The Battle of White Bird Canon

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The Wallowa Valley is fifteen or twenty miles east of the Grande Ronde Valley in eastern Oregon, and had long been a bone of contention between the whites and a band of non-treaty Nez Percé Indians under Chief Joseph. The whites claimed the right of settlement under the United States Land Acts, and while no determined effort on their part was made to take up homestead, preemption or other claims, yet they kept it as a grazing ground for their cattle, while the Indians denied them the right to such privileges, claiming to themselves the entire control of the valley and surrounding hills for hunting and fishing. They were confirmed in this right by the Government, I believe, in 1855; but by subsequent authority from Washington the land was thrown open for settlement and still later on again withdrawn.

These conflicting rulings the Indian did not clearly understand, and he evidently did not propose to be trifled with like a child with a toy, to be taken away from and given again in pleasure. Quarrels were continually arising between the red-men and the white; an occasional go steer would be missing from the white man’s herd, and ponies would, in turn, be missing from that of the Indian. Fort Walla Walla was the nearest military station to this disputed territory and the cavalry troops were constantly moving to and from the Grande Ronde and Wallowa Valleys, settling differences and preserving the peace, from the date of regarrisoning it in 1873 until hostilities commenced in 1877.

During the summer months two troops of cavalry were kept in camp in the Wallowa Valley, returning to Walla Walla for the winter. Even the severity of winter did not appear to cool the hot blood, or bad blood, of either the white man or the Indian, for on New Year’s Day 1876 – the year of the Centennial – two troops of the First Cavalry under my command had to forego their New Year calls, egg-nog and other attractions, and start out on an expedition across the Blue Mountains to Grande Ronde Valley, to quell an anticipated outbreak of the Indians for some grievance against the whites. The temperature was twelve degrees below zero with from two to four feet of snow on the ground.

On reaching the valley we found, however, that there was no evidence of any trouble whatever on the part of the Indians. The report was a ruse of some white men in Grande Ronde Valley to get cavalry into the valley, hoping, thereby, to dispose of their hay, grain and provisions at prices at inverse ratio to the mercury in the thermometer. Imagine their chagrin when they found that the Government contractor had made all necessary arrangements in the premises before we reached the valley!

It would seem an anomaly to the military mind to read the regular annual Presidential Message to Congress that “the country was at peace,” etc., when war within our own borders was never ceasing; that for acrimony and deviltry on the part of the Indians, and of hardships, suffering and privations on the part of the troops engaged in it, was absolutely unknown in a war of any other character.

A few years ago not a month passed that war did not exist in one section or another within the boundaries of the United States; if not in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, or California, we had it in Montana and the Dakotas, or down in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas. So far as the cavalry arm of the service was concerned, cessation from hostilities did not exist. The cavalry was continually on the alert, the ever watchful eyes of the army were either in the saddle, or virtually “standing to horse.” And they are doing the same thing in the Philippines to-day!

General Howard, commanding the Department of the Columbia, was instructed from Washington to proceed to Fort Lapwai, Idaho, and hold council with Chief Joseph and his tribe regarding the disputed territory. He was directed to formulate a plan by which the non-treaty Indians should come on the Nez Percé Indian Reservation at Lapwai or Kamai.

There were stationed at Fort Lapwai in May, 1877, Troop F, First United States Cavalry, and a small command of the Twenty-first United States Infantry, the post being under the command of Col. David Perry, Captain First Cavalry. General Howard ordered Troop H, First Cavalry, from Walla Walla to Lewiston, Idaho, a small town at the junction of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. This troop was to remain in camp on the west bank of the Snake so as to be ready to move up the Snake River on either side, or to move rapidly into the Wallowa Valley and reinforce Troops E and L, First Cavalry, should occasion require it, as it was well known that the Indians were ugly and strongly opposed to going on a reservation, or surrendering their alleged rights to the Wallowa.

The Nez Percé Reservation covers an immense tract of perhaps the most fertile soil in Idaho, abundantly supplied with water and timber land. The agency is beautifully situated on the Clearwater, about three miles from the military post of Fort Lapwai. It has a subagency at Kamai, sixty miles higher up on the Clearwater. It is there that the celebrated Lo-lo Trail across the Bitter Root Mountains in Montana commences.

It was with much difficulty that the Indians could be induced to come in and hold council, several preliminary “talks” had occurred with one or another of the subchiefs. On the 15th of May, the grand council was held in a large tent pitched on the parade-ground at Fort Lapwai. The attitude of the Indians indicated anything but friendly feelings; they wore a sullen, dogged and defiant demeanor; treachery on their part was anticipated at least, and although the stipulations were that each party should appear unarmed, it was afterward discovered that many Indians present at the council, beside many on the outside, were armed with revolvers, rifles and knives hid away under their blankets. To provide against such an emergency, the General gave orders to have all the troops remain in quarters and “under arms.” The Indians were represented by Chief Joseph, Ollicut, his younger brother, White Bird, Looking Glass, Hush-hush-cute, chief of the Palouse Indians, who were strong allies, through intermarriage, of the Nez Percés; and a goodly sprinkle of sub-chiefs, warriors and squaws.

