The North American Frontiersmen





 Staff Writer

   Smoke Signals

                   May /Jun. '09



Truth, Facts and Rendition:

The Battle of Pierre’s Hole

One of the chiefs came forward by himself and unarmed, bearing the pipe of peace.

“Is your piece charged?” asked Antoine to his red companion.

“It is.”

“Then cock it, and follow me.”

They met the Blackfoot chief half way, who extended his hand in friendship. Antoine grasped it.

“Fire!” cried he.

Washington Irving, Adventures of Captain Bonneville

This quote from Captain Bonneville may seem like it came from a historical fiction book, but actually was a direct quote from one of the many sources I use regularly. The interaction was between a man bent on vengeance, his Flathead accomplice and a Blackfoot chief that started a battle which would became the largest and most well known in the early west. This conflict happened at Pierre’s Hole, located near the town of Driggs, Idaho and Wyoming border. The fight took place on July 18, 1832, when that year’s annual rendezvous was winding down and many of its attendees were heading towards the areas they were to trap in. The trade fair had started on July 8th and by the 17th; groups of men like Captain Benjamin Bonneville’s forty had left the rendezvous site about eight o’clock in the morning and traveled away from the valley, when they thought they caught a glimpse of Lucien Fontenelle’s company of trappers. But when Wyeth looked at the group traveling in a long, single file with his spyglass, he realized they were about one hundred fifty Indian men, women and children.

This “hole” or mountain valley they found themselves in was named for Old Pierre Tevanitagon, an Iroquois trapper who was killed by Blackfeet in 1827. The glen is about thirty miles long, from five to fifteen miles wide. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company described it as “Pierre’s Hole, under the Three Teton Mountains”.

It was fitting that in a high mountain valley like this, a son Antoine Godin, was about to repay a tribe for the death of his father. Thyery Godin, who had been killed in 1829 or 1830 by the same tribe that was coming down toward them. Zenas Leonard, one of the men in Wyeth’s group noted, “They advanced towards us displaying a British Flag.” The two camps wanted time to think about what might happen, so both sides sent out men to talk. Godin and an unnamed Flathead Indian mounted their horses and rode out from the white’s side to hold a conference. On the opposite side, the Gro Ventre leader came forth with the red blanket he always had with him and a “Pipe of Peace”. When the three men came together, they reined their horses close and a hand was offered forward to shake. The events then proceed like this when the chief’s hand was grasped and held on to:

The Flathead leveled his piece, and brought the Blackfoot to the ground. Antoine snatched off his scarlet blanket, which was highly ornamented, and galloped off with it as a trophy to the camp, bullets of the enemy whistling after him.

So starts what is now called the Battle of Pierre’s Hole. If there had been a slim chance for repairing the relationship between the different Blackfeet bands and the whites it was at this meeting. But with the death of the band’s leader, a breastwork of trees was thrown together and pits were dug for the Indians to fight from behind and under. Many history books state that this battle was the largest and most recorded in White/Indian relations during the fur trade. The kicker to all this is if anyone else had gone out for the parlay, the battle might not have happened!

The stage was set for the two groups to meet by four events: 1) the Gro Ventres band was heading north, after they visited their kin, the Arapahos. 2) A series of recent events added to the negative view many of the Americans had toward the Blackfeet. Warren Ferris tells us that a few days previous; seven young men who left the rendezvous headed toward St. Louis were killed by a band of Gro Ventres, a sub tribe or band of the Blackfeet. Hiram Chittenden wrote the small group attacked was a portion of Wyeth’s men, which included Alfred Stephens and two other unnamed men who died in that encounter. Stephens lived through the fight, but died later from his wounds received. 3) William Sublette had a run in with a number of them on the way to the rendezvous, probably a different group of the tribe. 4) And finally Tom Fitzpatrick wandered into the main camp after a scrape with some young men of their tribe. On foot, lost, almost senseless and with a head of hair that had changed white over night because of his experiences. It was these four incidents and the general disregard for the tribe that laid the background for the parley and the next happenings.

