Montana, US National Parks

Montana road trip 2022, part II: a somber visit to Big Hole National Battlefield

(Read part I of this series here)

On August 7, 1877, a band of approximately 750 Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) arrived in the Big Hole Valley, known to them as Iskumtselalik Pah or ‘Place of the Buffalo Calf.’ They were fleeing the US Army. For over 20 years, the US government had been stealing their land, which once stretched from western Montana to eastern Washington and Oregon. One treaty had already been signed, drastically reducing their land. A second was later signed, reducing their land once again by more than 90% and forming a reservation.

However, only some bands of the Nimiipuu were present for this second treaty negotiation. Many of those who were not present refused to honor it. In June 1877, the US Army gave these non-treaty Nimiipuu an ultimatum: go to the reservation or we will force you to the reservation. This marked the beginning of a four-month series of battles sometimes called the Nez Perce War.

As these 750 non-treaty Nimiipuu crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and arrived in the Big Hole Valley, they believed they had left the army behind and were, for the time being, out of danger. Over the next day and a half, they set up camp, gathered food, and settled in to rest. Unbeknownst to them, a group of soldiers and civilian volunteers under the command of Colonel John Gibbon were approaching, with orders to attack.

The first shots were fired by the army just before dawn on August 9, 1877. Warriors woke and ran into battle while the others attempted to hide or flee. Some soldiers entered the camp and set fire to the tipis. The warriors were initially able to drive the army back out of their camp and across the river. They captured their howitzer and pinned them in place on a hillside above the camp, allowing most of the Nimiipuu women and children to escape. As reinforcements arrived the next day, the warriors fled – taking with them the howitzer and guns and ammunition retrieved from fallen soldiers.

By the end, about 30 soldiers and somewhere between 60-90 Nimiipuu lay dead. Most of the fallen Nimiipuu were women and children, including at least one pregnant woman. In their haste to flee, most of the dead were left behind and never received a proper burial. The site of the battle is held sacred by the Nimiipuu, and is now protected by the National Park Service as Big Hole National Battlefield.

Big Hole National Battlefield sits along Montana Highway 43, 10 miles (16 km) west of Wisdom. The drive along the Big Hole River is beautiful and belies the horrors that once took place here.

Big Hole River Valley, as seen from Mount Haggin State Wildlife Area

We began our visit at the visitor center, where we watched the informational film, learned the history of the Nimiipuu, and read accounts of those who survived the battle.

View from the Visitor Center
The battlefield, as seen from the Visitor Center

From here, we drove down to the river to hike the trails. We began on the Nez Perce Camp Trail, which follows the river out to the location the Nimiipuu were camped on the day of the battle. A brochure and numbered posts informed us of the sequence of events that occurred at each location. As this is sacred ground and the bodies of many Nimiipuu rest here, please be respectful and stay on the trail.

Nez Perce Camp Trail

Next, we headed up the Siege Area Trail. The trail crosses the river and then forks; we went left first, following a short stretch of the Nez Perce Trail to the park boundary.

Big Hole River
Looking over the valley from the Nez Perce Trail

Back at the fork, we now went right and climbed to the site where the warriors captured the howitzer. A replica sits here today.

Lastly, a second fork in the trail leads right to the location where the warriors trapped the soldiers. The soldiers were forced to dig trenches, and you can see some remains of this today. There is also an overlook and monument on this trail. It was raining as we hiked, so unfortunately I didn’t capture many photos.

Overlook of the camp and battle site

And this concludes our time at Big Hole National Battlefield. It’s always so difficult to visit a place like this; I arrived knowing it was going to break my heart, and it did. It was such a senseless slaughter of innocent people. But as painful as it was to learn about, this is a piece of our history, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. We need to learn from the mistakes of our past, and honor and remember those who lost their lives along the way.

More information about the Nimiipuu, the Nez Perce War, and the Nez Perce Trail can be found here, here, and here.


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Big Hole National Battlefield is located on MT Highway 43, 10 miles (16 km) west of Wisdom and 17 miles (27 km) east of Highway 93
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: we walked all the trails at the battlefield and the total distance was 3.8 miles (6.1 km) with 335 feet (102 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: there is no camping or overnight lodging at the monument; the nearest camping, cabin, or hotel options are in 10 miles (16 km) east in Wisdom
  • Other: please respect the sacredness of this land; the descendants of the Nimiipuu who fought in this battle are still alive today and this is the final resting place of their ancestors who lost their lives here. This is hallowed ground. Please stay on the trails and don’t disturb the land in any way

27 thoughts on “Montana road trip 2022, part II: a somber visit to Big Hole National Battlefield”

  1. It’s certainly tragic. I too feel the same when when visiting historical sites like this that commemorate war and slaughter. Thanks you for a wonderful description of this place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your photos and narrative are eloquent testimony to a sad chapter in US history. I spent about seven hours on a solo road trip through Montana and Idaho ten years ago at the Big Hole site and reading/experiencing the history brought tears to my eyes.

    Seeing the trenches and just how well the site is laid out, helps one picture the battle. Thanks for your conclusion which is well stated.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The beauty of Big Hole belies the ugly tragedy that took place on its land. Another shaming moment in US history that barely gets talked about in our school courses…that aside, to learn about it in person is very humbling, and to hopefully not to repeat history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. I did appreciate that it’s being remembered, and also that they are largely presenting it from the point of view of the Nez Perce and not from the white soldiers. And as you said… an odd juxtaposition between the beauty and the horror.

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    1. Thanks. It was really difficult to learn about… and to write about as well. But I’m glad I can help share this piece of history with more people so it doesn’t get lost.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If you really want to learn a great deal more about this read Thunder in the Mountains: O.O. Howard, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War. Thunder in the Mountains translated was Chief Joesph’s Indian Name Hinmuuttu-yalatlat. Chief Joesph was not even a Chief but more of a medicine man. He was on good terms with General O.O. Howard who was the commander of the NW division at the time. Joseph was promised land in the Wallowa Valley in northern Oregon where his father was buried. That’s all he wanted. And what was worse, although he refused to go to the reservation his band wasn’t even involved in the battle that initially started the war. But it was his band who were chased as they tried to find protection among the other plains Indian Tribes, all of whom turned them away. When they were finally caught near the Canadian border, they were just a day away from the protection of Sitting Bull and his Sioux Nation. So sad this story. One of the worst atrocities we committed against the Indians.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s awful. I learned quite a bit about Chief Joseph in school, actually, and we actually saw more sites associated with this war last summer on our roadtrip.

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