Scientists Wake Up Ghosts at Nez Perces' Last Stand : History: Archeologists scour a Montana park, seeking clues to the battle in 1877 that doomed the tribe.


Along the North Fork of the Big Hole River, Wilford Halfmoon stopped to listen. And there it was again, just beyond the wind--the sound of battle, a faint rumbling that came up from the pines and, growing louder, dizzied his head with whirling visions.

Ever since his parents first brought him here as a child, Halfmoon has walked the skirmish lines of the Big Hole National Battlefield, drawn again and again back to the place where his people--the Nez Perce--were massacred in their final days of freedom 114 years ago. Here his great-grandfather, Five Wounds, was mortally wounded in a suicide charge against Col. John Gibbon's soldiers.

Eighty or so Indians, many of them women, children and old men, died here; and, over the years, Halfmoon has come to think of himself as their guardian, protecting these hallowed grounds that to the Nez Perce are tantamount to Arlington National Cemetery.

Once, when he camped by the river's bend where the tepees had stood, he awoke to the ghostly echo of soldiers' footsteps splashing across the creek and the wails of mourning squaws. Then the silence of the valley returned, but he did not sleep again that night.

"It is difficult to comprehend," Halfmoon, 39, said. "Why should someone be killed just for being an Indian?"

That question may never be answered adequately. But archeologists surveying one of the West's most romanticized battlefields are coming up with other answers that add rich historical detail to the 1,600-mile retreat across Idaho and Montana of Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce.

In 11 weeks, they engaged 10 separate U.S. commands in 13 battles, winning or fighting to a standoff all but the last, in what Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman called "one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record."

The archeologists--a group of volunteer hobbyists and a handful of National Park rangers--spent August scouring the Big Hole Valley battlefield with the help of metal detectors, laser transits and computers.

Their survey, funded by singer Hank Williams Jr., who owns a nearby ranch, was intended to unearth clues that would enable historians and anthropologists to understand the full story of the U.S. 7th Infantry's surprise attack on the Nez Perce encampment just before dawn on Aug. 9, 1877.

"It cost me a bloody fortune to get here, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world," said one of the volunteers, Derek Batten, 60, of England, who participated in a similar survey at the Custer Battlefield in 1989. "I feel like I am touching history."

Eight hours a day, Batten and the others fanned across bald hillsides and plodded through clusters of willows and ponderosa pines at the foot of the Bitterroot Range, metal detectors beeping at every hint of buried evidence. Each find--an 1841 Mississippi rifle, a trowel bayonet, a stone and earthen oven, buttons from an infantryman's blouse, a skillet handle, thousands of spent cartridges--was like a speck of paint that eventually would become a portrait.

By studying the placement of the cartridge cases, the archeologists are determining the lines of skirmish and retreat. The markings of a firing pin on a casing--each mark as distinctive as a fingerprint--enable them to trace the movement of individual rifles, and thus that of the men who used them. One unspent round, cut in two, probably indicated that a soldier had removed its powder to sear the wound of a comrade. Several other bullets unearthed by a ravine, their tips mushroomed by impact, may have been the ones that struck Five Wounds and will undergo laboratory tests in a search for particles of flesh.

Halfmoon, a ranger at the Big Hole National Park, accepted the survey with reluctance. "I may be backing the wrong horse," he told his supervisor. He wondered if it was appropriate to disturb the spirits of the Nez Perce buried on the battlefield. He worried--unnecessarily, as it turned out--that the surveyors would not respect the sanctity of the site.

On many afternoons, he slipped silently up the hillside trail behind them to watch their progress from unseen lookouts in the forest and sagebrush. "Part of me just wanted to let things be," he said, "and the other part said there are things to be learned here. Let's see what secrets history is hiding."

In the time of Halfmoon's great-grandparents, the Nez Perce were a wealthy, culturally advanced people, with tepees made of hide, not canvas, their treasury stocked with gold earned by selling horses and cattle to Idaho settlers. The tribe had befriended Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the Bitterroots in 1805, saving their expedition from disaster, and had boasted before the four-month war of 1877 that it had never shed any Caucasian blood. But, with the settlement of Idaho, cultures clashed, skirmishes ensued.

Rejecting subjugation on a reservation, Chief Joseph and five bands of Nez Perce left Idaho in June, headed for Canada, pursued by U.S. soldiers, whom they fought at White Bird Canyon, the Clearwater River and other spots along their trail of retreat.

