Captain David Perry of the 1st Cavalry anxiously waited for the first rays of sunshine to spill over the foothills into White Bird Canyon so he could better see the terrain on which his troops might have to fight. His civilian guide, Ad Chapman, had assured him the valley floor was smooth enough for the cavalry to operate on.
Perry, however, had neither the U.S. Army’s finest horsemen nor top skirmishers; many were troopers who passed the day doing odd jobs or construction work at Fort Lapwai in northern Idaho Territory. The Nez Perce warriors camped somewhere in White Bird Canyon were expert riders, and their hunting skills made them superior adversaries. Still, Perry was relatively confident. With any luck, he hoped, there would be no fighting and the Nez Perces responsible for killing settlers (at least 18 had been killed) would peacefully give up.
As the sun rose and Perry got a glimpse of the land below his position, he ordered his 99 troopers and nearly a dozen volunteers to saddle up and advance down the hill. A few miles away, Nez Perce warriors–at least 50 and possibly as many as 140–patiently waited for the troopers. They planned to talk first, but fight if attacked. To show their good intentions, six braves were chosen to carry a white flag.
It was ironic, in a way, that soldiers and Nez Perce warriors would even find themselves in such a predicament on the morning of June 17, 1877. For many years the Nez Perce people had been good friends with both settlers and the U.S. Army, serving as scouts with Army units during several Indian wars. They had given up much of their land to the U.S. government in a treaty completed in the mid-1850s and then some more in an 1863 treaty. A good number of the Nez Perces had become Christians, living on the Presbyterian-controlled reservation at Lapwai. Some, however, had much earlier embraced the Dreamer religion and refused to follow the white man’s ways or adopt his faith. The Dreamers believed that one day the white man would be driven away forever, and all Indians, both living and dead, would reside together in a heavenlike world.
The Nez Perce Dreamers continually visited their relatives at Lapwai, and there, before reservation officials, they argued that since the white man was not going to be around much longer, why listen to his rules. Many whites thought of the Dreamers as malcontents and troublemakers.
One Dreamer was Old Chief Joseph, whose tribe lived in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley much of the year. He steadfastly refused to deal away his land or live on the Lapwai Reservation. Old Chief Joseph died in 1871, but his son, Chief Joseph, continued to hold onto the Wallowa. Miners and ranchers streaming into the region, however, made life between the Indians and the pioneers very difficult. Incidents occurred between the two peoples, giving U.S. government officials reason to fear that it was only a matter of time before a major event would ignite a war.
Consequently, President Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration moved decisively. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard, in May 1877, ordered Joseph and four other chiefs to pack up their clans and move onto the Lapwai Reservation. The non-Christian Nez Perces did not like the decree, but they were acutely aware that struggling against the U.S. Army was foolish. All the Dreamer Nez Perces seemed to resign themselves to the inevitable except for the elderly Chief Toohoolhoolzote, who put up such a fuss that Howard felt compelled to jail him.
In early June, the Dreamer bands congregated at Rocky Canyon, a Nez Perce gathering spot south of Grangeville, where a grand council was held. The 10-day assembly allowed those with grievances against the white man to speak up. The finale of the affair was a cavalcade in which warriors defiantly paraded through the village. On that particular day, June 13, 1877, two young men, members of Chief White Bird’s band, rode tandem at the end of the procession, a ritual place of honor.
One of the braves was Wahlitits, a mild-mannered and popular man who liked to swim the Salmon River in winter and run long distances. Accompanying him was his cousin, Sarpsis Ilppilp. As their horse strode past a tepee, the animal stepped on a blanket covered with drying kouse roots. Quickly an old man leaped out at them. ‘See what you do?’ he yelled, directing his tirade at Wahlitits. ‘Playing brave you ride over my woman’s hard-worked food! If you are so brave, why don’t you go kill the white man who killed your father?’ Stunned out of his bravado, Wahlitits told the old man that he would regret his words and rode off. That night, Wahlitits wept, recalling the murder of his father, Eagle Robe.
