In the summer of 1876, nearly 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho encamped along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Under the leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other war chiefs, little did they know that the U.S. 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was approaching their encampment. On June 25th, both forces clashed in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn. With Custer's defeat, and other U.S. Military forces in pursuit, over the ensuing months Sitting Bull and his people journeyed to the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, clashed again with the U.S. Military at Slim Buttes, South Dakota, and had several other skirmishes in northern Montana. By the fall and winter of 1876, many of Sitting Bull's followers elected to seek refuge in Canada in the vicinity of Wood Mountain of Saskatchewan.
Fort Walsh was established in 1875 as a Northwest Mounted Police post in an effort to establish law and order in western Canada and to assert Canadian sovereignty in this region. Located in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta, Fort Walsh was under the superintendency of James Morrow Walsh. 120 miles (192 kilometers) east lay Wood Mountain and a growing refugee camp of Lakotas (Teton Sioux). On May 1st, 1877, Sitting Bull and the rest of his followers finally sought refuge in the 'country of the Great White Mother' (Canada) and arrived on Wood Mountain. Knowing full well the stature of Sitting Bull and the capability of the Lakota warriors, Major Walsh deftly handled the influx of nearly 5,000 Lakota by stating they were welcome to seek refuge in Canada, provided they obeyed Canadian laws and did not conduct raids into the United States, otherwise they would be expelled from Canada.
At the age of 35, James Walsh commanded Fort Walsh, but spent much time at the Wood Mountain outpost following the arrival of the Lakota. Walsh had a style and personality that impressed the Native American chiefs and they respected him for his honesty and fairness. He came to be known as the White Forehead Chief, but it was the U.S. press that called him "Sitting Bull's Boss".
Preceding the influx of Native American refugees, Fort Walsh was established to end the illegal whiskey trade across the "Medicine Line" (U.S.-Canada border). The westward migration of settlers prompted Canada to establish a policy of peaceable "assimilation" of First Nations onto Reserves and Fort Walsh played a role in helping to implement that policy. As the U.S. Military campaigns against the Native tribes increased, so did the exodus of refugees across the border into the Cypress Hills region, including the Nez Perce.
Just two days after the arrival of Sitting Bull in Canada, on May 3rd, 1877, in Fort Lapwai, Idaho, a commission headed by General Oliver Otis Howard informed the non-treaty Nez Perce they had just 30 days to move off their ancestral lands in northeastern Oregon onto the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho. On May 31st, led by Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce began what would eventually become a 1,170-mile (1,883 km) flight for freedom to Canada, only to be stopped 40 miles (64 km) short of the border in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana.
About 4:00 a.m. on September 30, army scouts brought word of the Nez Perce camp. Miles ordered his troops to march, expecting to surprise and overwhelm the Nez Perce with a sudden attack. The Nez Perce camp awoke on that fateful morning to cold weather, their calm soon shattered as the alarm went out, "Enemies right on us...soon the attack!" The 7th Cavalry's frontal attack resulted in heavy hand-to-hand combat. The 2nd Cavalry made a flanking movement and separated the Nez Perce from their horses. The 5th Infantry secured a high bench to the south, but the Nez Perce held their position and prevented any further advance.
After both sides suffered heavy casualties the first day, the troops enseiged the camp for five more days. On October 4, General O.O. Howard's troops arrived as reinforcements. On October 5, the final day of the battle, at 2:00 p.m., Chief Joseph, representing the remaining Nez Perce, offered his rifle to General Howard. Howard yielded the honor to Colonel Miles, thus ending the Nez Perce campaign.
Not all of the Nez Perce Indians with Chief Joseph yielded to American army troops in 1877. During and following the Battle of the Bear's Paw Mountains, September 30-October 5, more than 200 Nez Perce men, women, and children managed to flee the camp attacked by Colonel Nelson A. Miles and make their way north some forty miles to cross the border into the British Possessions. The trek ended with small bands of hungry, impoverished people straggling into Canada amid great uncertainty over the whereabouts and condition of those friends and relatives left behind. More than fifty people under Chief White Bird left the battlefield the night of October 5 following Joseph's surrender to Miles and General O.O. Howard. The news they brought of the deaths of their leaders and of Joseph's surrender caused much grieving to those who had escaped earlier.
The refugees immediately sought relief in an encampment of Lakotas under the famed leader Sitting Bull who had themselves fled to Canada during the closing stages of the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. Over succeeding weeks and months, the Sioux shared their tipis with the Nez Perces, giving them food and clothing until the people could begin to provide for themselves. Eventually, the Nez Perces raised their own lodges and established an independent camp. The relationship between the Nez Perces and the Lakotas, while empathetic, proved uneasy. For one thing, different languages produced communication problems; for another, they had been hereditary enemies.
