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Yellowstone County History

Nez Perce – Yellowstone Area Raid 1877

[Summary Information on Reasons for Attack on Coulson, MT

Revised 6 February 2010 (Clarified Canyon Creek Battle deaths/ added site reference)

Chief Joseph, leader of the “non-treaty” Nez Perce Indian Tribe, earned the respect of General Nelson A. Miles (Bear Coat), who finally halted their march north to Canada after losing their land. The tribe sneaked down Clarks Fork in Yellowstone Valley thus evading the 7th Cavalry. His capture shifted the public’s interest from Custer’s defeat. [Refer to site for Joseph MV Cochran & Indian Depredation files, further information in entry index]

The Treaties of 1855, 1861. and 1863 reduced the Nez Perce land holdings in Idaho to a small fraction of their original size, leaving the Indians virtually no place to call home. Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, Big Thunder and White Bird roamed the land at will. As more white men encroached into the western territories, General Grant in 1875 set up a “Wallows Reservation” for them, and provided troops to supervise their tribes. On May 15, 1877 the chiefs met with General Howard and agreed to settle on the land picked by each of them by June 15th. However, before they could relocate, one of their tribal members was murdered, and on June 14th the Nez Perce revenged the murder by killing several whites, and defeated Captain Perry’s troops in battle. On July 4th troops under the command of Col. Berry and Col. Whipple were defeated on the Cottonwood River. General Howard engaged them in battle, without success. The Indians engaged Gen. Howard in reviewing terms for surrender for four days. This was a guise giving the tribe time to escape into the Bitterroot Valley in Montana.

Captain Rawn of Fort Missoula met them at Lolo Pass, where another truce allowed them to detour and escape capture. General Gibbons then took all western Montana’s available forces and surprised the resting Indians on August 9th in the Big Hole area. Battle losses were high on both sides. General Howard advanced on the tribe, and they fled through the Salmon River area of Idaho and into Yellowstone Park. The Indians stole General Howard’s horses, and the pursuit were slowed. Col. Nelson A. Miles, anticipating orders to intercept the tribe, sent one company of the Seventh Cavalry under Lt. Doone (with friendly Crow Indians from Fort Keogh) to the Mussellshell area. Following him were an additional 360 members of the Seventh Cavalry commanded by Col. Sturgis.

Ignoring Sitting Bull’s threatened return, Col. Sturgis in the Mussellshell area was initially fooled by a false march by Chief Joseph, who then marched down the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. Col. Sturgis recovered and made a forced march to the area, where he caught up with the tribe at Cottonwood Canyon (Canyon Creek, about 7 miles due north of Laurel) on September 13th. The Indians held off the troops by shooting from behind various ground covers. Col. Sturgis made an error in judgment, and had his men dismount and advance on foot in a “skirmish line.” This allowed the Indians to reach the safety of the canyon and disappear. The skirmish took place over two days. The Army had three men killed and eleven wounded. However, he captured much of the Indian pony herd, but his men were too exhausted to immediately continue the fight. Sturgis and Howard sent a courier to Miles, who left (September 18, 1877) with the Second and Seventh Cavalry battalions, artillery plus white and Indian scouts under command of Lt. Maus. Bannock Indian Scouts from Howard’s command banded with the Crow Indian Scouts from the Sturgis command followed the Nez Perce and killed stragglers. Only three Nez Perce bodies went un-recovered by the fleeing Nez Perce. These were Tookleiks, Wetvetmas Hapima and Teeweeyonah. [A Crow warrior scalped Teeweeuonah, and his scalp remained in the National Museum of Natural History until 1998, when a relative of his was located, and the scalp returned. Refer to Paula Molloy 25 August 1998 NMNH Addendum file letter.] The following week Col. Sturgis learned that the Nez Perce had crossed at Cow Island, burning a warehouse there. (Coulson [Stage Stop located at the time on McAdow’s land] was also attacked enroute to Cow Island, burning a saloon and a few other tented buildings. It was here that they also attacked and killed two trappers[1] resting on Joseph Cochran’s land, just west of McAdow’s sawmill at the newly formed trading post of Coulson)

