During The Nez Percé War, Looking Glass was one of the war chiefs who helped to lead and protect the Nez Percé during their long, withering flight to freedom across the Canadian border in 1877.
Looking Glass, known to his people as Allalimya Takanin, was born about 1832, in what is now western Montana. He was the son of a prominent Nez Percé chief named Apash Wyakaikt (Flint Necklace). He also was known by the white people as Looking Glass, and had signed the Walla-Walla Treaty of 1855. Respected for his bravery and leadership, the younger Looking Glass confirmed those qualities when he helped his friends, the Mountain Crows, defeat a Sioux (Lakota) war party along the Yellowstone River in Montana, in 1874.
Although he bitterly resented white encroachments on his ancestral lands, Looking Glass opposed going to war with the United States over its plans to force his people onto the small Lapwai Indian Reservation in Idaho. Living with his people in a village of 11 lodges called Kam’-nak-ka, on the Lapwai reservation in Idaho, he attempted to demonstrate neutrality and keep out of the conflict between the non-treaty Nez Percé bands and the U.S. Government. He had rejected war and believed that the whites would leave them alone because of that fact. Looking Glass’s people became farmers and dairymen.
General Oliver Howard was at first convinced that Looking Glass would not be a factor in the conflict. Howard changed his perception when he began to receive unsubstantiated reports that Looking Glass's Nez Percé had left the reservation, were attacking white settlements and inciting other Nez Percé to join the militant non-treaty bands. At the end of June, Howard issued orders to arrest Chief Looking Glass, his band, any Indians living near his village between the forks of Clear Creek, and disable their effectiveness as possible combatants.
When General Howard ordered Captain Stephen Whipple to arrest Looking Glass, it proved to be a costly mistake, exacerbating the conflict with the non-treaty Nez Percé, and producing disastrous consequences for the army — as well as for the chief and his people. Captain Whipple was selected to take cavalry and Gatling guns* to arrest the chief and all other Indians near him, to relocate and detain them at the town of Mount Idaho. Whipple departed Fort Walla Walla with two companies of the 1st Cavalry, consisting of four officers and 62 men. At Mount Idaho, the captain left with two Gatling guns, each drawn by three horses with a gun crew of four men to operate them.
Captain Whipple and his men traveled all night, intending to surprise and attack the village at dawn while the people were defenseless in sleep, a routine army tactic used against Indians — especially against small, isolated camps. However, they were delayed, owing to miscalculating the approach, which turned out to be a harsh, mountainous landscape, and finding the camp farther away than expected. Captain Whipple and his command failed to arrive until well after the people were up and busy with their daily schedule. Halting at the crest of a hill less than one-quarter mile west of the village, the troops announced their presence.
In the early hours of a July 1877 morning, the people of Looking Glass’ village were going about their usual morning activities. Some of the people had gone into Kamiah to attend a Dreamer service. Less than 20 men of fighting age occupied the camp, which also contained about 120 children, women, and old men. Looking Glass sat in his lodge, eating breakfast. Soldiers were in possession of the high ground across from Looking Glass’ village on Clear Creek. Alerted to the soldiers, he sent Peo Peo Tholekt to tell them he wanted no trouble, that his people were peaceful and wanted to be left alone. The warrior rode across Clear Creek and met Captain Whipple, Captain William Winters, Lieutenant Sevier Rains, and a volunteer interpreter, who were all mounted.
The enlisted cavalrymen had dismounted and spread out, leaving their horses on a flat of the hill to their rear. After the warrior delivered Looking Glass's first message, he was ordered to return and bring back the chief. However, Looking Glass distrusted the officers, so he dispatched Peo Peo Tholekt again with another man under a white flag of truce. Whipple was told that Looking Glass’s people did not want war, they only wanted peace, and they had come to the Lapwai reservation to escape war. Whipple was asked to leave in peace and not enter the village. However, Whipple, through the interpreter, demanded to see the chief and rode across the creek to his lodge.
