Idaho History November 12, 2017

Nimíipuu – Nez Perce

Petroglyph at Buffalo Eddy

On either side of an eddy formed by a series of sharp bends in the Snake River are densely grouped clusters of petroglyphs and a few pictographs. The unique petroglyphs of this area are evidence of the longevity of the Nez Perce in the region and contain hundreds of distinct images that date from as early as 4,500 years ago.

source: Nez Perce National Historical Park
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The People Before, The Ancient Ones and the First Nations

by Diane Marie Molter

There were sites along the Salmon River where the early peoples would go, areas where hot springs or ‘sweet water’ would draw those who were elderly or ill. Also several special groves or ancient trees were considered Big Medicine. Story stones have petroglyphs and petrographs. The original native peoples were driven out by the miners. Some spots still are regarded with awe or superstition. Especially the ancient trees.

In talking with the local folks, the USDA Archeologists and some of the people who had come out to study the area ( University of Chicago, U of BC in Vancouver, and a field study crew from Colorado University) the common thinking related four successive waves of Paleo and First Nations peoples.

Before the Ancient ones – migrations south and east from the Pacific coast- Paleoglyphs and Petroglyphs with some stone tools. Some indications of hunting large herd animals like moose, bears, totems and jewelry. circa pre 6000bce to 1000bce.

Ancient ones- successful and “rich” peoples with basketry of complex and refined patterns, astrological markers and sun circles, stone markers and petroglyphs with Shamans , seasonal markers (animals, fish, birds), even Kokopelli’s indicating trade routes. Circa 1000bce to 1400s – may have been wiped out by the Black Death.

Indigenous people (actually Migrants pushed from the Great Lakes around 1700). Indications of people under stress, living a poor and hard life in conflict with the Cree, Crow and Ute to the south and West. Circa 1650 to 1850ace.

Second Indigenous Peoples, migrations from the Lakota and Dakota displaced Crow, South and east moving Nez Pierce and Northern Plains all compressing into smaller and smaller areas as Industrialization and Western Development through Gold and Silver rushes, Lumber industries, ranching and farming homesteads. The most common theme was from the miners who thought the “Native Indians” were a poor lot, unhealthy, slackards and downright pathetic in most cases. There were few around and the introduction of the Common Cold, measles, small and chicken pox proved more than deadly. Not to mention the habit of Miners shooting them for entertainment and as nuisances. Circa 1850 to 1900s.

There were sites along the Salmon River where the early peoples would go, areas where hot springs or ‘sweet water’ would draw those who were elderly or ill. Also several special groves or ancient trees were considered Big Medicine. Story stones have petroglyphs and petrographs. The original native peoples were driven out by the miners. Some spots still are regarded with awe or superstition, especially the ancient trees.

In talking with the local folks, the USDA Archeologists and some of the people who had come out to study the area (University of Chicago, U of BC in Vancouver, and a field study crew from Colorado University) the common thinking related four successive waves of Paleo and First Nations peoples.

source: Secesh Area History
[h/t B Johnstone]
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The Nez Perce Horse

(click image for larger size)

Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park Circa 1890, Susie James, Mrs. Jesse Hart, and Jesse James Hart at Stites, Idaho. NEPE-HI-2808. Photo by Jane Gay

source: Go Idaho
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The Coming of the Horse

By Sheila D. Reddy
Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Regions 1 and 4 Heritage Program August 1996

The moccasin tracks of “the walking” Indians have been hidden by the wind, but the memory of Idaho’s early peoples should not be forgotten. Following Indian roads and trails that crisscrossed the Snake River Plain and wound north and south into the mountains, “the walking” Indians moved through the seasons. Within that ancient circle they traveled great distances, carrying little.
In the spring, bands left winter camps located along the Snake and Salmon Rivers and their tributaries to dig camas bulbs and other roots in wet meadows. After quantities of camas had been collected and roasted the bulbs were shaped into cakes and dried in the sun. Leaving the camas, harvest, small family bands mover over the land to hunt and gather, hoping to find plenty so the excess could also be dried, cashed. As leaves began to fall, stored goods were collected and taken to supply winter villages.

