26 June 2006

Fort Benton & The End of The Trail of Courage 1877

by Ken Robison

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 5 July 2006]

This continues the series of frontier sketches by historians at the Joel F. Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton.

On the 25th of June this year, Fort Benton will join the Nez Perce (Nee- Me-Poo) National Historic Trail as a contributing site. The Trail commemorates the 1,170-mile flight of the Nez Perce from their tribal homelands in eastern Oregon, Washington and Idaho in a bold quest for freedom in buffalo country along the Canadian border during the summer of 1877. The Trail might well be known as “The Trail of Courage” for the skill, bravery, and endurance of the 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children as their quest fell short just forty miles from the border.

Fort Benton’s role in the Nez Perce War is not well understood. After all, the Trail comes no closer than 130 miles from Fort Benton, at Cow Island where the Nez Perce forded the Missouri River as they moved northward from the Judith Basin. Yet, through a series of circumstances, Fort Benton, the head of navigation, played an important role in the end of The Trail of Courage.

On June 18, 1877, Captain Thaddeus S. Kirtland with 28 enlisted soldiers of Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, departed Fort Shaw via Fort Benton for Dauphin’s Rapids on the Missouri River. Capt. Kirtland and the men of his Company B were well known in Fort Benton, where they were stationed from 1872-75. During the summer of 1877, they guarded engineers engaged in improving navigation on the Upper Missouri River. On August 18, Capt. Kirtland sent eight men from Company B down river to Cow Island to guard Government Stores landed there by steamboats still active on the Upper Missouri. Four more men from Company B soon joined this guard force together with four civilians from Fort Benton, two being discharged soldiers from Company B.

The summer of 1877 had seen a tremendous upswing in steamboat traffic at the head of navigation on the Missouri, and the resurgent activity brought a building boom to Fort Benton. Residents had followed closely the saga of the Nez Perce, and took keen personal interest when elements of the 7th Infantry including mounted infantry under First Lieutenant James H. Bradley departed Fort Shaw to engage the Nez Perce in western Montana. All residents of Fort Benton knew Lieut. Bradley, the deputy commander of Company B, for during his time in Benton he had chronicled much of the early history of the old fur trade post. News of Lieut. Bradley’s tragic death on August 9th at the bloody Big Hole battle brought the war home to the town.

After the Canyon Creek skirmish along the Yellowstone River on September 13, the Nez Perce moved steadily northward across the Musselshell toward the Missouri River. The movement of their camp outpaced exhausted cavalry and mounted infantry pursuers under General O. O. Howard and Colonel Samuel Sturgis. By September 18, Colonel Miles, with more cavalry and mounted infantry, departed the Tongue River moving northwest to intercept the Nez Perce.

The steamboat Peninah tied up at Cow island Landing on the morning of September 19 and unloaded 85 tons of freight. That afternoon a wagon train of Cooper & Farmer arrived at the landing and began loading freight into their fifteen wagons. By the morning of September 21, half the bull train was loaded and started the long haul over thirty-two crossings of Cow Creek along the trail leading to Fort Benton. That same day the steamer Fontenelle brought another 70 tons and eleven passengers to the landing.

Early in the morning on Friday September 21, interpreter Cyprien Matt rode into Fort Benton with news from James Wells of Fort Clagett that the Nez Perce were traveling up the Judith Basin headed for Canada. Wells asked for help to protect the fort, a trading post at the mouth of the Judith 65 miles above Cow Island. Major Guido Ilges, commander of the Fort Benton Military Post with a depleted Company F, 7th Infantry garrison, directed Lieutenant Edward E. Hardin with thirteen men, plus two volunteer boatmen, to load a 12-pound mountain howitzer onto a mackinaw boat and set off down river to Fort Clagett.

Major Ilges, with Private Thomas Bundy of Company F, and 24 citizen volunteers, known as Donnelly’s Company for their fiery Irish Fenian leader John J. Donnelly, departed Fort Benton at 7 p. m. Friday evening on horseback. The Ilges force traveled 24 miles to the springs beyond the Marias River, where they encamped at 1 o’clock Saturday morning. The Benton Record newspaper reported the movements and warned that “It is hardly possible that a handful of men sent to protect Fort Clagett and Cow Island can give them [the Nez Perce] a very serious check.”

Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Company broke camp at daylight Saturday September 22, rode all day, and arrived at Clagett at 5:30 p. m. after covering 56 miles. Lieut. Hardin with his detachment arrived at Fort Clagett via mackinaw in the forenoon about six hours earlier. Two scouts were sent out toward the Moccasin Mountains to find the direction that the Nez Perce were taking.

