Determined Stand All That Saved Randall Command From Annihilation by Superior Force of Nez Perces  -  Better Diplomacy by Government Would Have Prevented War of 1877

(Ed. Note:  Henry C. Johnson, author of this article is one of the most distinguished living pioneers of northern Idaho.  He crossed the plains two years before Ezra Meeker came and took part in the gold rushes before homesteading near Grangeville.  He now live in Spokane with his daughter but makes frequent trips to Camas prairie.  This article was written for the University of Idaho in nits effort to collect a series of Idaho Historical documents.)


By:  Henry C. Johnson

Having been requested by friends and others to write a few items concerning the Nez Perce Indian war of 1877 which occurred in Idaho county Idaho.  I will not attempt to outline the real cause of the war as that has been done a long time ago by historians who are far more capable than I.  I will only mention some incidents which came under my personal observation of which I am familiar or was at the time of the outbreak – that being a little more than 50 years ago.  I will not attempt to give a detailed account of all that happened as memory is treacherous, after so long a period.

I was a resident of Idaho County, engaged in farming and stock raising in a limited way.  The country was sparsely settled then and consequently the range was good everywhere and it was the custom of the Indians to congregate near my place annually for the purpose of grazing their horses, digging camas and having a good time generally.  Their camping ground was a little over a mile from my home.  During the time they were encamped there, which consisted of six or eight weeks, I was not molested by them in any manner.  I was a bachelor at that time and was from home quite often during the day.  But nothing was ever disturbed in my absence. 

Settlers Uneasy

While no hostile demonstrations had been shown, there was a feeling of uneasiness among the settlers that caused some of them to leave their homes at night and secrete themselves as best they could.  The government had issued orders requiring all Indians to go on the reservation, and those who wouldn’t go peaceably were to be forcibly taken; and it was the opinion generally that the on treaty Indians would fight or resist the order.

Old Indians Peaceful

The old Indians did not want to fight, but the young men precipitated the trouble by killing several citizens on Salmon River a distance of 35 miles from where the main body of Indians were in camp.  And when the report reached camp it created a great commotion.  Wickyups were torn down, stock driven in from all directions, and as soon as possible there-after the women and children and also non-combatants were hustled off north about eight miles where they had a better place to fortify and give battle in case they were attacked, which was not an impossibility as the few soldiers who were available were stationed at Fort Lapwai distant 40 miles and no conveyance better than heavy freight wagons and the roads were in bad condition from recent rains, which made rapid travel out of the question. 

The first squad of soldiers to arrive numbered 85.  They were in command of Colonel Perry and were disastrously defeated in their first engagement at the battle of White Bird which occurred on the morning of the 19th of June, if memory serves me right.  The loss in that engagement consisted of 33 soldiers killed and three volunteers wounded.  Several of the soldiers killed were shamefully mutilated.

That was the first battle of any importance and it gave the Indians great encouragement as their loss was practically nil.  Other engagements prior to that had occurred at various times between the volunteers and Indians without any loss to either side except in one instant where an Indian was killed by volunteers.

March Deceptive

After the defeat at Whitebird of Colonel Perry, General Howard appeared on the scene with 225 regulars fully equipped and prepared to do battle.  IN the meantime, Chief Joseph and his warriors together with their women and children and all their stock, principally horses, had crossed the Salmon river, presumably with the intention of going south to unite forces with the various tribes of the southern part of the state and also of the eastern part of Oregon.  That move later on proved to be a bit of strategy on the part of Chief Joseph to draw General Howard away from Camas prairie so Joseph’s forces could re-cross the river 15 miles farther down and give them an opportunity to cross Camas prairie and select their ground for a battle with Howard on a small stream near the Clearwater river.  The selection of that place gave the Indian forces a decided advantage over the forces of General Howard.