Eagle Robe had owned acreage near White Bird Canyon and gave some of it to a miner named Larry Ott. When Ott tried to stake more land, an argument ensued and Eagle Robe was gunned down. In his dying words, he instructed Wahlitits not to seek revenge, and the young brave reluctantly complied. But now Wahlitits told his cousin it was time to show the rest of White Bird’s people what true warriors they were. The pair plus Wahlitits’ 17-year- old nephew, Swan Necklace, rode into the canyon looking for Ott.
The warriors first stopped at J.J. Manuel’s home, where they sharpened their knives and exchanged friendly words with the white settler. Next they tried trading a horse for a rifle at Harry Mason’s store. Mason, who had once whipped two Nez Perce braves, warily kept a gun handy until the three Indians left. The warriors made their way to Ott’s cabin, but Ott evidently had been tipped off about Wahlitits’ presence in the area and had escaped.
The trio decided to head for the cabin of Richard Devine, an ex-sailor who lived along Slate Creek. Notorious for his hatred of Indians, Devine had once shot a Nez Perce woman over the trivial matter of a horse trespassing on his property. They surprised the old man in his cabin after dark and shot him with his own gun.
The next morning, June 14, the warriors arrived at the ranch of Henry Elfers, another white man deemed unfriendly, and placed themselves along a trail that led to his fields. During a half-hour period, they picked off Elfers and two laborers. Elfers’ wife, Catherine, who was churning butter on the banks of John Day Creek, was unaware of the ambushes. The three Indians ransacked the house, took several horses and fled. Some miners and farmers in the area heard the shooting and converged on the Elfers ranch, where they found the three bodies. Word about the killings quickly spread, but Wahlitits and his companions were moving much faster.
Near the mouth of White Bird Creek, the hostiles encountered Samuel Benedict, a local rancher out looking for some of his livestock. Ilppilp quickly recognized Benedict as the man who had wounded him months earlier during a disagreement. The brave shot Benedict off his horse. Playing dead, Benedict fooled his assailants and, after the three warriors left to tell their people what they had done, managed to reach his home.
Benedict’s wife, Isabella, saw her wounded husband riding up to the ranch house later that morning and ran outside to help him. She could see that he had been shot through the legs and that the pain was unbearable. Not long afterward, Mrs. Benedict saw Nez Perce renegades approaching–the trio had been joined by more than a dozen other warriors–and warned her husband and a friend, August Bacon. Benedict ordered his wife and children to run for a neighbor’s home, but gunfire drove them back.
Meanwhile, Bacon was gunned down at the front door, ending his brief stand. Isabella entered the living room and saw Bacon’s body in the doorway. She glanced out a window and saw her husband trying to crawl across a bridge over White Bird Creek. One accurate bullet sent him tumbling into the water, and his body floated out of Isabella’s view. She and her children hurried outside into the brush, where they watched the Indians ransack the house.
The raiders, all but one of whom were from White Bird’s band, roamed up to the camass-covered prairie near Grangeville and raided a freight wagon, confiscating a large load of alcohol. They also attacked some settlers heading for safety in nearby Mount Idaho and, in a drunken state, killed and wounded several, including a young boy.
Arthur Chapman lived near Mount Idaho and was married to a Nez Perce woman. As a young man, he had been a messenger during Oregon’s Rogue River War and later ran a ferry service across the Salmon; the latter profession earned him the nickname ‘Ad,’ short for admiral. Soon after the first killings, Chief Looking Glass rode to Chapman’s ranch to inform his old friend. Chapman then brought the news to the settlers in Mount Idaho, and a messenger was sent to Fort Lapwai with an urgent plea for help. Frightened settlers throughout the region gathered behind a stockade on Slate Creek, at Grange Hall in Grangeville, and also at Mount Idaho.