The council lasted from about ten o’clock in the morning until late in the afternoon. Many times during the day hot and defiant words fell from the lips of the Indians, more particularly from those of White Bird, who was the worst devil of the lot. I use the phrase advisedly, knowing from past experience the horrible cruelties practised by Indians on helpless and unprotected white women and children on our frontier.

Toward the close of the council the excitement grew intense. Every moment General Howard and the officers present anticipated an attack by the Indians whose every motion indicated that they were armed, though no weapons were shown. So arrogant and defiant were they that few white men could have restrained themselves; indeed, at one time, General Howard was on the point of committing one of them to the guard-house in irons, but his cooler and better judgment and proverbial desire for peace restrained him, and the storm subsided for the time being.

The most trivial spark of indiscretion on the part of any officer present would have caused the massacre of the entire party. Let the so-called Indian philanthropist of the East, the admirers of the Fenimore Cooper type of the noble red-man, cavil as they may about army officers and the regular army, generally, on that question. There never have been any better friends of the Indian than the officers and enlisted men of our little regular army. When they go out on a campaign, they go in obedience of orders. They go for business strictly, and not for a picnic. They go to protect the lives and property of our sturdy pioneers on our frontier against the most bloodthirsty and relentless foe of our race, and then, when success and victory crown their efforts, they in turn feed, clothe and protect the people they have subdued.

Chief Joseph and Looking Glass favored the proposition of going on the reservation. White Bird and Ollicut opposed it, but the decision of the council was that Chief Joseph’s band of non-treaty Indians, which included all of the smaller bands, was to go on the reservation. Thirty days were allowed for this purpose. The 14th of June was to see the entire band on the Nez Percé Reservation among their own people. To this the Indians agreed.

During the conference Chief Joseph’s brother, Ollicut, sometimes called Young Joseph, exhibited a map of the disputed territory of the Wallowa which was, to say the least, unique. It was a novel specimen of draughtsmanship, if I remember correctly. It was on a peculiar piece of paper or parchment of a muddy yellow tinge, about sixteen or eighteen inches square, the ink being of a pale green color; the geography was delineated by natural history; for instance, the Wallowa Lake was represented by a single ink line showing the boundary line, and a crude drawing of a fish in the center; the mountains were represented by the figures of deer; the Wallowa River by a zigzag line, with trees here and there along its length. The wagon-road was probably the most peculiar and interesting part of it, a double column of very small circles running the entire length of the valley was the impression we received at first glance, the circles not larger than a pin’s head; but upon closer inspection the circles were found to be incomplete; they were minute representations of horse-shoes, indicating the impress of the shoe upon the soft earth.

A tragedy that occurred a short time before, in which an Indian was killed by a white man, occasioned by a dispute about the removal of a rail fence to allow horses to pass through, was shown on the map as near the vicinity as guesswork could make it, by figures representing a white man and two or three Indians struggling for the possession of a gun. The figures of men and animals were a good deal after the Egyptian types, straight lines and angles.

An effort was made by General Howard and Lieutenant Fletcher of the Twenty-first Infantry to make an exact copy of the map, but under no consideration would the Indians allow them to retain it long enough for that purpose.

General Howard returned to Portland next day to await the termination of the allotted month, and the Indians returned to their camp on the Salmon River. As the 4th of June drew near, speculation was rife as to the probabilities of the Indians abiding by the decision of the council, or otherwise. Nothing had been heard from them, nor had any of them as yet “come in.”

The morning of the 14th of June arrived and with it brought General Howard from Department Headquarters. The day wore along, clear, warm and peaceful; troops were to return to their stations if all went well. But all did not go well, for about six o’clock P.M. a messenger arrived from Mount Idaho with a letter to the General stating that Joseph’s band was giving the settlers much trouble and annoyance, causing fears of an outbreak. Early next morning four cavalrymen and the interpreter from the agency started for Mount Idaho to learn particulars.

Much uneasiness was manifest throughout the little garrison. We knew that the Indians should now be within the boundary of the reservation, and they were not. We were satisfied in our own minds that they did not intend to obey the mandate of the council and from their demeanor, during the deliberations of that body, we could see no other prospect than war. The Nez Percés were a brave and warlike type of the Indian, tall, strong and well formed, armed with weapons equal, if not superior, to our own, for theirs were Winchesters, sixteen shooters; ours were the Springfield, single-shot, breech-loading carbines. They had a large herd of good, strong ponies, giving them almost unlimited relays for their remounts, either for pursuit or retreat. We, therefore, made our preparations for business on the return of the messengers.

Scarcely three hours had elapsed ere the party came galloping into camp very much excited. They had been fired upon and driven back by a squad of Indians concealed in the timber, who were watching the road to Mount Idaho, about ten miles from Fort Lapwai. Our dream of a peaceful settlement of the question was now at an end. Hostilities had commenced, and another protracted and bloody Indian war was confronting us.

The Indians had failed to comply with the terms agreed upon in the council. The young bloods had defied the counsel and advice of the older and wiser heads of their tribe, and demanded approval from their people for the cold-blooded murder of innocent and unsuspecting white settlers along the Salmon River.

On the 14th of June, the day they should have been on the reservation, under treaty stipulations, three of their young men went to a store and post-office some six miles above Slate Creek on the Salmon River, kept by a Mr. Elfers, whom they shot and killed while he was plowing. His unfortunate wife witnessed the murder of her husband and then fled from the house and sought shelter in the thick underbrush along the creek.

