As a kid growing up in Whitehorse, I always thought Miles Canyon was named as such because it was a few miles from downtown – not so. Rather, it was named by the American Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka on his journey down the Yukon River in 1883. Schwatka had a bad habit of naming many features for prominent Americans.
Miles Canyon was named for General Nelson Miles of the United States Army, a man who was best known for his military campaigns against the Indian Peoples of the American Midwest. Miles was born in Massachusetts in 1839. He served in the American Civil War, then in the so called ‘Indian Wars of the Midwest’, and finally in the Spanish-American War of 1903. He was the only American to serve in all three wars. His legacy is somewhat mixed, and some even say tarnished. After the brutal American Civil War, Miles played a leading role in nearly every phase of the US Army’s campaign against the Indians of the Great Plains during the settling of the West.
In 1875, Miles was a field commander of the force that defeated the Kayowa, Kamenashi, and the southern Cheyenne along the Red River in South Dakota, and forced the Subans to enter reservations. Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the people, refused to leave his hunting grounds. On June 17, 1876 an event began that would eventually lead to the end of the Indian Wars. Rosebud Creek, Montana was the site of a battle in which the Lakota and Cheyenne, under Crazy Horse, turned back troops commanded by General George Crook. General George Custer, leader of the seventh cavalry, was sent to find the villages involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. They discovered a camp that may have contained 10,000 men, women, and children. Custer assumed the numbers were much less than that, and decided to attack. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer and all his men were killed. Following the battle, Sitting Bull led his band into Canada.
In 1877, General Miles led the winter campaign that scoured the Northern plains after Custer’s defeat by Crazy Horse, forcing the Lakota and their allies onto reservations. Miles feared that Sitting Bull might use his new home in Canada as a base for attacking Americans, and assembled a council in an attempt to convince Sitting Bull to return to the US. Miles promised Sitting Bull that all those who returned would receive a full pardon. Sitting Bull refused but in 1881, on the verge of starvation, Sitting Bull led his people back into the United States. While most of the band was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull was taken to Fort Randall South Dakota, where they imprisoned him for 2 years. In 1886, Miles led the American Armies in battles against Geronimo’s Appaches in Arizona, and forced them to surrender. Geronimo and his followers were exiled to a reservation in Florida.
In 1890, the Ghost Dance Uprising on Lakota reservations in South Dakota brought Miles back into the active field. To restore peace throughout the area, Miles directed troop maneuvers that panicked many Lakota bands into leaving their reservations, and led both to Sitting Bull’s death, and to the massacre of Bigfoot’s band of 200 at Wounded Knee in December 1890. Miles was named Commanding General of the US Army in 1895, a post he held during the Spanish-American War. He retired in 1903, died in 1925 at age 85, and was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery. So the next time you visit Miles Canyon, remember that this serene spot on the Yukon River is named for a military General who helped open the American West to settlement by leading the United States Military in many Indian Wars.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Miles Canyon