On the misty, rain-soaked morning of 17 June 1877, 106 troopers of Troops F and G, 1st US Cavalry, and 11 civilian volunteers, cautiously descended White Bird Canyon. Leading the column was Capt. David Perry, who had orders to bring the “non-treaty” bands of Nez Perce to the reservation at Lapwai. They were expected; after the massacre of white settlers earlier that month, three of the five non-treaty Nez Perce bands had fled to the encampment of Chief White Bird. Alerted to the presence of the approaching soldiers, a party of six mounted warriors approached under a white flag of truce. Inexplicably, a trigger-happy civilian volunteer fired two shots that scattered the truce party. Both sides commenced shooting.
In less than an hour, the firefight was over. Thirty-two soldiers were killed, and four were wounded, a 30 percent casualty rate. The Nez Perce suffered several wounded but none seriously. Some 60 to 70 poorly armed warriors had outflanked and rolled up Perry’s mostly inexperienced and untrained regulars. For the Nez Perce, the victory at White Bird yielded valuable weapons and ammunition.
The scene was set for a bitter fourmonth struggle that became the most territorially-extended armed conflict fought between the US Army and Native Americans. Several hundred warriors, armed with mostly outdated weapons, would outfight and outfox an American force that eventually grew to 2,000 troops in one of the largest deployments of the US Army during the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the army would vanquish the Nez Perce, but only after an incredible 1,500-mile trek from the panhandle of Idaho to the buffalo plains of Montana.