Gibbon Reinforced by Citizen Volunteers

General Gibbon moved as rapidly as his means of transportation would permit, cover ing thirty to thirty-five miles per day. In his march through the valley he was joined by thirty-six citizens who did not sympathize with the kind treatment their neighbors had shown the fugitives, but who believed that they (the Indians) should be punished for their crimes, and who were anxious to aid the troops in administering the punishment. The pursuing party gathered all possible information en route as to the rate of speed at which the Indians were traveling, their numbers, etc., and from the citizens and the camp sites passed, learned that there were still over 400 of the warriors, and about 150 squaws and children in the band; that the bucks were all armed with modern breech-loading rifles, many of which were repeaters; that they were amply supplied with ammunition, and had with them over 2,000 head of good horses. Gibbon ascertained that he was covering two of their daily marches with one of his, and the question of overtaking them, became, therefore, merely one of time.

Near the head of the valley he fortunately secured the services of Joe Blodgett, an old-timer in this region, as guide and scout, who proved a valuable acquisition to his forces. The General had been previously assured that it would be impossible to take his wagons over the high divide between the Bitter Root and Big Hole Rivers, and had decided to leave them at the foot of the mountains and proceed with such supplies as he could take on pack mules; but Blodgett assured him that it would be possible to cross the range with lightly-loaded wagons, as he had recently taken such over himself. This proved valuable information, for the wagons and the supplies they contained were subsequently greatly needed by the troops.

When, however, the command reached the foot of the mountains and learned that the Indians had already crossed, a number of the citizens became discouraged and hesitated about going farther. Their affairs at home needed their attention. They were already out of provisions, and as it now seemed doubtful as to when or where the fugitives would be overtaken, they thought it best that they should return home. But the General knew that his handful of troops, veterans and brave men though they were, were scarcely equal to the 400 trained warriors in front of them, and appreciating the importance of keeping these hardy frontiersmen with him, he be sought them to keep on a few days longer.

He assured them that he was in earnest, and should strike the Indians a terrible blow as soon as he could overtake them. He told the volunteers that they should have an honorable place in the fight, if one occurred; that they might have all the horses that could be captured, save enough to mount his command, and that meantime his men would divide their last ration with their citizen comrades. This announcement created great enthusiasm among soldiers and volunteers alike, and the latter at once decided to follow their gallant leader until the Indians should be overtaken, no matter where or when that might be.

Lieutenant Bradley, with eight men of the Second Cavalry, and all of the mounted volunteers, was now ordered to push on, strike the Indian camp before daylight the next morning, if possible, stampede the stock and run it off. If this could be done, and the Indians set on foot, then their overwhelming defeat would be certain. Lieut. J. W. Jacobs asked and obtained permission to go with Bradley and share in this hazardous under taking. This detachment, amounting, all told, to sixty men, made a night march across the mountains, while the main command camped at the foot of the divide on the night of the 7th, and at 5 o’clock the next morn ing, resumed the march. The road up the mountain, a steep and difficult one at best, was seriously obstructed at this time by large quantities of down timber that had to be cut out or passed around, so that the ascent was very slow and trying to men and beasts. The wagons were but lightly loaded, and by doubling teams and using all the men at drag ropes, the command succeeded in reach ing the summit, a distance of three miles, in six hours, and by the performance of such labor and hardship as only those can realize who have campaigned in a mountainous country.

From the summit the road leads down a gentle incline for a mile, when it reaches the head of Trail Creek, and follows down that stream a distance of ten miles into the Big Hole basin. It crosses the creek probably fifty times, and the banks being abrupt, and the road obstructed in many places by down timber, the progress of the command was extremely slow and tedious.

While ascending the mountain on the morn ing of the 8th, General Gibbon received a courier from Lieutenant Bradley, with a dispatch stating that, owing to the difficult nature of the trail and the distance to the Indian camp, he had been unable to reach it before daylight, and that the Indians had broken camp and moved on. Later in the clay, however, another courier brought news that they had again gone into camp, after making but a Short march, at the mouth of Trail Creek, and that, not deeming it safe to attack in daylight, Bradley had concealed his command in the hills, and was now awaiting the arrival of the infantry.

Upon receipt of this information, Gibbon took his men from the wagons (leaving twenty men to guard the train), gave each man ninety rounds of ammunition and one day’s rations, and pushed on on foot, having ordered that the wagons should come up as fast as possible. The gallant General with his faithful little band moved quietly but rapidly forward, but owing to the bad condition of the trail, it was nearly sundown when they reached Bradley’ s camp. Bradley informed his chief that he believed the Indians intended to remain in their camp several days, for he had secretly observed their movements from the top of a neighbor ing hill, and found that the squaws were engaged in cutting and peeling lodge-poles to take with them for use on the treeless plains of the buffalo country.

On arriving at Bradley’ s camp, the men filed into the gulch, ate a scanty supper of hard tack and raw pork, and, without camp-fires or blankets, laid down to rest. Having conferred with Lieutenant Bradley and his scouts as to the best disposition of the pro posed attack, General Gibbon ordered his adjutant to call him at 10 o’clock at night, and lying down under the spreading branches of a pine tree, slept as peacefully as a child.

