Montana Indian Encounters: The Unfriendly Kind


September 1, 4, 5, and 8, 1865 Powder River (Powderville, Montana)

As Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor led the Left Column of the Powder River Campaign (see August 29th. Tongue River), the other two columns were having a tough time of it, troubled by troops near the end of their enlistment's who were threatening mutiny.  Col. Nelson Cole's Right Column left Omaha on July 1st with 1,400 men who made up eight companies of his own 2nd. Missouri Light Artillery, equipped as cavalry, and eight companies of the 12th. Missouri Cavalry.  Col. Samuel Walker led the Center Column out of Fort Laramie on August 5th. with 600 men of his own 16th. Kansas Cavalry and a detachment of the 15th. Kansas Cavalry.

The two columns met northwest of the Black Hills and continued north along the Little Missouri River, then crossed west through badlands to the Powder River, where they ran into serious trouble.  On September 1st., as the men camped near the junction of Alkali Creek and the Powder River, about 300 Lakotas of the Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, and Minneconjou bands attacked the soldiers' horse herd a mile from camp.  Capt. E.S. Rowland and six men responded and were cut to pieces.  Only Rowland escaped.

Cole and Walker marched the men downstream to the mouth of the Mizpah River, plagued by poor grass and cold, rainy weather.  About 200 horses and mules perished.  On September 4th., the column marched back upriver.  A detachment of the 12th. Missouri Cavalry, sent back to destroy some of the column's own abandoned property, were jumped by Indians but beat them off.

The next morning, warriors tried to cut off the column's herders, starting a three-hour fight that engaged over 1,000 Lakotas and Cheyennes.  The Indians made several attacks, hoping to draw the troops out in pursuit.  The Cheyenne Roman Nose made several brave runs in front of the soldiers' blazing guns and remained untouched.   The howitzers kept the Indians at bay but killed only an old man named Black Whetstone.  Several soldiers were killed in the battle.

The Cheyennes left the scene and moved to the Black Hills, leaving the Lakotas behind to harass the soldiers as they moved upriver.  The Lakotas attacked the column on September 8th., but artillery held them back.  That night a great hail and snow storm struck and continued through the 9th., forcing the soldiers to hole up in the vicinity of present-day Powderville, Montana.  About 400 horses perished, and the famished soldiers pounded on the carcasses.

When the weather abated Cole and Walker's men limped farther up the Powder, constantly dogged by warriors, but there were no more serious engagements.  On September 13th. Connor's scouts found them and directed them to continue 80 miles upriver to the newly built Fort Connor, which they reached on the 20th.

Cole reported 12 men killed, with 2 missing, presumed killed.  He reported only 1 man wounded, but Lt. Charles H. Springer of Company B, 12th. Missouri Cavalry, reported at least 4 wounded in the engagement on September 5th. alone.  Cole estimated they might have killed 200 warriors, and extremely high number.  Springer estimated a more likely figure of 20.  Walker, although he saw a number of Indians shot off their horses, said in frustration and anger, "I cannot say as we killed one."

Although the Powder River Expedition kept the Indians away from the Overland Road for some months, it was not a great success.  About 700 government and civilian horses and mules died, along with much property abandoned and destroyed.

August 1, 1867 Hayfield Fight (Yellowtail, Montana)

After the annual Sun Dance in 1867, many bands of Lakotas and Cheyennes decided to attack the posts on the hated Bozeman Trail.  About two and a half miles northeast of Fort C.F. Smith, on the Bighorn River, a willow-and-log stockade protected the employees of A.C. Leighton, contracted to cut hay for the fort.

On the morning of August 1st., 20 enlisted men of various companies of the 27th. Infantry, under Lt. Sigismund Sternberg, guarded 6 civilians cutting hay.  At about 11 A.M., more than 800 warriors descended upon the stockade.  After a failed decoy, the Indians charged in and were surprised by the amount of fire the soldiers could muster with their new Springfield-Allin breech-loaders.  Falling back, the warriors set fire to the hay upwind.  The flames were within 20 feet of the stockade when a providential change in wind direction moved the blaze away.

The Indians attacked again.  Lt. Sternberg admonished his command, "Stand up, men, and fight like soldiers!"  They were his last words, for just then he caught a bullet in the head.  Sgt. James Norton took command but he too was hit.   Then Pvt. Thomas Navin of F Company was killed.  by default, civilian Al Colvin took over.  Colvin was a whirlwind, firing his 15-shot Henry rifle incessantly from all around the perimeter.

Pvt. Charles Bradley of Company E volunteered to ride to Fort Smith for help.   Though knocked off his horse by a blow from a pursuing warrior, Bradley reached the post.  Lt. Col. Luther P. Bradley was slow in responding; it was 4 P.M. before he sent out Capt. Thomas B. Burrowes with Company g and a howitzer, and shortly afterward, Lt. Reuben N. Fenton with Company H.  The relief force got to the hay stockade at sundown.  By then the Indians had given up the attack.  Perhaps 450 Indians still hovered on the bluffs, and Burrowes drove them off.  In the gathering night, the exhausted defenders rode back to Fort Smith.

Sternberg and Navin were killed, and 3 other soldiers were wounded, as was 1 civilian.   About 8 warriors were killed and 30 wounded.

April 7, 1869 Sixteenmile Creek (Ringling, Montana)

In the Gallatin Valley northwest of Fort Ellis, just west of Bozeman, Montana, about ten Blackfeet drove off the cattle and horses from a ranch on Dry Creek sometime in the spring.  The neighboring ranchers started after them but then decided to go to Fort Ellis for help.  Capt. Emory W. Clift took 40 mounted soldiers from Companies D, F, and G, 13th. Infantry, and, with 15 ranchers, started in pursuit.

At noon on April 7th., Clift caught up with the Blackfeet on the North Fork of Sixteenmile Creek, in present-day Meagher County.  The Indians went up a rough mountain to a nearly impregnable position and waved their blankets in derision.   Clift divided his command, sending a Lt. Thompson around from the east and having his own squad scale the west side.  Suddenly the Indians found themselves surrounded atop the craggy peak.

Clift closed in, firing at any head that popped up over the rocks.  Soon the trapped Blackfeet began singing their death songs.  Clift kept up the fire for about two hours.  At dusk he called for volunteers to charge.  One dozen men responded and went in with revolvers in hand.  The Blackfeet were still game, however; they killed a private named Conry and wounded two other soldiers.

In the morning Clift counted nine Indian bodies amid the rocks.

January 23, 1870 Marias River (Shelby, Montana)

The previous fall, Blackfeet had raided stock and killed several settlers near Helena, Montana.  At the beginning of 1879, Maj. Eugene M. Baker took Companies F, g, H, and L, 2nd. Cavalry, and 55 mounted men of the 13th. Infantry from Fort Shaw on a punitive expedition.  Baker headed for the camp of the Pikuni Blackfoot (Piegan) leader Mountain Chief, on a bend of the Marias River about 12 miles southeast of present-day Shelby, Montana.  Mountain Chief had gotten wind of Baker's plans, however, and left.   Heavy Runner, Black Eagle, Big Horn, and Bear Chief moved into his camp with their people, thinking Baker was interested only in Mountain Chief's band.

When a scout informed Baker that the camp was not Mountain Chief's, he replied, "One band or another of them; they are all Piegans and we will attack them."   Baker's command killed 173 Blackfeet, wounded 20, captured 140, rounded up about 300 horses, and burned the encampment.  On enlisted man was killed.  Weather cut short any further pursuit of Mountain Chief.

August 14, 1872 Pryor's Fork (Billings, Montana)

Out of Fort Ellis, Maj. Eugene M. Baker led a 370-man column consisting of Companies F, G, H, and L, 2nd. Cavalry, and Companies C, E, G, and I, 7th. Infantry, east along the Yellowstone River to meet Col. David S. Stanley's escort of a party of Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors.  On August 13th. Baker and his men camped near the junctions of Pryor's Fork and the Yellowstone River, east of present-day Billings, Montana.  At 3 A.M. Lakotas and Cheyennes tried to run off some of the army's horses.  Pickets fired in the darkness.  In the sharp fight that ensued, several soldiers were hit.   The Indians managed to run off 4 mules and 15 cattle.

By 7 A.M., more than 400 Lakotas and Cheyennes were in position on benchlands half a mile away; however, they did not engage when Baker moved his men out, and the two sides sniped at each other from long range.  Some warriors made "bravery runs", riding out and daring the soldiers to shoot them.  When one of them was indeed knocked from his pony, the Indians broke off the action, crossed the river, and by 2 P.M., were gone.

Baker estimated that the soldiers killed two warriors and wounded ten.  The Cheyennes and Lakotas killed one enlisted man and one civilian and wounded five soldiers.

August 4, 1873 Tongue River (Miles City, Montana)

The army acted as escorts for the Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors as they worked their way across the northern plains.  The Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, commanded by Col. David S. Stanley, consisted of a formidable force of 1,500 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 10 companies of the 7th. Cavalry, and 400 civilians.

On August 4th., the advance proceeded under Capt. Myles Moylan of Company B and Lt. Thomas Custer of Company A, with the lieutenant colonel riding along.  At 9 A.M., they halted about eight miles above the mouth of the Tongue River, across from Moon Creek.   Unsaddling in a grove of cottonwoods, they waited for the command to catch up.   Two hours later, after six Indians, probably Lakotas, tried to run off their horses, the troopers saddled up and gave chase.  Suddenly the size of the Indian force doubled.

When the solders chased them, the Indians ran; when they halted, the Indians halted.   Lt. col. Custer knew it was a decoy game, but he tried to bring them closer for a talk.  When he rode toward them, about 300 Lakotas burst out of the timber by the river.  Custer wheeled around and sped back to Moylan, who had dismounted the companies in an open triangle.  The troops fired, but the warriors did not charge through them, trying to burn them out instead.  The grass failed to burn, and both sides kept up desultory firing until three in the afternoon.  When the Lakotas began drifting away, Custer charged those remaining, driving them across the plain for three miles before calling an end to the chase.

Only one of Custer's men was wounded, and only a few Indians were wounded in turn.   Three others, however--the regiment's veterinarian, Dr. John Honsinger; the sutler, Augustus Baliran; and Pvt. John Ball--were caught alone on the plain and killed.

August 11, 1873 Bighorn (Bighorn, Montana)

Col. David S. Stanley's expedition (see Tongue River, August 4th.) continued up the Yellowstone River, camping near the mouth of the Bighorn on the night of August 10th.   Early the next morning, the camp was greeted by Indian fire from the south shore.   The fire became so heavy that Lt. Col. George Custer ordered the horses to be removed from harm's way and pulled back into the timber by the bluffs.

Custer's 450 troopers faced about 500 Lakota warriors.  He placed 30 of his best marksmen along the river to counter the Indians' fire.  Pvt. John H. Tuttle, Company E, was considered the outfit's best shot.  Working his Springfield, he killed three Indians in a row.  Finally the Lakotas combined their fire and put a bullet through his head.

The Indians crossed the river downstream and Custer sent Capt. George Yates and Lt. Charles Braden to counter the move.  About 200 warriors charged against Braden's line of 120 men.  The soldiers drove them off, but Braden caught a bullet in his upper thigh and it broke the bone.  More Lakotas crossed upstream, and Lt. Tom Custer and Capt. Myles Moylan met them.  Unable to intimidate the soldiers, the warriors ended the action and crossed back to the south bank.

Custer lost 3 enlisted men, with 3 more enlisted men and an officer wounded.  The soldiers killed 4 Lakotas and wounded 12.

March 17, 1876 Powder River/Reynold's Fight (Moorhead, Montana)

A major campaign began in early 1876 when Gen. George Crook led one of three columns searching for non-reservation Lakotas northwest of the Black Hills.  At Fort Fetterman, Crook formed up his 900-man command, which consisted of five companies of the 2nd. Cavalry, five companies of the 3rd. Cavalry and two companies of the 4th. Infantry.   Crook placed the units under the command of Col. Joseph J. Reynolds of the 3rd. Cavalry.  In the bitter cold on March 1st., they marched north.

Traveling down the Tongue River, the column saw tracks heading east.  Crook sent Reynolds with six companies, about 370 men, to follow the trail and attack.  On the frigid morning of March 17th., Reynolds found a camp of 105 lodges on the Powder River, just downstream of present-day Moorhead, Montana, under the Cheyenne Old Bear and the Oglala He Dog.  The village consisted of about 700 people, of whom 200 were warriors.

Capt. James Egan led off the attack by charging his company, pistols blazing, through the center of the camp.  Capt. Anson Mills followed in his wake.  The Indians scattered, but from the timbered bluffs they began to put up a stiff resistance.   Capt. Henry Noyes captured 700 of the Indians' ponies, making it difficult for them to flee.  Soon, the warriors were pressing the soldiers back.  Reynolds ordered the village destroyed and fell back 20 miles up the Powder.

Reynolds's losses were four killed and six wounded, while the Lakotas and Cheyennes had only two killed and two wounded.

The troopers awoke the next morning to find the warriors in the process of stealing back about 550 of their ponies.  Reynolds had assigned no one to guard them.   His officers were acrimonious in their denunciation of his command decisions, and back at Fort Fetterman, Crook proffered court-martial charges against Reynolds.

June 17, 1876 Rosebud Creek (Decker, Montana)

After the failure at Powder River (see March 17th.), Gen. George Crook went out again in search of non-reservation Lakotas and Cheyennes.  He left Fort Fetterman on May 29th. with ten troops of the 3rd. Cavalry, five of the 2nd. two companies of the 4th. Infantry, and three of the 9th.--about 47 officers and 1,000 enlisted men.  Later 176 Crow and 86 Shoshone auxiliaries joined the command.

After traveling down the Tongue River, Crook crossed over to Rosebud Creek.   There, on the morning of June 17th., the expedition was attacked by more than 800 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors with an enthusiasm for battle seldom seen.  The fight raged for six hours, up and down the broken terrain, on a battlefield that extended several miles along upper Rosebud Creek.  Cavalry alternately charged and retired.   Indians repeatedly dashed in to shoot, counted coup, and pulled back.  On several occasions, the soldiers were saved by the Crow and Shoshone scouts, who did nor than their fair share of fighting that day.

After Capt. Anson Mills led a long flank march that threatened their rear, the Lakotas and Cheyennes withdrew.  Crook, left in possession of the battlefield, claimed victory, although in fact it was a draw at best.  On Crook's side, 9 soldiers were killed and 23 were wounded, and 1 Indian scout was killed and 7 were wounded.  The scouts collected 13 scalps.  The Lakota leader Crazy Horse later acknowledged that 36 Lakotas and Cheyennes were killed and 63 were wounded.

June 25, 1876 Little Bighorn (Crow Agency, Montana)

The eastern column of the 1876 campaign (see Powder River/Reynolds's Fight, March 17th.) left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17th., under the command of Gen. Alfred H. Terry.   It consisted of all 12 companies of the 7th. Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. Custer, two companies of the 17th. Infantry, one of the 6th. Infantry, a detachment of 20th. Infantry with Gatling guns, and 40 Arikara scouts--a total of about 925 officers and enlisted men.

On June 22nd., Custer's 7th.--including 617 solders, 30 scouts, and 20 civilians--marched up Rosebud Creek, following an Indian trail.  The trail crossed to the Little Bighorn, where he found a large encampment of Sioux and Cheyennes.  About noon on the 25th. believing he had been spotted, Custer decided to lead the regiment down to attack.  The village was huge, perhaps 1,200 lodges with 1,500 warriors, but it was nothing the entire 7th. Cavalry could not handle.

Custer divided the regiment, sending Capt. Frederick Benteen with Companies D, H, and K toward the river to see of any Indians had fled upstream; sending Maj. Marcus Reno with Companies A, G, and M to cross the Little Bighorn and attack from the south; and taking Companies C, E, F, I, and L along the bluffs east of the river to attempt a flank attack farther downstream.

Reno charged the Hunkpapa Sioux lodges in the south, but he was repulsed and retreated back to the high ground east of the river.  Custer, meanwhile, approached from the northeast, aiming for the Cheyenne lodges, then moved downstream to wait for support from Reno and Benteen.  The support never came.  Custer's scattered companies were picked off in detail.  Not a man from his five companies survived.

About 253 soldiers and civilians were killed and 53 were wounded.  The Indian loss was about 40 killed and 80 wounded.

October 21, 1876 Cedar Creek (Terry, Montana)

With the entire 5th. Infantry, 15 officers and 434 enlisted men, Col. Nelson A. Miles tracked Sitting Bull's Hunkpapas through the eastern Yellowstone country.  On October 20th., Miles finally ran them down on the headwaters of the East Fork of Cedar Creek, about 20 miles northwest of present-day Terry, Montana.  A parley was arranged between Miles and Sitting Bull, with nearly 300 warriors perched on a nearby hill watching the proceedings.  The council was long and agitated, and Miles was wary.  When the talks broke off, both sides returned to their camps with the understanding that the next day fighting would replace talking.

Miles struck first, bringing his 5th. Infantry up to Sitting Bull's camp on the East Fork of Cedar Creek.  Another talk was attempted, but Sitting Bull abruptly left the parley.  Miles moved his men forward through the valley, Capt. James S. Casey taking his Company A to the Bluffs on the left and Lt. Mason Carter taking his Company K to a knoll on the right.  Flanks secured, Miles moved the rest of the 5th. Infantry toward the Indian camp.

About 900 warriors were there to confront the advance, but their hearts were not in the fight.  Miles's skirmishers pushed them back and the howitzers blasted them.   The soldiers pushed through and gained the Lakota encampment.  The Indians fell back toward Bad Route Creek and eventually fled downstream to the Yellowstone River.

Miles had only two soldiers wounded.  He found five Lakota bodies on the field, and perhaps five more were wounded.

December 18, 1876 Ash Creek (Brockway, Montana)

Col. Nelson A. Miles sent out battalions of his 5th. Infantry to scour the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers country, searching for the remaining hostile Lakota bands.  Lt. Frank Baldwin, with Companies G, H, and I, operated around Fort Peck.  In early December, he got word that Sitting Bull's band was south of the Missouri on Redwater Creek.  On the 14th., Baldwin crossed the thin ice and trailed them.

The soldiers moved up Ash Creek, a branch of Redwater Creek, southeast of present-day Brockway, Montana.  On December 18th., Baldwin found 122 lodges tucked in the creek valley.  He placed one company in advance of his wagons, which were drawn up in four columns, and flanked each side of them with the other two companies.  He opened the fight by firing several Howitzer rounds into the tipis.

When the troops rumbled into the camp, they found that most of the warriors were out hunting.  Those remaining put up a feeble resistance, then fled.  Baldwin did not pursue.  The soldiers captured 60 horses and mules, gathered what supplies they could carry, and destroyed the rest, including the 90 lodges still standing.  Only one Indian was killed.

January 8, 1877 Wolf Mountain (Birney, Montana)

Continuing his pursuit of Indians through the winter, Col. Nelson A. Miles (previous entry) left Cantonment Tongue on December 29th. with Companies A, C, D, E, and K of the 5th. Infantry and Companies E and F of the 22nd. Infantry, heading upstream.  On January 7th. the soldiers captured eight Cheyennes, and the other Cheyennes, in a camp 20 miles farther upstream at Deer Creek, vowed to rescue them.

Miles, camped on the Tongue near present-day Birney, Montana, expected an attack and threw up breastworks overnight.  In the morning, Crazy Horse and about 500 warriors obliged him.  Under a fresh layer of snow, both sides maneuvered for advantage, but they did not come to close grips.  Miles's artillery bombarded wherever the Indians congregated.  After five hours, a new blizzard blew in and the Indians withdrew.

The Cheyenne Big Crow was killed, along with two Lakotas.  Three more were wounded, two of them mortally.  Miles lost three men and eight were wounded.

May 7, 1877 Little Muddy Creek/Lame Deer Fight (Lame Deer, Montana)

On May 1st., Col. Nelson Miles took Companies B and H of his 5th. Infantry; Companies E, F, G, and h of the 22nd. Infantry; and Companies F, G, H, and K of the 2nd. Cavalry, under Capt. Edward Ball, up the Tongue River, searching for the band of Minneconjous under Lame Deer.  On the Tongue, the scouts found a trail heading west to Rosebud Creek, and Miles followed with his command of 471 officers and enlisted men.

Spotting the camp of 61 lodges on Muddy Creek, Miles left the infantry behind and hurried in with his cavalry, plus a section of mounted infantry under Lt. Edward W. Casey.   They reached the sleeping village at 4:30 A.M.  Casey and Lt. Lovell H. Jerome, with Company H, 2nd. Cavalry, were the first to thunder through the tipis.   When one of the scouts found Lame Deer, Miles asked to parley with him.

Lame Deer approached Miles accompanied by his nephew Iron Star and two others.   Miles told Lame Deer to put his rifle down, which he did, but cocked and facing forward.  When Miles's scout White Bull tried to take Iron Star's rifle away from him, he shot, and the bullet went through White Bull's coat.  Lame Deer grabbed the weapon on the ground and fired it at Miles, the bullet just missing him and killing his orderly, Pvt. Charles Shrenger.  Pandemonium erupted.

Several troopers and Indians were hit in the fusillade.  Lame Deer was cut down by 17 bullets from L Company, and White Bull scalped him.  Companies F and L bore down on the fleeing villagers, with Company G coming up on the flank.  It was over in a few moments.

The soldiers killed about 30 Minneconjous and wounded 20.  They captured 40, but 200 got away.  Four soldiers were killed and 9 wounded, all from the 2nd. Cavalry.   Miles captured 450 horses and killed half of them.  He also destroyed the village.

August 9-10, 1877 Big Hole (Wisdom, Montana)

Fleeing Gen. O.O. Howard (see Weippe Prairie, July 17th.), the Nez Perces crossed Lolo Pass to Montana and turned south up the Bitterroot Valley.  After crossing the mountains to the Big Hole Valley, Looking Glass demanded they stop for a much-needed rest.   The delay would be calamitous.  Although they had given Howard the slip, col. John Gibbon from Fort Shaw had taken up the chase.  Gibbon had a moderate force, with detachments of Companies b and e of the 2nd. Cavalry and detachments of five companies of his 7th. Infantry--161 men--later joined by about 45 volunteers.

At dawn on August 9th., Gibbon surprised the 89-tipi village in the valley of the North Fork of the Big Hole River.  The soldiers swept through the camp, causing many casualties, and within 20 minutes had secured the area.  Looking Glass and White Bird, however, enraged at the loss of lives and the capture of their property, rallied the warriors.  The Nez Perces fired from willow thickets and stream banks with excellent marksmanship.

At this Gibbon fell back across the river to a wooded bluff rising about 30 feet above it.  There he dug pits and held on as the Nez Perces surrounded him, picking off his men one by one.  The Indians might have overrun the soldiers, but their main interest was to hold them at bay so the women and children could get away.  They kept Gibbon pinned in place throughout the next day, with his men needing food, water, and medical attention.  Finally, after dark on August 10th., the Nez Perces fired a few parting shots and left.

Gibbon reported 89 Indians dead, but many of them were women and children.  The Nez Perces said they lost 50 people and had 30 wounded.  On Gibbon's side, 23 enlisted men and civilians were killed or fatally wounded, and 5 officers, including Gibbon, 30 enlisted men, and 4 civilians were wounded.

August 12, 1877 Horse Prairie (Grant, Montana)

After the Nez Perces abandoned the Big Hole Valley (previous entry), they went to Horse Prairie, where word of their presence reached the settlers in the area.  Most of them fled to the town of Bannack for safety, but some continued going about their work.   About 60 warriors went onto the ranch of W.L. Montague and Daniel H. Winters, killing Montague and three others.  At the Thomas Hamilton ranch, they killed another man, Andrew Cooper.  The raiders stole about 150 horses.

September 13, 1877 Canyon Creek (Laurel, Montana)

The army had been pursuing the Nez Perces for weeks (see Clearwater River, July 11-12) when Col. Samuel D. Sturgis, 7th. Cavalry, finally caught up with the elusive Indians as they were plundering the village of Coulson, Montana, near present-day billings.   Sturgis had about 360 men: Companies F, G, H, I, L, and M of the 7th. Cavalry and Company K and detachments of C and I of the 1st. Cavalry.  He deployed his troops on the plain between the Yellowstone River and the high rimrock walls to the north.

The Nez Perces kept the cavalry at bay by remaining on horseback and firing from long range as their families moved up Canyon Creek, the only escape route from the valley to the high tableland.  Then the warriors took position along the rocky defile, where a small number could easily delay a large pursuing force.  By the time Sturgis brought up a howitzer to blast the canyon, it was too late.  The Nez Perces had escaped.

Sturgis managed to capture a few hundred ponies.  Three soldiers were killed and 11 were wounded.  The Indians may have had 7 killed and 10 wounded.  Sturgis was criticized for his timid handling of the fight.

September 23, 1877 Cow Island (North-Central Montana)

Cow Island in the Missouri River, in the southeastern corner of present-day Blaine County, Montana, was used as a landing for steamboats to unload their cargo for freighters to pick up, rather than risk the Dauphin rapids, a troublesome stretch of river 18 miles upstream.  Sgt. William Moelchert, 11 soldiers of the 7th. Infantry, and 4 civilians were there to guard a government supply delivery when Chief Joseph's Nez Perces, heading toward Canada, reached the Missouri crossing at the island.

The Indians rode near, but Moelchert motioned for them to keep their distance.   After some long-distance parleying, the sergeant let a few come in and gave them a side of bacon and half a sack of hardtack.  They went away, but a short while later he heard a shot.  One of his men, Pvt. Person, had not come into camp with the rest, and Moelchert surmised that the Indians had shot him.  He prepared his troopers in the willows by the river, and at dusk, the Indians began to pepper their position with bullets.  Through the night, the warriors tried several half-hearted attacks in the pitch dark.  In the morning, the Indians took what supplies they wanted and burned the rest.  By 10 A.M. they had moved out, up Cow Creek.

No Indians were reported hit.  Two civilians and one enlisted man were killed.

September 25, 1877 Cow Creek (Blaine County, Montana)

While the Nez Perces harassed the soldiers at Cow Island (previous entry), a train of 15 wagons was moving up the tortuous canyon of Cow Creek.  By noon on September 24th., the Indians, following the creek north, had overtaken the train.  One of the freighters, O.G. Cooper, estimated there were between 700 and 800 Indians.  As they had done before, the Nez Perces threatened no violence at first.  They asked to buy or trade for the supplies in the wagons.

