Yellowstone County Museum opens “Canyon Creek Battle” exhibition


It's been nearly 150 years, but the gunshots from the Battle of Canyon Creek still echo if you know where to look.

The battle, a skirmish between the Nez Perce Indians and the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment, took place on September 13, 1877, on the sandstone bluffs north of present-day Laurel. The casualty list was small—four killed and eleven wounded on the Army side, three killed and three wounded on the Nez Perce side—but like most events in history, the Battle of Canyon Creek is only a small part of a larger story.

Chief Joseph

This photograph of Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (Chief Joseph) was taken by OS Goff in Bismarck in November 1877.

The Nez Perce, the tribe that saved the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starvation after they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, lived in a vast area stretching from Montana through Idaho to Oregon and Washington. In 1855, the tribe was forced onto a reservation by the federal government. That reservation shrank considerably by 1863, and large groups of the Nez Perce refused to recognize the treaty.

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Canyon Creek Battle

Crow chief Medicine Crow drew this illustration of the battle between Crows and Nez Perce at Canyon Creek east of present-day Laurel in 1877 in 1880. A Nez Perce warrior (left) shoots Medicine Crow (center) while horses killed in battle are seen (right). Medicine Crow is recognizable by the raven on his head. The incident occurred when Crow warriors were scouting for the U.S. Army in pursuit of the Nez Perce and their leader, Chief Joseph. The Crow were ambivalent about fighting the Nez Perce, with whom they were friends. The Nez Perce, in turn, felt betrayed by their former allies. This drawing is in the Barstow Ledger Art Collection at the Billings Library at Montana State University.

Courtesy of the Barstow Collection, Billings Library, Montana State University.

Clashes broke out, and in 1877 they were ordered back to the reservation, an order the U.S. government knew would be impossible to obey. In June, war officially broke out, and a band of Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph began a long trek northeast. With an estimated force of 250 warriors and 500 women and children, the tribe resisted forces as they moved from Idaho over Lolo Pass into Montana territory, through what is now Yellowstone National Park, and in September 1877 along the Yellowstone River near the future site of Billings.

Stone marker for the Battle of Canyon Creek

A stone structure and plaque commemorate the Battle of Canyon Creek west of Billings, where the Nez Perce and the U.S. Army fought briefly in 1877. In the background, Nez Perce warriors fired at the soldiers from the rim.

Jeff Welsch

The Battle of Canyon Creek followed the familiar pattern of the summer of 1877. The Indians were outnumbered – 425 soldiers under the command of Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, Major Lewis Merrill, and Captain Frederick Benteen (the same Benteen whose lax response to his superior's orders at the Battle of the Little Bighorn led to the destruction of George Custer) – against the approximately 200 fighting men who remained with the Nez Percé.

Canyon Creek Battlefield

The Canyon Creek Battlefield is located north of Laurel.

JAKE IVERSON, Billings Gazette

Yet the tribe prevailed, using the high sandstone cliffs of the Canyon Creek area as sniper nests to keep the cavalry at bay while the Nez Percé women, children and horses fled across the canyons to the plains to the north.

You can still visit the site today, and you should, not just because the plains are now magnificent, their green contrasting with the orange-yellow backdrop of the sandstone cliffs, but because it is tangible history in our own backyard.

Canyon Creek (copy)

Dave Wanzenried trims weeds from the Canyon Creek Battlefield memorial north of Laurel in 2022.

LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

The battlefield is located north of Laurel, roughly at the corner of Lipp Road and Buffalo Trail Road. A small kiosk commemorates the battle, and although it has been restored and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, information about the battle itself is somewhat sparse. Part of the battlefield is on Montana State Trust land and thus open to the public, but any shell casings you find are from hunters or other target shooters.

Group helps renovate historic site in Billings to commemorate Battle of Nez Percé Flight

“I couldn't leave it like that,” said Dave Wanzenried. “So I filled my truck with all the trash. I had to drive there eight times to get it all out.”