At Cow Island on Saturday, Cooper & Farmer’s remaining ox-train departed for Fort Benton. There were eight bullwhackers with this train, and a light wagon with four ladies, accompanied by Dr. Brown, Surgeon, U.S. Army, Captain Frechette, North West Mounted Police, and an escort of five soldiers (the Fontenelle passengers).

On Sunday September 23, both the Ilges and Hardin forces remained at Clagett, awaiting the return of their scouts. Toward evening the command was strengthened by the arrival of six more volunteers from Fort Benton.

At noon Sunday, Sergeant William Molchert with three soldiers from Capt. Kirtland’s Company B, arrived at Cow Island by a borrowed woodhawk’s boat from Dauphin’s Rapids. The Nez Perce killed a fourth soldier, Pvt. Byron Martin, who was sent overland from Dauphin’s Rapids with Capt. Kirtland’s horse. The 12-man detachment from Company B and four citizens constituted the Cow Island guard force.

After a remarkable 36-hour movement covering 78 miles, early Sunday afternoon the Nez Perce camp approached Cow Island to use the shallow-water crossing. Although tired and hungry, led by twenty warriors the Nez Perce camp of almost 700 men, women, and children crossed the ford at Cow Island. The main column continued up Cow Creek about three miles where they camped for the night. Sgt. Molchert’s small guard force watched the movements from defensive rifle pits.

About twenty warriors approached the guard force under flag of truce to ask for food, offering to pay. Determined to try to protect the freight, Sgt. Molchert refused but finally provided a token amount of supplies. The Nez Perce went away to consider their options. During the afternoon a rifle shot was heard, indicating the death of Pvt. Martin as he approached with Capt. Kirtland’s horse. In the late afternoon, the Nez Perce began shooting from the bluffs above Cow Creek, pinning the guard force in their defensive rifle pits. Other Nez Perce came up around the corner of the bank of the creek and took supplies including whiskey from the freight depot and set fire to the rest. Some 30 tons of government freight and 20 tons of private freight were either taken or destroyed.

The skirmish continued for more than ten hours through Sunday night and into Monday morning with some seven Nez Perce charges of the rifle pits, each time repulsed. Two of the civilian defenders were wounded in the first skirmish: George Troutman, wounded in the right shoulder, and E. W. Buckwalter, wounded in the hand and side. After a long night under fire, the guard force found by 10 o’clock Monday morning the Nez Perce had departed up Cow Creek less than 100 miles from the Canadian border.

Among the folklore from the Cow Island fight, is a dispatch sent by freight agent and defender, Michael Foley, to his boss Colonel George Clendenin, who was down river trying to locate steamboats. The dispatch read:

“Rifle Pit at Cow Island,
September 23, 1877, 10 A.M. [probably 10 P.M.]
Col:--Chief Joseph is here, and says he will surrender for two hundred bags of sugar. I told him to surrender without the sugar. He took the sugar and will not surrender. What shall I do.
Michael Foley.”

Back at Fort Clagett, at 2 a.m. Monday morning the scouts finally returned to report to Major Ilges that the Nez Perce were heading toward Cow Island. Ilges’ command left at daylight, traveled all day down river, reaching the banks of the Missouri opposite Cow Island by evening. Soon after going into camp Lieut. Hardin’s force arrived by mackinaw, bringing the mountain howitzer and Sgt. Molchert’s guard force that had left the depot after the fight.

Tuesday daylight, the Ilges command crossed the Missouri by mackinaw to the north side. At the landing they found the burned depot with supplies strewn over the surrounding hills. The rifles pits showed signs of a fierce struggle with Sgt. Molchert providing the details. Major Ilges dispatched a courier to Col. Miles and started on the trail leading up Cow Creek. His objective was not to intercept the overwhelming Nez Perce main force, but to locate and protect the slow moving ox-trains and the light wagon with the passengers of the Fontenelle.

While Ilges’ command had been enroute Cow Island, the Nez Perce broke camp and moved up Cow Creek by noon Monday overtaking the Farmer & Cooper wagon train, slowed by a muddy trail, numerous crossings, and a herd of cattle. The Nez Perce went into camp near the train ten miles up Cow Creek.

Early Tuesday morning, Major Ilges moved with Donnelly’s Company up Cow Creek, leaving Lieut. Hardin, 25 men, and the howitzer at Cow Island. Scout Murray Nicholson spotted the Nez Perce camp, and apparently as the Ilges command approached the Nez Perce took action to a perceived threat to their camp. Warriors shot and killed teamster Fred Barker, and the seven other teamsters fled into willows. The warriors ransacked the train and set fire to the wagons. Major Ilges halted his command as he observed the Nez Perce camp readying to depart. By noon the Cow Creek Canyon fight was underway. As the Nez Perce main camp moved away, warriors began firing on the Ilges command from the bluffs above. Ilges deployed his force into defensive positions. For over two hours, firing continued. Edmund Bradley, a black American volunteer, was killed by a Nez Perce sharpshooter. John Tattan, another volunteer, was almost killed when he was knocked down by a bullet strike to his abdomen, stopped by his belt plate.

