A Tale: Guiding the Nez Perce Through Yellowstone Park — 1877

After the bloody Big Hole Battle on August 9, 1877, the Nez Perce fled through Yellowstone Park to avoid the settled areas of Montana. Pursued by Army units under General O.O. Howard, they needed a guide because the route was unfamiliar to them. On August 23, they found one.

John Shively, who had prospected for gold in the area, was camped near the Lower Geyser Basin when the Indians captured him. Shively had planned to leave the park with a party of tourists from Radersburg, Montana, that he had met earlier.

The next day, the Nez Perce accosted the Radersburg group, shot two men and took two women captive. The women were treated well and later release.

Shively traveled with the Nez Perce for thirteen days, then made his escape. (The Indians said they let him go after they reached country they knew.) Several territorial newspapers reported Shively’s adventures and Edwin J. Stanley synthesized them into a single narrative several years later. Here’s Stanley’s version.


On the evening of the second day, after leaving the Radersburg party, I was camped in the Lower Geyser Basin. I was eating my supper, and, on hearing a slight noise, looked up, and, to my astonishment, four Indians, in war-paint, were standing within ten feet of me, and twenty or thirty more had surrounded me not more than forty feet off.

I sprang for my gun, but was rudely pushed back. I then asked them what Indians they were, and they answered “Sioux.” I said, “No.” Then one of them said, “Nez-Perces.” They then commenced to gesticulate wildly, and a loud conversation was kept up between them.

I thought the exhibition of a little bravery might help me, so I folded my arms and told them to shoot, that I was not afraid to die. A brother of Looking-Glass then came up, placed his hand on my heart, and held it there a minute or two, and exclaimed, “Hyas, skookum-tum-tum!” meaning ‘strong heart’ in Chinook. He then said in English, “Come with me,” walked a few steps, told me to get on a pony that he pointed out, jumped up behind me, and all started for the main camp, a short distance below.

While this was taking place, the other Indians had taken my gun, blankets, horses—in fact, everything I had. Arriving at the main camp, a council of the chiefs was formed, and I was told to take a seat inside the circle.

They asked me who I was, and what I was doing there. I told them. They asked me if I would show them the best trail leading out of the park to Wind River, where they were going. I told them I would, as I knew all about the country. This seemed to be satisfactory, and the council broke up, and the camp moved up a mile or two, where an encampment for the night was formed.

A robe was given me, and an Indian named Joe was detailed to sleep with me. He spoke very good English; said that I must not attempt to escape; that he would be my friend; that they had come that way to get away from Howard; that the trail by that route to Wind River was not known to them, but other Indians had told them about it, and that if I told them the truth they would not harm me.

As I could not help myself, I promised all they asked, and kept my promise. All the time I was with them, I always showed a willingness to get on or off a horse when they told me; and, if an Indian rode behind me on the horse, I offered no objections, and to this fact I am probably indebted for kind treatment.

After breaking camp the next morning, I was ordered to mount. An Indian mounted behind, and I was started ahead with mounted and armed Indians on each side and behind me. While camped the next day, about noon, the Radersburg party were brought into camp.

Shortly afterward, a march was made toward Yellowstone Lake, I still being kept some distance in the advance. After traveling about a mile, I heard seven distinct shots fired, and supposed all the persons had been killed, but that evening Joe told me that only two men had been shot, and the next morning I saw Mrs. Cowan and Miss Carpenter, and was allowed to speak to them, and we traveled near together all that day.

Through this terrible ordeal, the sisters behaved nobly and with the utmost fortitude, although Mrs. Cowan’s mental agony at thought of her husband wounded, and perhaps dead, and they three in the hands of savages, was enough to have driven her distracted. With all their savagery and ferocity, let it be said and remembered to the credit of the Nez-Perces, that these ladies were treated with all respect, and protected from all harm, while their prisoners. The next day, Frank Carpenter and his sisters were permitted to go, and the Indians moved to the Yellowstone, and from there moved over to the head-waters, or rather a tributary, of Clark’s fork.

The first night of our arrival being quite dark, I slipped out of camp and started for the Mammoth Hot Springs, which I reached after traveling two whole nights and one day. Here I found no one, but did find some potatoes already cooked, which greatly revived me after my long fast—having had nothing to eat from the time of leaving the Indian camp.

I then started for Henderson’s ranch, which I found destroyed, but plenty of provisions lying around. I got some eggs, and, while cooking them, Mr. J. W. Schuler of Butte City, who was returning from the Clark’s Fork mines, rode up. He kindly gave me his horse to ride, he going on foot. That night, early, we reached Dailey’s ranch, where we received the kindest treatment, and Mr. Dailey loaned me a horse on which to ride to Bozeman.

I was with the Indians thirteen days, and was treated very well all the time. They traveled very leisurely, not averaging, for the whole time, more than five miles a day. Joe said they were not afraid of Howard. He also said that they did not intend to return to Idaho, as the agent there, John Hall, was a bad man, and would not give them what was due them; that they would remain somewhere in the Big Horn country, and, if the soldiers came, they would join in with the Sioux and Crows and whip them.


— Excerpt from Edwin J. Stanley, Rambles in Wonderland. Southern Methodist Publishing House: Nashville, 1885.

— You also might like:

— You can read Emma Cowan’s complete story in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.

— My next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, will tell the story of the Nez Perce and the people who tangled with them in the park.

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