Some caches sites held not only food, but locally specific medicine/basketry plants, or leather pouches of chipping stone for making arrowheads, scrapers and knives. Locations of these caches, hunting camps, gathering sites, and stone quarries were retained in tribal memory, for it was a life without writing. Tribal strength and knowledge lay in remembering and recounting.

From ancient times dogs had been used by “the walking people” to transport goods: meat from a kill, provisions, furs, leather, or extra moccasins on the trail. But a dog could carry a pack of 50 pounds or less and only for a few hours, limiting their use.

By the mid-1500’s Spanish explorers arrived in the Rio Grande Valley and Texas Panhandle with the first horses. But, as writer Fancis Haines points out, early Spanish military expeditions did not travel with even one mare in their remudas. It would be late 1600 before the tribes had horse herds of their own; only after the Spanish established ranches in New Mexico and the Pueblo Revolt (1680) did various Indian tribes secure breeding stock.

According to Haines, the Comanche were among the first to become mounted hunters and warriors on the Southern Plains. The Northern Shoshone traded often with their Comanche relatives and not long after the Comanche had the horse, the Shoshone were riding north toward the Snake River on mounts of their own.

Horses, often referred to as “big dogs” by early Indians, transformed the newly mounted people’s lifeway. Small bands could move easily. By joining together for safety, large groups began traveling east into the “grass Plains” to hunt buffalo.

An excellent food resource, the male buffalo stands as much as seven feet high at the shoulders and weighs as much as 2,000 pounds; buffalo cows average five feet at the shoulder and weigh from 700 to 900 pounds. With a horse trained to run with the buffalo, a skilled hunter could bring down several animals.

Buffalo also supplied robes for warmth, hides for lodges, and skins for clothing; horn, bone and hooves for utensils; sinew for sewing and bow stings; hair for padding; fat and tallow. But, the most important resource was meat that could be dried and stored. Dried meat, pounded then mixed with melted fat and poured into hide containers made pemmican. The high calorie, nutritious food could be carried, eaten on horseback, or stored for times when snow covered the earth and bitter winds closed the land.

The first buffalo hunting bands traveling east encountered unfamiliar tribes on the Great Plains. At trading fairs westerners were exposed to different foods, clothing styles, religions, medical plants, horse gear, weapons, decorative items, and, etc. Returning to the Plains the next season their pack horses were loaded with dried salmon, camas, baskets, skins, bows, and obsidian for bartering. They later returned to the Snake River country with meat and an array of goods and ideas that would alter the traditions and lives of “the walking people,” forever.

Following the Plains Indians and Northern Shoshone, Bannock and Nez Perce tribes were quick to adopt leather lodge covers that could be carried by a pack horse from camp to camp and set up quickly in any location. Clothing of the tribes soon became more tailored following eastern styles. The first white traders with goods like iron kettles, steel needles, knives, guns and ammunition were encountered at eastern trading fairs and later at trading posts.

With sufficient meat carried by the horse to winter camps people became healthier and more children lived to adulthood. Tribal populations had started to increase when waves of European diseases slipped like dark mists through camps and villages. Smallpox often wiped out while bands, leaving tribes decimated.

Indian populations had no resistance to foreign germs. In 1781 and again in the 1830’s, smallpox epidemics swept across the Americas. Smallpox was not the only illness that threatened Indian populations; mumps, measles, cholera, diphtheria – killing sicknesses for which healers had no medicine or cure.

The horse had carried the American Indian across and ocean of grass into great change leaving behind some of the ways of the ancient tribes who had walked across the land for thousands of years. On the horse, the future expanded ideas, but it also held mysteries to be wary of. In transition the old ways might be forgotten, but the circle of the seasons lies deep within a people and the land. Today in our search for the future we need to recognize the moccasin prints of a past hidden in the dust by the wine. It is a past to be recognized, remembered, to learn again.