After learning the facts surrounding this conflict, you may have some of the same thoughts I had. Why did these particular people step forward to parlay, when many others would have been a better choice? A simple meeting, a few inexpensive gifts exchanged and a promise to meet again someday could have avoided the whole fight. A new start might have been made in White/ Blackfoot relations if only one thing had happened different- a change of people to represent the whites. The parlay was a peaceable way out of a bad situation for both sides. This occurred many times in the early west. These meetings saved face and provided a way to back out and return another day when fighting would be better for at least one of the sides. One opportunity of this was between the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and a Blackfeet band; when the Indians found the white men abundantly able to defend themselves, they adopted a peaceful policy and opened a trade of fur and skins that was advantageous to both parties. This is what could have happened with the groups involved in our battle, but hatred and revenge were to have their way that day. Antoine’s need for vengeance really was not finalized in that parlay. The battle left more people with other scores to even as we will see later in the article.

On the Gro Ventre side, their chief’s death did nothing on the Blackfeet side but preserve what they were hearing from the English, who were using those tribes as a barrier between their trapping men and the American’s push into the Northwest. And did not help mend the damage done when John Coulter first fought against them in a battle, something that the Blackfeet or the English never did not forget. History can be made or changed by the actions of one individual; it was a shame to see how it turned out so wrong in this situation.

You will read many conflicting reports here. These were made by those who were there, who fought, saw and relayed that they experienced. So, let’s piece together what their accounts say and try to figure out what really happened. LeRoy Hafen wrote that the men “were plumed and painted for war” whooping onto the plain. Yet the chief advanced with a pipe of peace, unarmed. Having seen the whites first, the Indians broke into two groups. The first included the fighting men and the chief, the second women and children. When the fighting started the whites did a similar maneuver involving Wyeth’s men, who being inexperienced and were labeled “Downeasterners” were kept behind the baggage and not involved in the main fight.

The men in the band of Gro Ventres knew what they had to do when the fighting started- they had to stand between these treacherous whites and rest of their tribe to protect their women and children and give time to escape if needed. The band was not on a hostile mission. It appears to be just a moving camp when the chance meeting happened.

After the parley went bad, Godin and his Flathead friend dodged a wall of bullets all the way back to where their friends were watching events unfold. Many today do not realize that the Flatheads and Nez Perce were enemies with the Blackfeet.

When the first shots were fired, Milton Sublette entrenched his men in a ravine, while George Nidever put a young boy on a fleet horse and sent him to the rendezvous for reinforcements. It was about nine miles each way. Zenas Leonard wrote that two hundred whites, the same number of Flatheads and three hundred Nez Perce came to their call for help. Most of the men from the rendezvous site were in so much of a hurry to help in the battle they made the trip bare backed. Nidever gave a different number, for he thought about two hundred fifty men arrived from the camp, at about 10 o’clock, two hours after the first sighting of the Indians.

While the courier was heading to the American’s camp, the Gro Ventres headed into a grove of willows and set up firing at the whites. In the willows, the Natives showed good fighting techniques, while the women threw up a breastwork of aspen logs in an area close by. The first part of the fight consisted of long range shooting, but when the reinforcements arrived, the whites worked their way closer. Nidever wrote that the Gro Ventres had moved from the willows to the fort the women had built. It was half moon shaped, with an open back and partial sides. The open end of this “moon” had trees on it, that provided a certain amount of cover and protection from which the Indians could shoot and protect themselves behind. Nidever said only about one hundred men attacked the Indian fort; the rest stayed behind the baggage at Wyeth’s camp spot.

A council was held during all this, one writer noted and he wrote William Sublette was elected leader of the whites, while Zenas Leonard recorded that Tom Fitzpatrick acted as captain, but the men were not disciplined and set off in groups without direction. William Sublette wanted to charge the fort; Robert Campbell agreed and went with him. Each gave a verbal will to the other, if either would be killed; the other could pass on the dead friend’s wishes to their loved ones. This was probably a good thing; since a bullet in the shoulder wounded Sublette and it was Campbell who had drug him to safety. The whites attacked the horseshoe shaped fort head on and rushed it, but were driven back by the fire coming towards them. For their second attempt, they split into groups and surrounded it. Zenas Leonard gave us a good perspective on bravery and glory in his account. He wrote he was afraid, but not wanting the rest of the men to look down on him or think of him as a coward or uncourageous went up the hill beside the rest.

Leonard, Smith, a man known only as Kean and two Indians separated from the group and crawled on their hands and knees to get even closer. About forty yards away from the Gro Ventre’s fort, one of the two Indians in this group was killed. All laid still for some time, but when one of Smith’s feet shook some weeds he was shot as he lay on his belly. Everyone then started to retreat and when Leonard crawled by Smith, he asked Leonard to carry him out, which he did. As they passed Kean, they found him mortally wounded. He died soon after.

