In the early morning hours of 9 August 1877, soldiers from the 7th Infantry Regiment attacked the Nez Perce camp located on the banks of the Big Hole River. The Nez Perce were not native to southwestern Montana. Months earlier, several bands of the Nez Perce joined forces to counter the US government’s move to place these bands on a reservation in Idaho. Dubbed “non-treaty Indians,” these Nez Perce engaged US army troops in the Battle of White Bird Canyon, sparking a mass exodus toward Canada. For the next several weeks, the Nez Perce and US forces clashed in a series of small engagements through Idaho and western Montana.
After defeating the small US garrison at Fort Fizzle (near Missoula, Montana), the Nez Perce marched south into the Big Hole Basin. The Nez Perce reached out to locals in the region, promising to avoid violence if they could pass through peacefully. Replenishing their supplies, the Nez Perce established a camp on the north fork of the Big Hole River. Unbeknownst to the tribal leader’s soldiers under the command of Gen. John Gibbon were marching on their camp. Supported by local volunteers, Gibbon and his force reached the area on 8 August 1877. Gibbon’s orders were to defeat the tribe and take no prisoners.
Early the next morning, the soldiers began to position themselves for the attack. Launching a surprise attack across the shallow Big Hole River, the soldiers rushed the camp, killing and maiming dozens of sleeping Nez Perce. The Nez Perce warriors responded quickly to the attack, forcing Gibbon to move his troops back across the river. Taking position on a forested knoll, the soldiers dug rifle pits to avoid accurate rifle fire. As the soldiers began to establish defensive positions, Gibbon’s mountain howitzer arrived on a ridge west of the camp. The artillerymen were only able to fire three rounds on the camp before being overrun by warriors who stormed the steep ridge.
The battle would last throughout the day, with the soldiers remaining pinned down. As nightfall approached, Gibbon’s troops were running low on ammunition. They were also without food and water, resulting in some of the local volunteers deserting the battlefield that night. On 10 August, the bulk of the Nez Perce camp withdrew from the battlefield, leaving a small group of warriors behind to keep the soldiers pinned down. The remaining warriors would escape later that night. The battle proved costly for both sides. The surprise attack killed around 90 Nez Perce (mostly women and children). Gibbon’s force suffered 29 dead (23 soldiers and six volunteers) and 40 wounded. The Nez Perce would travel south toward Yellowstone National Park, where they would clash again with US forces ten days later in the Battle of Camas Creek. The Nez Perce exodus would end on 5 October 1877 near the Bear Paw Mountains, 40 miles from the Canadian border.