Your Role in Protecting Archaeological Sites

Wilderness Archaeologists are currently working to preserve, protect and understand the prehistory of the ancient people who lived in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. As this prehistory is discovered and understood, they will share it with the public through educational monographs ad other publications. You can help in this effort by leaving artifacts where they lie, and informing Forest Service Wilderness managers of your discovery. Take pride in our American heritage. Take nothing but photographs.

source: Secesh Area History
[h/t B Johnstone]
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Nimíipuu [Nez Perce]

(click image for larger size)
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“Stout likely men, handsom women, and verry dressey in their way. …”
– William Clark October 10, 1805

Nez Perce Lewis and Clark

The Nez Perce were the largest tribe Lewis and Clark met between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. They ranged across today’s central Idaho, southeastern Washington State, and northeastern Oregon, from the western base of the Rockies to the falls of the Columbia River.

In the 1830s there were an estimated 6,000 Nez Perce. “Nez Perce,” (French for “pierced nose”) referred to the nose pendants which some of the Indians wore.

As typical plateau Indians, the Nez Perce fished the Clearwater and Snake Rivers and harvested camas roots. When Clark and other members of the expedition emerged exhausted and starved from their journey through the Bitterroot Mountains, the Nez Perce greeted them with dried buffalo, camas root bread, and fish. Unfortunately this rich diet had an adverse effect on the digestive systems of the explorers.

William Clark approached three Nez Perce boys carefully, afraid he would frighten the boys and make a bad first impression on the tribe. Offering the boys gifts of ribbon, he eased their fears and was soon led to the settlement of tepees.

After Lewis joined them a few days later, the expedition discussed the trade alliances and peace proposals that they proposed to every tribe they encountered. The Nez Perce were clear on what they wanted—guns, so they could compete with the Blackfeet and Atsina for buffalo and defend their villages.

The Corps felt comfortable leaving their horses with the Nez Perce, known for the Appaloosas they bred, while they continued westward by canoe. The Nez Perce, watching the sickness-weakened explorers try to create canoes from inadequate tools, showed them how to burn out a log to make a canoe.

When the Corps returned in May 1806 they claimed their horses and spent a couple of months with the Nez Perce, waiting for the snow to clear the mountain passes.

The U.S. government took control of large portions of their territory during the mid-1800s. In 1863 the Nez Perce were mostly confined to a portion of northwest Idaho. In 1877, a band of Nez Perce still living in Oregon and led by Chief Joseph refused to leave their lands but were defeated. Many of those Oregon survivors were moved to the Colville reservation in Washington, where descendants still live.

Today many Nez Perce also live on a reservation in Idaho. As of 1990, 4,000 Nez Perce lived in the United States.

source: National Geographic
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Map of Nez Perce War

(click for larger size)
source National Park Service
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Western Forts

The early posts of the old West were seldom solidly constructed forts as we conceive of them today. Often there were no high stockades or permanent buildings. Sometimes there was only a blockhouse or two at opposite corners of the area being inhabited. Occasionally an underground shelter was the fort. Many fortifications were constructed by traders to protect their businesses and by settlers to protect their homes.

As more and more settlers moved west, the U.S. Army was called upon to move with then. Occasionally the Army would occupy fortifications already constructed by early settlers. Usually the soldiers were required to build their own forts. The material used in constructing these forts varied with the geography of the surrounding countryside. In the desert, adobe was used; in forested areas, wood was the material of choice; in rocky areas, rock was used if masons were available to shape it.

During the years of western expansion, Army posts were established on the basis of anticipated use. As the Indian tribes of the East moved to new reservations in the west, the Army was called out to keep the tribes from waging war with each other. As settlers cleared new lands, the Army moved their posts to protect the fledgling settlements from hostile Indians and to protect the Indians’ lands from being encroached upon by settlers and merchants. After gold and silver were discovered, the mass migration of miners and settlers began crowding the large Indian territories. As the Indians had no place to move, war between the whites and Indians intensified. The Army was ordered to subdue the Indians and keep them on their reservations.

Reacting to the fast changing needs of the country the Army would set up a post and then abandon it when no longer needed. In order for a post to be designated a fort, however, a contingent of troops had to be permanently assigned to it. Regardless of the life of the fort, each new outpost opened a new era in the history of the frontier, a new chapter written in courage by the soldiers, settlers, and Indian braves who fought, built, bled, and often died while creating the history of the country’s growth westward. These western forts are monuments to this heritage, and to the rich history of the period known as Idaho’s Indian Wars.