The Indians thoroughly ransacked the house, procured one or two rifles and shot-guns, a quantity of ammunition and a large supply of provisions. A party, fleeing from Cottonwood to Mount Idaho, eighteen miles distant, was also attacked; one man was killed, one wounded and one woman badly wounded. A settler at the mouth of White Bird Creek on the Salmon River was also killed, his wife made prisoner and his house burned. These were the acts which demanded recognition and approval at the hands of the tribe, or at least the condonation of them. We learned afterward that a grand council was held by the leading men of the tribe, and after a long debate it was determined to give their support to the murderers and defy the United States authorities. In other words, they determined to get to war rather than surrender the offenders against law, or go on the reservation.

Troops F and H, First Cavalry, therefore left Fort Lapwai for Mount Idaho at eight o’clock on the evening of June 15th. The command mustered about eighty men. Capt. and Brev. Col. David Perry was in command. After marching until about one o’clock A.M., on the 16th, skirmishers and flankers were thrown out. We were in the mountains; heavy timber, deep ravines, and a wild, broken country confronted us. The night was dark and at any moment we might be saluted with a volley from the usually unerring rifles of the Indians, but the men were vigilant and careful and we reached Cottonwood Ranch unmolested. We knew that Indian scouts were watching our every move, as we proceeded on our march, but they carefully avoided being seen by us by taking to the high ridges or hiding in the thick underbrush in the ravines and canons along the line of march.

We halted at Cottonwood long enough to cook coffee and unsaddle our animals for a roll and an hour’s grazing and then proceeded across Camas Prairie to Mount Idaho, which we reached in the afternoon. We found the citizens armed and very much excited. In the course of the evening a delegation from the small town waited on Colonel Perry, urging him to move down to the Salmon River where the Indians were camped, and attack and punish them for the murders committed by them. Perry called the officers of the command together and after a prolonged conversation with the citizens, who professed to know the situation and strength of the Indians, claiming an easy victory, it was decided to make the attempt. The citizens were deceived in their supposed knowledge of Indian affairs as events subsequently proved.

We fed our men and horses and started at ten o’clock P.M. for the Salmon River, distant about twenty miles. We were now two days and on our second night without rest or sleep, but fully awake and alive to the possibilities of the serious business before us. Half a dozen citizens accompanied us to act as guides and assist in the prospective fight and defeat of the Indians; their leader being George Shearer, an ex-Confederate Major, a brave man and a genial good fellow.

We plodded along in the dark until about one o’clock in the morning when we reached the head of White Bird Canon, where we made a halt until dawn. Colonel Perry ordered perfect quiet and under the circumstances no light of any kind was to be made, yet one man of his own troop lighted a match to light his pipe; two hours later that man paid the penalty of his disobedience with his life. Almost immediately the cry of a coyote was heard in the hills above us, a long, howling cry, winding up, however, in a very peculiar way not characteristic of the coyote. Little heed was paid to it at the time, yet it was a fatal cry to the command. It was made by an Indian picket on the watch for the soldiers who they knew were already on the march. Probably he had seen the light. The signal was carried by others to the camp, so that they were thoroughly prepared for our coming.

As dawn approached we continued our march down the ravine into White Bird Canon. A trail led us down a narrow defile, now and again crossing a dry creek bed with here and there a heavy growth of willows and underbrush. At one time we would be skirting along the steep hillside, at another following the creek bed. High bluffs and mountains lined each side of the canon while the trail led over rolling country, up and down little knolls but still descending.

About three o’clock that fatal morning, as we passed in single file along the side of the hill, a sad and pitiable sight presented itself to us. We discovered an unfortunate woman, whose husband had been killed by the Indians, concealed in the gulch below us with a little four year old girl in her arms. The child’s head was broken, yet bearing it with fortitude the poor mother and child, shivering with cold, were thanking God for their deliverance. They had been hiding in the brush from the Indians since the 14th and it was now the morning of the 17th of June. I have never seen a sight that called for sympathy, compassion, and action like it. It was a terrible illustration of Indian deviltry and Indian warfare. The contents of the haversacks were freely given to the unfortunates and we passed into the woods before us.

In a short time we found the canon widening out as we descended, the bluffs on either side appeared to grow higher and higher; bearing around to the east as we entered a valley four or five hundred yards wide. We had advanced about a hundred yards when I noticed Perry’s Troop moving into line at a trot. It was now fairly daylight, the Indians were seen advancing and firing commenced at once. Troop H moved up and formed line on the right of Perry. The citizens were on the extreme left and in good position in a rocky knoll which virtually commanded all approaches from the left. The ground to the right of the line was a steady rise at an angle of about twenty degrees for a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, then quite a steep ascent for some distance to the plateau above. The ground to the left of Troop H, occupied by F, gradually swayed downward and then upward to the position held by the citizens.

It was bad judgment and certainly not tactical to put the entire command on the line, leaving no reserves whatever in either troop, and, to increase the danger of such a fatal error, the men were in the saddle in an exposed position, while the Indians were on foot, taking cover in the grass and behind rocks. Very soon the men dismounted of their own account. Some were shot off their horses, and as the firing became hotter many loose horses were soon galloping away in the rear of the line.

