The Battle of the Big Hole was fought in Beaverhead County, Montana on August 9-10, 1877, between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce tribe. This was just one of a series of engagements between U.S. troops during the Nez Perce War. After the Battle of the Clearwater, Idaho the Indians under Chief Joseph and other leaders crossed into Montana.
Unknown to the Nez Perce, they were being followed by Colonel John Gibbon, 161 soldiers, and one howitzer. Gibbon also collected 45 civilian volunteers in the Bitterroot Valley.
The Nez Perce, numbering about 750, including some 200 warriors, encamped in the Big Hole Basin in southwest Montana.
On August 8, Gibbon located the Nez Perce camp and with orders to take no prisoners and make no negotiations, he and his men attacked at dawn the next day. Gibbon and his men inflicted severe casualties before a vigorous counterattack drove him back and allowed the Nez Perce to escape. In the conflict, 29 soldiers were killed and 40 wounded; 89 Indians were killed.
The battle is generally considered a tactical victory for the Nez Perce, who held the soldiers at siege long enough to bury their dead, gather their camp, and escape with the majority of their horses. However, the great losses they suffered were devastating and contributed to their ultimate defeat two months later.
Today, the Big Hole Battlefield is recognized and honored both as a historic site s a memorial for those who lost their lives in the battle. The 655-acre site is operated by the National Park Service. It is located ten miles west of Wisdom, Montana, on Montana Highway 43.
Big Hole National Battlefield
P.O. Box 237
Wisdom, Montana 59761
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated May 2021.