The Salmon River Expedition

On the 24th of June, 1877, seven days after the battle of White Bird Canon, Troop H, First Cavalry, left Mount Idaho by the roundabout way of Florence for the little settlement of Slate Creek on the Salmon River. Slate Creek empties into Salmon about six miles above the mouth of White Bird. The Indians were still in camp on the riverbank and had possession of all trails between the two points.

The march was through the mountains over an old, abandoned trail, obstructed by rocks and fallen timber; and, although it was mid-summer, snow and rain fell almost incessantly during the trip, which was completed at two o’clock on the morning of the 25th. A few men, and many women and children were found at the place, all badly scared, not knowing what moment the redskins might attack them and murder the entire party. But the expected arrival of the troop and that of a volunteer company of citizens from Lewiston relieved all anxiety.

We remained at Slate Creek until July 1st and then crossed the Salmon River to join General Howard’s column in pursuit of the hostiles. After the battle of White Bird General Howard ordered all the available troops in his own department to report to him immediately for field duty. In addition to these, troops from the departments of California and Arizona were hurried to the front.

The Second United States Infantry was promptly put en route by rail and boat from Atlanta, Georgia, to Lewiston, Idaho; and the Fifth and Seventh Infantry, together with the Second and Seventh Cavalry in Montana, were prepared to attack the Indians, should they attempt to cross the bitter Root mountains, which it was supposed they would do if they could, hoping possibly to form a function with some of Sitting Bull’s warriors in the Sioux country, or else escape across the line into Canada.

After crossing the river the troop joined General Howard’s column at Brown’s Ranch at the head of Sink Creek, and then commenced a climb of twelve miles up the steep and rugged sides of the Salmon River Mountains. It rained all day and all that night. Several pack-mules were lost -overboard! -in the steep climb; the animals would slip and flounder in the mud, under heavy loads, and in the struggle to get foothold in some particularly steep places several lost their balance and went rolling down the mountain side, nearly two thousand feet, with frightful velocity. Of course, there was not much pack and very little serviceable mule left when the bottom was reached.

The howitzer battery and the infantry and pack-train were obliged to camp about half-way up the mountain; the foot artillery and cavalry troop, who had the advance, reached the summit about half past seven in the evening. The pack-train being behind, the artillery as well as the General and staff had to gowithout bedding or rations until noon the next day. Troop H led their own mules with the command and shared their coffee, hard bread and bacon, as far as it would go, with their less fortunate comrades. Our Fort Walla Walla Post surgeon, George M. Sternberg, now Surgeon-General, was ill and exhausted when he reached the summit. I, therefore, made him turn in under my blankets and canvas for the night, while I joined the large majority under the trees and kept the fire going all night.

Next day the troop was out scouting. We started at eight o’clock in the morning with our clothing soaking wet from the night’s unpleasant experience in the rain, but after a while the sun came out and our garments began to steam and smoke, so that we were completely dry by the time we returned to camp late in the afternoon. We had a sweat bath in the saddle.

On the 4th the command moved at an early hour, following the trail of the Indians down the Salmon River again, and camped on the river-bank about fifteen miles below White Bird. The Indians had recrossed the river at the point two days before, then moved over to Cottonwood and Craig’s Mountain, and had there ambushed and killed Lieut. S. M. Rains, First Cavalry, and ten or twelve more of Troop L, who had been sent out as an advance-guard of the troop. This occurred on July, 3rd, the day our part of the command was engaged in dragging their guns and pack-mules up the slippery sides of the Salmon River Mountains.

The Indians had scuttled their canoes; the General therefore concluded to build a raft to cross the command. Lieut. H. G. Otis, Fourth Artillery, was detailed for this duty. His idea was to take all the cavalry lariats (light three-fifths rope), tie them together, make one end fast to a tree and the other to the raft, and then let the current carry the raft near enough to the other side to be able to throw a line from it to the shore.

When it is understood that the raft was constructed of closely laid twelve inch hewn logs, thirty or forty feet long, pounded by a current of water running not less than seven miles an hour, in a river more than two hundred and fifty feet wide, there was not much show for a slender rope that was not strong enough to hold even a single log.

I was detailed to take charge of and swim all the animals across. While I was engaged in this particularly interesting yet dangerous duty with fifteen men, naked and mounted on bare-backed horses, I was recalled, for “the raft went down the river, hal-le-lu.” 1 The loss of lariats, alas! required the services of the troop “Affidavit Corps” to square accounts with the Chief of Ordnance and Second Auditor’s Office. The failure of the raft was predicted by officers who had years of experience in that kind of business, but the young and inexperienced “sub,” who was on his first campaign, knew better. He had worked out mathematically – to his own satisfaction at least – the positive success of his theory!

