CHIEF JOSEPH and FORT BENTON: Cow Island Fight
As Told By Judge Michael Foley, Date unknown
How Ten Men Stood Off Three Hundred Warriors of Chief Joseph’s Band During the Memorable Nez Perces Raid…
Justice of the Peace Michael Foley is just about the busiest man we know of in these parts. The Judge is a Democrat and last fall was elected as a justice of the peace for the East Belt precinct.
Cow Island on the Missouri River, Montana, September 26, 1877. The following is a true and correct statement of losses by the Nez Perce Indians while in charge of government freight at Cow Island on the 22nd of September, 1877, at which time the Indians burnt and destroyed 250 tons of government and individual freight.
Two robes…….. 21
Two blankets… 21
One suit clothes 10
One suit clothes 30
Now, if you had fought an army of red devils for thirty hours, trying to defend government property, and had a sort of idea all that time that your scalp was going to be dangling from an Indian war belt, and had lost every measly red cent you had on earth, you would rather expect the government to make your loss good wouldn’t you? Yes, well so would I and while my claim was duly presented not one cent of it was ever allowed.
How Cow Island got it’s name. In the early pert of the nineteenth century some traders found a solitary cow on the island. Probably had been stolen from some white settlement east and driven into the wilderness by the Indians. The traders named it Cow Island. Originally contained several hundred acres of land and was covered with cottonwood timber, rumored that the Native Americans used it for pow-wows and war dances.
About the 1st of September, 1877 Col. George Clendenning appointed me as clerk to ship freight from Cow Island to points in Montana. At that time the water in the Missouri River was very low and boats were unable to reach Fort Benton. The Josephine line of steamboats unloaded at Cow Island and it was this freight that I was looking after. The government had an engineering outfit working at Dolphin rapids a few miles further up the river. About the 20th of September they moved their commissary stores down to Cow Island. A sergeant, a corporal and seven soldiers were in charge of the supplies. They piled their stuff about 100yards above where the government was and covered it with tarpaulins and pitched their tent along side.
We were not camped on the island but along the east bank of the river. To keep the water from running into their tent and supplies in case of a rain storm, they dug a ditch about 2 1/2 feet deep all the way around. The dirt from the ditch they threw up on the outside. To that little ditch and wall of dirt we 10 men, later on, owed our lives. For thirty hours we lay behind that little earthen breastwork and with our Winchesters kept death and a howling of Indians at bay.
We heard the Nez Perce were heading for Canada closely pursued by General Howard but we had figured out they would cross the Missouri River at Fort Claggett. About three o’clock on the 22nd of September we way some Indians coming down the bluffs on the west side of the river and it was not very long until Joseph’s entire band had crossed over to the east side where we were camped.
We got inside the little bank of dirt and waited for developments. Joseph, Looking Glass and several others soon came down near us and made signs for us to come out. I had seen them both in Washington and knew them as soon as they got to where I could get a good look at them. I went out unarmed to meet them. Joseph had an interpreter with him who spoke very good English. Mr. Foley recognized Chief Joseph and Looking Glass as he stated: I was among your people in Washington before I came here: my heart has always been good toward your people.
Joseph seemed pleased and said he wanted something for his people to eat. Foley gave them several sacks of sugar, some hams, hard tack and among other things. While the women carried the supplies away Joseph told Foley his men would not fight them. He said “We are across the water from the old worm, meaning General Howard, and I want to get in a good country where my young men and our horses can get rest and plenty to eat. “I told him that around the Little Rockies and the Bear Paw mountains the country was covered with buffalo, deer, antelope and elk and the grass was as high as his ponies backs-and that was the truth too.
“Well after they had filled up on government bacon and hard tack the whole outfit pulled up and moved over the bench into a little basin out of sight of our camp.