The next move of the volunteers after Howard had lost the Indians in the Salmon river canyon was to scout the country west of the little town of Cottonwood as it was believed the Indians would return to the north side of Camas prairie and the south fork of the Clearwater river.  The prediction proved to be correct.  Two scouts, Foster and Blewett fell in with a large party of Indians who were also doing some scout work.  The result was that Blewett, one of the scouts, was killed.  Foster got away and reported to Colonel Perry who had just arrived at that place – Cottonwood.  Perry then ordered Lieutenant Raines to select ten men and go out to locate the Indians, and also another officer to take a number of soldiers and hollow up.  The Indians, after killing Scout Blewett went into ambush and waited for the Raines party, with the result that every man in the Raines party was killed, and the Indians retired before the other soldiers arrived to give their comrades any help.

Seventeen Volunteers

Lieutenant Raines and party were killed on the third of July.  On the Fourth of July, the soldiers who were encamped at Cottonwood were besieged by the Indians all day.  Early on the morning of the fifth, Captain Randall of the Idaho volunteers called for volunteers to scout the country northwest of Cottonwood where the soldiers had been besieged all the day previous.  Ten who had responded to the call were in the saddles ready to start when a courier from Cottonwood arrived with a message from the officer in command requesting Captain Randall to come to their assistance with all the forces available.  Randall then called for more recruits, when seven others responded, making 17 in all, named as follows:  Captain D.B. Randall, First Lieutenant James Cearly, Second Lieutenant L.P. Wilmot, Privates D.H. Houser, C.W. Case, Charles Johnson, Peter Beemer, C.M. Day, Farnk A. Fenn, Frank D. Vansise, George Riggins, Ben Evans, All Leland, Eph Bunker, A.D. Bartley, James Buchanan, H.C. Johnson.

This brings us up to the date of the battle of the 17 under Captain Randall, July 5, ’77.  Only two of that number have survived until the present date, Cassius M. Day of Kooskia, and the writer.  The morning of the 5th of July about 6:30, word was passed along to follow our captain, which we did in pairs.  Nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of that jaunt on that memorable July morning until we had reached a point about eight miles from Mount Idaho, that being the county seat of Idaho county and the place where our families were huddled together in a very rude pen called a fort, which would have proven a slaughter pen had the Indians attacked us there.

Saw Smoke Signals

When we reached the above mentioned place, the first intimation we had that the Indians were awake and moving, was the appearance of a signal fire from the of the Cottonwood butte, the highest elevation in 20 miles of that point.  Soon after the first signal smoke, the second arose, and that was followed in rapid succession by a third signal.  The air was very calm and the smoke ascended to a great height and seemed to stand in a perpendicular column.  It would have been inspiring had it not been for the warning it foretold.  Our first lieutenant who had some experience in Indian warfare said that the first signal meant to get ready to move, second to move, third to fight.

The entire body of Indians was camped on a high plateau about three miles in a westerly direction from Cottonwood near the present town of Keuterville.  The first appearance we had of the Indians was on the elevated ground just before they descended to the level of the prairie.  They were distant from our command about ten miles.  Captain Randall requested me to stop and take a look at the large band of horses that were bearing down in our direction.  It so happened that I carried the only glasses in the party.  After a careful inspection I rode to the front, as the command had been moving slowly, and reported the horses to be of all colors and a number were carrying packs.

Try Intercept Troops

After traveling a few miles, I was again requested to take a second look and report, and that time I reported that the horses were being handled by men and I believed they were Indians.  A little later I was told to take another look and report.  I then reported a large number of Indians with their entire equipment, including women and children.  I also told Captain Randall the warriors were divided in three parties, that one party was moving directly toward us and that the second party was moving to our left or south of us and I believed they intended to intercept us in case we made an effort to retreat.  I also said that the third party was moving back and north of the town of Cottonwood where the soldiers under Colonel Perry had fought them the day before.  And I believed they intended to make another fight on the same place if the soldiers were drawn out to our assistance.

The next halt we made to take observation, there was no doubt about the identity of the parties was no doubt about the identity of the parties we had been watching for two hours or more.  We didn’t need any field glasses to tell who they were or what their intentions were.  Captain Randall ordered a halt and a lively discussion took place as to the best thing to do in order to make a defense for our protection and to give the Indians as good a reception as possible as they seemed to think they were entitled to it.





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