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Battle of Bear Paw

The Battle of Bear Paw (also written as Battle of the Bears Paw or Battle of the Bears Paw Mountains) was the final engagement of the Nez Perce War. Some of the Nez Perce were able to escape to Canada but Chief Joseph was forced to surrender the majority of his tribe to Oliver O. Howard. The Chief Joseph Battleground of Bear's Paw was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988.

Background

Chief Joseph had led the Nez Perce out of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon along a winding trek across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Oliver O. Howard had been trailing Joseph since the Battle of the Clearwater. Joseph had soundly defeated a United States force under Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis at the Battle of Canyon Creek and headed north to Canada. Receiving word of Sturgis's defeat, Colonel Nelson A. Miles moved diagonally north to intercept the Nez Perce. Unaware of Miles' column, the Nez Perce paused to rest at Snake Creek on the plains north of the Bears Paw Mountains and only 40 miles from Canada. Using Cheyenne and Lakota scouts, Miles found the camp and prepared to move against the Nez Perce so as not to allow them to escape across into Canada.

The Battle

On September 30, 1877 Nez Perce scouts spotted Miles' force moving up. They did not have enough time to escape but they did have time to fortify their position. Miles attacked early in the morning with the 7th Cavalry. The cavalry charged and was cut down by the warrior's fire and forced to retreat. The Nez Perce dug trenches in the side of the coulee. The next day Joseph asked for a truce and met with Colonel Miles. While the two leaders met both sides recovered their dead from the field. After the meeting was over Miles held Joseph prisoner. His reasons for doing this were unclear. When the Nez Perce found out that Joseph was being held prisoner, they seized a United States lieutenant and held him prisoner. Miles agreed to hand over Joseph in exchange for the lieutenant. On the evening of October 2 the United States' 12-pound Napoleon artillery piece arrived at the battlefield. The cannon fired exploding shots and caused great damage to the Nez Perce's trenches but did not drive them from their positions. Even though they did not retreat, the Nez Perce began to realize the end was near. Joseph refused to attempt a breakout because he would have to leave behind the wounded. Continuing the fight seemed futile. General Howard arrived at the field on October 4 but allowed Miles to retain tactical command of the troops. Howard sent out two scouts to encourage Joseph to surrender. Chief Looking Glass refused to give up and when Joseph met with Howard's scout, he escaped and attempted to reach Sitting Bull's Lakota in Canada. The same day a Cheyenne scout spotted Looking Glass and killed him. Howard's scouts met with Joseph on October 5 and returned to the United States lines with a message from Joseph saying he wished to surrender, and made the following speech:

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

The Nez Percé Surrender

Joseph met with General Howard and Colonel Miles using Nez Perce translators. He presented Howard with his Winchester rifle, and Howard directed him to hand it to Miles. Joseph then turned and shook Howard's hand. Joseph had been the most respected Nez Perce leader but he was not the only chief. Looking Glass and White Bird disagreed with his decision to surrender. Looking Glass was dead but White bird managed to escape with 50 of his followers. Joseph promised that he and his own followers would surrender.

Aftermath

The Nez Perce had fought a fighting retreat for 1,500 miles across parts of 4 states only to be halted 40 miles from safety in Canada. Joseph had impressed the entire nation with his campaign. Howard and Miles praised the fighting ability of the Nez Perce and even General William T. Sherman praised them for their fighting ability but above all for their humanity. Colonel Miles had once promised Joseph that his people would return to reservations in their homeland, but this promise was overruled by Sherman. The Nez Perce were sent to Kansas and Indian Territory, despite the protests of Howard and Miles. In 1885 the Nez Percé were allowed to return to Washington but Joseph was refused to return to the Wallowa River Valley. He died on a reservation in Washington.

Today, the Bear Paw Battlefield is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. The site is located 16 miles south of Chinook, Montana on County Route 240.

References

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