General O.O. Howard had docked at Lewiston on the morning of June 14 following his voyage from Fort Vancouver. He anticipated a smooth transition of the non-Christian Nez Perces onto the reservation, but his presence at Lapwai seemed to be a good idea just in case something went wrong. The West Point graduate had lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 but later led the Union right wing during Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s march through Georgia. After the war, Howard served as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, where he was investigated for alleged corruption. Although he was vindicated, the controversy had tarnished Howard’s career. Now that he was out West, however, he was far away from those who sought his head.
From the moment he arrived at Fort Lapwai, Howard received reports about the whereabouts of the Dreamer Nez Perces, but it wasn’t until the evening of June 15 that he got word of the killings. He quickly dispatched Captain Perry, the commanding officer at the fort, and a force of 99 troopers from 1st Cavalry Companies F and H, barely one-third of whom had previous combat experience with Indians.
Perry was a veteran combat officer, having served in the Civil War and the Modoc Indian campaign. He had been wounded against the Modocs in 1873, but his experience in the brief war left him confident in his ability to defeat hostile natives. He was known among his troops as a good officer, a little flamboyant, but still someone totally capable of leading men into battle. As Perry led his command away from Fort Lapwai, Howard wished him well and added: ‘You must not get whipped.’ The captain pivoted in his saddle and looked at Howard. ‘There is no danger of that, sir,’ he replied, and the troopers followed their 36-year-old leader south toward Grangeville, about 24 hours away.
First Sergeant Michael McCarthy was not nearly so confident. He was among the soldiers concerned because many of his comrades had had very little instruction in the use of guns and horses. Most were employed on extra duty as carpenters, blacksmiths, clerks and officers’ servants. Those men and women remaining at Fort Lapwai were just as concerned as they watched the troops ride off in search of the Nez Perce troublemakers. ‘I hope and pray,’ Emily Fitzgerald wrote to her mother, ‘it won’t be another Modoc War.’
Howard likely thought the violence was the work of many non-Christian Nez Perces. He was unaware that the instigators were members of White Bird’s band only. The other bands had accepted their fate. Looking Glass’ people had for many years lived in the Lapwai area, and Joseph’s clan was ready to live with their Christian brothers. Howard feared that the violence would spawn an even bigger Indian uprising, so as a precaution, he sent the women of Fort Lapwai to Lewiston and ordered up troops from Fort Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington, and from the Wallowa Valley.
Meanwhile, Perry’s column slowly moved south toward Grangeville. Periodically, the troops had to stop and let the pack train catch up, but still, they were making relatively good time. On the afternoon of June 16, Perry encountered Ad Chapman and a group of volunteers several miles northwest of Grangeville, and the civilians escorted the soldiers to Mount Idaho.
Once there, Perry realized the mood among the residents called for action. This put him in a politically precarious situation. His orders were to stop and contain the Nez Perce troublemakers until two companies of cavalry from the Wallowa Valley and one infantry company from Fort Walla Walla arrived. He was also to protect the town folk and send Christian Nez Perce scouts to talk to Chiefs Joseph and White Bird. Perry hoped the scouts would persuade the chiefs to surrender those warriors who had committed the crimes.
Chapman believed the Nez Perces would try to leave the region before the soldiers had time to round them up. Other citizens agreed, and they urged Perry to attack. The captain quickly weighed his options and decided that, if he didn’t strike the hostiles and they escaped, he would be subject to local criticism.
Perry’s command left town shortly after 10 p.m. and marched toward the summit above White Bird Canyon, where Perry could size up the situation. Upon reaching the crest of White Bird Hill around midnight, the soldiers dismounted and tried to relax. One trooper, too keyed up to sleep, was lighting his pipe when he heard a howl. Although few noticed it at the time, the howl finished on an unusually high note, very unlike a coyote.
Back at Fort Lapwai, Howard was catching a bit of sleep, but at about the moment Perry was reaching White Bird Hill, Howard was jarred awake. He hurried to the front porch and saw a large Indian woman hysterically yelling about the fate of Perry’s command. ‘The Indians had fixed a trap,’ she cried. ‘All our troops had run straight into it. They had come up on every side, and killed all the soldiers and all the scouts, including the friendly Indians.’ Howard dismissed the incident as the ravings of a scared woman whose Indian scout husband was among Perry’s troopers.