He knew there was bloody work at hand for him and his veterans; that the rising sun would see them contending against a savage foe that outnumbered his own command more than three to one; that ere nightfall many of his noble men, and perchance he himself, would sleep their long sleep; yet he had a solemn duty to perform. It was a sad one; an awful one, but it was nevertheless a duty. He and his men were there to fight their country’s battle. They were to avenge the blood of innocent men and women, whom these savages had wantonly murdered but a few days before in a neighboring Territory

He had been ordered to strike and to punish them. He would strike, and the blow would be a telling one. Yet, in the face of these facts facts that would chill the blood of any man unused to wars and scenes of carnage this old warrior, this veteran of twenty bloody fields at the South, whereon he had behaved so gallantly as to receive merited promotion and congratulatory recognition from his superiors, was as cool, as self-collected, and could lie down and sleep as peacefully as though no enemy were within a thousand miles of him.

“Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.”

This old hero was to compete with a foe greatly his superior in point of numbers; a foe schooled in craftiness; a foe known and dreaded by every tribe of Indians in the Northwest; a foe who had stricken terror to the hearts of settlers and frontiersmen far and near ; who had often camped on the ground he now occupied and knew every foot of it, while to the troops it was a veritle terra incognito.

Yet General Gibbon knew the men on whom he relied for victory. He knew they would stand by him, no matter what odds they might have to contend with. Thirteen of his seventeen officers were veterans of the war of the Rebellion, as were nearly all the citizen volunteers. The other four officers, and nearly all the enlisted men had seen years of hard service on the frontier, and had acquitted themselves nobly in many an Indian campaign. What marvel then that a man of such experience, and with such a record, in command of such men, and on such a mission, should feel an assurance of success that would bring sweet sleep to tired eyelids on the eve of battle?

Lieutenants Bradley and Jacobs did a piece of reconnoitering on this day for which they deserve great credit. Having failed to reach the Indian camp during the previous night, when it would have been safe to undertake to capture or stampede the pony herd; and knowing it would be rash to attempt it in daylight, it then became important to learn the exact situation of the village, in order that the commanding General might be given the most minute information concerning it when he came up.

Having secreted his command in the woods, therefore, Bradley sent out scouts in different directions with instructions to proceed cautiously and stealthily about the valley and ascertain, if practicable, the actual where abouts of the Indians.

In about two hours these men returned and reported numerous fresh signs of Indians in the immediate vicinity, while one of them, Corporal Drummond, he said had, standing in the timber some distance to the east, heard voices and other sounds that evidently came from a busy Indian camp near by, but, fear ing he might give an alarm, he had not gone near enough to the camp to see it.

Lieutenant Jacobs asked Bradley to let him take Drummond, return to the spot and verify such important information. Bradley replied that they would both go, and, leaving Sergeant Wilson in charge of the camp, both officers started with Prummond on foot.

They proceeded with the greatest caution a distance of about a mile and a half, when the Corporal whispered to Lieutenant Bradley that they were near the place where he had heard the voices. They were surrounded by a thick growth of small pine trees, through which it was impossible to see to any distance. Moving slowly forward, they soon heard the sound of axes, and inferred that the squaws were cutting lodge-poles in the very body of woods they were then in.

Creeping along with bated breath; on the alert for every sound or sign; fearful lest they should make known their presence to the Indians, bring on a skirmish, and thus avert the purpose of the General, they scarcely dared breathe.

They finally caught the sound of voices and stopped. Here the officers held a whispered consultation which resulted in their crawling ahead to a larger tree that stood about eighty paces in front of them. Still they could see nothing of the camp, although the sounds came plainer, and all were impressed with the knowledge that they were treading on the very crest of a volcano, as it were. Jacobs suggested that they climb the tree, arguing that as it was taller than those about it, they might be able to see something interesting from its top.

To this Bradley readily assented, and leaving their rifles with the Corporal and cautioning him to keep a sharp lookout for any possible intruders, both officers climbed cautiously and stealthily into the topmost branches of the pine tree. When they had gained this position, they halted for a moment in a crouching posture, and then, cautiously straightening themselves up, found that they were well above the surrounding foliage, and were thrilled at seeing hundreds of Indian horses quietly grazing in a prairie almost beneath them, for the tree stood on top of a high hill. Several herders sat on their ponies in and about the herd, while others lounged lazily on the ground under the shade of neighboring trees. A few hundred yards beyond, they saw the Indian camp where hundreds of warriors were rest ing and chatting, while squaws were pitching tents, making beds, carrying in poles, and cooking the noonday meal.

A brief look was all these brave officers dared risk, for they feared detection, and hastily lowering themselves to the ground, they lost no time in regaining their own camp.

A brief dispatch was sent off to the General, the receipt of which by him has already been referred to, advising him of their discovery, and the remainder of the day was spent in impatient awaiting his arrival.

Shields, G. O. "Coquina" The Battle of the Big Hole. A History of General Gibbon's Engagement with Nez Perce Indians in the Big Hole Valley, Montana, August 1877. Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, Publishers, 1889.

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