About half an hour had elapsed and several men had either been killed or wounded when Perry’s men began moving by the right flank to the higher ground on our right. An attack had been made on the position held by the citizens, two of whom were wounded and the rest driven from their stand. This left it an easy matter for the Indians to pass around Perry’s left under cover of the knoll and get a position on his right. In the meantime, the Indians had driven a large herd of loose ponies through our line, and scattered in among the ponies were some sixty or seventy warriors who immediately attacked us in the rear, demoralizing the troop, many of whom were recruits, but a short time out from Eastern rendez-

Note: There is obviously material missing from the original book between these two sections. We are working on recovering it.

fairly daylight, the Indians were seen advancing and firing commenced at once. Troop H moved up and formed line on the right of Perry. The citizens were on the extreme left and in good position in a rocky knoll which virtually commanded all approaches from the left. The ground to the right of the line was a steady rise at an angle of about twenty degrees for a distance of perhaps two hundred yards, then quite a steep ascent for some distance to the plateau above. The ground to the left of Troop H, occupied by F, gradually swayed downward and then upward to the position held by the citizens.

It was bad judgment and certainly not tactical to put the entire command on the line, leaving no reserves whatever in either troop, and, to increase the danger of such a fatal error, the men were in the saddle in an exposed position, while the Indians were on foot, taking cover in the grass and behind rocks. Very soon the men dismounted of their own account. Some were shot off their horses, and as the firing became hotter many loose horses were soon galloping away in the rear of the line.

About half an hour had elapsed and several men had either been killed or wounded when Perry’s men began moving by the right flank to the higher ground on our right. An attack had been made on the position held by the citizens, two of whom were wounded and the rest driven from their stand. This left it an easy matter for the Indians to pass around Perry’s left under cover of the knoll and get a position on his right. In the meantime, the Indians had driven a large herd of loose ponies through our line, and scattered in among the ponies were some sixty or seventy warriors who immediately attacked us in the rear, demoralizing the troop, many of whom were recruits, but a short time out from Eastern rendezvous, so that it became utterly impossible to control them.

As Perry passed in to the right I supposed he would halt the line when in position on the right of Troop H, but not so. He kept on gaining ground to the right and rear until I saw him finally ascend the steep rise to the bluffs above and disappear from sight. He afterward explained this officially by the statement “that the men were beyond control.”

I now found my position one of extreme danger. The other two officers of the command had followed the movement of Perry’s troop to the elevated plateau on our right. Lieutenant Theller and eighteen men were killed by an overwhelming body of Indians before they could reach Perry’s men. The quantity of empty shells found where their bodies lay indicated that they fought to the bitter end.

With what men I could collect together I now commenced falling back, fighting, by the way we came; that is, up the White Bird Canon. I saw that it would be suicidal to attempt to reach the bluffs on our right, so we slowly retreated up the ravine, holding the Indians in check from knoll to knoll. I saw that halt must be made pretty soon to tighten up our saddle-girths, so, posting a few men in a little rise in front to hold the Indians, I dismounted and readjusted my saddle, directing the men to do the same. We then took position on the right knoll and from knoll to knoll we fell back, waiting at every halt until the Indians came near enough to receive the contents of our carbines. They were swarming in front of us and on the hillsides on both flanks, but the few brave fellows with me obeyed every command with alacrity. I think there were thirteen or fourteen men altogether.

The Indians dared not approach too closely, yet at one time they were near enough for my last pistol cartridge to hit one of them in the thigh. We had several miles of this kind of work up through the canon, but the men were now cool and determined and fully alive to the perilous situation we were in. When we reached the head of the canon, we were rejoiced to find Perry’s men, who had been falling back in a line nearly parallel with us, on the mesa above. He had eighteen or twenty men with him. I had not seen him since he reached the bluffs two hours before, and neither of us knew anything about the whereabouts or fate of the other. Our meeting no doubt saved the massacre of either or both parties, for we had yet about eighteen miles to fight our way back ere we could hope for succor.

Immediately in our rear was a deep ravine to be crossed. Perry requested me to hold the ridge we were on while he crossed and he would then cover my passage from a commanding position on the other side. I watched his crossing so as to be ready to move when he had his men in position, but again they failed him. They had not yet recovered from their unfortunate stampeded condition. I crossed the ravine at a gallop and halted on the other side to welcome the Indians, who appeared to swarm on every hill. They halted abruptly on receiving a salute from our carbines.

We then moved quietly down to an abandoned ranch, a mile to the rear, where Perry had his men dismounted in what appeared to be a good position in the rock. I dismounted our men, tied our horses to a rail fence and took position in the rocks; the house and barn were to our left a short distance, and a small creek between us and the house. Presently, shots came flying over our heads from the front and right flank. The Indians had taken stand in a clump of rocks in our front and flank on higher ground, and therefore commanded our position. At the same time I noticed some of them coming down on our left, under cover of a fence that ran from the house up the hill perpendicular to our front. I mentioned this to Perry. Our ammunition was getting very short, as we had but forty rounds per man when we started.

After a brief consultation under a hot fire we determined to abandon our positions and continue a retreating fight back to Mount Idaho. When we first reached the ranch, Perry suggested that we should hold the position until dark and then fall back, as it was then seven o’clock, and it would soon be dark. I could not understand his remark and looked at him in astonishment. I said

“Do you know that it is seven o’clock in the morning -not evening -that we have been fighting nearly four hours and have but a few rounds per man left?”

