First coined by poet Rudyard Kipling, the phrase “Lest We Forget” has come to be linked with Remembrance Day. That is the day when many remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers during the war, usually in reference to World War I and II.
But the term “Lest We Forget” could be equally applied to many of the places protected and preserved by the National Park Service. Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana is one of those places. It was here that many sacrificed their lives and it is here that their descendants continue to grieve for the loss.
Big Hole Battlefield
Located 70 miles southwest of Butte, Montana – really out in the middle of nowhere – Big Hole Battlefield tells the story of the Nez Perce and commemorates the largest battle between them and US Government forces.
Big Hole Battlefield is in a lush green valley with a river winding through it. This place had hosted the Nez Perce and their ancestors for centuries – a peaceful place where they camped, hunted and fished in the shadow of the Bitterroot mountains.
But in August 1877, a small band of Nez Perce were just briefly stopping in the valley to refresh themselves as they fled north. After a series of broken treaties, the US had effectively stolen their ancestral lands and were forcing them to move to reservations. Over 800 people, mostly women and children, were fleeing in hopes they could get to Canada.
Unbeknownst to them, US Government forces had been following them and on the morning of August 9, 1877, they attacked, firing volleys into tipis where they were sure to hit anyone – man, woman or child, young or old. Women ran out and tried to hide in the willows with their children, but they couldn’t hide from the bullets. Invading US soldiers set fire to the tipis and destroyed the camp.
The Nez Perce fought bravely and managed to hold the US soldiers back long enough for them to bury their dead, gather what belongings they could and flee. They made their way through what is now Yellowstone and continued north, losing many more on the way.
Finally, just before they reached the Canadian border, the final attack and siege broke the will of most of the remaining Nez Perce. When promised they could return to their home, they surrendered, only to find that this was another broken promise. Some 400 were sent to reservations, never to see their beloved country again. Only 250 managed to escape to Canada.
Today, Big Hole National Battlefield is a memorial to this battle and a sacred place for the descendants of the Nez Perce. Not only do they honor their ancestors who fell here, they try to learn from this place, reflecting on the strength that they have found in adversity.
Visiting Big Hole
Today, you can visit Big Hole National Battlefield and learn more about the Nez Perce. There is a very good film and lots of informative exhibits at the Visitor Center.
The site encompasses 655 acres and offers three short trails.
A short 1.6 mile round trip flat trail takes you to the Nez Perce campsite, where stark tipi poles reach up to the blue sky like skeletons.
Another trail takes you to the site of the Howitzer cannon where you can see a replica and look out over the beautiful views of the valley. Then optionally walk to the siege location where the Nez Perce temporarily pinned down the US soldiers while others escaped.
You may also want to combine visiting this battlefield with stops at some of the other 38 sites, across 4 states, that make up the Nez Perce National Historical Park. Start at the site of the first battle at White Bird Battlefield in Idaho and follow the Nez Perce National Historic Trail to the site of the last battle, the Battle of Bear Paw.
Lest We Forget
Each of these places capture a piece of our history. While we can’t deny the past, we can hope that it will provide context so we can better understand and learn. There is a lovely quote in the national park guide by Roberta Conner: “This history is kept alive no matter how sad it is, no matter how much injustice and tragedy it carries. Doesn’t matter. We keep it alive because if we forget this history, we forget part of our identity. This history not only has made us sad, it’s made us strong, it’s made us resilient.”