The Nez Perce encampment was four miles away from where Perry camped, and as soon as the soldiers dismounted, a warrior reported to his people that the bluecoats had arrived. The Indians had actually been following the soldiers’ movements since Perry’s force left Fort Lapwai. Scouts had observed the troops and signaled their progress by torching dried haystacks on deserted ranches. The Dreamers believed there was still a chance for peace, but Joseph, his warrior-brother Ollokot and the other leaders realized that war would likely be thrust upon them. They planned for either event as dawn approached.
The six braves chosen to carry a white flag of truce waited behind a knoll while 50 braves under Ollokot hid behind a loaf-shaped butte on the west side of the canyon. Sixteen others positioned themselves behind some knolls, ready to hit Perry’s flank if the peace parley failed. All were stripped for combat, but a good many Nez Perce warriors were left in the camp, too drunk or hung over to do battle.
Perry, too, had plans for peace and war. He ordered his troops to remove their overcoats and load their carbines. Perry distributed his troops and volunteers over a line stretching almost 200 yards. The advance guards were told to report any sign of the Indians and to hold their fire unless attacked.
The march had no sooner begun when the soldiers discovered a young woman and her daughter hiding in the brush. It was Isabella Benedict. She told Perry about the attack on her ranch and the killings of her husband and his friend. The soldiers dug into their packs and gave her food. Trumpeter Johnny Jones was first to donate his lunch to the grateful woman. Jones was a popular young trooper, but he could, on occasion, drink too much and cause minor mischief. He had recently been released from the stockade, where he shared a cell with the uncooperative warrior Toohoolhoolzote. The imprisoned pair had become so chummy during their confinement that Jones bragged he never would have to worry about his safety during an Indian war. He believed he would never be shot. Mrs. Benedict and her daughter accompanied the troops back into the canyon.
At the head of this procession were eight troopers under Lieutenant Edward Theller, on loan to Fort Lapwai from the 21st Infantry. Theller was a bit of an enigma. A native of Vermont, the 44-year-old lieutenant had once served as a captain in the California Volunteers, seeing duty at several small outposts. He fought Apaches after the Civil War and joined the Regular Army in 1867, serving in the Modoc campaign. He and his wife, Delia, were known for their fine social gatherings, but if there were any criticisms of the officer, they centered on his stability and judgment. Rumors had circulated at Fort Lapwai about Theller’s betting, and losing, on horse races in Lewiston. Some of the gossip went so far as to say Theller was so deeply in debt that his collectors wanted his hide if they could not get their money. This, people at the fort agreed, was why Theller volunteered to accompany Perry’s troops.
Traveling about 100 yards ahead of Perry and the main body, Theller’s advance guard was to report immediately the first sign of Indians. Watching the army’s slow descent into the canyon were the Nez Perce warriors, who only lost sight of the bluecoats when the soldiers periodically disappeared into the numerous ravines that intersected the canyon. It was not a cat-and-mouse confrontation. Each side knew that the other was there. It was a collision waiting to happen.
As Theller’s troops neared the Indian camp, he sent word back to Perry. ‘The Indians are in sight,’ was the simple, unexcited message, but it was enticing enough for Chapman to gallop forward and take a look for himself. As Chapman neared Theller’s position, the six flag-carrying Indians rode out from behind a knoll. It startled Chapman. He immediately fired two shots at them and retreated.
To the Nez Perces, it was a disappointing reaction. Chapman was a friend of Looking Glass. If he did not understand their desire for peace, no white man among the invaders would. The chiefs had hoped to talk peace with one of the Christian Nez Perce scouts so that war could have been avoided. Now it was too late.