Benjamin Bonneville told us that Sublette and Campbell were out ahead of the men, since most were raw recruits from St. Louis. Sublette, Campbell and Sinclair (or St. Clair) crawled towards the fort on their hands and knees, but when they were within ten to fifteen paces, Sinclair was killed. Nidever said a man called “Phelps” was like Sinclair, shot in the thigh. Sublette was hit in the shoulder and Quigley was nicked in the side of the head. The same round ball that struck Sublette, Irving wrote also struck another man in the head, this could of have been Quigley. Irving also noted that the bone was not broken in Sublette’s arm/ shoulder area, but was splintered by the bullet and it was several weeks before he was healed up enough to leave camp. In the midst of the chaos an Indian close to Wyeth was shot and Wyeth was convinced the ball came from the other side of the fort, shot from a friendly gun. This may not be the only instance of friendly fire at the fight.

Robert Campbell told an interesting story about something that happened here in this fight, he wrote of a Nez Perce Chief who could not be killed by a bullet, was hit in the chest by a round ball from the Gro Ventre fort. The lead ball dropped to the ground in front of him when he was hit and this caused quite a commotion; and was big medicine to those around him! Bonneville said the Indian chief threw up blood, but the skin was not broken nor was he hurt otherwise.

Both sides until kept up continual gunfire late in the afternoon and at sunset, the whites thought of burning the tribe from their fort. This request was denied, as the friendly Indians fighting on the white’s side wanted any goods they found afterwards and if they set the fort on fire, all would be destroyed.

Inside the Indian fort, the wily Natives had done all they could to confound the whites. It was made of downed, stacked tree limbs upon which they had piled blankets, buffalo robes and the leather covers from the lodges. This concealed their movements and from which they could still shoot behind. Besides this tactical move, the tribe’s members had dug trenches in the ground behind the barricade to shoot from. Warren Ferris called this fort a “substantial pen”. Leonard later said they were astonished at the fort and how it was made. The whites got within a few hundred yards of them and did not know it was even being built. And that pen was large enough to contain five hundred warriors, while resisting any attempts for them to force their way into it. Historian LeRoy Hafen says that while the Indians went behind the breastworks, the women and children went into the mountains to escape. As we shall see later, this was not totally accurate.

Since the whites could not take the fort or burn out its occupants, words were exchanged between the two sides. John Kirk Townsend said they had a Blackfoot in camp, who had killed a principle chief of the tribe and escaped to join the first white group he came in contact with. And was prepared to fight against his people. This may have been the man Nidever wrote of, a renegade Blackfoot with Henry Fraeb’s party who was instructed just before dark to talk to them and ask them to surrender. The Gro Ventre refused and said that while they all might be killed that day, the next day would be the white’s turn as they had sent word to a nearby village of fifteen hundred lodges and their reinforcements would be there soon.

It was only a misinterpretation of this response that ended this battle. A voice from the fort harangued the whites in a high-pitched tongue, extolled the virtues of the Gro Ventre and shouted defiance to their enemies. Some of the Flatheads and Nez Perces translated the words as an overwhelming number of Blackfeet were already attacking the main body with its hundreds of unguarded women, children and all their trade goods. It was then that all the Gro Ventre started yelling, “which seemed to move heaven and earth” as one witness wrote. Both Nidever and Fraeb became alarmed by all this and withdrew their men knowing if it were true, they would not only loose the battle but their year’s supplies also. So complete was the effect of these words that Zenas Leonard said “Within five minutes of this translation [having] been spread around the battle lines, not a white face were to be found within a hundred yards of the Indian fort.” The watching of the Indian fort was then left to the Flatheads and Nez Perces.

The whites rode back to the main camp to protect it, but only found it as they left it. This drove some of the men to an animal-like madness. For since darkness had come, they could not return to the battle site and continue the confrontation. Zenas Leonard wrote he felt regret at how it all ended, but gave credit to the Indians for their skill and how they fought in procuring their lives.

So ended the battle of Pierre’s Hole. The whites came the next morning to the fort after the Indians not killed or severely wounded left during the night. Hafen wrote, the whites found ten bodies, all the wounded being removed. Two of Fitzpatrick’s stolen horses were also found in the fort from his recent encounter with the band. Nidever counted fifty bodies, twenty five dead horses and thought three to four hundred fought in the fort by all the sign he saw. He also wrote that some of the bodies were thrown into the river to keep them out of the white’s hands. These bodies could have been those who escaped at the beginning but were shot trying to cross the river.

