Big Hole Battlefield

Our last destination on the trip was the May Creek Campground in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Wisdom, Montana. This was the campground Zach had selected as our return waypoint. Setting off from Coeur d’Alene, we had a nearly five hour drive, which gave us plenty of time to stop for lunch in Missoula. On our way we drove through areas of Idaho we’re interested in returning to explore, like Kellogg, Wallace, the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail, and Old Mission State Park.

In Missoula we stopped for lunch and a beer at Tamarack Brewing and did a little shopping on Higgins Avenue before diverting to Highlander Beer. We just can’t resist stopping by when we’re in town.

Sippin’ creekside at Highlander

Back on the road, we started toward the campground. Our route took us south along the gorgeous Bitterroot Range. Mountain homes and ranches dotted the roadside as we pressed on toward the Continental Divide where we briefly passed into Idaho before turning east toward the Big Hole Valley.

Recalling our difficulty in Spokane, we were slightly concerned about finding a spot. Once we turned into the campground though, it was evident we wouldn’t have that problem. We were even able to choose a site without any neighbors. In the morning, I tried to sleep in after a fitful night, but Zach was up and ready to go. He started packing up the tent while I was still in it!

Our last campsite

Our only planned stop of the day was a morning visit to the nearby Big Hole Battlefield, one of 38 sites that form the Nez Perce National Historical Park. Set on the edge of the forest, the battlefield memorializes one of the battles between the Nez Perce tribe and US Army during the Nez Perce War in 1877. The visitor center is perched on a hill overlooking the battlefield and contains two small rooms of displays. As someone with little to no knowledge of the Nez Perce War – how it began, why it was fought, how it ended – I appreciated the emphasis on the Nez Perce perspective, but I was confused about the greater context or background of the battle. I had to do a little research after the fact to help fill in the details I was missing and grasp the battlefield’s significance.

As the desire to fulfill America’s Manifest Destiny continued to swallow the West, the Nez Perce tribe agreed to a treaty in 1855 in which a substantial portion of their ancestral homeland was preserved as a reservation. 7.5 million acres were relinquished to the US, with the Nez Perce allowed to continue to hunt and fish in those areas. However, once gold was discovered on the Nez Perce reservation in 1860, the US government decided to draft a new treaty, one that would reduce the reservation drastically – by 90%. Although 51 Nez Perce signatures were obtained, the majority of Nez Perce – who would be physically displaced by the new treaty – disagreed with the agreement and refused to sign. It was this treaty (Treaty of 1863) and the discontent and distrust it inspired, that eventually led to the Nez Perce War. Fighting broke out in 1877, as the US Army attempted to force the Nez Perce to the new reservation. Over that summer a succession of battles ensued and the Nez Perce fled across 1,170 miles and three states.

The battlefield from the visitor center

The Battle of Big Hole was fought in early August after the Nez Perce had entered Montana via Lolo Pass. Unaware that US troops were in pursuit, they believed they were safe in Montana, a place that had always been friendly to the native population, and that the war was over. Instead, US troops staged a surprise attack in the early hours of August 9 startling the unsuspecting tribe. Though the warriors were able to fight back and managed to capture the Army’s howitzer, it was only long enough to allow families to regroup, bury their dead, and flee. Among the many injured, 60-90 Nez Perce men, women, and children were killed in the battle.

From the visitor center, we could see how indefensible their camp was in the open valley. Battle Mountain rises over the plain, and though there are willows along the river, there is no where to find decent cover.

Walking toward the Nez Perce camp
One of the Army’s positions was in the grove of trees at the base of the mountain

There are two walking paths on the valley floor, one to the location of the Nez Perce camp, and the other up to the US Army’s position. We decided to walk to the camp, a sacred site for the Nez Perce today. There were tipi skeletons situated where the camp would have been, and we could easily imagine how defenseless their position must have felt. The whole area retained an aura of loss.

When we left the battlefield, we began our drive toward the Interstate, our direct line to Salt Lake. The small highway we were using – MT 278 – mirrored the road Lewis and Clark used on their return east, which had been molded into the earth by the feet of Native Americans before them. Before we left the Beaverhead Mountains behind (part of the Bitterroot Range), we stopped at an historical marker on Big Hole Pass overlooking the Hamilton Ranch and Big Hole Valley below. Here we encountered the other side of Manifest Destiny – Anglo settlement of the land. The valley, named by French fur trappers, has a history of cattle ranching dating to the mid-1800s, well before it was homesteaded. Called the Land of 10,000 Hay Stacks, the valley’s native grasses create superb hay and well-fed cattle. The Beaver Slide, a mechanism for forming massive stacks of hay, was invented here to help preserve the nutrients in the grass as it dried.

Standing atop Big Hole Pass
A beaver slide – something we’ve noticed throughout rural Montana

After a break in Dillon, Montana, at our usual stop (Sweetwater Coffee), we began the long slog to Truman and Salt Lake, our home for only one more week.

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