In 1855, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Nez Perce tribe. According to this treaty, the government allowed the Nez Perce tribe to continue living on a huge portion of their ancestral land. But in 1860, gold was discovered on this land and white settlers started arriving.
The U.S. government then took away 90% of the land it had previously granted to the Nez Perce in the previous treaty and asked the tribe to move into a reservation site. The Nez Perce were angry at this betrayal and refused to move into the reservation.
The government then asked the U.S. army to force the Indians into the reservation. The Nez Perce decided to resist this and it finally led to the Nez Perce War. The Battle of White Bird Canyon was the first battle of the war.
In June, the Nez Perce tribe’s bands gathered at the White Bird Canyon area. Here they decided that they would not give up their freedom and live inside a reservation site. Meanwhile, a U.S. army under General O. O. Howard was making preparations to march towards the White Bird Canyon area and force the Nez Perce to surrender.
A portion of the U.S. army reached near the White Bird Canyon area by June 16. On the morning of June 17, both sides sent truce parties to conclude the conflict peacefully. But a civilian in the U.S. army’s truce party shot at the Indians and that immediately ended any hope for peaceful resolution. The opening shots were followed by the battle.
The Battle of White Bird Canyon was fought in Idaho County in the state of Idaho. It took place on June 17, 1877.
The U.S. soldiers were led by Captain David Perry and Captain Joel Graham Trimble. Together they commanded nearly 120 men. The Nez Perce warriors were led by Chief Joseph, White Bird and Ollokot. Only about 70 Nez Perce warriors took part in the battle.
The Nez Perce warriors had inferior weapons and only a few of them. But they knew the terrain well and use their weapons very effectively. Their horses also knew the terrain and proved very effective in the battle.
The U.S. army, on the other hand, was situated at a lower level of the hill and they had to fight uphill. When the Nez Perce warriors started firing at the army, many soldiers scattered. The lack of coordination among the soldiers also led to a confusion in the army.
The fighting continued for some time but by mid-day, most of the army had retreated from the battlefield. The Nez Perce pursued the retreating soldiers for many miles. Along the way, they were able to pick many weapons and a lot of ammunition left behind by the soldiers.
The battle was a significant victory for the Nez Perce warriors who, although outnumbered two to one, were able to use the terrain to their advantage. 34 U.S. soldiers died in the battle and 4 were wounded. The Nez Perce tribe suffered only 3 wounded warriors. After successfully fending off the army and taking additional weapons, the Nez Perce started their long journey towards the southeast in an attempt to escape the U.S. army following right behind them.