Little or nothing is known of Indian warfare in Idaho prior to the arrival of horses of Spanish origin in the eighteenth century; until about that time, though, most of Indians had not organized into bands capable of carrying on anything resembling wars. Various western Indian tribes gained important advantages in warfare when were able to get horses and guns of European origin. White explorers and fur traders who reached the interior Pacific Northwest found the Indians eager to acquire the white man’s weapons. By that time, the peoples now regarded as the Indians of Idaho ranged over a large area, and other lndians – particularly the Blackfeet – often raided into the Snake River country. Not many accounts of the Indian battles of that era are preserved, and none but a few of the very last of them are known at all. British traders who became active in Idaho as early as 1808 found that Indian inter-tribal warfare interfered seriously with fur hunting, and soon they managed to get the local Indians to bring their fighting to a halt. From that time on, when Indians fought each other, they generally did so only during white campaigns when Indians served as scouts for white armies against other Indians.

In the years of the fur trade, the Indians of Idaho had no major wars with the white newcomers. Hostilities were limited to minor incidents aside from a battle or two. The most important early fights were Finnan MacDonald’s chastisement of the Blackfeet in the Lemhi country in 1823, and the battle of Pierre’s Hole which pitted a Gros Ventre band against the combined forces of the trappers and the Nez Perce in 1832. But the fur trade did not upset the Indian way of life seriously, and most early mining was done in places that the Indians did not care very much about. Farm settlement, however, ruined the country for many of the Indians – especially for those who did not become farmers themselves – and after white farmers and ranchers began to take over more and more of the Indian country serious trouble broke out.

Even before Idaho was established, there was warfare. Practically the entire Coeur d’Alene people had gotten into battles with the United States Army in Washington in 1858, and with the beginning of farming and mining in southern Idaho, military expeditions proceeded against the Cache Valley and Salmon Falls Shoshoni in 1863. In the most colossal Indian disaster in the west, Colonel P. E. Connor’s California volunteers wiped out the Cache Valley Shoshoni in the battle of Bear River on January 29, 1863. Volunteers from Boise Basin and from Oregon searched the country west of Salmon Falls, with limited success, in 1863 and 1864. Trouble in southwestern Idaho – where most of the early settlers concentrated continued to plague the army at Fort Boise and soon grew into the Snake War of 1866-1868. Indians from Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and California were involved before General George Crook was finally able to round up the unhappy Shoshoni and Paiute bands and to enforce a peace settlement.

Major Indian wars did not afflict Idaho until years of friction and minor incidents precipitated two important outbreaks in 1877 and 1878. A clash in North Idaho came first. Part of the trouble was imported from Oregon, where stockraisers had tried for years to drive a Nez Perce band led by Chief Joseph (who was soon to be nationally famous) out from the Wallowa Valley in Oregon into North Idaho, a part of the Nez Perce reservation established by the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.

In 1860 gold was discovered on the Nez Perce lands near Orofino Creek. Soon a gold rush to the reservation was underway. Lewiston became a main supply town for the rush and prospectors began flooding into the area. Encroachment by the whites was in direct violation of the Walla Walla treaty and the Nez Perce petitioned Washington to stop the rush. A company of cavalry was sent to the Nez Perce Reservation in 1862 to attempt to prevent whites from settling on Nez Perce lands. The troops were ineffectual, and a second cavalry company was sent to establish a fort at Lapwai.

Although originally intended to protect the Nez Perce treaty rights the Fort soon became the center for U.S. attempts to convince the Nez Perce to relinquish treaty lands that contained gold. In 1863 the federal government entered a new treaty that reduced the reservation established in 1855 to only 1,000 square miles. The reduced reservation was called the Lapwai Reservation and the Nez Perce were told to move onto it. This treaty became known as the “Thief Treaty” as only about 1/3 of the Nez Perce Chiefs signed the document, yet the U.S. Government insisted it applied to all Nez Perce.