The results at the end of the day’s long fight are a confused set: Alexander Sinclair was killed, Rottenbelly, a Nez Perce chief was wounded, and William Sublette was shot in the shoulder, while leading a charge up the hill. Warren Ferris wrote that three whites were killed; eight were badly wounded, along with ten Flathead and Nez Perce Indians who fought beside them.

When the whites did a head count at their camp, they noted one of their group was missing. Parties of men went out looking for him and he was found severely wounded in the bushes. The unnamed man was carried a few miles toward the main camp where he died and was buried Indian style – wrapped in a blanket, laid to rest in the ground with poles and earth over him. Bonneville also said five whites and one mixed breed was killed, several wounded. Robert Campbell noted that three of his party was killed; he counted seventeen Blackfeet dead. Warren Ferris wrote sixteen Indians and six whites were laid out for their interment in the white’s camp when it was all though. They were lucky that it was not worse for the fighters there. Andrew Drips whose wife, Mary, was with him at this rendezvous and had just been delivered of their third child, named Catherine, born six days earlier. He had a hole shot in his hat, losing a lock of hair when the ball went through it! A close call for a new father. Not all the wounds gave to the whites were from the Gro Ventres’ weapons. Captain Bonneville tells us that the whites and their Indian companions came up on both sides of the fort the Blackfoot had constructed and “A cross-fire took place, which occasionally did mischief to friends as well as foes.”

Big discrepancies are also found in how many Blackfeet actually fought and died in this conflict. On the morning of the next day, the first whites to go into the Indian fort wrote of finding between twenty-six and fifty warriors dead along with as many as twenty-six Indian horses. Nidever later noted he learned only six Indians were found alive in the fort, having first reported the fort being empty, the ground “strewn with dead bodies, mostly women and children, very few warriors among them.” He went on to comment that many of the women were shot “unintentionally” and the children inside the fort “were killed no doubt by stray bullets.” Zenas Leonard wrote he found the next morning forty-two dead horses, two warriors and one woman, besides a large quantity of baggage, furs and etc. Robert Campbell was another who claimed to find several bodies hidden in the bushes to protect their scalps. Later reports given to the whites by the Gro Ventre said twenty-six men and thirty-two horses were killed in the battle on their side. And Ferris wrote the pen was full of bodies the next morning, noting seventeen Blackfeet and twenty-five Indian horses found dead the when the whites and their friendly Indians finally arrived to look into the barricaded area.

All this being said, I cannot fully say the band of Gro Ventres were totally innocent on their part. For it was Zenas Leonard that wrote in his journal a few days later, they ran into a Northwest Company’s group who told them how the band came in procession of the British flag. The English group gave a story of how the two camps came together to trade and share a fire but at the end, only a few whites escaped to tell about it. The tribe then used the flag as a signal to deceive other groups they may meet. And seven days later, on July 25th, Wyeth with More, Foyt and Stephens were attacked by a different band of Blackfeet in Jackson Hole.

Warren Ferris wrote that afterwards to repay the friendly Indians for helping them “win” this battle, Old Gurgues, one of the Indian chiefs was rewarded with generous gifts. He left weeks later with enough tobacco and ammunition to supply several years. The chief also gave a blessing to the whites before he left which went like this: “The Great Spirit protect us in all our pursuits”. The whites did all they could to ease the suffering of the wounded friendly natives while the two groups stayed together.

Side notes: it is Nidever who gives us an interesting item that may have influenced the battle. Two paragraphs written by him on the action and how liquor may have been the only liquid brought from the rendezvous by the whites. It had its effect in the hot July sun, since we know of at least one white who was killed after drinking it and fighting. He said the one man who crawled on his hands and knees to get close to the fort, and was shot twice in the head was half drunk at the time.

Bonneville inserted in his book a story of a lone Blackfoot woman who was found standing over her dead husband’s body to protect him from the whites. He noted the female devotion and she could be the lone living woman mentioned in other accounts. Ferris also wrote of two young girls found alive, who were berry hunting when the battle started. Each was about fourteen years old, very importunate and begged to die with the rest of the families. An old warrior of the friendly side then killed them with his tomahawk to the astonishment of some of the whites standing around.

