Battle of the Big Hole

What was happening in 1877

In 1877, the Nez Perce War began. This war was fought between the Native American tribe and the U.S. Army. The Nez Perce refused to settle down in a government reservation and didn’t want to give up their ancestral lands. Previously, the U.S. government had allowed them to live in these lands but now the government wanted to re-locate them.

This made the Nez Perce angry and they fought off a small U.S. army sent to evacuate them. Then the Nez Perce started to retreat towards the southwest and the U.S. army continued to pursue them. During this pursuit, many battles took place between the Nez Perce tribe and the U.S. army. The Battle of Big Hole was one of them.

When and where did the battle take place?

The Battle of Big Hole took place on August 9, 1877 and August 10, 1877. It was fought in the Beaverhead County in Montana.

Commanders on both sides

The U.S. army was led by Colonel John Gibbon. He had around 200 soldiers in his army. The Nez Perce warriors were led by Chief Joseph and Looking Glass. Their army also comprised of around 200 warriors.

Before the battle

The Nez Perce tribe was retreating from a U.S. army under General Oliver Otis Howard. They were able to successfully fight back this army at a few points during their retreat and then continued to move on from Idaho to Montana. In late July, 1877, the Nez Perce tribe entered the Bitterroot Valley in Montana.

At this point, they comprised of around 700 people including 200 warriors. The Nez Perce expected that they had successfully outrun the army that was following them and so they continued their journey towards the east at a leisurely pace. But unknown to them, a smaller army under Colonel John Gibbon was also moving towards them at this time. This army came upon the Nez Perce camp at the Big Hole area in Montana. This is where the battle then took place.

The Fighting

At first, Gibbon and his army took the Nez Perce camp by surprise. They attacked the camp on August 10, 1877 and started firing at the Indians. The Nez Perce fled into the surrounding area in chaos but were soon able to rally. They then sent ahead the women and children while the warriors found good defensive positions and started firing at Gibbon’s army.

Gibbon’s army had a howitzer which was able to inflict some damage on the Nez Perce warriors but soon the Nez Perce warriors reached the position of the howitzer and took possession of it. They then continued to fire on Gibbon’s soldiers who had dug up defensive positions and were stuck in it due to the fire from the Nez Perce warriors.

On August 10, 1877, a handful of Nez Perce warriors continued firing while the rest went ahead along with the rest of the Nez Perce camps. These warriors also eventually left, successfully fighting off Gibbon’s army and then continuing their journey.


The Nez Perce were successful in fighting back effectively, even when taken by surprise. Gibbon’s army suffered around 60 casualties with 30 dead and 40 wounded. The Nez Perce suffered around 80 casualties including 30 warriors of the tribe. The Nez Perce successfully continued their journey eastwards and Gibbon failed in his objective to stop their retreat.

Learn More about Battle of the Big Hole 1877 at Wikipedia