On August 9, 1877 the Nez Perce fought in the third battle of what’s been called the Nez Perce War. The Battle of Big Hole did not leave the small band of Nez Perce defeated, but they lost about 90 warriors, women and children in the battle.
Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the tribe’s first contact with Europeans and their dealings with white people had been mostly friendly. Even when settlers were coming into their territory en masse, many of the Nez Perce moved to the reservation, but about a quarter refused. Increased government pressure to force them onto the reservation is what led to the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Even General William Tecumsah Sherman, who was anything but sympathetic to Indians, was impressed with the Nez Perce, saying: “the Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise… [they] fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications.”
The band of about 700, of which less than 200 were warriors, fought more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers in four major battles—Big Hole was the third—and a number of smaller skirmishes.
The Nez Perce were determined to get to safety for their families in Canada, some 1,400 miles away. And they nearly made it.
Chief Joseph was not seen as a war chief but he was a strong leader throughout this campaign. He felt betrayed by the government when it took back almost six million acres of his people’s land after a gold rush in 1863. He finally surrendered on October 5, 1877 after the Battle of Bear Paw. They were just 40 miles south of Canada.
A 136th commemoration of the Big Hole Battle will be held on Saturday, August 10. Nez Perce elders and veterans will honor those who fought and died, and pay tribute to those who survived. All are welcome. Events will be held at the Big Hole National Battlefield, 10 miles west of Wisdom, Montana on State Highway 43.