“I did not like the move and stole up into a little ravine from where I could see what they were up to. After they had all gone over there, the bucks sat down in a circle and began to pass the pipe. I noticed that about one fourth of them passed the pipe along and would not smoke. I felt pretty sure that meant trouble for us and I went back and told my comrades that we were in for it, that the Indians were going to fight us. “The corporal laughed at me and said ‘they won’t fight us, Joseph has given us his word. “All right, I replied, you wait until about sundown and see if I don’t know something about Indians myself. “Sure enough just about sundown, while we were all standing around drinking coffee and eating hard tack there was the w-h-i-z w-h-i-z of bullets in the air followed by the crack of a half dozen rifles. One of our men was hit in the palm of the hand while in the act of taking a bit of hard tack. “in the ditch with your guns! I yelled, and down we went behind the little breastwork, every man with his Winchester. “I don’t know how it happened, but I took command of that little party and while I dare say we did not fight according to any army tactics I rather think, as the preacher says, we made our influence felt.
“Well sir, there were about 200 Indians lined up on the hill east of and above us and the way they dropped into our little circle of breastworks was simply a terror. “We hugged down in the ditch on the side next to the Indians and their shots all went over our head or landed in the dirt bank. Well after a few minutes of that sort of thing we began to get hot about it. I had a made-to-order. Winchester rifle and that was the best gun I ever handled. When I took a look down the sights of that gun and got the pumping machinery into motion something usually dropped and I want to tell you that several things dropped upon that occasion. I noticed that the rest of the boys seemed to understand their guns pretty well and I reckon it was not more than a few minutes until we had all those Indians driven out of sight.
“Did you hit any of them?”
The judge paused for a full half minute. Oh, no, of course we didn’t hit any of them, they were a nice lot of Indians and just fell dead to be accommodating. “one would suppose, he continued that night would have seemed almost endless to us ten men lying behind our breastworks with a horde of savages crawling around determined to get our scalps. On the contrary, however, the hours seemed so full of excitement that morning came before we realized that night had set in. All night long the Indians kept firing into us. One of the soldiers, a fellow named Buck Walters, was shot in the shoulder.
“There was a coulee just north of the pile of freight that led back from the river and through this coulee the Indians were able to get to the pile of freight without us being able to see them. Working on the side of the freight pile furthest away from us they carried away everything they wanted and set fire to the remainder. I believe they intended to carry away everything they wanted and then rush in and kill us but the fire they started lit things up so well that we could see in every direction and we soon convinced them that it was decidedly unhealthy for tn Indian to get in the fight.
“Ah sir, but that little scene in the drama of Joseph’s retreat before General Howard and just before his capture by General Miles had a stage setting that was awe-inspiring, brilliant and tragic. There were 250 sacks of bacon in the freight pile and when they began to blaze the flames leaped higher than the surrounding hills.
“West of us rolled the turbulent Missouri, looking in the light of the fire, like a river of blood and flame. East of us rose the bluffs across the face of which there flitted strange and grotesque shadows called into shape by the leaping and jumping flames. Ever an anon we could see flashes of fire, like the blaze of a fire fly, leap out from some shadow place and then would come the song of a bullet over our heads or near us, followed by the report of a rifle.
“Fort or five times during the night the Indians tried to rush in on us but always met them with such a volley of lead that they would treat out of sight. We fired over 600 rounds of ammunition that night. I believe the fire was what saved us though. “When daylight came there was not an Indian in sight. We kept pretty quiet for a while, fearing they were laying for us to shoot ourselves, but after cautiously getting up for a few seconds at a time without anything happening we finally decided they were gone. We began to stir around and stretch ourselves then. Pretty soon after sun-up, however, two bucks appeared on the top of the eastern bluffs. They appeared to be making signs to others behind them to come up and help kill the lying white men. I dropped down on one knee, took deliberate aim with my trusty old gun, and first at one and then the other. They jumped up in the air and tumbled over like a deer that had been shot through the heart.”
“Do you mean that you killed them?”
There was another pause during which the judge eyed his interrogator. “no, of course I did not kill them; they just died of heart disease,” and then he went on with the story. “We did not see anymore Indians for an hour. After about that long a bullet came z-i-p into the sand right among us and several seconds later the report of what we thought must be a small cannon came reverberating up the river.
