One hundred twenty-one years after 2nd Lt. Harry Lee Bailey picked them up in a Nez Perce village in July 1877, and seven decades after he donated them to the Allen County Historical Society, the simple, everyday artifacts — a brightly beaded knife sheath, a set of five bronze bells and a child’s buckskin dress — were returned to the Nez Perce in a solemn ceremony at the Allen County Museum in August 1998.
“These things carry a story, and I say with a good heart that I’m proud to be part of this. These things help connect us with our past. They help shape our future,” said Nez Perce representative Josiah Pinkham, who had traveled 2,100 miles to reclaim them.
As for Bailey, he gave Lima residents far more than artifacts to be displayed at the county museum. In a series of letters published in local newspapers in the late 1870s, often addressed to “Dear Home,” he gave Lima a story about the tedium and occasional terror that was Army life in the Far West during the final stages of the country’s long war with Native Americans.
Born in 1854 in Dalton, Bailey arrived in Lima with his family in September 1861. His father, Isaac Bailey, served two terms as county sheriff in the 1860s. Bailey graduated from Lima High School in 1872 and received an appointment to West Point, thanks in large part to his father’s long-time friend and West Market Street neighbor, Congressman C.N. Lamison, who chanced onto Lima while returning from the California Gold Rush in 1850.
Bailey graduated from West Point in 1876 and arrived at his first posting, Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory, in October 1876, just four months after Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn had distracted the country from its centennial celebration and focused it firmly on the West. During his service in the West, Bailey would spend time in Washington, Idaho and Montana, at the time not yet states, and Oregon.
The summer after arriving at Fort Vancouver, the 22-year-old Bailey’s unit, the 21st Infantry, was part of a force pursuing a band of Nez Perce under Chief Joseph who had fled rather than be forced onto a reservation. Federal troops had their first deadly encounter with the Nez Perce in mid-June of 1877, with Bailey and his unit arriving after the battle.
“The fight Sunday before last (at White Bird Canyon) consisted of the slaughter of soldiers as they ran for life, up a long steep canyon and six miles beyond. The bodies are scattered over a line 7 to 9 miles long. We buried 18 and left several more merely covered with blankets for want of time,” Bailey wrote in a letter published in the Allen County Democrat on July 12, 1877. Thirty-four soldiers were killed in that fight.
By the time that letter was published, Bailey was in action at the Battle of the Clear Water River in Idaho. He described it in a letter published in early August in both the Democrat and the rival Lima Gazette.
“The red men fought well, and I soon found myself exposed to a heavy cross-flanking fire, besides a sharpshooting from the front,” Bailey wrote. “For a moment I felt a little homesick, I assure you, for the continual whiz and ragged buzzing of the bullets had a cold, pitiless sound that was not cheering.”
After the battle, the Nez Perce camp was ordered destroyed, and it was from that camp that Bailey collected the artifacts he later donated to the historical society. At the same time, he collected another souvenir, which he sent to former West Point Cadet C.W. Risley, of Delphos.
“The time has come to fulfill my promise to you – I have suffered the hardships of a campaign in a wilderness of mountains, and the dangers of battle with the American Savage! Improved in health, and hardened by the former, and victorious in the latter, I can now send you the bit of INDIAN HAIR captured from the Nez Perces after no ordinary battle in which was experienced a loss of 20 percent of our command!” Bailey wrote to Risley in a letter dated July 26, 1877. Risley later burned the souvenir so that, in his words, “its Indian owner might have it in the Happy Hunting Grounds.”
In October 1877, after leading some 750 followers on a flight of more than 1,500 miles, a weary, dispirited Chief Joseph surrendered in Montana. With simple eloquence, he ended his surrender speech with the words, “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Bailey, however, was not around to hear it.
“H.L. Bailey, 21st Infantry, volunteered to carry dispatches from Howard’s command, near the Bitter Root, to Wheaton’s command, near the Spokane River. With a half-breed as a guide and no escort, Lieut. Bailey made the trip, a distance of 225 miles in six days. Good traveling for a new West Point graduate,” the Walla Walla (Washington Territory) Union wrote in a story reprinted in Lima’s Gazette on Sept. 29, 1877.
“Parts of my lonely journey was very difficult,” Bailey wrote in a letter published in mid-November in both the Democrat and Gazette, “and attended with passion from the threatening Pend d’Oreille (literally “ear ring, one of several tribes loosely designated Flathead Indians) who might have had my arms and ammunition for the shooting of me.”
In the same letter, Bailey wrote, “Thus, you see, my dear home, I have crowded into my first year’s service sufficient to lay the foundation of a dozen nursery tales or a dozen dime novels.”
Not all Bailey’s letters contained the stuff of fairy tales or dime novels. In a letter published in both the Democrat and Gazette in July 1878, he wrote from a temporary posting at Umatilla, Oregon, on the Columbia River.
“Umatilla is worse than any place I can refer you to for comparison,” Bailey wrote. “A couple of dozen houses, streets blocked by great drifts of sand; society mainly rough teamsters and Indians; weather, intense heat or intense cold; and biting, stinging sand or gravel driven by winds that gain great velocity in sweeping over a desert of sand and low sagebrush… As I write the wind is vying with the swift Columbia in giving a mournful dirge – a dreary monotonous wail.”
That summer, Bailey served with a force that quickly put down an uprising by the Bannock Indians in Idaho, although Bailey feared a long struggle.
In a letter dated June 19, 1878, which appeared in both the Democrat and Gazette in July 1878, Bailey wrote, “The prospects for the troops in the fields is a long campaign. Our forces are entirely too small,” adding, “The bloodcurdling war whoop of savages does not disturb the millions of people in the Eastern states and so they can reduce the skeleton army with an easy, quiet conscience, save a few cents apiece and proudly proclaim, ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way.’”
Bailey would go on to serve 34 years in the Army, retiring in 1910 as a lieutenant colonel. In addition to his early campaigns in the Northwest, he served in Indian Territory disturbances in 1885, and, later that same year, miners’ riots in Wyoming. During the Spanish-American War, he served at the siege of Santiago in Cuba and later fought in the Philippines.
He was married twice, the first time as a young officer serving in the West. Her name was Clara Estelle Myers, and Bailey remembered her in a 1922 letter to Isabel Mackenzie, a classmate at Lima High School as “a beautiful bride, who was with me in those busy days as a poor lieutenant in the little army.” After Clara Estelle’s death, he married Josephine Foss in 1902. She had two daughters, Florence and Evelyn.
After his retirement from service, Bailey spent most of the remainder of his life in Massachusetts, Kansas and the Panama Canal Zone, where he and his wife lived with his stepdaughter, Evelyn, and her husband, Major James Allan Stevens and their daughter, Jo Ellen, who Bailey often referred to as “sweet Jo El.” His stepdaughter Florence was married to Lima physician George R. Clayton.
He remained a prolific letter-writer until his death in September 1934 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, writing frequently to former Lima High School classmates Mrs. A.T. MacDonell, Isabel Mackenzie and Oliver Boston Selfridge Jr.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.