I thought he was what is commonly called confused. He requested me to hold the position while he mounted his men, and he would then hold it until I had my men in the saddle.

He moved down and mounted. I then ordered my small detachment down, waiting until every man was away. I followed and to my consternation found the command gone and my horse with it. I hallooed out to the command now more than a hundred yards distant, but, evidently, nobody heard me as they continued to move on.

The Indians were now gaining on me and shots kept whizzing past me from every direction in rear. I looked around for a hiding-place, but nothing presented itself that would secure me from observation. I fully made up my mind that I would not be taken prisoner, and determined to use my hunting-knife or a small derringer pistol I always carried in my vest-pocket. These thoughts and final determination flashed through my mind in a few seconds, as I kept moving on trying to overhaul the command.

Finally, some of my own men missed me, and looking back, saw me and reported to Colonel Perry. The troops were halted, my horse caught and led back to me. A few minutes after Perry halted the men and requested me to reorganize the command. I did so quickly for there was little to organize, and requesting Perry to support me at a distance not greater than one hundred yards, I stated that I would take charge of the skirmish-line. The line was deployed at unusually great intervals, so as to cover as much front as possible and then, after a few words of caution and instruction, we waited the coming of the Indians, who at a distance had been closely watching us.

We did not have a long time to wait, for they came upon us with a yell. Not a shot was fired until the red devils rode up to within seventy-five or a hundred yards of us when I gave the order to “commence firing.” Several redskins and half a dozen horses went down from our fire. We then moved “to the rear” at a walk, and again halted, the Indians waiting for us, but once more our fire sent some to grass and we quietly fell back eighty or ninety yards more. Thus we continued retreating for several miles. Chief White Bird with about seventy warriors made several attempts to drive us off to the right into Rocky Canon, which, had they succeeded in doing, would have sounded our death knell, but Perry moved his men so as to prevent it and gave them a few well-directed volleys which drove them back.

In passing over a marsh my attention was called to a man struggling through the swampy ground and long grass about half-way between us and the Indians. We could just see his head above the grass. A few minutes more and the Indians would have his scalp. I advanced the line firing, driving the Indians back, and rescued a man of H Troop whose horse had been shot. The poor fellow was almost played out, he was taken up behind another man and we continued our retreat.

When we got to within a few miles of Mount Idaho, a party of citizens came out to our assistance. While we fully appreciated their action, it was too late for them to be of any service as the Indians disappeared as they came into view. Men and horses were now completely exhausted. We had been on the move ever since Friday without rest or sleep, and under too much excitement to hope for sleep now that we had reached comparative safety.

Late in the fall of 1877 I was shown a copy of the New York Herald containing an account of the Nez Percé Indian War from “White Bird” fight to its termination in Montana in November, and this is what is stated of the White Bird affair:

The hostiles commenced operations by murdering all the white settlers they could find, of whom there were many; burning their houses, driving off their stock, and taking all the valuables they wanted. . . . The terrible massacre of thirty-three of these soldiers, under command of Captain Perry, on June 17th, first attracts our attention. . . . Captain Perry attacked the Indians in White Bird Canon, situated on a creek of the same name at a point about three miles from where the stream empties into the Salmon River. This canon is very deep and extensive, and the trail leading down to it is very steep, and in places extremely narrow, necessitating for part of the way a march by “file.” It is seven miles from the point of descent to the creek, the first three miles being almost perpendicular. The canon gradually widens as you approach the creek, sloping down to the water’s edge. The width of the canon contiguous to the stream is about five miles. It here presents the appearance of a rolling prairie, being dotted here and there with wave-like swells.

The correspondent is somewhat in error about the width of the canon, as in no place is it anywhere near half that distance. There are also some slight discrepancies in his account of the order given and the conduct of the engagement. I have no knowledge of the source of his information. We had no correspondent with us, nor was there one with any of the troops who subsequently passed through the canon. Further, he says:

Captain Perry led his command down the narrow trail at daylight in the morning of June 17th after marching all night, with men and horses hungry and weary. The Indians permitted him to advance to within seventy-five yards without resistance, or even showing themselves to the troops. When the redskins were visible, the command was given, “Left front into line; forward, charge!”

The correspondent then goes on to explain the action, in which are many errors, so that I am satisfied the author could not have been one familiar with military affairs. He, however, says truly that Captain Perry did attempt to rally his men, but he could not get onetwentieth of them together, scattered as they were, especially as he could not find either of his trumpeters. One was killed and the other was demoralized and had got out of range of the Indian rifles as soon as the retreat commenced. He says again

However, with the few men under his immediate eye, he occupied a semicircle of knolls, with himself and a few citizens inside the curve thus defended, until an opportunity occurred to retreat still farther in a similar manner, and his party reached the top of the canon, where all who had horses ran as if for their lives.

Captain Perry did not retreat up the canon, he did just what I have stated: i. e., he ascended to the plateau above the canon near where the fight commenced and retreated along that until our parties united at the head of the canon, mine out of it, and his on the right above us. Neither did all those who had horses run as if for their lives. That some did, I know.

