1877 editorials reflect bias, pettiness in Army’s pursuit of Nez Perce Indians

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By Jim Harmon

The area south of Missoula is filled with references to 1877; Chief Joseph, Chief Looking Glass and Poker Joe, among others.

If you take a short trip up Highway 12, a few miles west of Lolo, you’ll find Fort Fizzle. Well, you’ll actually find a reconstruction of a log barricade. It represents the vicinity where Army Capt. Charles Rawn and 35 soldiers were ordered to stop the advance of Chief Joseph and his non-treaty Nez Perce as they fled Idaho in the summer of 1877.

The blockade, of course, didn’t work. The Nez Perce cleverly bypassed Capt. Rawn’s position, moving along a seemingly impassable ridge top. That earned the blockade its infamous name, Fort “Fizzle.”

Volumes have been written about that period. Dr. Bob Brown’s book on Capt. Charles Rawn is a great read.

But to understand what it was like to be there – to be living in Missoula or the Bitterroot valleys at that frightening time – the newspapers of the day are helpful. They reveal a lot, not only about local history but about local biases and pettiness as well.

When Capt. Rawn and two companies of infantry arrived in Missoula to set up a military post in late June 1877, the locals were relieved – they’d been calling for military protection for years. Just as the soldiers began constructing Fort Missoula, reports of an Indian uprising in Idaho reached the area. The news “spread terror and alarm among the people of the Bitterroot Valley, and produced no little nervousness among the citizens of our town and immediate vicinity,” according to the Weekly Missoulian.

Within weeks, Missoula’s “nervousness” proved warranted. Chief Joseph’s band moved out of the Clearwater, down through the “Lo Lo” canyon where it encountered Capt. Rawn’s blockade on Wednesday, July 25, 1877.

Over the next three days, Rawn (joined by Montana Territorial Governor Benjamin Franklin Potts) met repeatedly with the Nez Perce leaders, demanding they surrender and turn over their arms. In the meantime, it was hoped that Gen. Oliver Otis Howard (pursuing the band from Idaho) would arrive from the west.

Neither happened. Instead, the Nez Perce bypassed the position and streamed into the Bitterroot valley, headed for buffalo country. Newspapers and street-corner-experts immediately weighed in, charging Rawn with incompetency, if not cowardice.

James H. Mills’ New Northwest newspaper in Deer Lodge vilified Capt. Rawn, calling the affair a “fiasco,” which only “deferred the day of battle,” denying his county’s volunteer militiamen an opportunity for a patriotic fight.

However, the Weekly Missoulian’s Editor, Chauncey Barbour, defended Capt. Rawn by declaring, “At no time in any of the three days (leading up to that night), was there a sufficient force to attack the Indians,” much less pursue and engage them.

Then things got personal.

Mills blasted the Weekly Missoulian for failing to give “one word of thanks for the (Deer Lodge) men who went to (Missoula’s) assistance and paid every penny of expense of ordinary travelers and purchasers. That is not what they or their friends had a right to expect.”

Barbour defended Missoula, saying the city “…did not furnish feather beds and hotel board… but every man who was at the front had an abundance to eat, and… no man with any disposition toward fairness can say that any volunteer was allowed to suffer.”

He also claimed that none of the Deer Lodge men “were ever at Capt. Rawn’s camp,” and while “Reinforcements continued to arrive all day Saturday and Sunday… no one seemed disposed to hunt Indians who were within two or three hours ride of Missoula.”

In September, Barbour followed up, claiming he had only the highest regard for the volunteers from Deer Lodge. His displeasure was with Editor Mills and his ilk, “We have no quarrel with the Deer Lodge volunteers. Their bravery is beyond question. We only deny the imprudent assumption of some of their injudicious friends that they are the only brave men in the territory.”

Things escalated from there.

Mills penned a castigating rebuff to a July editorial in the Weekly Missoulian. Barbour had questioned the government’s Indian policy, suggesting it would be better that the Indian Agents pocket the money they had been handing out, since it was only going to be “wasted on gambling and whiskey” anyway.

“It is the same Missoulian that advocates robbery of the Indians and then clamors for military garrisons and volunteer assistance when robbery drives the Indians to savage resentment,” Mills wrote, adding that the Missoulian had failed to defend or retract its editorial.

Mills concluded, “We endeavored through good counsel to keep (Barbour) from the pit into which he has fallen and incurred his malignity thereby. We leave him now in the slough where he has chosen to wallow. And may God have mercy on his soul.”

That’s how small-minded and provincial things became in Deer Lodge and Missoula in the summer and fall of 1877.

Meantime, the Nez Perce continued what would become a near 1,200 mile journey, punctuated by clashes with the U.S. military (most notably the Battle of the Big Hole), finally ending 40 miles short of the Canadian border.

There, surrounded and outnumbered, with his people scattered and freezing, Chief Joseph uttered his famous surrender, “I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. 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.”

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.