave people that could be peaceful at one moment, but at the chance of any threat to their families, the warriors would turn and face their enemy with the ferocity and tenacity of a mother grizzly protecting her cubs.
Sturgis reacted with swift urgency moving his two battalions quickly downstream, then turned them north across country in hopes of cutting the Indians’ escape. Leading the advance was Merrill’s battalion – about 150 soldiers – with Benteen’s companies G and M following in reserve. Company H served as rearguard. If the noncombatants were quickly captured, this battle – this long campaign -- could soon be over with fewer lives lost.
Merrill’s initial objective was to take a wide ridge -- which I will call Merrill Ridge -- that rose about 300 feet before them and from which Nez Perce marksmen were beginning their accurate fire. These snipers’ objective was to slow the soldiers long enough so their love ones could make their escape into the canyon. As Merrill’s battalion -- still mounted on horse and trudging up the ridge -- faced incoming fire, his soldiers did not hesitate in their mission. Many were recruits, yet faced their adversary with coolness under duress. Although errors were made like dismounting once on top of the ridge, they understood that the best outcome rested on moving forward, continually attacking. Most important, they realized that if they did not win this day, there would be more days, weeks, and possibly months of chasing Indians. So began the Battle of Canyon Creek and so begins our battlefield photographic tour.
In Dr. Douglas Scott’s report, “Historical Archaeological Overview and Assessment of the Canyon Creek Battlefield Area”, he includes a map of the battle area which pinpoints various archaeological finds and summarizes soldier and Indian positions. Jump here to open the map in a separate browser window or use the nav buttons at top left.
I’ve copied Dr. Scott’s map and made notations where Friends member, James Thorn, took the photos that accompany this article. Jump here to open the James Thorn photo map in a separate browser window or use the nav buttons at top left. The photos were shot from a total of eight areas: Areas A and B and Areas 1-7. We reference the photos in this article by area and direction. The photos from Areas 1-6 were shot from Buffalo Trail Road. While reading the article or viewing the photos, you can choose to open the two maps in separate windows to make it easier to follow the story.
Area 7 is east of the present Park Service wayside exhibit along Lipp Road.
Area A: James Thorn received permission from Northern Skies Aviation to take photos from Area A on one of the taxiways at the Laurel Municipal Airport. An employee of NSA was kind enough to escort Mr. Thorn while he took photos.
Area A, View North: These three photos of Merrill Ridge are labeled on Scott’s map as, “Skirmish line at start of battle”.
Click on all the photos to broaden for a better view.
The Nez Perce warrior, in my opinion, has been unfairly eclipsed by the likes of the Lakota and the Comanche for his bravery and skill of battle. At close range, he willingly faced his enemy -- a U.S. Army better armed with the more powerful Springfield carbine and Colt Army Revolver -- while pushing towards him on horse.
It is likely that the warriors could also see Benteen’s battalion held in reserve on top of the western side of Merrill Ridge. The soldiers were too many; it was time for the Nez Perce to pull back and give this ground to the 7th Cavalry.
Once on top of Merrill Ridge, the soldiers dismounted and formed a skirmish line. It is still not clear why this was ordered, but it was an error that would benefit the Nez Perce with more time to make their final escape up the canyon. However, Merrill’s skirmish line did succeed in pushing the warriors down the northeast portion of the ridge. As the mounted warriors retreated northeast, Merrill and his first sergeants ordered the troops to stop, aim, and fire to take full advantage of the accurate range of their Springfields. The soldier fire during this portion of the fight must have been extensive according to the archaeological data discovered by Mike Blohm as noted in Scott's assessment.
The Nez Perce withdrawal was more organized rather than a rout. They continually kept up their fire as they pulled back to the main body of Indians.
Area 1, View NE/N: These photos show a continuation of Merrill Ridge: as the soldiers captured the ridge, they dismounted, formed a skirmish line, continued moving and firing.
From the top of the ridge, Sturgis must have been disappointed when he saw for himself that he was not standing on the southern rim of the canyon, as he had hoped. Easily seen from this high vantage point were the Nez Perce and pony herd racing for the canyon still about three miles distant. In between was ground broken by gullies and ravines filled with the main group of warriors on horseback continuing to fire back on the soldiers while moving north/northeast.
Area 4, View E: The north side of Merrill Ridge.