The troops, riding in columns of fours, went into action. Perry could see that the Indians were’stretched out in an irregular line,’ although they appeared mostly as heads popping up and down from behind rocks and weeds. Perry’s Company F galloped forward, but the captain’s attention was quickly turned to his left flank, where warriors were crossing White Bird Creek. Perry directed the civilians toward a knoll, so that they could hold off the flanking movement while his company charged ahead to help Theller.
Captain J.G. Trimble, seeing Perry’s movement, led his Company H to Perry’s right, a move some historians have criticized, since it left Perry with no reserves to protect a retreat if one was needed. If Trimble’s maneuver was an error, it was an unnatural mistake. Born in 1832, Trimble had left Kenyon College in Ohio for the California Gold Rush. He fought in the Rogue River War and the Yakima War before joining the Pony Express. During the Civil War, he saw action in the Seven Days’ campaign and at Gettysburg. He also fought against Captain Jack’s Modoc renegades in 1873. His combat experience and fine horsemanship made Trimble a good man to have in battle.
The first casualty of the fight was trumpeter Jones, the young man who believed he was totally safe from Nez Perce rifles. He had no sooner placed his instrument to his lips than a bullet tore into him. The mortally wounded Jones fell from his saddle, and Theller was without his prime means of communicating with his troops.
Perry still had his trumpeter, but the man had apparently lost his trumpet somewhere on the trail. Without bugles, the officers had a difficult job of transmitting orders to their men. The Nez Perces did not need such means of dispatching battle commands. ‘Unlike the trained white soldier who is guided by the bugle call,’ one warrior later noted, ‘the Indian goes into battle on his mind’s own guidance.’
Trimble’s men attempted to fight from their saddles, but the sounds of battle were new to their horses, and the animals became unnerved. Many of the men dismounted and formed a defensive line, but because of their skittish mounts, more horse holders than usual were needed.
Skirmish lines on both sides quickly developed. Theller’s men from Company F doggedly held on to their piece of turf, keeping the Nez Perce warriors from charging into the center of the Army line. Trimble’s company fought off Ollokot’s flanking movement on the right, but Perry’s left flank was not so lucky. Although the civilians held the high ground, two of them were wounded, and their line fell apart. The volunteers mounted, and a stampede began. Indians quickly took advantage of the situation and captured the evacuated knoll.
From that moment, Perry was in serious trouble. His Company F was now in a deadly cross-fire, and the troubled captain realized there was no way his men could retake the knoll that the civilians had lost. With no trumpet available to sound recall, Perry screamed at the men holding the center of his line to retreat to the next ridge behind them. Word was passed to each trooper, and while this movement began, Perry rode to see Trimble, whose men held high ground on the right.
Trimble had also lost his trumpeter, but since he had many experienced troops, he was having success in holding off the warriors. Perry told Trimble to hold the line as long as possible and then move back to higher and more easily protected terrain. Suddenly, Perry saw the left of his line collapse. Troopers, many new to combat, ran for their horses, and Perry rode to head them off. Theller’s men and the right side of Perry’s line saw the hysteria to their left and they, too, panicked and ran. Finally, Trimble’s seasoned Company H joined in the confusion. Chief Joseph saw the situation developing in front of him and hoped to capitalize on it. He led his warriors after Trimble’s troops, trying to cut them off.
Perry finally slowed the troops down so they could at least cover one another while they slowly retreated northward. He noticed one squad holding a bluff, and he decided to head the troops in that direction so that they might make a better stand. Perry ordered Sergeant McCarthy and six men to hold a rocky point while the rest of the soldiers made for the bluff.
McCarthy and his squad engaged the Indians in hand-to-hand combat before they mounted and fled. Two of the soldiers were shot, and a bullet cut down McCarthy’s horse. McCarthy grabbed another mount, but it, too, was shot. Finding himself alone, the sergeant scrambled into the brush, managing to hide everything except for his boots. Realizing his boots were sticking out of the thicket and it was too late to tuck them in, he crawled out of them and wriggled deeper into the underbrush. McCarthy was not discovered by the Indians, and he later received the Medal of Honor.