It did not all end in the valley that day, for Hiram Chittenden gave us a report of how the revenge that started with this battle continued on for the Gro Ventre’s side for two more years. Some time between September 1834 and September 1835, a party of Blackfeet came to Fort Hall to trade. A member of the trading party, who was named “Bird”, asked Antoine Godin to come across the Snake River and meet with them. When all were set down to trade in a lodge, he yells “Fire” (sound familiar?) and Godin was shot in the back. In the may lay that followed, Godin scalped Bird and then carved N. J. W., Nathaniel Wyeth’s initials, on his forehead.

As you can see, taken individually, the accounts of the battle give a much different perspective than when we blend the various accounts together. History is not always set in stone; it can be fluid and hard to understand sometimes. All of the accounts here give us a good view of what happened; yet what they reported are not necessarily the same. Different men gave us different prospectives and statistics. What we do know is the ratio of white and friendly Indians to the Gro Ventre was at least three to one, yet a stalemate happened. The band that came over the ridge was no war party, having women and children with them, which made the unreliability of the whites to come up with the hostile Indian story of the battle unanswerable. The fight was not in that big of an area to cause so many views and reports. Yet no one comes up with consistent numbers or details of the fight.

To get a complete story all seven reports needed to be compared and to try to figure out who was right and wrong in their comments. All of this happened in an area nine miles (the distance from the main camp to the battle site), with the main fighting in less than two hundred yards, yet the battle seems so big that even the entire valley could not contain all the action that happened there. Did the whites reporting the battle purposefully leave out details? Why were the deaths of Indian women and children noted only in one report? Even Marcus Whitman’s later account of the battle was different than Bonneville’s report. Was the battle sanitized later for the eastern newspapers?

Writer and # of whites killed Friendly Indians who


Bonneville 5 8 (1 half breed/ 7 Nez Perce)

Leonard 5 18 (8 Flathead/ 10 Nez Perce)

Ferris 3 10

Nidever 50

Deaths on the Blackfoot side 26

The battle and its aftermath on the people involved in it, was carried with them all through their lives. Yet it did not need to have been fought. Conciliatory words may have been spoken, small gifts given from the fresh supplies they acquired at the rendezvous, with the pipe passed around and smoked.

A seldom seem letter from Mr. Ball’s report on the battle was wrote at Fort Vancouver and reprinted in the New York Spectator on November 28th, 1833. He wrote:

We stopped at the place where I last wrote you in the mountains, [the rendezvous] till the 24th of July, during which time a skirmish took place between the whites and friendly Indians and a party of Black Feet Indians. It lasted most of a day, the Black Feet having fortified themselves in a timber nigh a creek. We were about a mile distant during the action, being prohibited by our immediate Captain from joining. Hence I took no other part than to assist in taking care of the wounded, and in guarding our camp. The result was that the whites and friendly Indians retreated at the approach of night; 7 of the whites were killed or morality wounded, and as many Indians. The enemy they supposed demolished, there was not fifty of them. Ten scalps were taken and thirty two horses killed. The whole appeared to me a needless and rash affray; for the Blackfeet wished to avoid the engagement. (1)

So the valley, named after an Iroquois trapper employed by the American Fur Company, was killed by the Blackfeet during a battle in it, caused by an act of revenge by a son of another man killed by the same general tribe, only on a larger scale in the same place. Maybe it is fitting that the valley should have in it the largest non-military battle of its time, and was caused by the murder of chief during a parlay. It was just a shame it happened at all.

If you are interested in further reading on this battle, recommended books on this topic and the sections to read more on this are:

-Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, by Fred Gowans, Peregrine Smith Books, Layton, 1985, pages 199- 211. [Mr. Gowans gives five different views on this battle in an appendix at the end of the book.]

-Broken Hand by LeRoy Hafen, University of Nebraska

Press, Lincoln, 1981, pages 114-6.

-Adventures of a Mountain Man by Zenas Leonard, Milo Quaife editor, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1978, pages 68-75.

- A Narrative of Colonel Robert Campbell’s Experiences in the Rockies Mountain Fur Trade from 1825 to 1835 by Robert Campbell, Drew Holloway editor, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, pages 39-41.

From Vic Barkin’s personal collection of fur trade newspapers, this portion used by his permission.

  Mike Moore lives in Denver, has been a staff writer on the Western American fur trade with On The Trail magazine for the last eleven years, a member of the Western Writers of American, does lectures, has been on the History Channel and has four books out on the early west.


See you down the trail

                           Mike Moore


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updated  07/10/2009   

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