The Battle of the Clearwater

On quitting camp at Slate Creek, Oregon, I marched my troop, consisting of thirty enlisted men and three officers, to a crossing some miles below the settlement on Salmon River and put them across – horses swimming, men and packs by canoe. This movement was in obedience to an order from General Howard to join his immediate command in pursuit of the Indians via the Salmon River hills.

The hostiles had been confronting the General’s command at the mouth of the White Bird Creek, they, the hostiles, being on the farther side of the river, and the command under General Howard being camped on our battle-field of White Bird Creek. After the General had collected boats, some of which I sent him from Slate Creek, and was prepared for a forward movement, the Indians began a retreat. The troops followed about the third day after the Indians had disappeared from the vicinity of the river. On the first day’s march I joined the General’s command, and we all proceeded up and over the high bluffs. After a toilsome march of about ten miles the heights were reached and camp was made.

The infantry did not arrive until after dark and the pack-train not until midnight, some animals being lost en route.

That night a terrific rain-storm fell upon us. As there were no tents except for the staff all were drenched at daylight. I was ordered to make a reconnaissance, being the only mounted force with the command. My orders were to ascertain which way the enemy’s trail led, though that was evident from our camp as it was very broad and resembled the trace of a vast moving population. In fact, their movements showed quite a leisurely march or retreat. Their camps were made at short intervals and no sign of alarm or hurry was apparent.

The troops took up the pursuit on the second day after, and made camp in the highlands after a march of about twenty miles. The next day’s march brought us to the bluff overlooking the Salmon River again. As the river described a bend hereabouts, the Indians and the troops traversing a chord of the semicircle, it was soon discovered that the former had again crossed the stream, and though their skill and appliances made that quite easy for them, our utter want of the same rendered it impossible for us to follow, so here we were balked. An effort was made to swim some mounted men over, but without success, as the stream was deep and rapid and nearly the whole command inexperienced in such transit. A raft was constructed, but after being loaded and manned, went over the rapids and was lost. Fortunately, no one was lost with it.

Well, after one night’s sojourn by the river side, it was determined to retrace our way and the command started in retrograde. On reaching the head of the canon we were met by a messenger escorted by two friendly Nez Percé Indians. Here the disagreeable tidings were conveyed to the General that the hostiles had crossed Camas Prairie in our rear, or between us and our base, i.e., Fort Lapwai, and after defeating a force of two troops of cavalry at Cottonwood House were there devastating the ranches and threatening the settlements. They had also met and defeated a small party of citizen volunteers, captured quite a herd of horses, and, in fact, had the whole country terrorized.

After making one more camp the command was put in march for our original crossing of the river, and arriving there in the afternoon were ferried over during the next day. Then we marched up through White Bird Canon over our first battle-field and then on to Grangeville, near Mount Idaho. It was rather a sad sight to some of us to see the incomplete manner in which our dead had been buried, although I suppose that the heavy rains had washed the earth from the newly-made graves. Some bodies were quite exposed. However, in due course of time’all were disinterred and decently buried in the cemetery at Walla Walla, where a handsome monument was erected over them by their comrades of the regiment. The fund for this memorial, I am pleased to say, was originated and secured principally by the efforts of an enlisted man, my own First Sergeant, Michael McCarthy, who witnessed a number of the victims perish arid who came near sharing their fate.

The General reached Grangeville at dark escorted by my troops and one company of infantry. The next morning a delegation of citizens called upon me and related all the occurrences happening in or about the prairie, at the same time asking for guards, protection, etc. Some urgent messengers also arrived from the Clearwater River, who told of the stress of a party of volunteers surrounded by the hostiles, whereupon preparations were made for a march in that direction. Meanwhile, three troops of cavalry came up, Perry’s, Whipple’s, and Winter’s. This command had been posted at Cottonwood House, distant about twenty-five miles, and were there besieged by the Indians while the latter were crossing the prairie with their immense herds. So on the morrow we set out for the position of the hostiles on the Clearwater, not waiting for the infantry command under Colonel Miller, which had been delayed in crossing the Salmon River.

On arriving within a few miles of the hostile camp, a halt was called and camp made, as it was deemed risky to attack the Indians without the infantry and Gatling guns. Here we learned that the volunteers, forty in number, who were surrounded, had abandoned their horses to the Indians and retreated on foot at dark.