He, the so-called correspondent, speaks in generous and flattering terms of my humble, but happily successful attempts to hold the Indians in check with the few gallant fellows who fought up the canon. He says:

There is no doubt but the Indians would have pursued and massacred every one of the command had it not been for the bravery and determined pluck of Lieutenant Parnell of the First Cavalry. This officer, gathering a few men around him, occupied knolls here and there after gaining the high ground, and so vigorous and effective was the fire poured into the victorious Indians that they-the Indiansdid not deem it prudent to come within range, but instead circled to the right and left when Lieutenant Parnell would so change his position as to again check them.

It might seem a pity to spoil a good story, especially where one is so particularly interested as the Herald correspondent indicates, but he is in error when he says that “they – the Indians – did not deem it prudent to come within range.” The jubilant devils did come within range, and pretty close range, too, on more occasions than one, but the men were now steady and gave them a withering fire every time.

White Bird Canon was a terrible defeat to the troops engaged in it. It put the Indians in “high feather.” It largely increased their warriors from among those on the reservation as well as from the small tribes along the Palouse, Snake, and Spokane Rivers, resulting, as it did, in the massacre of the brave young Lieutenant Rains, First Cavalry, and his party of ten men at Cottonwood; the battle of Clearwater, July 11th and 12th, when we had abundance of hard fighting with more than four hundred troops engaged, in contrast to the numerical strength of our little squad at White Bird.

By Maj. and Brev. Col. W. R. Parnell, United States Army (Retired)

When the first alarming news came into Fort Lapwai, where General Howard, the Department Commander, then was, viz: the morning of the 15th, I got my little command ready to move, and the quartermaster was despatched to Lewiston, distant twelve miles, to procure pack animals while I waited for some confirmation of the disturbing rumor. This reached us late in the afternoon in the shape of a letter from one L. P. Brown of Mount Idaho, stating that the Indians were murdering settlers on Salmon River ranches.

The quartermaster not having returned at retreat, I proposed to General Howard that I move at once to the relief of Mount Idaho, carrying three days’ rations in my saddle-bags. The General sanctioned my doing so and at eight o’clock P.M., on June 15th, I left Fort Lapwai with my command, consisting of my own Troop F, First Cavalry, Lieutenant Theller attached, Lieutenant Parnell and forty-one men. My troop was fifty strong. Five packs with five days’ rations in addition to the three days’ cooked rations carried in saddle-bags accompanied us. We reached Cottonwood, forty miles distant, at nine A.M. on the 16th.

I lost much time waiting for the pack-mules to come up, as the road was very muddy in places. Rested the command here three hours. From the high ground we saw three large smokes, which proved to be the remains of straw stacks set on fire by the Indians, probably as signals of our coming. From Cottonwood to Mount Idaho the road passes over a rolling prairie for a distance of eighteen miles. We reached Grangeville about two and one-half miles short of Mount Idaho at six P.M.

Within three miles of Grangeville we met a party of armed citizens who informed me that the Indians had crossed the prairie at about eleven A.M., that day, traveling in the direction of White Bird crossing of the Salmon River. They also insisted that unless they were pursued and attacked early the following morning they would have everything over the river and be comparatively safe from immediate pursuit, with the buffalo trail via the Little Salmon open to them, thus escaping without punishment. While realizing that men and animals should have a night’s rest, I also understood that if I allowed these Indians to escape across the river with all their plunder, and in the face of the representations made to me, without any effort on my part to prevent it, I should not only be justly open to censure, but bring discredit upon the army. So I told them I would give a definite decision after reaching Grangeville.

Upon my arrival there I laid the matter before my officers and, after considering all the circumstances, it was decided that to make the attempt to overtake the Indians before they could effect a crossing of the Salmon River was not only the best, but the only thing to do. It was also suggested that the Indians would most likely begin crossing at once and I would thus strike them while divided. I informed the citizens of the decision, and that I would be ready to start as soon as the horses had been fed and the men had cooked their coffee. At the same time I requested them to provide a guide and bring as many volunteers as they could muster, which they estimated at twenty-five to thirty, but only eight came back.

About nine o’clock that night I started for White Bird crossing of Salmon River. We reached the summit of the dividing ridge between the prairie and the river at midnight and halted there waiting for daylight. At dawn I started again, following the road which I saw led down a narrow gorge, but upon commenting upon this, I was assured by the guide that it opened out into a comparatively smooth valley. This proved to be a mistake or misstatement as it was very rough and broken all the way. I detailed Lieutenant Theller and eight men from my troop as an advance-guard, with instructions that if he saw any Indians to deploy, halt, and send me word. I also directed the command to load.

About four miles, as nearly as I can judge, from the summit where we had halted lay a point where two high ridges ran diagonally across the low ground we were traversing. This was flanked on the left by two round knolls of considerable height, and on the right by a high ridge running parallel with our road. Between this last ridge, however, and the two referred to lay a long, deep valley of considerable width, and beyond the knolls on my left ran White Bird Creek, the banks of which were covered with thick brush. On the more distant of these ridges Lieutenant Theller halted, deployed his advanceguard and at the same time sent me word that “the Indians were in sight.”