In mid-October, 1877, the United States Government sent a commission headed by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry to negotiate Sitting Bull's return to the United States. But the specter of wounded Nez Perces coming among the Sioux fresh from Bear's Pawa vivid reminder of the Lakotas' own plightquickly dashed any prospect that Sitting Bull would yield (he would remain in Canada until 1881). The Nez Perces shortly met with Superintendent James M. Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police to formalize their presence on British soil. White Bird informed him that some of the Nez Perces desired to remain with the Sioux, while others cared to move farther north to the Cypress Hills. Yet the people had become dependent on the Lakotas, and rumors circulated that in many instances they were being treated badly by Sitting Bull's followers. It is clear that within a short time many of the Nez Perces wanted to return home to the area of the Lapwai Agency in Idaho Territory.
In July of 1878, Lieutenant George W. Baird was sent north by the U.S. Army with three Nez Perce captives to persuade Chief White Bird to return to the United States. With the consent and presence of Commissioner James F. MacLeod, a meeting between Chief White Bird and Lt. Baird took place in the Superintendent's residence at Fort Walsh. The meeting was unsuccessful because Chief White Bird decided to remain in Canada, but it did reflect the international cooperation that existed between Northwest Mounted Police and U.S. Army authorities during a very tense period of border difficulties.
Superintendent Walsh found himself under increasing political pressure from Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, to strongly convince the refugees to return to the U.S. In fact, Walsh did convince 4,000 refugees to return, but with such high-profile individuals as Sitting Bull and White Bird refusing to leave, it was insufficient to prevent was reassignment to Fort Qu'Appelle.
The exodus of the Nez Perces back into the United States began in the late spring of 1878. Several groups started leaving in June, a dangerous venture because of enemy tribes that lay ahead. They had to steal horses and cattle to sustain them, occasionally provoking confrontations near the white communities they passed. Some were killed by U.S. Army soldiers they encountered. Those who were captured were imprisoned and later sent to join Joseph and his people in the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). Meantime, a formal attempt by the U.S. Government to negotiate the return of the Nez Perces with White Bird failed when the chief flatly told the commissioners: "We will not go."
Yet continuing difficulties with the Sioux led to attempts by the Nez Perces to distance themselves from Sitting Bull. Following a failed attempt by the Lakota chief to unite the Sioux, Nez Perces, and Crows of Montana into a coalition to fight American soldiers, the remaining Nez Perces grew tired of their association with the Lakotas and wanted to go home. Small parties continued to trickle across the border. The dwindling buffalo herds in Canada presently caused Sitting Bull's people to begin crossing the line and surrendering, and in 1881 the Lakota leader surrendered at Fort Buford, Dakota. In 1885, the Nez Perces with Chief Joseph in the Indian Territory were permitted to go back to the Northwest, with some returning to Lapwai and the others under Joseph settling on the Colville Reservation in Washington Territory.
White Bird never returned from Canada. He moved his few remaining lodges to near the Piegan reserve in Alberta where the people raised stout cabins of poplar and pine. Some of them took jobs with freighters around Fort Macleod, while others sold berries to survive. By the 1890s, seemingly only a few families of Nez Perces remained in Canada with White Bird and were apparently content to stay north of the line for good. In 1892, almost eleven years after Sitting Bull had gone over to the Americans, White Bird became involved in a quarrel with another Nez Perce who killed the chief not far from his home. White Bird's slayer was arrested by North-West Mounted Police. Following the murder, the remaining Nez Perces dispersed, some going to live on the Piegan reserve while others moved back to Lapwai or gradually died off in Canada.
At Bear Paw Battlefield and Big Hole National Battlefield, Montana, the National Park Service is charged with telling the story of the Nez Perce flight and War in 1877. The story and the trail Nez Perce people blazed (recognized by the U.S. Congress as a National Historic Trail) does not end at the international boundary. It continues into Canada and on to Fort Walsh.
At Fort Walsh National Historic Site, Saskatchewan, Parks Canada has reconstructed both Farewell's and Solomon's Trading Posts and historic Fort Walsh, documenting the whiskey trade that precipitated the Cypress Hills Massacre and the role the Northwest Mounted Police (now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) played in helping to control the lawlessness of western Canada, aided in the peaceable assimilation of First Nations as westward migration of Canada ensued, and handled the influx of U.S. Native Americans in their conflict with the U.S. military.
These park units preserve a rich history of our two nations and native cultures.
Today, many Nez Perce have Canadian relatives who are the descendants of individuals who escaped into the Cypress Hills to camp with the Lakota people. The Nez Perce travel to Canada every year to host a pipe ceremony and other commemorative activities with their Canadian friends and families, commemorating the sacrifices made by their ancestors.
Last Updated: 28-Nov-2014