The Battle of White Bird Canyon took place below what locals know as White Bird Hill. It’s anything but a hill, though. The summit of the “hill”-(4,425 ft.) is a mountain pass, in north central Idaho. It stands midway between the small community of White Bird and Grangeville, Idaho.
At about the 2,700 ft. mark is small pull-out. Overseeing the canyon’s rim, stands a shelter, for visitors. It contains information on how, why and when the battle took place and shows a map of the area.
Without binoculars, it’s easy to see the location of the battle. A five-mile long canyon, 1 mile wide.
In 1877 a small band of Nez Perce sought revenge on settlers for a murder of some of their own in 1875. The settlers, in turn, requested intervention by the military.
A garrison of Calvary and volunteers from Fort Lapwai, gave pursuit, lead by General Howard. Knowing this, the main tribe of Nez Perce moved from their meeting place at Camas Prairie to Salmon River country.
Cooler heads of the tribe tried to initiate a truce. Before
the meeting could take place, a shot rang out from one of the volunteers. In response, an Army Trumpeter was killed.
Like the Nez Perce, Capt. Perry of the First Calvary had prepositioned some of his men in case things went wrong. Without his trumpeter, he lost communication with other units. Because of this he dismounted and set up a skirmish line.
In the ensuing battle, most of the volunteers grew afraid and deserted their positions. Those that made it to the Calvary on the ridges, retreated in panic.
Thirty-four soldier’s died along with 3 Nez Perce. Knowing General Howard would pursue them the Nez Perce fled across the Salmon River. It took another four long months before Howard would catch up to them.
*To read more, check out the .pdf of “Forlorn Hope”: A Study of the Battle of White Bird Canyon Idaho and the Beginning of the Nez Perce Indian War. (This account contains a court inquiry after the battle with the surviving members and gives excellent first-hand accounts).
*Another great .pdf resource comes from the U.S. Army-“Staff Ride Handbook and Atlas Battle of White Bird Canyon 17 June 1877.”