The Battle of the Big Hole
Once in Montana the pace of the exodus slowed, and after pushing up the Bitterroot Valley the Nez Percé camped on the western side of the Big Hole Valley. Here they considered themselves out of reach of the army for a few days. They stopped to cut new travois poles and to ready themselves for more traveling.
The Nez Percé knew that the Washington-based army detachment was two weeks behind them. However, they didn’t realize that the Seventh Infantry, under Col. John Gibbon of Fort Shaw, had moved south to ambush them. In the early morning of August 9, 1877, a Nez Percé sentry rode into the advance guard of Colonel Gibbon’s forces. He was shot and killed, and the gunfire awoke the rest of the Indian warriors. Mounting a full attack on the Nez Percé as they emerged from their tepees, the infantry killed women, children, braves, and elders indiscriminately.
Indian warriors quickly took up defensive positions, and with sniper fire forced the army back onto the side hill. Both sides sustained heavy losses. The Nez Percé successfully besieged the army troops the rest of that day and night, giving the Nez Percé time to strike their bivouac and flee eastward in search of Crow allies. (The Crow proved to be no allies, and the Nez Percé confronted the army yet again, in the Battle of Canyon Creek.)
The Battlefield can be toured today.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition