In the early morning of August 9, 1877, gun shots pierced the silence of a sleeping, unsuspecting Nez Perce camp. U.S. soldiers began the bloody clash with several bands of the Nez Perce (Nimi'ipuu) tribe just west of present day Wisdom, Montana. The battle persisted for over a day and a half, with both sides taking heavy losses. This national battlefield is a step into history and serves to honor those who fought and died.
Colonel John Gibbon was under orders to forcibly relocate the remaining Nez Perce bands, who were being led by Chief Joseph, to the Lapwai Reservation in North Central Idaho. Gibbon marched his soldiers, civilian volunteers, and a howitzer down the Bitterroot Valley to the now-named Battle Mountain across from the Nez Perce encampment. U.S. soldiers crept through the willows surrounding the North Fork of the Big Hole River and took aim. U.S. soldiers were ordered to shoot their volleys low into the tipis and then set them on fire. An estimated 29 U.S. soldiers and 60 to 90 Nez Perce lost their lives at the Battle of the Big Hole. Many of the Nez Perce victims were women, children, and elders.
With serious losses and disheartened spirits, the Nez Perce fled the battle and headed east toward present day Yellowstone National Park. They sought aid from the Crow people; unfortunately, with the U.S. soldiers not far behind, they were denied refuge. This time they fled north toward Canada but were stopped 40 miles short in another bloody encounter, the Battle of the Bear Paw. Some Nez Perce made it to Canada to join the Sioux, but the rest were sent to Oklahoma only to be relocated again in Washington, never to see their native lands again.
Today, the entire battlefield landscape is preserved for visitors. The visitor center rests high on a hillside overlooking the battlefield. Here visitors can learn more about the historic battle and the Nez Perce through informative displays, talks on the deck and the summer speaker series. Visitors can also access the battlefield directly through a ranger led-tour or by a self-guided walk on three short trails. A 0.8 mile (one-way) trail winds east along the river to the Nez Perce encampment, today marked by the frames of dozens of tipis. The other trails leads up Battle Mountain to the siege area, where an overlook of the battlefield and a replica Howitzer can be seen.
The Big Hole National Battlefield is just one of the stops along the Nez Perce Historic Trail.