The following day everything was prepared for a forward movement, the infantry and Gatling guns having joined the cavalry. Of course, our advance was well known to the Indians; it could not be otherwise. However, contrary to the custom of some hostiles, these, the Nez Percés, showed no disposition to flee, and our deliberate movements only gave them opportunity for greater defense, although I saw no evidence that even this advantage was improved by them. No doubt a peculiar state of feeling took possession of Joseph and his brother. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that he did not expect a serious effort would be made to drive them from his country, or even to coerce him in extremis, for the attack on and the dispersion of Looking Glass’s band, which afterward joined his, should have been accepted as war without conditions on our part.

The command moved out on this, our last march, before engaging the hostiles in the following order, namely: First, the cavalry, four troops, about one hundred and eighty men commanded by Brev.-Col. David Perry; being F Troop, Perry; L Troop, Whipple; H Troop, Trimble; E Troop, Winters, with Lieutenants Parnell, Shelton, Forse, and Knox attached. This command was armed with Springfield carbines and Colt’s revolvers. After the cavalry marched the infantry, commanded by Capt. Evan Miles, four companies strong; namely: Burton’s, Pollock’s, Joslyn’s, and Miles’, with Lieutenants Wood, Eltonhead, Duncan, Bailey, and Farrow, about two hundred strong. After the infantry marched the artillery, acting as infantry, commanded by Brev.Col. Marcus Miller, Fourth Artillery, four companies strong; Miller’s, Bancroft’s, Throckmorton’s, and Rodney’s, about two hundred men. Two Gatling guns drawn by horses followed with suitable cannoneers.

H Troop, First Cavalry, led the advance with six troopers in the extreme front. All were prepared for immediate contact with the enemy.

To proceed: the command had marched but about four miles when my advance reported the presence of two Indian herders driving stock over the bluffs down the Clearwater River. These men were plainly seen by me and, of course, immediately reported to the commanding officer. Quickly a number of men, or officers, left the main command, which was marching in column, and rode to the edge of the bluff, shortly after reporting that the Indians in the small valley below were in active movement. Their camp was clearly visible with lodges standing, so the Indians were now moving up the bluff to their defenses.

With the advance, and without any further orders or change of orders, I kept moving forward. The balance of the command moved by the flank to the bluff and presently became engaged with the enemy, but they were so hotly assailed by the Indians that they were forced back upon more easily defensible ground. Now, as I quietly proceeded, though with flankers thrown out, I became considerably separated from the main command, and meeting no opposition advanced up to the edge of the bluffs, which were then across my front as I approached obliquely from my original direction. I then halted and dismounted my troop, and seeing Indians crossing the river above me, at once divined their object, which was to get in our rear. However, being now out of employment, as soon as I heard the firing in the rear and saw the Indians crossing us, I sent my second subaltern, Knox, to report the condition of affairs and ask for orders.

In a few moments the lieutenant returned with orders from Colonel Mason, chief-of-staff, to withdraw my command to the vicinity of the main force. As I was doing this I encountered the whole pack-train, under the escort of Captain Rodney’s company, halted on an open mesa, or plain. Rodney informed me that he had no orders and considered his company too small to defend the train, if attacked. I replied that if he wished to move the train back to the vicinity of the main command, I would deploy my troop on foot in his rear and thus afford support, as I suspected that the Indians would soon be all around us in accordance with their usual practice.

Upon our moving back the train was so attacked, but the hostiles were driven off with a loss of two men and two pack animals on our side. A small detached train of about six or seven animals loaded with the ammunition was also saved. All were moved to the high ground in the rear of the location where the principal fighting was going on, and Rodney’s and my company forming a line m the rear, the whole position was thus defended.

The other troops of cavalry were, or had been, dismounted, the horses assembled on the plateau on which the train was halted, and the men became engaged beside the infantry in what was now a defensive fight. Assaults were made on the Indian position which was established in the woods on the edge of the bluff, but each one was repulsed by the hostiles, who finally only engaged the troops at long range, although there was some fierce fighting at times and a dozen or more men were killed with a proportion of wounded.

I cannot relate exactly what went on in front of the main command as I had our line to guard, though our firing was slight in comparison. Of course, there was the usual excitement of the battle-field, and many could, no doubt, describe things very graphically. Quite a number of the officers present were experiencing their first taste of real war, and very few of the men had been engaged with an enemy prior to this time. However, there were also quite a number who could contemplate the affair coolly and could not notice anything extraordinary either in the resistance of the Indians, the determination of the defense, or the strategy enacted.

