Big Hole Battlefield National Monument in southwest Montana is the site of a major engagement of the Nez Perce War of 1877. About 800 Indians under Chief Joseph and Chief Looking Glass fled Idaho well ahead of the U.S. Army, and stopped to camp on the banks of the Big Hole River.
By daybreak the peaceful Bitterroot Valley, flowing with green meadows and surrounded by mountains, had erupted with gunfire in a sneak attack. The Nez Perce, so sure of their safety that they had erected eighty nine teepees and posted no guards, were attacked by army troops at point blank range.
Once the Indians were able to move into defense mode and establish sniper positions, the battle quickly turned. US soldiers managed to get off only two rounds from a Mountain Howitzer before The Nez Perce captured the twelve pound cannon and 2000 rounds of ammunition. The Seventh Infantry, under the leadership of General John Gibbon, was forced to retreat back across the river. The Indians broke camp and slipped away the morning of the second day, leaving behind a few sharpshooters to harass the soldiers. Although victorious, the Nez Perce suffered severe losses, including thirty warriors and forty women, children and elderly tribe members.
Chief Joseph realized that the humiliation the Army suffered would never be forgiven, so the tribe fought several other skirmishes before trying to retreat to Canada. Most didn’t make it.Two months later, the losses forced their surrender in the Bear Paw Mountains. That is when Chief Joseph gave his immortal speech: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever”.
In a later report to the U.S. Senate, General William Tecumseh Sherman summarized the Nez Perce campaign as “one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record. The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise. They abstained from scalping; let captive women go free, and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications”.
In many ways, seeing the Big Hole is more impactful than seeing the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Teepees have been reconstructed along the banks of the river. They can be seen looking over the valley from the visitor center, much as Gibbons must have seen them at dawn that first day. Take the time to walk the foot trails into the encampment and view the wooded scene of this 24-hour siege.