As the Indians hovered, the train members bedded down for an uneasy rest.  The next morning, it appeared that the Nez Perces were going to let them go, when up the canon came Maj. Guido Ilges, 7th. Infantry, with one enlisted man and about 24 mounted civilian scouts.  The mood of the Nez Perces turned violent, and they began shooting.   The men in the wagon train scattered; one named Barker was shot in the back before he could escape.

Ilges came in as close as he dared while the Indians fired from the cliffs.  After two hours of skirmishing, the soldiers pulled back.  About three miles from the creek, Ilges met Lt. Edward E. Hardin and a detachment of Company F, 7th. Infantry, with a howitzer.  But before Ilges could reengage the Nez Perces, the Indians had burned the wagons and were on their way north again.

Two civilians were killed and one wounded.  Two Nez Perces were wounded.

September 30-October 5, 1877 Bear's Paw/Snake Creek (Chinook, Montana)

After two and a half months of running from U.S. troops, the Nez Perces (see Clearwater River, July 11-12) appeared likely to reach Canada when they pitched a camp in the ravine of Snake Creek, north of the Bear's Paw Mountains, about 16 miles south of present-day Chinook, Montana, and about 40 miles from the Canadian border.  The halt was made at the insistence of Looking Glass, to let the exhausted families rest for a few days.   It was enough time to allow a large force under Col. Nelson A. Miles to catch up.

Miles was pursuing Chief Joseph's band with almost 400 men, including mounted Companies B, F, G, I, and K of the 5th. Infantry; Companies A, D, and K of the 7th. Cavalry; companies F, G, and H of the 2nd. Cavalry; and 30 Lakota and Cheyenne scouts.  Among his artillery were a Hotchkiss gun and a howitzer.  The 7th. Cavalry battalion, under Capt. Owen Hale, led off the charge from the south.  The Nez Perces, demonstrating their exceptional marksmanship, cut the charge up.  Halted at the bluff's edge south of the camp, Hale dismounted his men.  But the Nez Perces' fire was too hot for the troopers to advance.  Both Hale and Company K's Lt. Jonathan W. Biddle were killed.

Meanwhile, as the 2nd. Cavalry went after the Indians' horse herd, the 5th. Infantry came up on the 7th. Cavalry's left.  But at the Nez Perces' defense, Miles called off the attack.  Desultory firing marked the next five days, broken by several peace talks.  During a council on October 1st., Miles seized Chief Joseph, but he had to let him go after Lt. Lovell H. Jerome strayed too close and was himself captured by the Nez Perces.

The Indians argued vehemently among themselves as to what course of action to take, but Joseph finally convinced most of them to surrender.  They did so on October 5th., Joseph uttering his famous speech: "Her me, my chiefs! I am tired.  My heart is sick and sad.  From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

Nevertheless, that night White Bird and nearly 300 warriors, women, and children broke free and eventually made it to Canada.  Joseph surrendered 418 others.  The battle cost the Nez Perces 17 killed and 40 wounded.  Among the dead were Joseph's brother Ollokot and Chief Looking Glass.  Miles lost 2 officers and 22 enlisted men, with 4 officers, 38 enlisted men, and 4 civilians wounded.

September 4, 1878 Clark's Fork (Belfry, Montana)

The Bannocks who fled Oregon after the John Day River fight (see North Fork of the John Day River, July 20th.) either returned to their reservation in Idaho or made a dash for Canada.  Those in the latter group ran into detachments of the 2nd. Cavalry under Lt. William P. Clark.  On August 29-30, near Index Peak, Wyoming, Clark drove a small party of Bannocks toward Col. Nelson Miles and detachments of his 5th. Infantry.  On September 4th., Miles, traveling up Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, surprised a camp of Bannocks, killing 11 and capturing 31, along with 200 horses and mules.  Capt. Andrew S. Bennett of the 5th. Infantry was killed, as was the interpreter and one Indian scout.   One enlisted man was wounded.

April 17, 1879 Careless Creek (Ryegate, Montana)

Lt. Samuel H. Loder, 7th. Infantry, with 14 mounted men from Company K, 3rd. Infantry, and Companies E and D, 7th. Infantry, and 6 Indian scouts were looking for Lakotas who had been raiding stock along the Musselshell River.  Heading east out of Fort Logan, Loder picked up a trail and caught up with the raiders near Careless Creek, at the head of Musselshell Canyon.  The troopers killed eight Lakotas.  Loder lost two soldiers and one was wounded.

