The battlefield is located along Highway 34, west of Wisdom, MT, on the eastern edge of the Bitterroot National Forest.
The Nez Perce aboriginal lands originally consisted of 13 million acres in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. A US government treaty in 1855 reduced this land by half, with the promise of the right to hunt, fish and gather on the land given up for white settlement. This treaty was adhered to until 1860 when gold was discovered on Nez Perce land; a new treaty in 1863 further reduced their lands by 90%. Five bands of Nez Perce and their allies the Palouse and Cayuse refused this second treaty, and became known as the non-treaty Nez Perce.
In 1877 the US government gave the non-treaty Nez Perce 30 days to move onto the reservation. Many of their belongings, including livestock, were lost on the journey. Fighting broke out before the reservation was reached and led to a four-month flight over 1,000 miles with numerous battles.
In early August, over 800 Nez Perce, mainly family groups, and 2000 horse were passing through the Bitterroot Valley in Montana on their way to buffalo country. Colonel John Gibbon and his troops were close behind, and in the early morning hours of August 9, 1877, attacked, burning tipis, killing women, children, and elders. Estimates of the Nez Perce causalities number from 60 to 90, while the military and civilian volunteers lost 31 individuals.
The descendants of Chief Young Joseph stated, upon reflection:
“Treaties divided and scattered us, both physically and spiritually. They threatened to sever our spiritual connection with the land and fostered the division of our people into Christian and non-Christian, treaty and non-treaty, and finally, tribe and non-tribe.”
Some members escaped to Canada during the battle at Bear Paw. White Bird, who led over 250 members of the Nez Perce to Canada, said,
“With women’s hearts breaking, children weeping and men silent we moved over the divide and closed our eyes upon our once happy homes. We were wanderers on the prairie . . . The white man wanted the wealth our people possessed; he got it by the destruction of our people. We who yesterday were rich are beggars today. We have no country, no people, no home.”
Others who were captured were considered prisoners of war and sent to Kansas and on to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Here, over 200 people, many babies and children died.
It was easy to see why the Nez Perce stopped here and were hopeful that they had evaded the US Military. The valley is beautiful with the Big Hole River, trees, and plentiful grass. To read the accounts of the horror that occurred to the Nez Perce was heart-wrenching. The Nez Perce warriors were heroic in driving back the US soldiers to provide families with the opportunity to flee.
Alex is too young to remember this visit, but we feel it is important to educate Alex on all aspects of American history, as ugly and painful as they may be. We look forward having the honor of visiting this site again.