Camas Meadows Battle Site
by June Cook, Volunteer
The 1877 Nez Perce War proved costly for both the Nez Perce Indians and U.S. Soldiers. Several battles made up this fight to capture the Nez Perce, leaving behind a trail of carnage. Clark County is a county rich with historical meaning, part of that being the Camas Meadows Battle Site. This site was home to a battle between a group of soldiers made up of several different cavalries and volunteers led by Major General Oliver O. Howard, and a band of Nez Perce Indians.
On August 11, 1877 Major Howard, in his pursuit of the Nez Perce, came upon the camp of Colonel John Gibbon and his 7th U.S. Infantry. Just two days prior, Colonel Gibbon had engaged in battle with the Nez Perce himself at the Battle of Big Hole. Both sides incurred great loses. Late on the 9th, Gibbon decided to abandon his attack on the Indians and he and his men retreated into the timber, where Indian sharpshooters kept them pinned down until dusk. By the time night had crept into the hills surrounding the troops, the Indians had vanished. On the 13th, Major Howard resumed his pursuit of the Nez Perce. Although Howard was back on the Nez Perce’s trail, the tribe now had a 72 hour lead. The Nez Perce put that head start to good use by traveling over 100 miles with their wounded, families and possessions in tow.
On August 18th, Howard was joined by Captain Randolph Norwood and his 2nd U.S. Cavalry, which was comprised of 50 men. Having been informed by Buffalo Horn and his Bannock scouts that the Nez Perce were only 15 to 18 miles ahead of their unit, Howard urged his men forward. On the evening of the 19th, Howard came upon Camas Meadows and set up his headquarters in the camp that the Nez Perce had just vacated. Just like Howard, the Nez Perce also had scouts.
An Indian scout brought word back to the camp of the Nez Perce informing them that the soldiers were close by. Going on a vision seen by Black Hair the previous night while they were camped at Camas Meadows, a plan was formulated. The Nez Perce decided to use the dark of night to cloak their actions and go into Howard’s camp and take away their horses. Warriors made their way to Howard’s camp and commenced with cutting their horses loose. However, a premature shot was fired that ceased the horse freeing and led to a stampede of horses and pack mules. The Indians did not stay to fight the soldiers, but instead drove their bounty toward their camp.
Meanwhile, Howard’s camp has come alive with inexperienced soldiers, chaos, frightened horseflesh and gunfire. Howard ordered three companies to pursue the Indians. However, with confusion abounding in camp, the soldiers already were at a disadvantage with the Indians having a substantial lead. The three companies set out after the Nez Perce in parallel columns, but soon became so widely separated that they lost contact with each other. Approximately five miles from camp, Captain Norwood and his men came upon the Indians, and Norwood gave the order for his men to dismount and engage in long-range rifle exchanges. The two columns that had gotten separated from Norwood’s men, came upon the flanks of the Indians, surmised that they had been ambushed and quickly turned tail and retreated. The Nez Perce took note of this retreat and began an offensive movement on Norwood’s soldiers. Norwood gathered his men and relocated them to a position better suited for defense and erected rifle pits.
By this time Howard had come upon the retreating columns and quickly turned them around and headed toward Norwood. Howard and his men were riding hard in hopes they would make it to Norwood’s defense before it was too late. Luckily for Norwood, when the Indians saw the reinforcements progressing forward, they broke off the battle and returned to their camp.
During this four hour battle, the Nez Perce suffered wounds but staved off casualties. The soldiers; however, did not fare as well and lost two soldiers, and eight more were wounded. The Battle at Camas Meadows also garnered four soldiers the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery. Those soldiers were: First Sergeant Henry Wilkins, Corporal Harry Roland, Farrier William H. Jones and Private Wilfred Clark.
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