"I . . . was made not to suffer the bondage of government," one of the Nez Perce warriors, Shot-in-the-Head, was later quoted as saying. "I would be as the coyote and the wolf . . . seeking to die in the wild forest alone . . . to be eaten by the wolf's fang or the vulture's beak, instead of the slow dying of bondage."

They reached Montana's buffalo country in early August, thinking the war was behind them, and set up camp along the North Fork. There were about 800 of them, including 125 warriors, and so confident were they of their security that their war chief, Looking Glass, did not bother to send out sentries or scout the back trail. Had he done so, he would have known that Col. Gibbon, marching from Ft. Shaw with 146 soldiers and 34 civilian volunteers, was closing in on the Big Hole Valley.

"We came to the place in the afternoon, towards evening," White Bird said. "We stayed that night and the next day. Evening came on again and it was after sundown--not too late--lots of us children were playing. It was below the camp towards the creek that we . . . boys played the stick or bone game. They were noisy, having lots of fun, and I was with them. We were only having a good time."

The soldiers struck at 4 a.m. "We . . . said it was a shame to kill these people," Cpl. Charles Loynes later recalled, "but we were soldiers and had to do as told."

After taking heavy initial casualties, the Nez Perce regrouped and forced the soldiers into defensive positions. " . . . Two brave women must have run for shelter," said Red Wolf, "but seeing so many women and children falling, got guns, maybe from dead soldiers, and helped drive the enemies from the camp."

By the time Chief Joseph and his people slipped away two days later, continuing their march toward northern Montana's Bear Paw Mountains and Canada, 40 soldiers and about 80 Indians lay dead. Although the soldiers fought as valiantly as the Indians--seven enlisted men won the Medal of Honor and all surviving officers earned battlefield promotions--the New York Times would later editorialize that the Nez Perce war "on our part, was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime."

Wilford Halfmoon picked up an imaginary rifle as though to aim it. He was trying to figure out precisely where his great-grandfather had been shot, and he decided that right here, by the shallow pit two soldiers had desperately dug with their trowel bayonets, was probably where the fatal bullets had been fired.

He sighted, tightened his trigger finger and in his mind's eye could see Five Wounds fall. "When I was a teen-ager," he said, "I got real radical. Braids. Long hair. I could condemn the U.S. government with the best. I knew who stole our land. I knew what Christianity did to my people. But now, well, after the Army, after college, I got interested in interpreting the history here, and that, I guess, means understanding both sides."

That night in the Nez Perce Motel, before a dinner of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and pizza at the Antlers Saloon across the street, Doug Scott, the ranger who directs the archeological project, sat at his laptop computer, entering data about cartridge casings found earlier in the day.

The screen filled with numbered dots that swept along the ravine where Five Wounds had died, then thinned out by a wooded slope.

"Everything is speculation until we study and analyze the information this winter, but what we believe is happening," said Scott, his finger tracing a maze of dots, "is that this concentration represents a skirmish line. We've got another nice line here, where the soldiers dropped back to set up another position. Then we lose the line. What I'm betting is that the guys were moving back toward the woods, then they just broke."

Some of the people represented by those computer dots--the Nez Perce who survived Big Hole--moved up the mountainous spine of Montana and, in the first days of autumn, reached the Bear Paw Mountains on the doorstep of Canada. Federal troops caught up with them there. In four days of fighting, the Indians' pony herd was driven off, casualties mounted and food supplies were exhausted except for dried meat.

Finally, rejecting the council of his warriors, Chief Joseph agreed to surrender the Nez Perce nation.

Just before nightfall on Oct. 5, 1877, with snow falling across the high prairies, he rode out across a dry river bed, wearing a blanket and leggings, his rifle across his saddle. He was 37 years old.

He dismounted in front of six U.S. officers and an interpreter, handed his weapon to Col. Nelson Miles and said: "I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. The old men are all killed . . . . It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death . . . . I want time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Chief Joseph and his 417 followers were taken as prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth. "We are a doomed people," he said not long afterward.

The Nez Perce have lived on reservations since their surrender and today are concentrated in northwestern Idaho, their former homeland. Some are trying to buy back land now in private and public hands. Although their population is increasing and now numbers over 3,000, elders believe the Nez Perce language will die in another generation or two.

Halfmoon, his wife and daughter are the only Nez Perce left in the Big Hole Valley region. "I can't blame anyone for what happened," he says. "The people who did it are gone. They came from a different time, a different age."

Free lance writer Karen Sullivan in Butte, Mont., contributed to this story.

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