The Nez Percés had on one or two occasions before this shown a very warlike spirit, a considerable generalship and undoubted bravery. The present position to which the troops fell back and on which they maintained themselves was in some respects good, as the ground was higher and sufficiently undulating to make temporary earthworks easy of erection. Furthermore, as the whole line was clear of the timber, any hostile seen emerging therefrom could easily be stopped. But the enemy had the advantage of the river, it being at their back though about a mile below by the trail. The lines were separated about eight hundred yards and extended about half the circle inclosed, though a defense was maintained around the whole. Yet the hostiles, after the assault on the pack-train, did not attempt anything except on the line next the timber where the first fighting took place.

But we were unfortunate in having no water until a small spring was discovered by one of my men, Private Fowler, who gallantly went forward under considerable fire and filled several canteens which were sorely needed by the wounded. So I may say, without disrespect to the commanding general, that the position taken up was without much regard seemingly to the necessities of a command curtailed in limits. The cavalry horses and pack animals to the number of about three hundred were collected and held in the center of the circumference, and suffered much from want of water. For thirty hours or more they were thus confined.

Well, the situation at dark was this: The troops were in the circle on the defensive, the Indians in similar manner, though upon a line or nearly so at the edge of the bluff and in the timber. A few were killed and wounded on both sides. I should think the area absolutely commanded by the hostiles was about twenty miles in every direction; that is, it would be unsafe for any one to venture out of our lines or immediate vicinity.

When night fell there was almost complete cessation of shooting, and the Indians could be distinctly heard in various forms of expression, sometimes in earnest talk, sometimes in harangue; the chief exhorting the hardy to greater bravery on the morrow and anon reproving the delinquent. Now and then the female voice could be detected in a plaintive wail of mourning, some-times in low and tremulous unison, then breaking into piercing cry. Those of us accustomed to Indians in all situations and to our own condition in like circumstances, could readily discern the different phases of their emotional expressions. The occasion was quite serious indeed. The clear sky, the stillness of the night, added to a feeling of weariness on our part, made the distant sounds strike the ear with an intensely mournful cadence.

At daylight both sides seemed alert and long shots were given and taken. About sunrise several of the hostiles essayed to discover if any reinforcements were on the way for us. They would shoot out from the timber and at top speed gain the trail. This fact required exposure, as each attempt was made a target for the long range rifle of our infantry. I saw one horse shot, but it was astonishing to see the swiftness of their ponies and the savage maneuvers performed by those expert horsemen.

I could not tell what designs were intended by our commander. The morning seemed to be taken up in strengthening our defenses, cooking, and the various duties of camp so far as these could be carried on in our situation. About the beginning of the afternoon a dust was descried in the direction whence we came, or toward the settlements. In due time a herd, or train, perhaps a column of troops, was made out in the distance. All eyes were strained and many memories recalled no doubt the traditional morning watch of “Sister Anne” in Bluebeard’s tower, though where additional troops were to come from in that time I, for one, could not guess. However, a well-defined organization was soon espied. It was evidently relief of some kind. Colonel ” Miller’s command was ordered out to meet it. These troops, four companies, marched out with very little molestation on the part of the hostiles. They interposed themselves, or rather Colonel Miller marched his command between the coming train and the position occupied by the enemy, a very pretty movement as we watched it from our greater elevation. Soon the packtrain, as it proved to be, guarded by Captain Jackson’s troop, First Cavalry, was under due escort and rapidly approaching. This gallant officer had brought the train from Fort Lapwai, some eight miles distant, safely and courageously into our very invested lines, though how without a fight was certainly singular.

But now to relate the final act in the drama of “Clearwater.” I wish the power of description were given me to recite this fine performance. Colonel Miller, who always takes a prominent position in matters of duty and gallantry on the field, determined that his command should not on this occasion simply “march up hill and down again.” He, therefore, conceived a plan either to end the battle then and there, or to test the mettle of his troops to the utmost. After marching in escort, as it were, to the train and apparently returning with it, on reaching a point immediately in front of the Indian barricades, he quickly wheeled his battalions, and forming line moved forward at double time directly on the works. Soon both sides were engaged in deadly fusillade.

Simultaneously an advance and charge were ordered and taken up by all the troops on the line confronting the Indian position, firing by volley and in skirmish order. The yelling of the savages and the ever louder shouts of the soldiers soon changed the scenes and sounds from the setting heretofore pervading to wild exclamations and roars of impending strife.

