Stubborn Resistance of the Indians in the Pine Woods

As soon as the command abandoned the camp, the Indians reoccupied it, and under the fire of the sharpshooters, hauled down several of their teepees, hastily bundled together the greater portion of their plunder, packed a number of horses with it, and, mounting their riding ponies, the squaws and children beat a hasty retreat down the valley, driving the herd of loose horses with them. They had hot work breaking camp, and several of them and their horses were killed while thus engaged. Two of Joseph’s wives and a daughter of Looking Glass were among the slain, who were believed to have been killed at this time.

When the command retired into the timber, the Indians followed and surrounded them, taking cover along the river banks below, and behind rocks and trees on the hill-sides above. The men dug rifle pits with their trowel bayonets and piled up rocks to protect themselves as best they could, and a sharp shooting fight was kept up from this position all day. At times, the Indians’ fire was close and destructive, and here Lieutenant English received a mortal wound. Captain Williams was struck a second time, and a number of men killed and wounded.

Two large pine trees stand on the open hillside some 400 yards from the mouth of the gulch. Behind one of these an Indian took cover early in the morning and staid there until late in the afternoon. He proved to be an excellent long-range shot, and harassed the troops sorely by his fire until a soldier who had crawled up the gulch some distance above the main body, and who was equally expert in the use of his rifle, got a cross-fire on him and finally drove him out. He went down the hill on a run and took refuge in the willows, but with one arm dangling at his side in a way that left no doubt in the minds of those who saw him that it was broken.

A large number of Indians crawled up a close to the troops as they dared, and the voices of the leaders could be heard urging their companions to push on. A half -breed in the camp, familiar with the Nez Percé tongue, heard White Bird encouraging his men and urging them to charge, assuring them that the white soldiers’ ammunition was nearly gone. But he was unable to raise their courage to the desired point, and no assault was made. The troops held their ground nobly, wasting no ammunition, and yet returning the fire of the savages with coolness, accuracy, and regularity; and from the number of dead Indians and pools of blood found on the hill-side the next day, learned that their work here had not been in vain.

During the afternoon of the 8th the wagon train and howitzer had been brought down to within five miles of the Indian camp, parked, and fortified by Hugh Kirkendall, the citizen wagon master in charge, aided by the few men who had been left with him as train guard.

An amusing incident occurred that night, and yet one that came near costing Kirkendall his life. Among the men left with the train was William Woodcock, Lieutenant Jacobs’ servant. He was armed with a double-barreled shotgun and ordered to take his turn on guard.

During the still hours of the night the wagon master was making the “rounds” to see if the men were on the alert. As he approached William’s post the latter called out to him to “halt”; and, without wait ing to learn whether his challenge had been heeded, blazed away at the intruder, whom he took to be a prowling redskin. The charge of buckshot tore up the ground and cut down the brush about the wagon master, but fortunately none of them hit him. William showed himself to be a vigilant sentry, but a poor shot, and it is supposed that he will never hear the last of ” Who goes there? bang! ” while there is a survivor of the expedition.

At daylight on the morning of the 9th three non-commissioned officers and men started to the front with the howitzer under the direction of Joe Blodgett, the scout. They succeeded in getting it up to within half a mile of the scene of action a little after sunrise. They took it across Trail Greek and up on the bluff, where they were in the act of putting it in position to open fire, when a body of about thirty mounted Indians saw it, and ascertaining that only a few men were with it charged with the intention of capturing it. Two of the soldiers who were with the piece became panic-stricken and fled when they saw the Indians coming, and did not stop until they reached the settlement a hundred miles away, where they spread the news that Gibbon’s whole command had been captured and massacred. So far as is known, this is the only instance in which cowardice was shown by any man in the command.

The remaining four men stood bravely by the gun, however, loaded and fired it twice at the assaulting party, and then, as the Indians closed around it, used their rifles on them. When they saw that they could not successfully defend the piece, they threw it off the trunnion and retreated. Corporal Sayles was killed and Sergeants Daily and Fredericks wounded at their posts. The horses that were hauling the piece were both shot down. Private Bennett, the driver, was caught under one of them in its fall, and pretended to be dead until the Indians with drew, when he took out his knife, cut the harness, and then prodding the animal, which was still alive, made it move sufficiently to release him, and he retreated and reached the wagon-train, where Sergeants Daily and Fredericks also arrived later in the day.

The Indians, finding the howitzer useless to themselves, took the wheels off the trunnion, hid them in the brush, and taking a pack-mule that had been brought up with the howitzer and which was loaded with 2,000 rifle cartridges, returned to their camp.

The loss of the cannon was a serious blow to the command, for, could it have been gotten into position and held, it could have done excellent service in shelling the Indians out of their strongholds, whence they so annoyed the troops, The piece could not consistently have been more strongly guarded, however, than it was, for every available man was needed in the assault on the camp. The loss of the 2,000 rounds of rifle cartridges also weakened the command seriously, for it compelled the men to reserve their fire all day, in order to make the supply taken into the action with them hold out. Had this extra supply reached them, they could have killed many more Indians during the day than they did.

Meantime the fight continued to rage at the mouth of the gulch, with varying fortunes and misfortunes on either side. Late in the afternoon a smoke was seen rising from beyond the brow of the hill below Gibbon’s position, and the cry went forth that the Indians Lad fired the grass. A wind was blowing the fire directly toward the beleaguered band, and all were greatly alarmed. The General had feared that the Indians would resort to this measure, for he knew it to be a part of tire Nez Percé’ war tactics, and he believed that they intended to follow up the fire and assault his men while blinded by the smoke. Yet he was not dismayed. He urged his men to stand firm in the face of this new danger.

