Friday, June 17, 2016

Nez Percés Drub U. S. Army at Battle of White Bird Canyon [otd 06/17]

On June 17, 1877, a column consisting of U. S. Cavalry and a few civilian volunteers engaged Nez Percés warriors in the Battle of White Bird Canyon. This was the opening clash of the Nez Percés War, which ultimately forced a large part of the tribe off their ancestral homeland.
Chief Joseph, ca. 1895.
Illustrated History of North Idaho
.

The reservation treaty of 1863 divided the Nez Percés into "treaty" and "non-treaty" factions [blog, June 9]. By the mid-1870's, many land-hungry whites had settled on areas held by non-treaty bands. They demanded that authorities force the Indians to move onto the small reservation in Idaho.

Chief Joseph of the Wallowa bands eloquently argued that the original 1855 treaty was still in force for those bands that had refused to sign the later document. That being the case, the authorities were obligated to remove the intruders. An Army staffer who studied the legal situation agreed, declaring that the newer provisions were "null and void" for the non-treaty bands.

Few whites wanted to hear that, so they declared that a majority had signed the 1863 and it was therefore binding on all. As noted in the earlier blog, that claim was at best specious, if not completely dishonest. Nez Percés leadership was not a democracy. Although family ties and a common language linked the bands, each was autonomous and their chiefs formed a council of equals.

The situation exploded when the Army ignored all that and moved ahead with plans to forcibly relocate the bands. By the time the troops and volunteers led by Captain David Perry began descending into White Bird Canyon, warriors had killed 8 to 10 civilians and burned many outlying buildings.
Captain David Perry.
Nez Perce National Historical Park

John McDermott's book Forlorn Hope, posted at a National Park Service web site, provides a detailed description of the action. After the first contact, Perry tried to arrange a battle line. Meanwhile, the small band of volunteers charged on horseback around the left. Effective counter-fire repelled their attack, so they gathered on a knoll to anchor the left flank.

At a crucial turn, a shot killed one of Perry’s buglers and the other lost his bugle. Then a ferocious Nez Percés counter-attack sent the volunteers fleeing from the field. With no bugler, Perry could not wheel his troops to meet the sudden assault from his exposed flank. His line collapsed into a confused retreat. Perhaps only some desperate stands by small, isolated groups saved the cavalry from total annihilation.

Once north of White Bird Hill, the cavalrymen made a fighting retreat across the prairie. Nez Percés warriors finally broke off the action when a column of armed civilians rode out to help the retreating force. The survivors reached Grangeville between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning.

The Indians scored a decisive victory, despite being heavily outnumbered (60-70 warriors versus over 100 whites) and fighting with inferior weapons. The Army suffered thirty-four dead (to none for the Indians), and were driven headlong from the battlefield.

In the end, of course, the outnumbered and outgunned Indians were forced to flee Idaho. The tribe's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to escape into Canada is now legendary.
                                                                                 
References: [Illust-North]
“Battle of White Bird,” Reference Series No. 440, Idaho State Historical Society (June 1967).
Jerome A. Greene, Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poos Crisis, Montana Historical Society Press: Helena (2000).
John Dishon McDermott, Forlorn Hope: The Nez Perce Victory at White Bird Canyon, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho (2003).

3 comments:

  1. The Indians back then were very skilled and fierce fighters who were widely feared by whites. They became peaceful after they were finally defeated but until that happened they were anything but peaceful. There were plenty of good reasons for them to be war-like, of course, considering that white people were doing things that made survival very difficult for them. I have heard white people who live in the area express that there are still hard feelings toward Indians because of the fighting that went on well over a century ago. The Indians were very tough and a force to reckon with. Too bad that some people still have bad feelings about it to this day. Hard to believe, really - and very sad.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Two points: (1) I too have heard that some people in the region still manage to carry a grudge about those historical events. If true, it is both scary and sad.
    (2) The Nez Percés of that day were indeed fierce and skillful warriors. I just inserted a brief blog item to add to that point.

    ReplyDelete