Although the bulk of the troops were heading out of the canyon, some were left in isolated pockets. Yellow Wolf, a nephew of Chief Joseph, led some warriors to a rocky spot where five troopers had dismounted. The Indians swarmed over the position. Yellow Wolf jumped one of the soldiers and grabbed his gun while another warrior shot and killed the man from behind.
Yellow Wolf then slid down a bank and found himself in front of another trooper, who was on one knee, aiming his gun at the young warrior. The bullet missed, and Yellow Wolf lunged at the trooper. As Yellow Wolf took the gun away, another Nez Perce shot the soldier. A third trooper was bashed in the head with a rock, and the remaining two were also killed.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant William Parnell gathered about 14 men and found a path out of the canyon. Parnell was an Irish-born immigrant, 41 years old, and a veteran of the British army. He had ridden with the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War and had fought in several major battles as a member of the Army of the Potomac. His poise gave Perry’s withdrawal a semblance of order.
Theller and 18 men tried to find a route out of the canyon that would enable them to rendezvous with Perry’s force. As fate would have it, they took a path into a cul-de-sac and were trapped. There they made a determined stand, but each man was picked off, and soon all were dead.
Perry, Trimble and Parnell continued their retreat, with their forces too far apart to assist each other. The officers led their men to the plain above the canyon and again united their commands, along with the civilians, into one force. They started for Mount Idaho, 18 miles away, and the soldiers engaged in a running battle with the Nez Perces until they reached an abandoned ranch about three miles from White Bird Canyon. The troopers dismounted and took cover around the house and barn.
The Nez Perces were upon them almost immediately, firing from rocky positions above the ranch. Parnell saw Indians trying to drive off the soldiers’ horses and he reported the situation to Perry. The captain was in a state of confusion, however. At first he thought the troops could hold out until night, when the Indians would likely break off the attack, but Parnell quickly brought him back to reality: ‘Do you know that it is 7 o’clock in the morning–that we have been fighting nearly four hours and have but a few rounds per man left?’
Perry now realized that his men must continue to Mount Idaho. When the troops moved out, the Nez Perces gave chase. Parnell organized enough men to cover the retreat, firing volleys at the Indians at regular intervals. Chief White Bird bypassed Parnell’s moving skirmish line and attempted to force Perry’s men into a rugged canyon along their route, but the soldiers drove the Nez Perces off. The troops finally reached safety four miles from Mount Idaho when civilians came out to help. The Indians broke off their attack and rode back to White Bird Canyon to strip the dead soldiers of their belongings.
Word of Perry’s disaster reached Howard several hours later. The stunned one-armed general realized that there was no turning back for the Nez Perces. This was war. He requested additional troops, fearing the Nez Perce Dreamers would likely be joined by other Indians in a general uprising. Panic set in among the citizens of Idaho and Montana territories. Within four days, troops arrived from nearby outposts, and more would show up in the days to come from as far away as Atlanta, Ga. The uprising never materialized, of course, but the Battle of White Bird Canyon was the beginning of the Nez Perce War, one of the U.S. Army’s most frustrating Indian wars. Chasing Chief Joseph and the other non-Christian Nez Perce clans proved to be no routine task. In the end, which didn’t come until October 5 at Montana Territory’s Bear Paw (or Bear’s Paw) battle site, Chief Joseph surrendered to Colonel Nelson A. Miles, but Chief White Bird and other Dreamers disappeared during the night and traveled the 40 miles to reach Canada.
The Battle of White Bird Canyon was a U.S. military fiasco that Perry said was’scarcely exceeded by the magnitude of the Custer Massacre in proportion to the numbers engaged.’ On the Army side, 34 men had died; on the Indian side, nobody was killed and only three warriors were wounded. Perry, to his credit, had kept his troops from being annihilated, but unlike Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, Perry had to live with his defeat and an Indian war that could have been prevented.
This article was written by Dave Ballard and originally appeared in the February 2001 issue of Wild West.
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