A Yellowstone tale 

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

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Five Wounds had gone on the journey with his chiefs, having left behind on a reservation his 7-year-old son William, paternal grandfather. Halfmoon's maternal great-great grandfather, Red Owl, and his great-grandmother survived the Big Hole and were then part of a tiny group that escaped to Canada during the final battle. Later, they moved back to America, onto reservation lands.

"By the time they got to Yellowstone, the Nez Perce people were very much hurting," Halfmoon says. "And a lot of that pain is still there."

On the afternoon of Aug. 23, 1877, George Cowan met a scout in the Lower Geyser Basin from an army party that included Civil War icon Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whom President Ulysses S. Grant had put in charge of Native American wars. The scout told the Cowans about the Big Hole battle, but promised them that the Nez Perce were not coming to Yellowstone because they were scared of geysers. George was assured that he and his family were, "as safe in the park as we would be in New York City," he recalled. That night Emma strummed her guitar and sang campfire songs in celebration of the last night of her vacation. She didn't know that Nez Perce scouts were listening.

  • map courtesy of the National Park Service

Emma woke George up early the next morning, telling him that she could "hear Indians talking" outside their tent. George dressed quickly and went to meet them carrying his .45 caliber needle gun, then down to its last five cartridges. A young man named Red Scout, a skilled English speaker, told George that he and the men belonged to the Flathead tribe and were on their way to the buffalo hunting grounds of eastern Montana. George, an attorney, said that he "subjected this talking Indian Charlie to what might be termed a rigid cross-examination and at length so cornered him in his statements that he was forced to acknowledge that they were Nez Perce Indians."

George was soon surrounded by around 200 of them. His temper flared when he saw a member of his party about to dole out flour and sugar to around two dozen Nez Perce hanging around the back of his baggage wagon.

"I immediately ran up using my gun as a sort of club weapon [and]made the Indians disperse or stand aside," George said. "If the Indians got any of our supplies they would be taken by force."

Red Scout took note. The Cowans tried to flee but a line of mounted Nez Perce halted them at gunpoint. Red Scout informed George that he and his party were to be marched seven miles up the creek, then known as the East Fork of the Firehole River, to see Chief Looking Glass, the leader of his band who Red Scout added was "friendly with the whites." When the wagons could go no farther, they were ransacked and the group continued on horseback.

In the meadow where Cowan Creek joins Nez Perce Creek, the Cowans met with Chief Looking Glass, Chief Joseph, Chief White Bird and a subchief named Poker Joe, who earned his sobriquet in the Bitterroot Valley from his love of gambling. Poker Joe, acting as translator, told the Cowans that the chiefs wished to free them, but under one condition: Give the Nez Perce their fresh horses and saddles for fleeing, and their guns and ammunition for hunting buffalo, and they could take with them an equal number of worn-out Nez Perce steeds, which would get them back to the white settlements. Under the circumstances, what could the Cowans say?

Poker Joe also warned the Cowans of the limits of the chiefs' power over some of the distraught Nez Perce warriors. He "said that the young warriors, having lost many friends and relatives in the Big Hole fight, were mad and angry and were hard to keep in control by their chiefs," George said.

Poker Joe told the Cowans to travel fast through the woods away from the main trail, lest they be spotted again.

The Cowans didn't heed his warning. After a half-mile of struggling over downed timber and through bogs, they returned to the trail. Almost at once, around 75 Nez Perce between the ages of 18 and 25 ambushed them. One was Red Scout, who George noted was "conspicuous in the command of this party of young Indians." Red Scout told the Cowans that the tribe had changed its mind about letting them go.

click to enlarge Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

As the gang marched the Cowan party back upstream, two warriors rode ahead—George believed it was to make sure the chiefs were nowhere near—and then came charging back. Emma wrote that "shots followed and Indian yells and all was confusion." George took a bullet blast through his left thigh. He saw another Nez Perce aiming a rifle at his head, so he leapt off his horse to avoid being hit. His wounded leg buckled and he rolled down a knoll and came to rest lying down against a fallen tree. Red Scout and another Nez Perce man ran to him, but Emma reached her husband first. She threw her body over George to shield him. Red Scout pointed "a large dragoon revolver" at George's head, but Emma stayed in front of that "immense navy pistol" and "begged the Indian to shoot her first." Red Scout "seemed disinclined to harm her," George said. Red Scout did catch Emma's right wrist as she tried to cover George, and he lifted her away as she clung to her husband's neck with her left arm. This pulled George into a partial sitting position. The other Nez Perce warrior reached into his blanket, drew a revolver and fired the kill shot. Point blank.

"The ball struck me on the left side of my forehead," George said. "I saw the smoke issuing from the pistol, and heard the shot, but was rendered unconscious."

Moments later, Poker Joe, sent by Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird, rode up to the melee on horseback to halt the violence. Red Scout, who knew he had disobeyed his chiefs, protected Emma and her siblings after George was shot and helped Poker Joe quell the crowd, which included men throwing rocks at George's bleeding head. A year later, Red Scout, who was one of just a few Nez Perce to escape into Canada, spoke to a journalist named Duncan McDonald, whose father was a Scottish fur trader and whose mother was a Nez Perce woman. Red Scout confessed that he had been "in the wrong," and explained why he safeguarded Emma and her 13-year-old sister Ida.

"I had not the heart to see those women abused," Red Scout told McDonald, as quoted in an 1878 article in the New North-West, a newspaper in Deer Lodge. "I thought we had done them enough wrong in killing their relations against the wishes of the chiefs."

But the Nez Perce weren't finished with George Cowan. He awoke hours later on the opposite side of the downed tree covered in blood, his pockets turned inside out and emptied. He pulled mightily on a branch to stand upright. Then he turned and saw a lone Nez Perce waiting for him on horseback. The man dismounted, dropped to a knee and fired a single shot that ripped through George's left hip and came out his abdomen.

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