That afternoon we retraced our steps, crossed the river at White Bird by boats, and camped at Grangeville on the night of the 8th. The next day E, F, H, and L Troops, First Cavalry, marched to the Clearwater to await the arrival of the infantry and artillery.

On the 11th we crossed the Clearwater, moving down its eastern bank on the high bluffs above the valley. When nearly opposite the confluence of the Cottonwood, the Indians were discovered in force. Their camp was down by the water’s edge, but their warriors were scattered along the slope from base to summit, and fairly well fortified. They numbered about four hundred rifles. It took but a moment to wheel into line, deploy, and open fire on them, and the battle of Clearwater commenced. Troop H was on the right of the line, and took care of that flank as well as guarded a little spring of water at the head of a ravine, the only water we had for the entire command.

While our pack-train was coming into camp eighty or ninety Indians emerged from the timber on our left and made a daring attack on its center, killing two packers and a few mules, but a quick move of the troop and men from the left of the line drove them off, and the train reached the camp in safety.

During the afternoon and night and nearly all the next day the fighting continued more or less severely. The Indians were daring in their attacks, sometimes charging our line almost to bayonet distance. When in turn our men would charge down on them driving them from their rifle-pits, and from behind trees and stumps until stopped by the main body.

About three o’clock in the afternoon of the 12th, Captain Jackson’s fine Troop B, of the First Cavalry, was seen m the distance escorting a large pack-train with supplies. The artillery battalion moved out to assist him in case of attack, and after escorting him safely within our lines Captain Miller moved his battalion, together with Troops E and L, First Cavalry, down on the right flank of the Indians and drove them from their position, the infantry and howitzers making it exceedingly hot for their left and center. The Indians crossed the river and retreated quietly on the other side, and the battle of the Clearwater was ended.

Our loss was, I believe, twelve men killed and two officers and twenty-five men wounded. The Indian loss was unknown, as they carried their dead and wounded with them.

The cavalry under Captain Perry, the Senior Cavalry Officer present, was ordered to cross the river and pursue the leisurely retreating Indians, but the movement was so dilatory and irritating that General Howard became annoyed and countermanding, the order directed the cavalry to aid the fort troops in crossing the river. An opportunity was lost on that occasion for effective cavalry work that was inexcusable. Five troops of cavalry, eager and hoping for such a chance to wipe out the White Bird and Craig’s Mountain disasters, were chafing to be ordered into action and avenge the death of their fallen comrades.

The retreat of the Indians was invitingly deliberate. We should have charged them on that open ground across the river, for ten times their number could not have stopped the onslaught of our men feeling as they did. The survivors of White Bird Canon were especially anxious to show their comrades of the regiment that the disaster of the 17th of June was not their fault; but not until a year later was such an opportunity afforded, when on the 8th of July, 1878, Captain Bernard, in command of seven troops of the regiment at Birch Creek, Oregon, gave them the post of honor in leading the charge on the Bannock and Pi-ute Indians.

It is certain that had we vigorously attacked the Indians at that time, the hostiles would never have crossed the Lo-lo Trail, to add many more valuable lives to the already long list of “killed in action.” Every available soldier in the Department of the Columbia, California and Arizona was in the field, and we had so far failed to accomplish what two small troops – many of them recruits had tried to do but failed at White Bird Cafion. It is true that the result of that fight increased the strength of the Indians to three times their number from the reservation and from roving bands along the Snake, Columbia, and Palouse Rivers, but the warlike and fighting element, and the master minds, the leaders, men of ability, shrewdness, and diplomacy, were exclusively confined to the non-treaty Indians under Chief Joseph, Ollicut, and White Bird, who were the commanders at White Bird Cafion as they were during the whole campaign.

At the “Clearwater” the opposing forces were about equal. If anything the troops had the advantage in numbers as well as position. And yet, strictly speaking, the Indians were not defeated. Their loss must have been insignificant and their retreat to Kamai was masterly, deliberate and unmolested, leaving us with victory barren of results. Their strategy and fighting qualities, whether opposed to two troops of cavalry or to General Howard’s command along the Clearwater, or to General Miles’ troops in Montana, where they were so largely outnumbered, commanded the attention and admiration of all.

