In August of 1877, George Cowan and his wife Emma decided to spend their second wedding anniversary camping in Yellowstone Park. George, 35 years old, was a moderately successful attorney in Radersberg, Montana, a small town located just about halfway between Bozeman and Helena. Seven of George and Emma's family and friends joined them for their trip to the Park, including Emma's brother Frank Carpenter and their 14-year-old sister Ida. The group was excited to see the geysers and waterfalls and natural wonders they had heard about from neighbors and read about in newspapers.
Frank Carpenter, who recorded the trip in his journals, wrote about one thrilling moment when the Radersberg party and their guide Mr. Houston chanced across another group:
"A man emerges from the bushes ahead. He is a tall, powerfully built man, and as he rode carelessly along, with his long rifle crossed in front of him, he was a picture. He was dressed in a complete suit of buckskin and wore a flaming red neckerchief, a broad sombrero fastened up on one side with a large eagle feather, and a pair of beautifully beaded moccasins. The costume of the man, his self-confident pose, and the quick penetrating glance of his keen black eye, would give the impression that he was no ordinary mountaineer. We meet; Houston recognizes him, it is the world-renowned Rocky Mountain hunter and scout, Texas Jack. While Houston was in conversation with him, our party sat silently staring at him. This is our first sight of the man, whom, above all others, we were anxious to see, and we were in a measure excusable for our seeming impertinence."
Texas Jack, who was guiding a party of British aristocrats through the Yellowstone that summer, conversed with Mr. Houston about the party of Nez Perce that was riding through the Park, escaping from the Army and the threat of being confined to a reservation with the rest of the Palouse tribe far from their ancestral lands in the Pacific Northwest. The Nez Perce, who called themselves the Niimíipuu (we, the people), were being removed from their lands illegally and in violation of the Treaty of Walla Walla, which they had signed and which had been agreed to and ratified by the United States Senate. In signing the treaty, the Nez Perce had agreed to a reservation that encompassed much of their traditional hunting grounds while seceeding to the state of Washington some forty-five thousand square miles of land. When the state and the Army came to move them off of their land in violation of this treaty, some of the Nez Perce fled.
They initially sought aid from the Crow (Apsáalooke) tribe, but determined to seek out the Lakota (Lakȟóta) and their leader Sitting Bull, who had fled to Canada months earlier following the Battle of the Little Bighorn the previous year. The U.S. Army pursued the fleeing Nez Perce group, which included 250 warriors and 500 of their wives, children, and elderly. That pursuit had pushed the Nez Perce into Yellowstone Park, and now into direct conflict with tourists visiting that season. Just two weeks before they reached the Park, 89 members of their tribe, mostly women, children, and elders, had been killed in a surprise attack by the troops of General Oliver Howard at what is now called the Battle of the Big Hole.
On August 23, 1877, George Cowan and his party were camped in the Park beside Tangle Creek, near the Lower Geyser Basin nearly halfway between Madison campground and Old Faithful. A handful of Nez Perce warriors rode into the camp. Some of the party members later said that these warriors stole sugar and flour from the camp provisions. Others said that a frightened party member gave these to the Nez Perce, hoping they would go away. George was worried that any loss of supplies would endanger the survival of the party, so he stopped the warriors from taking anything and forced them to leave the camp. Cowan and the rest of the party hastily packed up their camp and made to ride north, but their two wagons and their horses were soon stopped at what is now called Nez Perce Creek by a larger party of warriors with Chief Joseph.
The party was taken to the Nez Perce camp, where a tribal council voted to release them. Unfortunately, they were soon captured by a group of young warriors who were less forgiving. “Every gun in the whole party of Indians was leveled at us three,” Emma Cowan would later recall. “I shall never forget the picture, which left an impression that years cannot efface. The holes in those gun barrels looked as big as saucers.” Texas Jack told a newspaper what happened next:
“The Indians had jumped the Radersburg party, Oldham, a miner, was the first man shot. [George] Cowan was the next—he was shot through the leg. His wife rushed to him and took his head in her lap when an Indian came up and shot him through the head. Mrs. Cowan was dragged to the Indian camp, along with Ida Carpenter and young Frank Carpenter. They tied him to a tree and he would have been killed but for a sign he made, by which Chief Joseph recognized him as the son of an old Indian trader. He unloosed Frank from the tree and sent him back to his sister.”
"[We] were soon at the springs...Here we found Texas Jack’s party...two photographers came and told us that if we would wait until ten o’clock they would take us to Bozeman with their four-mule team. This was good news, as neither Emma nor Ida could walk or ride horseback.
When we had reached the summit of the hill below the springs we saw Texas Jack looking through his spy-glass up the canyon towards Gardiner’s River. Looking in the direction I saw two persons running towards us in and out of the bushes skirting the river.