“On the point of a bluff about 800 yards down the river from where we were, we could see a puff of smoke floating slowly away on the breeze. While we were watching this smoke we saw another puff sort of belch out from near the top of the bluff and about two seconds later another big bullet whizzed through the air and we all ducked our heads like a flock of geese.
“Well sir, that thing kept up for an hour. We did not know what to make of it and rather enjoyed it. We could see the little puff of smoke spring up and then have plenty of time to dodge down into the ditch before the ball would come and then we would jump up and shout at the red devils before the report would reach us. We really liked that part. I heard afterward that the gun was one that had been built to shoot elephants with and that Joseph’s crew had taken it from some Englishmen they had captured in the National Park. They got next to how to use it all right for at a distance of 800 yards they could put a bullet into our little circus every time. After about an hour of that out of target practice with their new gun, the Indians withdrew and we saw nothing more of them.
“Early in the morning of September 22, I had loaded out some bull teams for O.G. Cooper, now of Chouteau, and one for Frank Farmer, who died recently. The Indians went up Cow creek and overtook these freight teams. They called a man, who was with Cooper, and burnt and destroyed the wagons and goods. Cooper and Farmer escaped wan came back to Cow Island, being very much surprised to find us alive. They went on to Fort Benton and on the evening of the day they left, Colonel Clendennin came down Bull creek alone. When we told him what happened he said, “well Mike, it is too bad I was not here to help you whip the scoundrels.”
“Col. Clendennin told me that one to the North West steamboats, while trying to get over the shallows at Grand Island 20 miles below, got stuck on the sand bar. The thought there was a doctor on the boat and that we better take the two wounded men down there where they could be taken card of. We had some flatboats and skiffs tied up along the riverbank but the Indians had turned them all loose except one small skiff we had dragged up into the brush and which they had failed to find. After the dusk of evening began to fall-this was the 2nd day of the fight- we put the two wounded men in the skiff, and leaving the other men in the camp, Col. Clendenning and I started down the river. We had only gone a mile or two when we heard a wagon rattling and pretty soon we were hailed by a party from the bank. They turned out to be the Fort Benton volunteers with Major Elgis, Col. Donnely and Judge Tattan in the lead.
They wanted us to go back and show them the ford across the river and join them in the chase after the Indians. We explained to them that we were taking wounded men down to the steamboat and also advised them they could not hope to do anything with the 300 fighting bucks with Joseph and that if they went after them they would only get killed. I told Col. Clendenning that if he wanted to go, al right, but that I had quite enough fight for one round. The colonel stayed with me and we went down to the steamboat. The volunteers with up to our camp, crossed the river and followed the Indians. The only thing in God-a-Mighty’s world that saved their lives was the fact that Joseph thought they were the advanced guard of General Howard’s command. As it was, one man was killed (Edmond Bradley) and the volunteers came back to Cow Island pell-mell and went home.
We got the wounded men to the steamboat about 11 o’clock that night, leaving them in the care of the doctor whom we found on the boat. They both recovered. I was so dead tired and exhausted not having any rest for 3 days and nights that I told the Colonel to go on back to our camp while I would lie down and sleep for a few hours and would be back to camp by 10 o’clock. We had to walk back, not being able to pull the boat against the current of the river. The Colonel started at once while I stretched out on the floor of the boat to get some sleep. The purser called me about 4 in the morning and I started back.
“When about half way and trudging along at a pretty stiff gait, a bullet suddenly kicked up dust just to one side of me and almost instantly another one whistled through the air so close to my face that I could taste it. I saw the two red varmints before the crack of their guns reached me. They were off to my right about half way up the bluffs and 300 yards away. Well, you can bet I wasn’t long in getting action on my old Winchester.
“A few days after our fight, General Howard and staff arrived at Cow Island and camped all night, and the next day started down river to join General Miles. A few days later they captured Chief Joseph and Looking Glass.
Written for the Times by H.M. Miller