As Whipple and the interpreter approached the lodge, a shot rang out from the cavalry’s position; the bullet raced toward the village, and ripped into the flesh of a villager. With that, the officers spun their horses and sprinted back across the creek to the safety of the army’s position, while a deadly barrage of enemy fire tore into the camp, ripping through teepees, wounding horses and people, and creating terror among the tribesmen. The terrified men, women, and children, Looking Glass among them, raced to escape the soldiers’ bullets, ran into the bushes and trees, some up into the hills, others along the riverbank, trying to find any place to hide from certain death. Shortly, the firing diminished as the soldiers moved down the hillside, waded through the creek, and attacked the village. The troopers then resumed their firing into the teepees and unarmed people running for their lives. Once the surviving Indians had evacuated the camp, the soldiers ransacked, stealing whatever they wanted, and tried to burn the dwellings.
Despite their delayed arrival, the attack did in fact come as a total surprise, and received little return fire as the victims fled. Whipple's brutal attack was devastating for Looking Glass's people. Because Whipple had arrived late at the village, he had effectually failed in his mission to arrest Looking Glass, capture his people, and escort them as prisoners to Mount Idaho, thereby removing them entirely as factors in the widening conflict. The attack on the peaceful band killed only a few of his people, but destroyed the village.
Furious at the treachery of the unwarranted attack, and the loss of his village and its contents, Chief Looking Glass decided to lead his People to join White Bird, Joseph, and the other non-treaty Indians on a legendary flight to freedom that would last four months and cover 1,700 miles.
When Looking Glass, a man respected for his military talent and leadership, joined the resistance, it added an unforeseen complication to the army's plans. His mere presence added legitimacy and hope of success, and drew more people to the cause with which the troops would have to contend.
Having no prior war experience with the army to draw upon, the naive and peaceful treaty Nez Percé believed that if they could escape General Howard's forces, they would be safe from further reprisals, — they did not understand that they were now at war with the entire U.S. Army.
The Nez Percé chiefs met in council. Despite administrative chief Joseph's opposition, Looking Glass, a respected battlefield commander, convinced the majority of the chiefs that their only option was to flee and join their allies, the Mountain Crow to the East. Looking Glass was chosen as war chief and the Nez Percé commenced their flight. They chose a difficult route through the wilderness on the Lolo trail. With women, children, sick, wounded, elderly, and a herd of about 3,000 horses, the Nez Percé made their way through the most difficult parts of the route, hand carrying the feeble around and through fallen trees, rocks, and brambles.
The Nez Percé passed over the mountains into Montana, where they found their way blocked by a hastily constructed battlement, Fort Missoula, built to ensnare them. The fort was assembled and manned with a handful of soldiers and approximately 200 volunteers from the surrounding area, commanded by Captain Charles Rawn. Chiefs Looking Glass, White Bird, and Joseph rode ahead of the main body of Indians to parley for safe passage with the commander. They explained that their quarrel was with General Howard. They meant no harm to the people of the area; and indeed, they knew most of the volunteers from previous excursions through the area to hunt buffalo.
Captain Rawns' orders were clear. He was there to hold the Indians back until General Howard could engage them, but the volunteers feared danger to their families and promptly returned to their homes — leaving Captain Rawn and his 30 men to stop the band. The Nez Percé simply skirted the fortifications and continued on their way.
Looking Glass persuaded them to stop and rest at Big Hole, where he believed they would be free from attack. Colonel John Gibbon had received orders from General Howard. Gibbon quickly assembled forces and set out to overtake them. With 200 men, he arrived and prepared a surprise attack on the Indians. At dawn on August 9, he and his soldiers advanced upon the Nez Percé sleeping in their camp. The sound of a rifle shot awoke and alarmed the sleeping Indians. Warriors and their families scrambled out of their teepees, some forgetting their guns, to find cover. The soldiers shot into the teepees. The elderly, the wounded, and the women and children were shot down while attempting to flee. Many people were slaughtered, shot at such close range that their clothing and flesh were seared. Women, children, and babies were massacred, being shot or bludgeoned to death with rifle butts.
With all the Indians apparently dead or dying, the soldiers turned their attention to looting the teepees and trying to set them on fire, but the dwellings were wet with the morning dew and would not burn. Warriors who escaped the initial attack rallied to form a skirmish line that advanced and fired upon the distracted soldiers. More Indians that had fled in the initial confusion were now returning and firing from varied positions into the main body of troops. The Nez Percés' unwavering advance forced the soldiers from the camp and into the trees, where they began to mount their defense. The old chief White Bird led the surviving warriors in a counterattack. The soldiers were besieged in their defensive positions, surrounded by Indian snipers.
