Bear Paw Battlefield – Chinook, Montana

The National Park Service The United States encompasses a number of historic battlefields. Many of these, particularly Civil War battlefields, are located near populated areas or major highways and are relatively easy to access. But the Bear Paw Battlefield, part of Nez Perce National Historic Park, is in one of the most remote locations in the continental United States.

In 1877, the Nez Perce tribe (aka nimipuu) had been relocated to a reservation near Lewistown, Idaho. Members of the tribe, as well as other Native Americans, had been victims of murder and other crimes by white settlers in the area, leading some members of the tribe to initiate a series of retaliatory attacks in mid-June. This led to a series of violent events that escalated until the Nez Perce found themselves in full military conflict with the US Army. However, the Nez Perce acted differently than most other Indian tribes in this situation: they fled.

Over the course of several months, the Nez Perce traveled 1,170 miles (1,880 km) over the Rocky Mountains, through Yellowstone National Park, and then north through Montana while attempting to evade the US Army and while attempting some form of refuge to find . The tribe had fought several additional battles along the way, suffering many casualties and losing many belongings. However, the Nez Perce generally avoided committing acts of violence against white civilians they encountered. Although several chiefs led the tribe, news reports from the Nez Perce tended to focus on Chief Joseph because of his given name.

The tribe was en route to Canada when American soldiers, led by Colonel Nelson Miles, caught up with them on September 30 in a grassy coulee on the northern Montana plains north of the Bears Paw Mountains. By this time, the Nez Perce and their horses were physically exhausted and also exposed to the cold and snow. They continued to fight, but the members of the tribe were unable to resist or flee any further. On October 5, the day after another army under General Oliver Howard arrived, Chief Joseph agreed to surrender with the majority of his tribe, although a minority of the Nez Perce had escaped the night before and found refuge in Canada . Upon his surrender, Chief Joseph delivered a speech with the remarkable declaration: “From where the sun now stands I shall fight no more forever.”

In the years following the battle, the battlefield was not built on or otherwise developed, so it remained relatively unchanged. In 1970 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1988 it became part of the national park system. Today the site features a number of memorials and information signs describing the battle, as well as a circular walkway around the Coulee where the battle took place.

Know before you go

The only practical way to reach Bear Paw Battlefield is by car. The site is approximately 16 miles (26 km) south of Chinook, Montana on Route 240 (also known as the Cleveland Road), which is paved to the battlefield. Parking is available on site.

Note that the battlefield is in open prairie and surrounded by farmland. The site does not have an on-site visitor center or interpreter staff; The only facilities are a toilet and a picnic area. There are no shops near the battlefield.

Battlefield visitors will be exposed to the elements, including potentially extremely cold weather in winter and severe thunderstorms in summer. Visitors should check the weather forecast before visiting the site and prepare for the weather accordingly.

Finally, note that the battlefield is of particular cultural and spiritual importance to the Nez Perce. Visitors are asked to stay on the path, not attempt to dig for or remove artifacts, and not disturb any offerings left on the site. No pets or vehicles (including bicycles) are allowed on the trail, and camping is prohibited.