“Who is it?” I asked, “Indians or white men?”
“I think it is two white men,” he replied, “but I think there are five or six Indians following them.”
Jack, turning to us, said, “You go on and overtake our party which is not far in advance, and I’ll go back and give those Indians a shot or two.”
We now started down the mountain towards the Yellowstone three miles distant. Just as we began the descent we heard firing in the rear. This frightened Emma and Ida, and they became very nervous again.
Down the mountains we went pell-mell, and we soon reached Henderson’s Ranche [sic], eight miles from the springs. Here we were rejoined by Texas Jack, who told us that he had shot two of the Indian ponies and driven the Indians back. This news relieved our anxiety considerably and we began to breathe easier. We soon drove down into the canyon of the Yellowstone, a wild and rugged place, just suited for an ambuscade for Indians. We feared trouble here, but Texas Jack went in advance scouting for us, and about midnight we emerged on to Boteler’s Ranche. The Boteler Brothers showed us every possible attention, and an old Scotch lady was very kind.
The next morning many friends from Emigrant Gulch and the surrounding country came in, and the ladies cheered up Mrs. Cowan considerably. Ida had fully recovered the use of her feet and here Texas Jack presented her with a pair of beautiful moccasins. They were very acceptable."
George, shot through the thigh and then again in the head, came to after these shots and tried to drag himself to a stream, but a warrior saw him and shot him a third time. Somehow George Cowan, shot three times and left for dead, managed to crawl nine miles down Nez Perce Creek over the next three days, where he found the party's wagons abandoned and destroyed but his dog happily waiting for him. George, now in the company of his dog but unable to use his legs, had one thought in his mind. Coffee.
“It occurred to me that I had spilled some coffee when in camp, on Thursday in the Lower Geyser Basin, and calling my dog we started for it, I crawling as before, and the dog walking by my side,” George later wrote. “The coffee was four miles distant, but I thought not of that. The only idea was to possess the coffee. I was starving.” A cup of coffee after a four-mile crawl was George's only sustenance in five days, but he set of at a crawl again, crossing Firehole River before passing out on the bank, exhausted from agonizing miles of crawling through the forest, three bullet wounds, blood loss, and searing pain.
A pair of General Howard's scouts chanced along and discovered Mr. Cowan, building him a fire, boiling him another cup of coffee, and offering him a blanket and a bit of hardtack before again setting off in pursuit of the Nez Perce. Cowan drifted off to sleep and the fire spread to surround him, adding burns to the bullet wounds and scrapes and cuts he had already endured. Despite all of this, Cowan wrote that "my desire for life returned, and it seems the spirit of revenge took complete possession of me. I knew that I would live and I took a solemn vow that I would devote the rest of my life to killing Indians, especially Nez Perce.” Cowan assumed that his wife Emma and her sibling Frank and Ida had been held captive or killed by the same warriors that had left him for dead.
General Howard's troops eventually found and assisted George Cowan. An Army surgeon removed the flattened bullet from Cowan's head and handed it to him. George later had it turned into a watch fob. Emma, Frank, and Ida had camped with the Army after their escape with Texas Jack, eventually returning to Townsend, Montana, to stay with their parents. In the local newspaper, Emma read that her husband Geoge had somehow miraculously survived his ordeal, and she immediately rented a wagon and a driver to take her to the ranch in the Paradise Valley where he was recuperating. 21 days after being found alive by General Howard's troops, George and Emma Cowan were reunited. George would recuperate from his injuries and walk again, living to the age of 84.
The Nez Perce fought one of the most successful wars in American history despite being outnumbered by their American counterparts 2,000 to 250. American newspapers begrudgingly noted the tactical genius of Chief Joseph, one going so far as to call him "the Red Napoleon." A Montana newspaper noted that "Their warfare since they entered Montana has been almost universally marked so far by the highest characteristics recognized by civilized nations." The New York Times wrote that "On our part, the war was in its origin and motive nothing short of a gigantic blunder and a crime." Despite all of this, the Nez Perce were met with another surprise attack at the end of September. Three days later, General Howard's troops surrounded the tribe and Chief Joseph surrendered, declaring that he would "fight no more forever."
General Howard and General Miles promised Joseph that he and his people would be allowed to return to their reservation in Idaho. The Army's commanding general, William Tecumseh Sherman overruled them and sent the Nez Perce to Kansas. "I believed General Miles," said Chief Joseph, "or I never would have surrendered." The tribe was moved from Kansas to Oklahoma before finally being allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest in 1885. Joseph was never allowed to return to the Nez Perce reservation and died at the Colville Reservation in 1904.
In 1901, 24 years after that fateful trip, George and Emma returned to Yellowstone Park. By all accounts, the second trip was a better one.