As soon as Major Ilges decided to stand and fight, he sent Pvt. Bundy back, with orders for Lieut. Hardin to bring up his men and the howitzer. Bundy safely covered the dangerous ten miles in less than two hours. After firing ceased about 2 p.m. and the Nez Perce warriors moved north, Major Ilges withdrew down Cow Creek, meeting Lieut. Hardin’s detachment. The small combined force continued back to the Cow Island rifle pits to defend if further Nez Perce attacks came, to guard newly arriving steamboat freight, and to await arrival of Col. Miles.

Wednesday, September 26, most of the volunteers returned to the Cow Creek Canyon battlefield to bury Ed. Bradley and Fred Barker. The remainder worked to strengthen and enlarge the rifle pits at Cow Island. In the evening the steamer Benton arrived and commenced unloading about 60 tons of freight.

During the night Cooper & Farmer with the surviving portion of their oxen arrived, and were fired upon by vigilant sentinel, volunteer Joe Hanna. Thursday morning five more train men came into camp. The steamer Benton hauled logs for a blockhouse from the south bank, and after unloading got ready to leave. At noon the Benton got underway, and Major Ilges with Donnelly’s Company departed Cow Island to return to Fort Benton. They passed the burned train, and found the wagons and their contents entirely destroyed. The Ilges command made a night march reaching Bear Paw springs about 11 p. m. After the volunteers left the canyons, the Nez Perce rear guard attacked H. A. Nottingham’s train enroute Cow Island from Fort Benton. He managed to escape and turned the train back to Benton.

On Friday September 28, the Ilges command marched until midnight, reaching 24 Mile springs. They found the remains of Charles Steele and buried him between Birch and Eagle creeks. Steele and his trading partner James Downey had been murdered the previous night while trying to escape to Benton from the Bear’s Paw Mountains.

Early Saturday afternoon about 1 p.m., Major Ilges and Donnelly’s Mounted Company reached Fort Benton “tired, worn, but cheerful, and ready to start again if their services are needed.” In the words of The Benton Record, the “Bold Volunteers . . . fully deserve the gratitude of this community and the General Government. They have not annihilated Joseph and his band, but they have accomplished a great deal of good. They relieved Fort Clagett, they relieved and strengthened the party at Cow Island. They have by their action saved two steamboats and 100 tons of government freight. They have fought the Indians on their own ground and harassed them in their movements. They have developed the enemy’s position and strength, they have saved the lives of the trainmen by their prompt advance, they have buried the dead, they have demonstrated to the Indians the fact of our strength should mischief be intended in this direction, and by their return they have gladdened the hearts of our people beyond expression.”

The major contribution of the small 7th Infantry Regiment force and Donnelly’s Mounted Company at Cow Island and Cow Creek Canyon is the critical delay they caused the movement of the Nez Perce camp. The twenty hours delay at the Cow Island fight and the four hours delay at the Cow Creek fight cost the Nez Perce dearly. These delays, coupled with the slowed pace of movement of the Nez Perce camp, enabled Col. Miles to close ground and move into position for the decisive Battle of the Bear’s Paw and the surrender of the Nez Perce on October 5, less than forty miles from sanctuary in Canada.

Fort Benton has two significant artifacts from the Nez Perce War: a mountain howitzer and a Winchester carbine. The mountain howitzer is the one taken by Lieut. Hardin by mackinaw to Fort Clagett on September 21. This 12-pound brass mountain howitzer was built in 1863 for use in the Civil War and came to Fort Benton from Camp Cooke in 1869. It will be on display later this summer at the new Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument Interpretive Center.

Most significantly, also at the Interpretive Center will be displayed the symbol of the end of the Trail of Courage--the Winchester Model 66 lever-action carbine surrendered dramatically by Chief Joseph to Col. Nelson A. Miles on October 5, 1877. Col. Miles presented the rifle to Gen. O. O. Howard. Later, Gen. Howard gave the rifle to John W. Tattan, Mounted Volunteer of Fort Benton, saying that the rifle should never leave Montana, and it has not. Upon the death of Judge Tattan, the rifle went to his grandson, William T. Morrison who presented Chief Joseph’s surrender rifle to the Museum of the Upper Missouri upon its opening in 1958.


(1) Major Guido Ilges, commanding the Fort Benton Military Post

(2) Map of Cow Island and Cow Creek area

(3) Photo of Cow Island taken in 1880 by F. Jay Haynes