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The Bear Paw Battlefield, Montana

If you are traveling through Montana and want to take some time to experience some of the significant historical sites within the state, you’ll want to stop at Bear Paw Battlefield.

This site, a small portion of the Bear Paw National Historic Site, was the location of the final battle between the Nez Perce and the US Army.

This historical site is one of the most important in Native American history and is a spot that any visitor to Montana should not pass by.

History of Bear Paw Battlefield

history of bear paw battlefield
Image: Conspiracy of Cartographers

In June of 1877, a few large groups of Nez Perce left Joseph, Oregon fleeing the US Army. These groups of Nez Perce were attempting to run from the US Government that was trying to relocate them to reservations.

Their plan was to travel across Oregon, Idaho, and into Montana, eventually turning north to Canada, where they would seek sanctuary from the US Government.

While the Nez Perce were persistent and traveled quickly through the Rocky Mountains, the US Army was as persistent and followed closely behind the Nez Perce.

In late September of 1877, the Nez Perce stopped in the area of Snake Creek where the Bear Paw Battlefield now lies. On the morning of September 30, 1877, US Army soldiers attempted to attack the just-waking Nez Perce.

This attack was the start of the Battle at Bear Paw. For 5 days, the US Army and the Nez Perce fought. Some US troops separated the tribe from their horses, while other troops attempted to take the heavily protected Nez Perce encampment.

On October 5, 1877, after both sides suffered many losses, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce negotiated a ceasefire and surrendered to the US Army.

During this surrender, Chief Joseph made a famous speech, where he said, “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.”

While a small group of Nez Perce escaped the battle and the US Army and successfully crossed into Canada, 431 Nez Perce were sent to the Tongue River Cantonment in eastern Montana. Eventually, the tribe would be sent to a reservation in Oklahoma where many died.

Today the Bear Paw Battlefield is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. The Battlefield is the last stop on the 1,300-mile Nez Perce Trail. 

What To Do at the Bear Paw Battlefield

Bear Paw Battlefield is only a portion of the larger Nez Perce National Historical Park. This park is unique to the National Park System, as it encompasses 38 locations spread across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

Within Montana, there are two sites in the Nez Perce National Historic Park; Big Hole National Battlefield and Bear Paw Battlefield. While you are at Bear Paw Battlefield there are a few things that you can do to explore the site.

If you are visiting the Bear Paw National Battlefield, you will need to keep in mind that for the Nez Perce, this area is sacred, and their ancestors died at this site.

Visitors are reminded to stay on trails and not to disturb any items that may be found on the battlefield or monuments located on the battlefield.

  • Take a Hike – The Battlefield has a 1 ¼ mile interpretive trail that winds through the battlefield. The hike is relatively easy, but it can be hot in the summer. If you are taking the interpretive trail, you’ll want to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat, especially if you are visiting during the summer months.
  • Join a Tour – During the summer months, Park Rangers will provide guided tours through the site. These tours are a great way to get a bit more information and ask questions about the battlefield, the Nez Perce and the history of the area.
  • Visit the Blaine County Museum – This community museum is located in Chinook, MT near the battlefield. Besides having many cultural artifacts from the area, the museum features a video presentation called “40 Miles to Freedom”, which documents the battle at Bear Paw.
  • Attend a Pow Wow – The Bear Paw Battlefield is located within the Fort Belknap reservation. Each year the peoples of this reservation hold a pow wow in honor of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

Things to See at Bear Paw Battlefield

things to see at bear paw battlefield
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

This sacred site has a nice interpretive trail that will walk you through the battlefield and dictates the battle and the history of the Nez Perce.

Some of the points along the trail that are of significant importance, particularly to the Nez Perce people are some of the less obvious features of the site.

Here are some things you should take time to see, while at Bear Paw Battlefield

  • Death Rock Trail – At this location, many of the Chiefs of the Nez Perce took their own lives to avoid surrender and capture by the US Army.
  • Shelter Pits – Along the trail, you will see many large depressions. These holes in the ground are the remnants of pits that were dug for Nez Perce to take shelter in. Many of the people that used these pits as protection were women, children, and the elderly.
  • Fallen Soldiers Burial Area – Located near the end of the trail, this spot marks the place where US soldiers that perished in the battle of Bear Paw were laid to rest.
  • Marker of Surrender – This monument marks the approximate location where Chief Joseph surrendered himself and his people to Colonel Miles and the US Army.

When to Visit Bear Paw Battlefield

Bear Paw Battlefield is open year-round from dawn to dusk. While the Battlefield is always open, many people prefer to visit in the late spring, summer, and early fall.

During these times the weather is more accommodating for visitors from around the country.

For those that would like to experience the battlefield as the Nez Perce did in 1877, we would recommend visiting in late September or early October.

The site during this time looks and feels much like it did during the battle of Bear Paw, and you can get a greater understanding of the conditions that both the Nez Perce and the US Army were dealing with as they crossed the Montana plains.

Why is Bear Paw Battlefield Significant?

One of the most significant historical events that occurred in Montana was the surrender of the Nez Perce Indians after their 1,300-mile journey from the Oregon coast to central Montana.

This group of determined people was protesting the US Government’s forced relocation of native peoples to reservations throughout the country.

The Bear Paw Battlefield is the site of the last battle between the Nez Perce and the US Army. It also honors one of the final groups of Native Americans that were relocated from their historic lands to the many reservations across the United States.

The Bear Paw Battlefield–Conclusion

Though it may be just a small place on the map, Bear Paw Battlefield is a significant location in the history of the Nez Perce people and the United States.

For those that want to better understand how the US Government changed the lives of the native peoples that lived in this country, long before European settlers arrived, Bear Paw Battlefield is a destination not to be missed.

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