Some of the Nez Perce refused to leave the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. Among them were Old Chief Joseph and his band. TheseNez Perce were allowed to occupy a small strip of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. When Old Chief Joseph died in 1871 his son, Young Chief Joseph (born in 1840) became the leader of the Wallowa Nez Perce. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. Over the next years Chief Joseph would become a national celebrity and earn a place in history as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

In 1877 the Federal government ordered all Nez Perce, including those in the Wallowa Valley, to move onto the Lapwai Reservation. Having no wish to leave their homeland, Chief Joseph argued for the rights of his people to remain in Oregon. They were denied, and an ultimatum was issued by General Oliver Otis Howard, stating that if they did not relocate war would be inevitable. The General imprisoned one of the Nez Perce priests to help with his persuasion.

Chief Joseph was not a military leader (the War Chief of his band was Chief Looking Glass), and did not wish to fight. He also wished to free his friend. Thus, Joseph and his band prepared to move to Lapwai. Before they could do so however a band of Nez Perce led by Chief White Bird ambushed a massacred a group of whites in the Salmon River country in northern Idaho. Although Joseph’s people were not part of that band, as “non-treaty” Indians they were now considered hostiles and cavalry was dispatched to avenge the Salmon River incident. It seemed war was now inevitable. Chief Joseph gathered his band and together with White Bird’s (and others) they began their famous journey of over 1,200 miles towards Montana hoping to find shelter with the Crows who were traditionally friends of the Nez Perce.

United States military operations in the Nez Perce War commenced with an army campaign which came to an abrupt halt when the Indians routed the numerically superior white force that came out to attack them on White Bird Creek. This became known as the battle of White Bird in which a large number of U.S. soldiers were killed, but the Nez Perce suffered only a handful of casualties. After successfully turning back the forces Howard had sent to White Bird Creek, the Indians did not counter with a military campaign against the United States Army or even against white settlers in the general vicinity. Rather, they crossed the Salmon River so that they might avoid any further military operations. When Howard pursued them across the Salmon, they eluded him again by returning to Camas Prairie and then moving over to the south fork of the Clearwater.

In all these various moves, they suffered almost no losses. They had routed the first unit (numerically a force equal to their own) which Howard had sent against them, and with commendable skill they had avoided further warfare – except for some incidental skirmishes which they had won with little difficulty. But nearly four weeks later, at the end of the battle of the Clearwater, July 12, the fighting Nez Perce – still outnumbered, but now grown to a maximum strength of 325 men in four bands – were dislodged from their stronghold. Even Joseph had to concede that Howard would continue to annoy them unless the non-treaty bands moved away from that part of the country. So the entire group decided to join their old friends, the Crows, in Montana. This move is often described as the Nez Perce retreat over the Lolo Trail. Except for the fact that it was an exodus in which the Indians were bringing along their women and children and hauling all their possessions, the trip resembled a traditional hunting expedition to the buffalo country. The Indians paid no attention to Howard, who followed too far behind to pester them.

After they entered Montana, a small military force from Missoula failed to hold them on Lolo Creek. Finally an army under Colonel John Gibbon caught up with them at Big Hole on August 9. Recovering from the surprise of Gibbon’s attack at dawn, the Indians proceeded to besiege him. But two days later, they abandoned the siege and continued their journey when they found that Howard’s army was catching up with them. Their route from Big Hole took them back across the Continental Divide into Idaho, which they crossed on their way to Yellowstone Park. Then Looking Glass (one of the four band leaders) proceeded to consult the Crows only to find these old friends less than enraptured at the thought of having any part of the Nez Perce War wished off onto them. With the Crows promising nothing better than neutrality, the Nez Perce force had to turn north to seek refuge in Canada. lf the Nez Perce had suspected that they were being pursued by still another army unit, they might have speeded up their pace and reached their destination without further incident. But they were not engaged in a military campaign, nor were they retreating; they were simply leaving a hostile area (originally their homeland and now overrun by white intruders) where they had been made to feel entirely unwelcome. Hence they were traveling in a leisurely fashion when, as they approached the United States-Canada boundary, they were overtaken by United States Army troops commanded by General Nelson A. Miles on September 29, while resting a short distance south of the border.

