BILLINGS — Exactly 145 years ago on this Tuesday, the Battle of Canyon Creek was fought about 15 miles west of Billings. A memorial was enacted back in 2008, and one Billings resident is making it his mission to maintain the historic site.
Dave Wanzenried had passed by the Canyon Creek Battlefield Memorial at the corner of Lipp Road and Buffalo Trail Road north of Laurel many times before.
“It’s intended to memorialize the deaths, the battle, and the Nez Perce story,” said Wanzenried.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that he decided to actually stop by the historic site, and he was shocked by what he found.
“This entire area here was covered with garbage, household waste, branches, furniture, you name it. It had become sort of a dump,” Wanzenried said.
That’s when Wanzenried went to work, hauling away eight pickup trucks worth of trash.
He didn’t stop there. He started raising money to make improvements to the memorial, like fixing the fence.
“We’re going to pave the parking lot. And then we’re going to put a new roof on this building,” said Wanzenried.
Now he’s the president of Friends of Canyon Creek, the organization that owns the memorial. It’s meant to preserve the story of what happened on these hallowed grounds 145 years ago.
“Frankly it’s a story about both the U.S. military and the Native Americans believing in what they were doing and being able to put up their lives for those beliefs,” said Wanzenried.
On September 13, 1877, 750 men, women, and children from the Nez Perce tribe were stalked by U.S. Army soldiers from the Seventh and First Calvaries.
“Chief Joseph was on his way to Canada to settle there because he’d been forced off his tribal lands in Eastern Oregon onto a reservation, and they didn’t want that,” Wanzenried said.
A Nez Perce sharpshooter allowed for the escape of the tribe.
“A sharpshooter was up on top of this bluff here and pinned them down to the point where Chief Joseph and his 700 followers and hundreds of horses went up toward what is now Molt and escaped yet again,” Wanzenried said.
Chief Joseph would surrender just three weeks later, but five U.S. soldiers and two Nez Perce tribe members lost their lives during the Battle of Canyon Creek.
It’s a historic moment and one Wanzenried wants to preserve. He’s on a mission to make sure this site is never left in disarray again.
“When I’m gone, this site will be maintained every week by (Billings nonprofit) Bright ‘n Beautiful so that won’t ever happen again. And that, for me, that it’s sustainable and it’s clean now is one thing, but having it that way 25, 50 years from now is more important than ever,” Wanzenried said.