Battle of White Bird Canyon

Battle of White Bird Canyon

The Battle of White Bird Canyon was fought on June 17, 1877 in Idaho Territory. The battle was the opening battle of the war with the Nez Perce nation and represented a significant defeat of the U.S. Army. It was fought in the western part of present-day Idaho County, Idaho, southwest of the city of Grangeville.

Prelude to War

The original treaty between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce, signed in 1855, established a reservation that acknowledged the ancestral homelands of the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu (Nee-Me-Poo) as they call themselves. In 1860, the discovery of gold on the Nez Perce reservation brought an uncontrolled influx of miners and settlers into the area. Despite numerous treaty violations, the Nez Perce remained peaceful. In 1863, responding to pressures to make land available to settlers, the U.S. government forced another treaty on the Nez Perce, reducing the size of the reservation by 90%. The leaders of the bands living outside the new reservation refused to sign the "steal treaty" and continued to live outside the new reservation boundaries until the spring of 1877. In May 1877, under threat of force from the U.S. Army, the non-treaty bands moved from their homelands towards the new reservation. The Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) Band, led by Chief Joseph, lost a large number of horses and cattle crossing rivers swollen with spring runoff. The bands eventually gathered at Tepahlewam, the traditional camping ground on the Camas Prairie at Tolo Lake to enjoy the last days of their traditional lifestyle.

It was emotional rendezvous. Not all the people agreed with the course of peace and compliance. On June 14, three young men, including Wahlitits entered the Salmon River area to seek revenge for the 1875 murder of Wahlitits' father, Tipyahlanah Siskan. The proclaimed success of their mission roused the desire for vengeance among other warriors and resulted in more attacks on settlers in the area. As least 18 settlers were killed in skirmishes with Nez Perce. Settlers sent messengers from the community of Mt Idaho to Fort Lapwai describing these events and demanding assistance from the military.

The Nez Perce at Tepahlewam were aware that General O.O. Howard would be preparing to send his soldiers against them. By June 16, the bands had moved to the defensible canyons of Lahmotta. That night, sentinels reported the approach of General Howard's soldiers from the north. After much deliberation, it was decided that they would stay at Lahmotta, make an effort to avoid war, but fight if they were foced to do so.

Truce Party

At daybreak on June 17, approximately 60 to 70 Nez Perce warriors were in various stages of preparation for the expected attack. Many had left camp and positioned themselves in the ravines and hills surrounding their camp in White Bird Canyon. Six Nez Perce warriors waited with a white flag to discuss a truce with the approaching army.

One hundred and six mounted soldiers from Companies F & H of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Captain David Perry, along with eleven civilian volunteers from Mt. Idaho, descended into White Bird Canyon along a wagon road from the north east. An advance party, consisting of Lieutenant Edward Theller, Trumpeter John Jones, a few Nez Perce scouts employed by the Lapwai Agency, seven soldiers from Company F and Authur "Ad" Chapman made first contact with the truce party. Yellow Wolf later gave this account:

:"Five warriors, led by Wettiwetti Houlis...had been sent out from the other [west] side of the valley as a peace party to meet the soldiers. These warriors had instructions from the chiefs not to fire unless fired upon. Of course they carried a white flag. Peace might be made without fighting."

For reasons never fully explained, the volenteers that were traviving with cpt Perry fired at the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce returned fire, and the battle was joined.

The Battle

Advancing to the northwest ridge line, Lieutenant Theller deployed his men. Trumpeter Jones was ordered to signal a call to arms. Before Jones could finish his trumpet call, he was shot from his horse by Otstotpoo, positioned over convert|300|yd away on a knoll to the east. Captain Perry's Company F dismounted and formed a skirmish line on the east side of the Theller's advance party, while Company H, led by Captain Trimble, deployed a mounted line on the west side of Theller's position. The volunteers attempted to position themselves on the north ridge line.

Captain Perry believed his left flank to be protected from attack by the volunteers on the ridge. From his position, Perry could not see activities of the volunteers. Shortly after leaving the main column, the volunteers, now led by George Shearer, encountered warriors hidden in the bushes below and to the east. Shearer ordered his men to dismount and fight on foot. A few obeyed, but the majority retreated back towards Mt Idaho. Seeking protection in Perry's command, Shearer led his few remaining men to the top of the ridgeline. In this position, Shearer found himself between the attack on Perry's left flank led by Two Moons and the sniping fire from warriors protecting the White Bird camp.

Perry ordered an attacking charge on the warriors on his left flank. He ordered a dropping of carbines, and drawing of pistols for the anticipated charge. He ordered Trumpeter Daly to sound the charge but Daly had lost his trumpet. Perry's lines of communications to his troops was lost with the trumpet. Perry ordered a dismount and subordinates ordered a "Number fours" which caused every fourth man to take the reins of the horses and led them out of the line of fire. The remaining soldiers of Company F then advanced on foot to the ridge line.

Meanwhile, Company H attempted to deploy at five yard intervals along the ridge while still mounted. This proved disastrous, since the horse were flighty and the troop inexperienced. They could not shoot from the backs of their terrified horses.

Captain Perry, riding back and forth between the two companies, saw the volunteers retreating up the canyon. Several events then occurred that sealed the fate of the cavalry in the Battle of White Bird. Perry's left flank and Trimble's right flank were compromised. Meanwhile, Captain Trimble dispatched Sergeant Michael McCarthy and six men to the highest point above the battle. to protect his rear and right flank. Perry also noticed the rock cliffs and sent soldiers to assist McCarthy.


Seeing further collapse of his flank, Perry sent word down the line to withdraw to McCarthy's position, about convert|300|yd to the north. Confused and suffering numerous casualties, Perry's order was misinterpreted as a general retreat by Company F. Company H, seeing the urgent retreat of Company F, joined the flight and left McCarthy and his men stranded.

Sensing growing victory, Ollokot's mounted warriors chased the retreating soldiers. McCarthy, aware that he was cut off from the main detachment, galloped towards the retreating troops. Captain Trimble ordered McCarthy to return to his position in an attempt to take high ground. Trimble could not muster any supporting troops for McCarthy's position. Lieutenant Parnell saw McCarthy's predicament and rallied ten men from Company H. However, only McCarthy and another soldier were able to be rescued.

The retreat followed two general routes. Lieutenant Parnell and Lieutenant Trimble led their men in an attempted to retrace their morning approach towards the White Bird camp. Under fire they turned up a box canyon, ran out of ammunition and were killed by the warriors. Captain Perry and Captain Trimble retreated to the northwest up steep ridge lines. They reached the Camas Prairie beyond the ridge line and were able to regroup at Johnson's Ranch. Within minutes, Nez Perce warriors pressed the attack and the survivors retreated under fire towards Mt Idaho where they were rescued by fresh volunteers.


By mid-morning, 34 U.S. Cavalry soldiers had been killed and 2 had been wounded, while 2 volunteers had also been wounded in the opening of the battle. In contrast, only three Nez Perce warriors had been wounded. Approximately 63 carbines, many pistols, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were picked up off the battlefield by Nez Perce warriors. These weapons greatly enhanced the Nez Perce arsenal for the remaining months of the war. The battle in White Bird Canyon was a lopsided victory for the Nez Perce. Outnumbered two to one and fighting uphill with inferior weapons, the Nez Perce used their intuitive fighting skills to win the first battle of the Nez Perce war.

External links

* [ Nez Perce National Historical Park]
* [ WildWest Magazine, The Battle of White Bird Canyon]

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