The main body of Nez Perce Indians, fleeing from the army attack at Cottonwood Canyon (north of Laurel), had crossed over the mountains as they headed north and saw a stagecoach heading toward the Canyon Creek stop. They attacked it when it reached the Bela Brockway farm. [This was 13-14 September 1877.] Ed Forest was handling the stage, and Hank Eastman was the driver. The stagecoach occupants, two women and an Englishman (dentist), ran for cover in a beaver island in the Yellowstone River, thus escaping certain death. The dentist left his belongings behind as he fled to safety. The Indians opened his satchel, and scattered his shiny dental tools about the area. They went through the mail and dumped it into a dry well. The Indians did not spot Ed Forest and Bela Brockway, but they had two dogs that might bark and give their position away. Ed Forest tried to cut the dog’s throats, but one got away. Seeing the dogs, the Indians danced, jumped and hollered. They then took the stage and drove it up to where the William Heffner’s stone quarry [Virginia Lane & base of the Rim Rocks] would be located, and rolled it down the hillside.

Just before the attack at Canyon Creek was in progress, all of the available white men in the Stillwater area (Countryman’s Crossing & Stage Stop), and about 400 Crow Indians were out trying to steal the extra horses the Nez Perce (squaws) had with the band of Indians as they fled north. The squaws fought the Crows, but they were hit and kicked. The Crows took the horses and passed through the tollgate with the horses. Blackbeard, one of the Crow leaders was leading them. When ordered to stop he refused saying “Nez Perce’s come. Horses many, Sweep everything. Get on horse. Run for agency. Indians shoot.” Alice Reed (McCleary) was managing the stage stop & store at the time. One of the men in the store said “Blackbeard was a coffee-cooler, and that the Crows would rob the store if she left.” Right behind the Crows were the army forces, which were chasing the Nez Perce, and the store was left untouched. [Article from Alice Reed, 1877 as she told her story to ID O’Donnell]

Some of the Nez Perce later on their flight north stopped at a farmhouse in the area and asked for a meal. It was reported that they put up their guns and showed signs of peace. After being fed they shot the man & wife, and robbed the house. Perry McAdow, seeing the Indians approach when they reached the Coulson area, hastily put up a barricade (breastworks) to protect his sawmill, and it wasn’t damaged.

On September 29th, scouts located the Nez Perce route at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains, and the next day found their camp on Snake Creek. They took the Indians by surprise, and captured 800 horses. Approximately 22 men on both sides were killed. Part of the camp escaped, but it consisted mainly of women and children, who reached Canada. Miles troops were slowed by the wounded and feared that Sitting Bull’s large band of warriors would attack. However, the Sioux medicine man, learning that the troops were headed by Bear Coat, retreated northward. [Compiled for numerous historical accounts of the battle. By some twist of fate, the two trappers killed at Canyon Creek (Junction with the Yellowstone River on Joseph Cochran’s land) by the Nez Perce and buried in September 1877 at the graveyard north of Coulson (predecessor to Boothill), became identified as two soldiers killed at the Canyon Creek battle site north of Laurel. This mix-up still needs to be fully clarified, since three soldiers were killed at the battle site, not two, and no record of there actual burial in the Coulson area 15 miles away has been located. This is probably an error in transcription since the trappers were also killed on Canyon Creek, but near Coulson.]

Miles intended that the Nez Perce would be taken to the Tongue River until they could return to their reservation in Idaho, but the war department sent them to Missouri, much to the dissatisfaction of Chief Joseph. The Nez Perce was grossly wronged (according to Miles) in recommending “ample provisions be made for their civilization.” Miles describes Chief Joseph as “a man of more sagacity and intelligence than any other Indian I have ever met.”