I immediately formed my troop into line at a trot, but when I reached the advance position I saw the Indians coming out of the brush, and realized that to charge would only drive them back into the brush and under cover while my command would be in the open, exposed to their fire. I took in the situation at a glance; that the ridge I was on was the most defensible position in that vicinity. I accordingly dismounted my troop and deployed on the ridge, sending my horses into the valley between the two ridges before described. At the same time I directed the eight civilians to occupy the round knoll on my left and ordered Trimble “to take care of my right.”

Having made these dispositions, being under fire at the time, I told Theller to take command of the line and then proceeded to consider the situation. I found the citizens well posted on the knoll on my left which not only protected my line, but the led horses in the valley between the two ridges before described. I then started for the right of the line to observe the conditions there, and, if possible, borrow a trumpet, as I discovered in making the deployment that mine had been lost. The necessity for one in action needs no explanation. When about three-fourths of the way to Trimble’s position, I became aware of something wrong, and saw that the citizens had been driven off the knoll and were in full retreat and that the Indians were occupying their places, thus enabling them to enfilade my line and control the first ridge. The line on the left was already giving away under the galling fire.

Being too far away to charge and retake the hill, my only alternative was to fall back to the second ridge. Galloping down to the line and, having no trumpet, I directed the word to fall back to be passed along the line. Seeing the order in process of execution, I then went to Trimble for a trumpet. I found he was in the same plight as myself; namely, without a trumpet, and had only time to note that he occupied a high point on the right of the ridge and that some of his men were dismounted, when a commotion among my led horses showed that the left of my line had broken, and the men were in a mad scramble for their horses. I only had time to tell Trimble that if we could not hold this position, we must find one more easily defended, when I rushed to the left to head off those men who had gotten their horses, and endeavor to establish a new line.

The men on the left, seeing the citizens in full retreat and the Indians occupying their places and the right falling back in obedience to orders, were seized with a panic which was uncontrollable, and then the whole right of the line, seeing the mad rush for horses on the left, also gave way and the panic became general. I have never seen anything to equal it except when the Eighth Corps were jumped out of their beds by Gordon’s men, October 19, 1864, at Cedar Creek.

To stem the onrush was simply impossible. I did everything in human power to halt and reform my line, but no sooner would one squad halt and face about than the other, just placed in position, would be gone. The panic soon extended to H Troop which disintegrated and melted away. It was on this second or rear ridge that I made my most desperate efforts to reform my line, but in vain. From that time on there was no organized fighting, but the battle was confined to halting first one squad and then another, facing them about and holding the position until flanked out. In this way we retreated up the low ground to the right of the road.

When nearing one of the trails leading up the bluff on the side opposite the road, I saw to my rear a number of men occupying a point that looked as though it might be successfully defended, at least for a time, provided I could reach it before the men again retreated. My horse failed to respond to any further urging, and feeling that everything depended upon my reaching that point quickly, I jumped off and asked one of my men to carry me on his horse, which he did. When I dismounted, I called to Trimble, who was some way to the rear, to halt a squad of men near by and place them on a point indicated by me. This he did, at the same time telling me that one of the citizens told him that there was a better place to defend higher up. I then turned to a sergeant of H Troop, who had a little squad of men on another point, and told him to hold it until I could place some men on the trail to command it and our position. Having done this, I found that the other men were already going to the rear. Being dismounted, I could exercise no control over them.

I then, with the few men left, made my way up the bluff, keeping under cover as much as possible and avoiding the trail until near the summit, part of the men halting to fire while a portion kept on to repeat this maneuver in turn. The Indians were all the tune pressing us hard, but were a little more wary, as our ascending position gave us a little better command of the lower positions. As we came into the trail near the summit, I caught a loose horse which I rode the rest of the day.

When we reached the summit the Indians were already coming up the trail, and also making their way around on the ridge that I have heretofore mentioned as being on my extreme right, and running parallel with the road. I saw Trimble some distance away, too far to make myself heard, but motioned him toward the road which we went down, and up which I believed Parnell and Theller to be working their way, but evidently was misunderstood. I then turned to the right (late left) with the few men I had, and made my way to the head of the cañon just as Parnell emerged with about a dozen men. Our united squads made about twenty-eight.

We had only time to acknowledge each other’s presence when the Indians were upon us and we were obliged to continue our retreat, fighting and in the same disorder, our men being still too panicky to be depended upon, until we reached Johnson’s Ranch, two or three miles from the summit. Here was a rocky knoll that I thought might be defended, so I halted and dismounted the men. But discovering the Indians crawling down to kill our horses, I gave the order to mount, and as we had an open prairie to cross we were at last able to keep the Indians off. Parnell with the H Troop men deployed on the firing-line while I kept mine closed up and ready to reinforce him should it be necessary.

Once a large party of Indians charged us but, finding they could not stampede our small party that we now had well in hand, they gave up the pursuit. Soon we reached a fence around which the road ran. They also made an attempt to cut us off from the road by reaching the fence ahead of us. This, however, I observed in time to frustrate by charging them with my small squad. From here we continued on to Grangeville, where I waited for General Howard with reinforcements.

Parnell received a” Brevet” and a “Medal of Honor” for his most gallant conduct on this day, both of which he fully deserved.

Memorandum by Capt. E. S. Farrow (late United States Army), to Accompany Colonel Perry’s Account

With daylight, Perry’s command began the descent of the rugged canon following a horse-trail, by a long and tortuous descent, to the rolling country at the bottom of the canon.

