A Yellowstone tale

Five years after the park opened, tourists stumbled into the last great Indian war.



In 1877, Yellowstone National Park was five years old and scarcely organized or maintained, but already it drew a trickle of visitors. That summer, at least nine tourists underwent an experience that could have been ripped from the pages of a pulp Western, as hundreds of Nez Perce warriors swept through the park, pursued by U.S. Cavalry.

Nate Schweber looked into that story as he was researching his new book Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park: An Insider's Guide to the 50 Best Places. The book's chapters each give advice about a lake or stream in the park, interwoven with interviews. The following story is excerpted from Schweber's chapter on Nez Perce Creek, for which he tracked down historical records—including an unpublished first-hand account of what happened to two of those tourists in 1877.

In Yellowstone National Park, the junction where Cowan Creek pours into Nez Perce Creek is a peaceful backcountry pool in a meadow deep in grizzly country, where little resident brook trout mingle with occasional big browns that run up from the geyser-fed Firehole River in high summer to escape the heat.

Sallysue C. Hawkins and Otis Halfmoon have both visited these cool waters to better know their family histories, which joined together in the hot summer of 1877 just like the streams. When they were young they each visited Nez Perce Creek with their fathers, not in search of fish, as so many visitors do, but to better comprehend perhaps the most amazing human drama in the history of Yellowstone.

The story, says Hawkins, has been passed down in her family through generations. Halfmoon knows the other side of it: "I thought of what the Nez Perce went through there in 1877, their suffering," he says. "And I thought of what the Cowans went through."

  • photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Cowan Creek is named in honor of Hawkins's great-grandparents, Emma Cowan, and her husband George, who was shot three times, including once in the head, by members of the Nez Perce tribe. The tribes—people included Halfmoon's great-great grandfather Red Owl, and his pregnant great-grandmother, whose traditional name does not translate to English.

Emma was taken captive by the Nez Perce, but was treated with a kindness that she marveled at for the rest of her life. She told stories of the Nez Perce's hospitality to her daughter Ethel May, who passed them down to her granddaughter, Hawkins.

The Cowans, from Radersburg, Montana, were among the first tourists in the then five-year-old national park. That summer, hundreds of Nez Perce—including revered leader and peacemaker Chief Joseph—fled their homeland in Oregon's Wallowa Valley and ran from the U.S. Cavalry on a 1,500-mile journey that took them through Yellowstone.

Hawkins says her grandmother told her that her father, George Cowan, planned the trip to Yellowstone because her mother, Emma, then 24 years old, had just lost a child and he wanted to distract her from her grief. The trip fell on the Cowans' second wedding anniversary.

In her published memoirs, Emma expressed delight at the fishing on the way to the geysers, particularly at the headwaters of the Madison River. She wrote that while camped there on Aug. 14, 1877, "we caught some delicious speckled trout."

While Emma's grief was diminishing, the Nez Perce's was intensifying. For years the tribe had endured, as white settlers, wanting more grass for their cattle, encroached on lands in the Wallowa, Snake and Clearwater valleys that were promised to the Nez Perce in treaties. As tensions mounted after gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, some tribal members agreed to live on small reservations. In June 1877, several frustrated non-treaty Nez Perce attacked and killed a number of settlers, starting the Nez Perce War.

Around 800 Nez Perce made a run for their freedom, hoping to join the Crow Nation in eastern Montana and live by hunting buffalo, or else escape to Canada to live with Chief Sitting Bull and his Sioux. They were chased by hundreds of soldiers under the command of U.S. Gen. Oliver Howard, who was nicknamed "The Christian General" for his tendency to make policy decisions based on his fiercely held religious beliefs.

Two weeks before the Nez Perce encountered the Cowans, the tribe suffered a brutal massacre in Montana's Big Hole Valley at the hands of around 200 U.S. soldiers led by U.S. Col. John Gibbon who–a year after helping identify the deceased at Custer's Last Stand–gave the order to take no prisoners. The cavalry was augmented with whiskey-fueled civilian volunteers.

Exhausted from their trek, the Nez Perce set up camp, not knowing that Gen. Howard had used a new invention, the telegraph, to inform Col. Gibbon of their whereabouts. The cavalry struck at dawn, ambushing the Nez Perce in their wickups. Author Dee Brown, in his seminal Native American history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, wrote that 80 Nez Perce were killed, "more than two-thirds of them women and children, their bodies riddled with bullets, their heads smashed by boot heels and gunstocks."

Emma and George Cowan
  • Emma and George Cowan

The Nez Perce who escaped fled with broken hearts and frayed nerves. The survivors followed the Madison River upstream toward its headwaters in Yellowstone at a junction with a river that, five years earlier, had been named in honor of Gibbon.

One of the Nez Perce soldiers killed by Gibbon's men at the Battle of the Big Hole was Five Wounds, Halfmoon's paternal great-grandfather. Halfmoon's parents brought him to the Big Hole Battlefield as a boy and told him family stories. Five Wounds, they said, made a suicide charge at soldiers and was shot from behind. In the early 1990s, Halfmoon worked as an interpreter at the Big Hole Battlefield and was there when archaeologists uncovered a 45-70 slug in the exact spot where Five Wounds fell. The bullet was mushroomed, indicating that it had impacted with flesh. Halfmoon believes it was the very shot that felled his forefather.

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