Attempts by Colonel Gibbon to break the siege were unsuccessful. A mountain howitzer was brought up, but the Indians captured it and a packhorse loaded with ammunition. The Nez Percé continued their siege of Colonel Gibbon and his men all day. Gibbon was short of water, food, and ammunition for his men. He had lost 29 soldiers and 40 more, including himself, were wounded. In the fading light of the evening, General Howard and his cavalry arrived, forcing the Nez Percé to break off the fight and fall back.
General Howard and Colonel Gibbon prepared their report and listed 89 Nez Percé dead. Two warrior chiefs, Rainbow and Five Wounds, were killed. The remainder in the army's count were women and children — a statistic left out of the report. Following the battle of Big Hole, Looking Glass lost much of his prestige as a war chief and military leader for his costly mistake, and was replaced by war chief Hototo (Lean Elk) and the administrative chief, Joseph.
As the Nez Percé continued their retreat, they took their wounded and their dead. Once a safe distance was reached, they buried their lost kin. Nez Percé warriors never willingly left their dead or wounded behind. Common belief held that what befalls the body in this life is carried to the next. The Nez Percé people were told by the spirits of their near relatives to treat the whites humanely, not to mutilate the bodies to render them helpless against hostile Indians in the next world, as was the common practice of the Plains. When General Howard allowed his Bannock scouts to dig up the Nez Percé dead to mutilate and scalp the bodies, he earned the eternal damnation of the Nez Percé.
The Nez Percé had managed to elude General Howard's force despite great odds. The tactics used thus far were those of such other leaders as Toohoolhoolzote, White Bird, Rainbow, Olikut, Five Wounds, and Red Owl. The Indians were on the run, fleeing through Yellowstone toward Montana to join their old allies, the Mountain Crow. General Howard's forces were a day behind; the Nez Percé were in unfamiliar territory and unsure of the way to Mountain Crow lands. They had no chance to rest their wounded and feeble. A daring night raid on the pursuing army's horses bought some time, and a captured prospector served as their guide.
A warrior rode ahead, hoping to enlist the help of the Crow or, at least, obtain their permission to enter their lands. However, fearing reprisal from the army, the Mountain Crow refused. Upon the warriors' return, the chiefs decided that their only hope was to cut north and make for Canada through the mountains, to live among the Sioux under Chief Sitting Bull, who had been there since the end of the Battle of the Little Big Horn campaign the year before.
Fighting several skirmishes against the better-armed and more numerous soldiers, the Nez Percé crossed the Missouri River in northern Montana on September 23. By late September, the exhausted band of refugees struggled to cover the last 40 miles to the Canadian border. Unable to go any farther and hoping they had outlasted and outwitted General Howard and his troops, they stopped to rest near Bear Paw Mountain. With no bluecoats in sight and suffering from exposure, hunger, and exhaustion, they prepared for the final push into Canada.
However, General Howard had already gotten word to General Nelson Miles and ordered him to intercept the Indians before they reached Canada. General Miles and his 7th Cavalry force-marched 185 miles and cornered the natives on September 30. Nez Percé scouts spotted Miles' force moving up, but they did not have enough time to escape, so they concealed themselves in the rocks. The cavalry’s first charge was decimated by the warriors' rifle fire, and they were forced to retreat. The ensuing battle lasted five days.
With freezing weather and no food or blankets, the Nez Percé warriors held off the U.S. troops long enough for some of the Nez Percé to escape into Canada. Under the leadership of Chief White Bird, about 171 men, women, and children escaped and slipped across the border. Chief Joseph formally surrendered to General Miles, ending what had already become a famous flight. Looking Glass had also refused to surrender at Bearpaw Mountain and set out on October 5, 1877, to join Sitting Bull's band in Canada — but a Cheyenne scout killed him.
*A crank-operated, 10-barreled .45 caliber rapid-fire machine gun capable of a very high rate of fire of up to 1,000 rounds per minute with an effective range of about 2,400 yards.
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