If you really want to learn about the battle, you must follow the sandstone rimrocks east until you reach the Yellowstone County Museum, which sits above Billings at 1950 Terminal Circle near Billings-Logan International Airport.

The museum, which is free to enter and open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, just opened a new exhibit on the Battle of Canyon Creek that tells the story of the battle through historical insights, quotes from those involved in the battle, artifacts from the battle and more.

Exhibition 2.jpg

The Yellowstone County Museum's new exhibit on the Battle of Canyon Creek.

JAKE IVERSON, Billings Gazette

“This is a significant part of a tragic period in American history,” said Christian Coppedge, curator of the Yellowstone County Museum and the driving force behind the installation of this exhibit.

They were inspired by the work of volunteers from the Friends of Canyon Creek in restoring the monument at the battlefield.

“I believe that a rising tide lifts all ships,” Coppedge explained. “If we help other historical organizations, they will help us and it will be better for everyone.”

Many ships were involved here. Coppedge wrote all of the text for the exhibition, which explains the context of the battle and how it unfolded. He used Jerome A. Greene's history book Nez Perce Summer as his primary source, but also received information and support from the Friends of Canyon Creek and some of the bigwigs on the Nez Perce Historical Trail.


An 1873 Colt revolver and a pair of cavalry binoculars are on display at the Yellowstone County Museum.

JAKE IVERSON, Billings Gazette

The exhibit is full of artifacts. Some of them, like the Colt 1873 revolver and binoculars, displayed together as an example of what the cavalryman might have used during the battle, cannot be traced back to that exact event.

entrenching tool.jpg

This entrenching tool was used by a member of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Canyon Creek.

JAKE IVERSON, Billings Gazette

Others can. There is an entrenching device that soldiers would have used to dig in while being shot at by Nez Percé sharpshooters. It is part of the museum's permanent collection and was donated in 1960. There is also an old fore-end-sized Colt 1860 revolver that a farmer found near the battlefield. The percussion rifle is rusted but mostly complete, with its long barrel and fist-sized cylinder.

Spurs and rifle.jpg

New exhibits include a pair of cavalry spurs and a Colt 1860 revolver.

JAKE IVERSON, Billings Gazette

Most enigmatic is a wagon wheel that legend has it was part of a stagecoach that the Nez Perce robbed just before the battle began. Is that true? Who knows. Anyone who could have confirmed it is long dead, and it's just another historical mystery lost out here on the plains.

The exhibit isn't the only new thing at the museum. Zach Garhart, who has worked at the museum for years, recently took over as executive director. And while you learn about the Battle of Canyon Creek, you can also check out the museum's other exhibits, which include an extensive collection of Winchester rifles, a reconstructed 1890s bar, and outside the main building, a 1901 steam engine and a larger-than-life bronze statue commemorating the larger-than-life country music DJ Lonnie Bell.

And when you're done at the museum, you're best off heading to the battlefield, which is only about a half-hour drive away. With quotes and context, you can imagine that in 1877, these cliffs were swarming with armed men trying to kill each other. And follow the Buffalo Trail to Molt if you want to roughly follow the route the Nez Percé used to escape.

The Battle of Canyon Creek was the penultimate battle of the Nez Percé War. Chief Joseph surrendered after the Battle of Bear Paw in October 1877. They were only 40 miles from freedom at the Canadian border.

Western Heritage Centre

“Surrender of Chief Joseph” by JK Ralston.

MIKE CLARK, Billings Gazette

The Nez Percé fought with 2,000 US soldiers during the five-month fighting.

The Bear Paw Battlefield is about three and a half hours from Billings, south of Chinook. The Nez Perce Trail, an auto trip that runs from Oregon to northern Montana, is described in an excellent eight-part series of maps and brochures from the U.S. Forest Service. They are available throughout the West and online at

On the back of the brochure, Frank B. Andrews, a descendant of the Nez Percé, is quoted.

“We would like to thank all those who visit these sacred paths for sharing our innermost feelings,” he said, “for their journey makes this an important time for the present, past and future.”