The redskins were broken and driven fleeing before the same enemy whom they had only the day before forced back, but who, reinvigorated with the long drawn breath and serious reflection of the past day and night, had come to regard the matter in deadly earnest. The Indians fled down the high bluffs, crossed the river and joined their families. Soon they were seen slowly ascending the high hills beyond, though not in stampede. Our Gatling guns with my own troop in support moved quickly to a point on the brow and poured in a rapid, but as I suspect ineffective, fire upon the moving tribe and also upon the now deserted village.

The cavalry were soon mounted and moving down the trail in pursuit, but, owing to a rumor that a body of the hostiles were returning, after crossing the stream, they were ordered to dismount and take up a defensive position under the river-bank quite near the village, where a number of tepee frames were still standing.

As the main force of our command had to reform and prepare for an onward movement, the dead were to be collected, the wounded cared for, and the animals so long confined to be attended to, the time approached sunset before all was ready for the advance. Consequently, when the column had marched down the bluff and crossed the stream, it was decided to move no farther that night, and camp was made. During the evening a number of caches were discovered and much plunder was obtained.

The Indians here discarded all surplus baggage and household utensils, but, as subsequently transpired, carried off enough to serve their purposes for some months to come. The only living objects that were abandoned by them were about half a dozen crippled horses and one poor aged squaw.

Our dead were buried on the hill above and the wounded sent under escort of a troop of cavalry back to Fort Lapwai the next day. The following morning our command broke camp in pursuit of Joseph. I will state some few details which may vary somewhat from other movements against Indians, and may perhaps also throw some light upon the methods and management of the Nez Percé campaign.

Our generals commanding had arrived at the conclusion that the Nez Percé Indians were no despicable foemen, and in this opinion the troops coincided to a man. At that time the newspapers contained no such encomiums as they displayed when recounting the wrongs suffered by the murderous Modocs, although sufficient information concerning this highly intelligent tribe was extant and their bravery in battle was well established. Before the campaign closed, however, much was written and spoken by our people in the “Far East” in eulogy of their prowess, the generalship of Joseph and the sad fate awaiting his followers, but not until the latter was assured.

If ever a tribe of aborigines was worthy of fostering and improving side by side with their more powerful brethren of the human race it was the Nez Percés. But no recollection of former service or common ties of humanity could stand before the white man’s greed. This is human nature, I suppose, the possession of which attribute is in some cases extolled as a jewel of rich inheritance.

To resume, it was a lovely sight we beheld on arriving at the heights overlooking the Kamai Valley. The fields belonging to the still loyal bands of Nez Percés were green with grain not yet ripe, the hills beyond clad in spring attire, the beautiful river flowing between, and the Agency buildings shining white in the background. In fact, all nature appeared to bloom with loveliness, and to us, who had not viewed any ripening tillage since the year before, all this cultivation seemed most inviting, especially amid the scenes enacting around us and the warlike prospects ahead.

Joseph and his warriors, having nothing, passed through and among these possessions of their peaceful brothers. He crossed the river with his own means of transport and took his stand on the bluffs beyond. He also deployed a number of his men on the river-bank, either to dispute its passage or inflict some damage on the troops as they approached. This the cavalry did rather incautiously and receiving several volleys retired in some haste, if not confusion. After a slight skirmish the hostiles retired out of range.

I may say that here the second act or the second part of the campaign ended, as the troops remained here for some weeks, returned to Fort Lapwai leaving a guard – which was my troop – returned again, reinforced and refitted, made several scouts here and there, and finally followed the Indian on the Lo-lo Trail after an interval of about fifteen days from the date of their departure. An incident or two connected with our scout on the Lo-lo Trail would rightfully belong to this paper to show the great assistance rendered by the loyal Nez Percés and also the brave spirit manifested by them on many occasions. From the time these Indians signed the treaty they never swerved from their allegiance to the Government, but tilled their land, attended the church and school, and were ever ready to give their services in all matters connected with frontier settlement and the discouragement of turbulent tribes.

Six of them accompanied us on this occasion and rode well ahead as advance, or flankers. As soon as the “hostiles” were met or discovered, they rushed forward to make a parley, but were greeted with a fusillade from the rifle and two were shot, one being killed. Then, in a further attempt, or perhaps retaliation, James Reuben, a very intelligent Indian, was wounded. He made a circuit to get into our lines and the timber being quite dense came near being killed before the soldiers recognized him.

Those of us who still survive that bloody affair will never forget the service rendered by these true Indians, nor the humanity and hospitality shown by their people in this our hour of adversity.

By Maj. J. G. Trimble, United States Army, (Retired)

History, Nez Perce,


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