July 17, 1879 Milk River (Saco, Montana)

The Hunkpapas of Sitting Bull, the Minneconjous of Black Eagle, the Sans Arcs of Spotted Eagle, and the Oglalas of Big Road had all fled into Canada, and Col. Nelson A. Miles continued to patrol the border from Fort Peck.  In the summer of 1879, Miles had seven companies of the 5th. Infantry, seven troops of the 2nd. Cavalry, and two companies of the 6th. Infantry--about 676 soldiers, plus 143 Indian and white auxiliaries.

The Lakotas were safe in Canada, but lack of game forced them to cross the border on several occasions.  On July 17th., as Miles marched his men up the Milk River, his advance units--one of 5th. Infantry, one of the 2nd. Cavalry, and some Indian scouts, commanded by Lt. William Philo Clark--ran into more than 300 Indians under Sitting bull near the mouth of Beaver Creek.  Clark was outnumbered, but he harassed Sitting Bull into retreating.

Clark hounded the Hunkpapas for 12 miles, to a point near the mouth of Frenchman Creek, where the Indians sent the women and children over to the north bank of the Milk, then turned to face their pursuers.  Clark was having a tough time in the battle until Miles arrived with the rest of the command.  When they appeared, Sitting Bull's warriors sped north across the border with their families.

The Lakotas lost a large amount of property, although only about three were killed and three wounded.  Miles took an equal number of casualties.

February 12, 1880 Pumpkin Creek (Volborg, Montana)

Early in 1880, the Lakotas began warring along the Yellowstone River near Fort Keogh.   Hunkpapas fought with Gros Ventres on February 3rd., and on the 5th., 40 Lakotas attacked 3 hay cutters on Powder River, wounding two.  The workers reported the incident to the fort, and Sgt. T.B. Glover, 8 men of Company B, 2nd. Cavalry, and 11 Indian scouts went after the Lakotas.

A 65-mile chase took the soldiers to Pumpkin Creek, where they cornered six Indians, killing one and wounding two.  They captured the last three when a company of 5th. Infantry under Capt. Simon Snyder arrived.  Glover lost one soldier and one was wounded.

January 2, 1881 Poplar River (Poplar, Montana)

In late 1880, several Lakota bands were persuaded to surrender at the Poplar River Agency in Montana.  As they gathered, however, they became restive and belligerent, and the agent requested more soldiers.  Maj. Guido Ilges, 5th. Infantry, left Fort Keogh with 180 men--mounted detachments of Companies A, B, C, F, and G, of his regiment--for the 200-mile march to the agency.  There he joined up with agency units, adding a detachment of Company F, 7th. Cavalry, and Company F, 11th. Infantry, to his force.

With 300 men and two howitzers, Ilges moved out to meet the 400 Lakotas camped on the other side of the Missouri River.  The Indians fled to some nearby timber, and Ilges attacked, opening up with his howitzers, which quickly convinced the Indians to yield.   Eight Indians were killed and 324 gave up, turning over 200 horses and 69 rifles and pistols.  About 60 escaped

November 5, 1887 Crow Agency (Crow Agency, Montana).

Three years before the Ghost Dance fervor swept the Lakotas on the northern plains, the Crows experienced their own version.  The Crow Wraps-Up-His-Tail had a vision of a sward cutting a swath in the trees, which he took to be soldiers falling before him.   He inspired followers, who dressed in red flannel and carried swards.  Thus he became known as Sword Bearer.

When Sword Bearer's followers went on a horse-stealing raid among the Piegans, the Crow agent Henry E. Williamson took a dim view of the excursion.  He sent his police to arrest the raiders, but they were defiant and shot up the agency.  Williamson called for help.  A deluge of troops from Forts Custer and McKinney responded: Companies A, B, d, E, G, and K, of the 1st. Cavalry; Company A of the 7th. Cavalry; Company H of the 9th. Cavalry; Companies B and E of the 3rd. Infantry; Companies C, D, g, and I of the 7th. Infantry, with Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger in overall command.

Assured that his medicine was strong, Sword Bearer made a bravery ride in front of the soldiers, but they wounded him and his horse.  In the fight that followed, seven Crows were killed, nine more were wounded, and nine were captured.  One soldier was killed and two were wounded.

Sword Bearer ran away east of the Little Bighorn, but his father caught up to him and shamed him into returning.  Afterward, while taking a drink from the river a few miles north of the agency, the Crow policeman Fire Bear shot him in the back of the head, "for getting all these people into trouble."


Michino, Gregory F., Encyclopedia of Indian Wars, Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850 - 1890, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula Montana, Copyright 2003.