On the 13th the command camped on the west bank of the Clearwater, the Indians being in full view on the other side at the Kamai Sub-Agency. On the 15th the cavalry left camp for Durwald’s Ferry, about sixty miles down the river. General Howard accompanied the command, his purpose being to cross the ferry and make a detour through the heavy timber, secure a good position in the rear of the Indians, and cut off their retreat over the Lo-lo Trail. This would have been a good move, as the artillery and infantry could have attacked them in front while the cavalry opened on them in the rear; they would have been completely hemmed in and must have surrendered or been annihilated.

The shrewd and wily Indian was not, however, to be caught in such a trap. It was no surprise to many of us, therefore, after we had marched about six miles to be overtaken by a courier with a message “that Chief Joseph had sent in a flag of truce,” desiring to see General Howard.

The troops were ordered to continue the march twenty miles, and then return to Kamai. General Howard returned at once, only to find that Chief Joseph had adopted this ruse to stop the move of the cavalry and give him time to get possession of the Lo-lo Trail and all approaches to it. The cavalry made their forty odd miles march and then returned to Kamai, men and horses weary and jaded.

On the 16th thirty-two Indians, fourteen of whom were men, surrendered. They were part of those who had left the reservation to join the hostiles. Early on the morning of the 17th the cavalry made a reconnaissance over the Lo-lo Trail. We had marched about eighteen miles-by file-over the narrow trail, which was obstructed by works and fallen timber, when our advance was fired on by the Indian rear-guard. One scout was killed and two wounded. On either side of the narrow pathway over the Bitter Root Mountains the trees were so close together that a dog would have found it difficult to get through, so that there was nothing for us to do but return. We had, however, accomplished our object; i.e., to find out the whereabouts of the Indians.

While we were at a halt, the pawing of the horses removed some leaves and dirt, and exposed a quantity of fresh sawdust. Upon investigation we found considerable of it covered over in a similar manner. We then discovered that many of the trees had been sawed off here and there, near the trail, at a height of three or four feet from the ground, leaving the trees still standing on their stumps and easily supported by the adjacent trees. The marks of the saw were covered over with dirt and bark, and no doubt would have escaped observation had we not been stopped by the attack on our advance. We overtook them too soon for their purpose, their object evidently being to let us pass until our rearguard had advanced beyond that point, whereupon some fifty or sixty warriors who were concealed in the timber were to drop the trees across the trail and block our retreat while they would attack us in front and rear from behind the fallen trees, for they had done the same thing some distance ahead. For craft and deviltry the Indian is unequaled. 2

When we returned to Kamai a change of program had taken place. Reinforcements had reached Lewiston and Mount Idaho. The Second Infantry from Atlanta, and some of the Twelfth from California were in camp at Lewiston, and several companies of the Eighth Infantry were at Mount Idaho. Col. John Green with a battalion of the First Cavalry was somewhere in the Salmon River range, en route from Fort Boise. A concentration of troops was ordered at Lewiston, and from there to proceed over the Mullan Road, via Spokane Falls into Montana. Troop H, First Cavalry, and a detachment of infantry and artillery were to remain at Mount Idaho and report to Colonel Green on his arrival. On the 19th these plans were again changed, the removal of the troops from Kamai, except Throckmorton’s Battery, induced some of the Indians to return, destroy the agency and seriously threaten Throckmorton. General Howard then decided to pursue the Indians over the Lo-lo Trail with the troops who fought at the Clearwater with the exception of two depleted troops, F and H, First Cavalry, which were ordered to report to Colonel Wheaton, Second Infantry, at Lewiston.

The Lo-lo Trail troops constituted the main column; Colonel Wheaton’s command, the “left wing,” was ordered to Spokane Falls, and Colonel Green’s Cavalry, the “right wing,” changed its line of march in the direction of Luuhi.

Our left wing marched to Spokane Falls, where it remained until August 21st and then returned to Lapwai. The hostiles had no idea of taking a back track over the Mullan Road. They were anxious to cross the line into Canada, and were making it exceedingly interesting for the combined forces of Generals Howard and Miles in Montana in their efforts to do so.

The close of the war in October ended one of the most memorable campaigns in the history of Indian warfare.

By Maj. and Brev.-Col. W. R. Parnell, United States Army (Retired) Citations:

  1. This was the refrain to a song of the campaign composed by some of the officers to the air of “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army.”[]
  2. This appears to be entirely a legitimate war measure which the soldiers might have practised without reprehension. Why, therefore, couple the ruse with a suggestion of “deviltry” only because it was originated by the Indian?[]

History, Nez Perce,


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