The Last Indian War—Horses and Technology

Elliot West’s “The Last Indian War” was published in 2009, so it has been around. I’d not read it, but it was handy and I needed to check a date or name, so picked it up. And read a page or two. And decided I should read it. Read it because what West does is put the Nez Perce War in context of the Westward movement and US history.

We know that the War parties—Nez Perce and pursuing armies—moved through Yellowstone National Park. Some writers even tell us that it—Yellowstone—was a first, and that tourists were encountered and captured. But West tells us that yes, Yellowstone was the first National Park, and that it “reflected three powerful forces creating and defining the West.”

The first was the effort to inventory the West. Lewis and Clark measured and sent specimens; Isaac Stephens surveyed a Northern Transcontinental Rail Route. An inordinate amount of information was collected and sent East, where bureaucrats and capitalists found purpose in it. The second force was railroads, which made use of this measuring and inventorying as they moved across the country. And the third we might call “Wild Landscapes,” the notion that Europe might have its cathedrals and towers, but we had Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon—our own monuments. West has further reflections on “wildness,” the “virtue” of first peoples in their wild environment, and the paradox of technological advance, conquest, and assimilation.

The big technology of the post-Civil War years was the railroad. Railroads sped the decline of the buffalo, disrupted the Plains tribes, and directly impacted the Nez Perce. They moved armies towards the War, and eventually moved the Nez Perce into captivity. West links railroads to their sister and accompanying technology, the telegraph, which had an even greater impact on the People. Kent Nurburn’s “Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce” tells the story of Joseph learning about the telegraph while on the train to captivity. A message is sent from one train station to the next, and Joseph realizes that this is how several armies were brought in to pursue the Nez Perce in their flight. West says the telegraph “collapsed time and space,” and not only served the army, but it showed the Nez Perce War to the entire nation. The East followed the War closely, and many sympathized with the Indians’ side. Eventually, Joseph’s words at Bear’s Paw—or what were construed as his words to Howard and Miles—went across the wires and into print in papers and magazines across the country. He became a kind of hero, a safe Indian hero, a noble—and captured—enemy.

If the Nez Perce War brought these new technologies into warfare and public knowledge of war—and of the West, it was also, according to West, the last great “horse war.” The Nez Perce had been acknowledged horse breeders and handlers from the time of Lewis and Clark. In fewer than 100 years, they had become masters of the horse and horse warfare. They also had become accomplished marksmen. The bands traveled the entire length of the fighting retreat with huge. They knew the country better than the military men, and their horses were accustomed to feeding on wild pasture in canyons and prairies. The military horses were fed corn, and weakened when the entourage of supplies lagged behind.

Traveling with women, children, old people, and hundreds of horses, the Nez Perce did not lose a battle until the very end. All previous battles and skirmishes were, at best, draws for the US military. Many were outright defeats. The Nez Perce were the superior horsemen and marksmen, the superior soldiers. At Bear’s Paw, Miles and the telegraph caught the them, and with overwhelming numbers, and after some 1200-1400 miles of pursuit by a multitude of US army officers and enlisted men, civilian volunteers, the military won the day.

One is reminded of the time of the treaties, when Natives were told that the whites would “come like grasshoppers.” And that this piece of history, the filling of the West with white fur traders, miners, settlers, military posts and troops, of major warfare with horses and the Natives who’d made the West home for millennia, came to a close at Bear’s Paw.

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