Malachite’s Big Hole
The Battle of Pierre’s Hole
The Account of Robert Campbell
Robert Campbell was writing a letter, dated July 18, 1832, to his brother from the 1832 Rendezvous when interrupted by the battle:
"19th July. - I was yesterday interrupted in describing our route, by the cry of "Black Feet ! " - Instantly I threw down my pen, and hastily preparing for a conflict with those savages, I proceeded in the direction pointed out by the express, in company with my friend S. [William Sublette] - In Indian warfare, we do not marshall our forces; nor approach the scene of conflict in any regular order. Each person goes "on his own hook," if I may be allowed the expression; and in this way our party, with the exception of a few left in charge of the camp, proceeded down the ravine at full gallop. Mr. S. and I, without being aware of the cause or nature of the approaching contest, felt convinced we were about entering on a perilous engagement, in which one, or both of us might fall. We therefore briefly directed each other as to the disposition of our property, or in other words, made our wills, appointing each other sole executor. So far as I have known, (and I have known too many instances,) the utmost respect is paid to the disposal of property in this manner, amongst the hunters; - and I question whether the dying wishes of your fellow citizens, - guarded as they are, by salutary laws, - are better, or more correctly fulfilled, than amongst our mountain traders.
On reaching the party that gave the alarm, we found them debating on the propriety of attacking the enemy, who were strongly fortified in a willow swamp about a mile distant. The information derived from our friends, was given in a few sentences; for at such times "our words are few and full of meaning." No one waits to answer questions, and he who has not a quick ear and ready comprehension, must go to the battle without news. We learned that a small party leaving our encampment on the day previous, had suddenly encountered a band of Black Feet warriors - and, that coming to a halt, a parley ensued; our friends sending two half bred Indians to meet the chief of the Black Feet, who rode out in advance. A few signs (for their languages were unknown to each other) soon satisfied the parties of the irreconcilable enmity existing; an enmity that originated on the part of the Black Feet, with the first visit of Lewis and Clarke to this region and continues, unabated to the present day. This interview took place in sight of both whites and Indians. On a signal given, the latter immediately retired to the swamp where they constructed a fortification of logs, hanging their lodge skins around - by way of masked battery - to conceal their position more effectually. Their number was estimated at 250 warriors.
Our force consisted of from 40 to 50 whites - a few half breeds - and two small bands of friendly Indians, from the Pierced Nose and Flat Head tribes. Mr. S. [William Sublette]- (brave as a lion) addressed a few words to the whites, telling them that the enemy was near, and that if at the commencement of the season we did not show a bold front, our prospects in the mountains would he blasted. He concluded his brief but energetic address, by remarking "and now boys, here are the Black Feet who have killed so many of your companions; - who have probably been prowling around us for several days, waiting a favorable chance of attacking us, when they believed us unprepared; - and who are at this moment daring the palefaces to the onset. Some of us may fall; but we die in a good cause; for whose life or property will be secure if the foe be encouraged by refusing their challenge?" Addressing my old friends the Flat Heads, I told them our determination to assail their enemies, in their strong hold, and that we knew we should have their assistance. Then raising the war whoop, Mr. S. and myself, with about twenty others, dashed off at full speed towards the willows. Drum, fife and trumpet, are as nothing when compared with the effect of the war whoop. The yell, the action, and their effect, perhaps, in banishing reflection for the time being, prepare us better for entering into battle than all the "pomp and circumstance" of the best martial music. On reaching the willows we fastened our horses in a thicket, a short distance above where the Black Feet were fortified . Our little party was then formed in two divisions; one under Mr. M. S. [Milton Sublette] approached along the creek; while Mr. S. his brother A. four other Americans and myself, kept towards where we knew the Indians were waiting for us. We were soon within a few steps of their rude but formidable breastwork - and here "the boldest held his breath for a time." We approached according to the usage in Indian warfare, on our hands and knees; and while in this attitude Mr. S. and myself a little in advance, - a shot from behind the breastwork mortally wounded a brave fellow named St. Clair [Alexander Sinclair], who was within two feet of me. Poor fellow! he had a brother in our company, to whom he was greatly attached, and feeling death approach rapidly, he called to us. "I am shot! - oh God - take me to my brother." These were his last words - and we gave immediate directions that they should be obeyed. A few steps further and another of our men, named Phelps, was wounded in the thigh. One of the men was directed to carry him off, and we were thus left within 10 or 15 steps of the fort with only a party of four effective men, opposed to hundreds!
Perhaps you will call it madness to continue an attack under such circumstances; but you must remember that on entering the thicket we expected our example would be followed by more of our men and by the friendly Indians. Even should our course deserve the name of rashness, a retreat would be attended with greater danger than maintaining our ground; for by crawling cautiously along we more effectually avoided the bullets which were now "hailing" around us, than by exposing our backs to an Indian's aim. We continued to keep up a steady fire, never rising higher than our knee to take aim, and never losing a shot by firing without an object. While thus engaged on one occasion, with my left heel touching the right knee, and taking deliberate aim at a rascal who was peeping out between the lodge skins, a bullet whistled by so near my leg, as to induce the belief that I was wounded. I soon found it was a false alarm, and am since then grateful that my legs are not larger; -for it requires a centre shot to hit there. In the mean time another brave fellow, quickly, received a bullet in his head - gave one spring from where he stood, leaning against Mr. S. and me and fell down a corpse! Either the same ball, or one fired at the same time, struck Mr. S. on the left arm, fracturing the bone, and passing out under the shoulder blade. He remarked that he was wounded, and continued the attack for a short time, but the loss of blood, and thirst which succeeded, obliged him to call on me for assistance.
By this time the Pierced Nose and Flat Head Indians began to join us, and the fire on the Fort became more formidable and deadly. I assisted Mr. S. from the scene to the creek, where I probed the wound, and dressed it as well as the means within reach admitted of. We then made a litter and carried him back to the encampment, where I am happy to say he seems to be recovering.
To return, however, to the field of battle; our men, and the friendly Indians continued the assault from the time we left (late in the afternoon) until dark, without being able to enter the fortress. The Black Feet defended their position (which was well chosen) with obstinate bravery. During the night our men drew off, and took such stations around the spot as to detect the enemy in case of an attempt to escape. Notwithstanding all their precautions, the Black Feet effected a retreat, so quietly that it was not discovered until this morning. I have just returned from the battle field; - the sight was distressing; - two of our brave men were killed - two more are I fear mortally - and four seriously wounded. Of the friendly Indians I saw the bodies of five braves who - "Could lightly wheel the bright claymore, And send the whistling arrow far:" - dressed and painted for burial; and then laid in one grave. Two or three others I am told have died since morning.
The loss of the enemy I am unable to ascertain. You are aware that it is their custom to carry off the slain, when in their power. We found on examination that we had killed of their horses, which were within the enclosure and conjectured from their trail that there was an equal number in killed and wounded amongst their warriors.