“If the worst comes, my men,” said he, “if this fire reaches us, we will charge through it, meet the redskins in the open ground, and send them to a hotter place than they have prepared for us.” The fire burned fiercely until within a few yards of the entrenchments, and the men were blinded and nearly suffocated by the smoke. But again the fortunes of war were with the beleaguered band, for just before the fire reached them the wind shifted squarely about, came down off the hills from the west, and the fire, blown back upon its own blackened embers, faltered, flickered, and died out. At this lucky turn in their fortunes the soldiers cheered wildly, and the Indians cursed savagely.

The men had left the wagons in the fore noon of the previous day with one day’s rations, but in the charge across the river many of their haversacks had been filled with water, and the scant supply of food that remained in them destroyed. Others, more fortunate, had divided their few remain ing crackers with their comrades who were thus deprived, so that all were now without provisions and suffering from hunger. The gulch in which they had taken cover was dry and rocky, and as the August sun poured his scorching rays upon the men they suffered for water. True, the river flowed within a few hundred yards of them, but the man who attempted to reach it did so at the risk of his life, and there were no more lives to spare. Just until nightfall did the commanding officer deem it prudent to send out a fatigue party for water. Then three men volunteered to go, and under cover of dark ness, and of a firing party, they made the trip safely, filling and bringing in as many canteens as they could carry.

The men cut up Lieutenant Woodruff’s horse (which the Indians had conveniently killed within the lines), and as they dared not make camp-fires, devoured full rations of him raw. The night was cold, and again the men suffered greatly for bedding. The Indians kept firing into the woods occasion ally, even after dark, so that the soldiers were unable to rest. Once or twice they charged up almost to Gibbon’s lines and delivered volleys on the men, but were speedily repulsed in each case by a fusilade from the entrenchments.

General Gibbon had heard nothing from his wagon-train since leaving it, and the fact that mounted parties of Indians were frequently seen passing in his rear made it extremely dangerous to attempt to pass to or from it. Indeed, he feared the train had been captured, for it was but lightly guarded, and during the night he started a runner to Deer Lodge for medical assistance and supplies. This man, W. H. Edwards by name, succeeded in making his way out through the Indian lines under cover of darkness, and walked or ran to Frenche’s Gulch, a distance of nearly sixty miles, where he got a horse, and made the remaining forty miles during the following night, arriving at Deer Lodge on the morning of August 11.

On the morning of the 10th, a courier arrived from General Howard, informing Gibbon that he (Howard) was hurrying to his assistance with twenty cavalrymen and thirty Warm Spring Indians. On being questioned as to the supply-train, this courier reported that he had seen nothing of it, which statement greatly increased the fear of the men that it had been captured and destroyed. Later in the day, however, a messenger arrived from the train, bringing the cheering news that it was safe. The Indians had menaced it all day, but the guard in charge of it had fortified their position and fired upon the savages when ever they came in sight with such telling effect that the latter had made no deter mined attack. Howard’s messenger had passed the train in the night without seeing it.

Early on the morning of the 10th, Sergeant Mildon H. Wilson, of Company K, with six men, was sent back to bring up the train, and later in the day, Captain Browning and Lieutenant Woodbridge, with twenty men, all of whom had volunteered for the service, were sent to take charge of it. They met the train on the way, in charge of Sergeant Wilson, and with it succeeded in reaching the command just at sundown, bringing the blankets and provisions so much needed by the men.

This detachment performed a hazardous and meritorious piece of work in thus rescuing and bringing up the train, for large parties of Indians were still scouting through the woods and hills watching for opportunities to cut off any small body of troops who might be found away from the main command and with whom they might success fully contend.

In the face of this danger, Browning and Woodbridge, with their few supporters, marched nearly ten miles through the swampy, brush-lined ravine, and succeeded in moving the train over roads that were well nigh impassable under the most favorable circumstances. The wagons had to be liter ally carried over some of the worst places, the mules having all they could do to get through without pulling a pound.

As soon as the train had been safely delivered to the command, General Gibbon asked for a volunteer messenger to go to Deer Lodge with additional dispatches, fearing that Edwards might have been killed or captured en route, and Sergeant Wilson, the hero of so many brave deeds, promptly volunteered for this perilous service. He started at once, rode all night, and reached his destination only a few hours behind Edwards.

The last party of Indians withdrew about 11 o’clock on the night of the 10th, giving the soldiers a parting shower of bullets, but it was not known until daylight on the morn ing of the 11th that all had really gone.

From the time the last shots were fired, as stated, all was quiet, and the men got a few hours of much-needed rest, such as it was, for they had slept but two hours in the past forty-eight. The fight was over; the enemy was gone. The sun that rose on the morning of the 11th, shone brightly over as beautiful a valley as the eye of man ever beheld, and the blackening corpses that lay strewn upon the field were the only remaining evidences of the bloody tragedy that had so lately been enacted there.

Acts of personal heroism in the fight were numerous, and it would be a pleasure to record them all, but at this late date it is impossible to obtain full particulars of this nature. Among those worthy of special mention, however, is this same Sergeant Wilson, of Company K, who, during the fight among the lodges, killed an Indian who was in the act of aiming at Lieutenant Jacobs, at very short range, and but for the quickness of Wilson’s movements and the accuracy of his aim, Jacobs would undoubtedly have been killed. Wilson distinguished himself several times during the day, and is known to have killed several Indians. Indeed, it is said that his rifle seldom cracked but an Indian was seen to fall. He was subsequently promoted to regimental quarter master sergeant, for gallant and meritorious conduct on that day.

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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