Yellowstone Park as Battlefield

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Detailed pictorial map from 1904

During its first years as a National Park, Yellowstone was on the path of the Nez Perce as they fled the United States Army.

Yellowstone National Park sees millions of visitors each year. The United State’s first National Park still serves as the jewel of the park system with amenities of every comfort level offered to the modern tourist.

But that was not always the case. In fact, some of the early tourists had a rather bloody time in the park. In the book, “The Last Indian War, The Nez Perce Story” Elliott West tells the story of an intense conflict that played out in the park.

Early Tourists at Yellowstone

During the summer of 1877 a party of seven men and two women toured Yellowstone Park. George Cowan, an attorney by trade, and his wife Emma seem to be the leaders of the party. Summer heat and grasshoppers had forced the party into the higher country where they enjoyed the natural wonders of the region.

The Nez Perce

The Nez Perce Indians, under the leadership of Chief Joseph among others, had been forced to flee their homelands in present day Idaho. Initially attempting to travel north into Canada they were forced south. They travel by old trails known to them for generations across the spine of the Rocky Mountains this trail ultimately leads them to the year old National Park along the Yellowstone River.

Cultures Collide

On Aug. 24, 1877, the day the Cowan party intended to leave the park, warriors entered their camp and took the party captive and back to the main column. While the Nez Perce kept all the party’s possessions the Nez Perce leaders released the white tourists who had their freedom for just a short period of time.

Young warriors circled back and attacked the Cowan’s and their traveling companions. George Cowan was shot in the leg and head while Emma, Frank Carpenter and his wife Ida were taken captive. Other members of the party managed to elude capture and worked their way to the army column pursuing the Nez Perce.

The three captives were again released, this time with an escort by Poker Joe, a chief of the tribe, and managed to make their way to safety and ultimately Bozeman, Montana. They traveled away from Yellowstone Park assuming that their traveling companions had been killed.

Good News at Bozeman

Several weeks after the original incident Emma Cowan learned her husband was alive despite three bullet wounds. He had crawled on his hands and knees for about dozen miles from the area where he had been shot and abandoned for dead. His attempt to travel had taken the last of his energy. He had stopped crawling and was leaning against a fallen log awaiting death when he was found by army scouts.