A chapter in the Nez Perce, that is usually omitted from dialog or research is that Crow Scouts aided their escape through the local area.[2]

“””PRYOR – Involvement of Mountain Crow scouts provides keys to a mysterious informational gap in the 1877 flight of the Nez Perce.

Crow historian Elias Goes Ahead told a small group Saturday at Plenty Coups State Park that “there’s a whole chapter missing” in the Nez Perce journey from Washington state through Idaho and Yellowstone Park to the eventual surrender of Chief Joseph and other survivors at the Bear Paw Battle near Chinook, not far from the Canadian border.

Traditional historical details have been extremely sketchy on the Nez Perce from their escape from Yellowstone Park through Wyoming’s Sunlight Basin to their rediscovery at the Canyon Creek Battle eight miles north of Laurel. He said Crows secretly helped the fleeing tribe all the way from Sunlight Basin to the Little Snowies - and a few Mountain Crows stayed with Chief Joseph’s band until the end, helping 150 or so escape into Canada while the rest were surrounded by soldiers and cannon at Bear Paw.

Mr. Goes Ahead said oral history among both Crow and Nez Perce participants clearly show that Crow scouts attached to U.S. Army commands fed information to the Nez Perce and created diversions that aided Nez Perce escapes. Mountain Crow – as opposed to River Crow – families even took in Nez Perce children to save them from the ardors of the flight and fights.

Mountain Crows had allied with the Nez Perce since the late 1700s and took on their hair and dress styles. Two Nez Perce chiefs, Looking Glass and White Bird, were among the 40 lodges fighting on the side of the Crows in an 1869 battle at the mouth of Pryor Creek against Sioux and Cheyenne. Mr. Goes Ahead said scouts were even able to sneak Nez Perce into Army camps where they were fed information and food.

"Bluecoat soldiers did not know it at the time, but they were actually giving them (Nez Perce) rations, ammunition and information” because soldiers couldn’t discern them from Mountain Crows.

In addition to dodging U.S. forces able to use such technology as telegraphy, Mr. Goes Ahead said, moving Nez Perce groups also had to maneuver between camps of enemy Shoshones (in the present Bridger area) and Cheyennes (around Forsyth). Near the Snowies, Nez Perce made off with horses from a River Crow encampment.

“There’s still a lot of animosity between the Crow and Nez Perce,” he said, because the pursued tribe had hoped the Mountain Crows would join them in open combat. At a council near present-day Billings, Crows realized they might help the Nez Perce escape, but joining them openly would be a no-win situation.

Yet despite a recent effort by a Bear Paw Battle Superintendent, Nez Perce tribal member Otis Two Moons, no peace council could be organized.

After the Big Hole Battle in what now is southwestern Montana, Mr. Goes Ahead said, the U.S. military signed about 60 Crow scouts out of the Livingston office. They kept disappearing, he said, sometimes scouting on behalf of the Nez Perce. Eventually, the Army had only 20 Mountain Crow scouts and many of these were working as double agents.

Mr. Goes Ahead said the spoken histories of Crows such as Plainfeather tell of the Mountain Crows’ duplicity on behalf of their allies. Crow elder Plainfeather met with one of the last Nez Perce survivors (Sam Tilden) a century after the incidents, he said, and their recorded testimonies fill in the gaps.

“There’s a whole chapter missing,” he said.

His research wasn’t presented publicly until the year 2000, he said, and has not been published. For his part, Mr. Goes Ahead has been working for the past seven years setting up the Arrow Creek Battle (Crow vs. those who were to defeat Custer’s troops at Little Bighorn shortly after) to National Battlefield Association status.

It would be the first battle between Native American groups to achieve such status. “””

[1] The trappers were buried on or near the location where they died. Later, aftter Boothill Cemetery was created, they were disinterred and re-buried in that cemetery.

[2] Elias Goes Ahead, Crow Historian, presented the details below from a talk he gave at Chief Plenty Coup’s State Park. Reported in the Outpost, August 5, 2004 (Page 7 reported by T J Giles)

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