The Causes and Conduct of The Flight of the Nez Perce

The Nez Perce banded together and wandered the area, somewhat aimlessly.  Meanwhile, they demonstrated their cavalry skill by easily repelling a force sent by Howard.  Howard was undoubtedly chilled to the bone when a returning message referenced Custer (Nerburn, 97).  After fighting another successful defensive action, the Nez Perce made Looking Glass, who had decided to fight when drunken soldiers ransacked his village, the leader of all Nez Perce bands.  They decided to flee to Montana to join the friendly Flathead or Crow tribes, where they hoped to be left in peace.  If this did not work, they could always cross into Canada, where they had heard Sitting Bull was allowed to live unmolested by Federal soldiers.

Unfortunately, this was the one action guaranteed to be met with force by the Federal Government.  The greatest fear of General William T. Sherman was that numerous tribes would unite against American soldiers and citizens (Nerburn, 124).  He ordered Howard to pursue.

As Howard marched after the Nez Perce, Looking Glass made a strategic mistake.  Knowing that Howard was not within striking distance and believing that Howard would not follow, he allowed the Nez Perce to travel slowly and did not order any reconnaissance (Nerburn, 142).  As they slept, the Nez Perce were attacked by a force under the command of Colonel John Gibbon.  The Nez Perce warriors poured out of their tents, barely dressed, and grabbed any weapon they could to fight Gibbon.  Despite the odds, the Nez Perce fought ferociously to protect the women, children, and elderly of the tribe.  They succeeded in blunting Gibbon’s attack and forcing them off, but at the cost of the Nez Perce’s finest warriors.

Looking Glass was soon replaced by a fearless mixed blood named Poker Joe (Nerburn, 154).  With Poker Joe in command, the pace quickened.  He knew that Howard and the Federal Government would not rest until they were caught.  The only way they could escape the Whites was to join with the Crow Indians, especially since their “brothers” in the Flathead tribe refused to help them.  Poker Joe relentlessly marched the Nez Perce through Montana to Crow territory.

Meanwhile, General Howard was in a quandary.  Wherever he went, local towns begged Howard to send men to protect them.  If Howard did not, they criticized him.  If Howard stopped to help, he was criticized for not pursuing the Nez Perce as doggedly as he should (Nerburn, 163).  Howard was a lightning rod for criticism and General Sherman was tired of the Army being maligned by the press.  Howard attempted to improve his image by building the reputation of Chief Joseph.  Soon, the Eastern press had created the “Red Napoleon” out of the camp chief of the Nez Perce.

As Joseph’s reputation grew, Poker Joe led the Nez Perce to freedom.  He uncompromisingly drove the Nez Perce further into Montana.  As the force of Colonel Sturgis closed in, he executed a brilliant feint that left Sturgis guarding the wrong canyon (Nerburn, 182-183).  With Sturgis behind them, the Nez Perce were free to enter Crow territory.  Tragically, the Nez Perce did not know the extent to which the Whites had permeated even the Crow.  The Crow had no wish to earn the government’s fury by helping the renegade Nez Perce (Nerburn, 188).  The Nez Perce knew their only hope was to join Sitting Bull in Canada.

Poker Joe continued the killing pace north.  Animals continued to die and once they slowed down the group, the elderly were left behind to be brutally murdered by Howard’s Indian scouts.  The Nez Perce had a clear path to Canada.  Looking Glass, who believed that they were out of danger and therefore had no need to march at such an urgent pace, convinced the people to reinstate him as leader (Nerburn, 222).  Looking Glass slowed the pace of and eventually led the Nez Perce to within forty miles of the Canadian Border, where he decided to make camp at a location remarkably similar to Big Hole, the location of Gibbon’s ambush.  Poker Joe’s words as he stepped down undoubtedly haunted many of the Nez Perce who wanted to get to Canada without delay.  “Alright, Looking Glass, you can lead.  I am trying to save the people, doing my best to cross into the Old Woman Country (Canada) before the soldiers find us.  You can take control, but I think we will all be caught and killed” (Nerburn, 221-222).

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