A few individuals were seen stirring at the Indian camp, well down in the canon. Ollicut’s quick eye soon caught sight of Colonel Perry’s command and soon, with Joseph and White Bird, with the aid of an immense field-glass, a part of their careful preparation for war, every movement of the troops and those of the friendly scouts, Jonah and Reuben, watching on the distant and commanding hill nearer the Salmon River, were carefully noted.

Joseph then gave his orders for the first battle. The women, children, and plunder were prepared to be taken across the swift Salmon if necessary, while Mox-Mox would look after the herd and supply fresh horses if required. White Bird and his braves were to turn the troops when they got to a certain ridge. Joseph and a hundred warriors were near by, lying in wait behind the rocks. Every Indian was ready to mount, and quietly awaited the attack of the soldiers.

Lieutenant Theller and a detachment of eight men were in the lead, followed by Colonel Perry and his company and a small party of volunteer citizens, with Captain Trimble’s company about fifty yards farther to the rear, all proceeding in column of fours. As the column approached two small “Buttes,” the Indians appeared “in skirmish order,” in an irregular line, White Bird executing a flank movement to the left, while absolute resistance was made to any further advance of the troops. The air was full of noise and smoke – many of the horses became wild and unmanageable, while many Indians were pressing up to higher ground to the right of the troops.

In a few moments the battle was lost, and only by the magnificent coolness of Colonel Perry and the quick cooperation of his good officers was it possible to commence a retreat. Several futile attempts were made by the panic-stricken troops to hold high ground among the rocks, along the line of retreat; but the Indians were too quick. Horses were galloping without riders, men were falling while the Indians passed along faster and faster, gaining the trails up the flanks of White Bird Canon, which trails they knew well.

In many places, where the trail became steep and narrow, there were desperate struggles for life, as shown by the location of the bodies of the men who had fallen, one after another. Defeated, and losing their brave officer – Lieutenant Theller, the men made every effort to gain the top of the canon ridge. Here Perry and Parnell succeeded in rallying the remnant left, and beat a rapid retreat to Mount Idaho, closely pursued and fought by the Indians to within four miles.

More than one-third of the command, including Lieutenant Theller, was killed and left on the field. Joseph, Ollicut, and White Bird, with their chosen warriors, pushed forward in this pursuit to within sight of Grangeville, and then withdrew and slowly rode back to White Bird Canon to gather up the arms and ammunition and clothing of the destroyed command and to enjoy the first animating thrill of victory.

Note by Dr. Brady in justification of Colonel Perry

As is usually the case after a defeat, Colonel Perry was much censured by the press and general public for the disaster at White Bird Cafion. In this censure, unfortunately, some of his officers joined, at least by implication. At the close of the war Colonel Perry demanded a Court of Inquiry as to his conduct during the campaign, with particular reference to the disaster at White Bird Cafion and the skirmish at Cottonwood. In justice to Colonel Perry the opinion of the said court is herewith appended. This report was received with expressions of approval and satisfaction by both the department and division commanders, Generals Howard and McDowell, and effectually disposes of any charge reflecting in the least degree upon Colonel Perry. I am glad to include it here and thus do justice, even at this late day, to a brave officer.- C. T. B.

Opinion:

“That up to the time of the fight at White Bird Canon (except that no evidence appears that a suitable quantity of ammunition had been provided in case of an emergency), every precaution that good judgment dictated was taken by Captain Perry; that at White Bird Canon the disposition of the troops was judicious and proper, with the exception of leaving his left to be protected by some citizens,- possibly unavoidable. That soon after the fight began, this point was abandoned by the citizens in a panic extending to nearly all the troops, who became so disorganized and dispersed as to be unmanageable.

“That Captain Perry, after the panic took place, did all in his power to collect and organize the men for a defense, without success, owing partly to the troops not being well drilled in firing mounted; and the Court does not deem his conduct deserving of censure.

“In regard to the affair at Cottonwood, it does not appear probable that, had Captain Perry attacked under the circumstances, any great advantage would have been gained, while, by so doing, he would have jeopardized the safety of his supplies of provisions, and more especially, ammunition for the main column of the field. His conduct there appears to have been in accordance with the dictates of good judgment and prudence, particularly as the enemy was flushed with success, and a part of his command at least had but recently suffered from a severe disaster.

“As regards the affair at the Clearwater, he appears to have done all required of him, and all that, under the circumstances, could have been reasonably expected of him,-the Commanding General being present.

“It further appears to the Court, from the written statements of some of the officers of the First Cavalry, submitted to the Court, a coloring by insinuations has been given, prejudicial to the conduct of Captain Perry, unwarranted by the evidence.”

The Reviewing Officer approves the proceedings, findings, and opinion of the Court, excepting this shade of difference: that it does not appear to him, from the evidence, that Captain Perry is at all answerable for the limited quantity of ammunition on hand at the engagement of White Bird Canon; neither is it clear that the citizens (volunteers) were misplaced upon his left. Their subsequent conduct could not have been foreseen.

By Brig.-Gen. David Perry, United States Army (Retired)



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 15 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-battle-of-white-bird-canon.htm - Last updated on Oct 24th, 2013


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