In their final major battle of the Bear Paws, the Indians were able to hold back the white attack. However, they could not extricate their entire band to continue their journey northward a few miles to Canada. After several indecisive days, Joseph at last negotiated his long-wished-for agreement with the army by which his band would relocate to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. (That had been his original objective in June, and finally it seemed he had a chance to get settled there, although his route had been somewhat roundabout.) White Bird along with the greater number of warriors decided it would be safer to go on to Canada than to return to Idaho. They feared, with good reason, that they would be far from welcome. Joseph had remained firm in his belief that the lesser evil was to move to the reservation. He had been reluctant to fight, and now that he had the opportunity to accomplish his objective by peaceful means, he accepted it. Unfortunately, the United States government disregarded the settlement Miles and Joseph had reached. Instead of recognizing the terms of the agreement, which allowed Joseph and his followers to return to Idaho, the government exiled them to Kansas and then Oklahoma, where they remained for eight years. Eventually they were relocated to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Joseph’s greatest triumph – upon which his reputation largely rests – came when he at last persuaded the United States government to return his band to the Idaho even though he himself was not allowed to leave Colville.

Those who interpret the Nez Perce War in terms of a United States Army campaign have all too frequently presented a military picture which distorts Indian operations during that conflict. The use of military concepts and terms is appropriate when explaining what the whites were doing, but these same military terms should be avoided when referring to Indian actions. True, the Indians did fight a number of battles which lend themselves to military description. Yet much of what they did – particularly between battles – was not at all in the nature of a white military operation. General Howard was indeed engaged in a military campaign, but the Indians certainly were not. In the process of trying not to fight a war, they had made Howard’s military campaign look foolish. But to describe their success in avoiding war (under the considerable handicap of having the United States Army out trying to fight a war against them) as some kind of successful military strategy simply confuses the issue. The Indians did not even have an army. Their forces consisted of a group of individual fighters with leaders who could recommend but not command, either in battle or in peace. Indian objectives during the Nez Perce War provide an explanatory key. In the first place, Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass would have preferred to remain as non-treaty Indians living in their old homelands (generally off the reservation). But by the beginning of the war, Joseph had concluded, with deep regret, that he had no choice but to move onto the reservation. General Howard had left him no alternative short of war. In choosing the lesser of two evils, Joseph had rejected war. As matters turned out, Joseph became involved in a war anyway as a result of the White Bird incident. Despite the fact that his plans received a setback because of this action, Joseph still hoped to conclude hostilities and to settle on the reservation as soon as the details of such an agreement could be worked out. And that, eventually, was exactly what he arranged to do.

Joseph’s agreement with General Nelson A. Miles is usually reported as a surrender. From the Army point of view it was – and much was made over this “surrender,” perhaps to conceal the obvious fact that Miles had not won the battle. Only 79 Nez Perce warriors elected to return to Idaho, and 98 decided that it would be wiser to seek refuge in Canada. Since Miles’s objective had been to round up all the Nez Perce warriors, he could hardly boast of a victory. As a matter of fact, he deceived himself by construing the war as a two-sided military operation and by supposing that when he dealt with Joseph, he was dealing with the military commander of the Nez Perce Indians. Actually even during the battles, the Indians had no single military command in the white man’s sense. Thus, when Joseph was negotiating with Miles, he was speaking only for himself and for those who wished to follow him. By Nez Perce standards, White Bird and those who elected to go on to Canada were perfectly free to do so. And the Indians were adhering to their own standards, not to some white military tradition of which they were probably unaware. Under the white man’s system a surrender meant that the Nez Perce commander, had there been one, would have been held responsible for the surrender of his entire army, which in this case did not exist, at least not as the kind of organization the white man understood. Little of this made sense to the Indians, who were not surrendering anyway. General Miles probably could not have succeeded in explaining to Joseph the white man’s concept of a military surrender, even if he had thought to try. And in any event Joseph had no army to surrender and no authority to make other Nez Perce warriors come to any agreement or terms. Thus, since Miles was unable to capture the Nez Perce warriors, he was forced to abide by Nez Perce procedure and deal with the lndians as individuals. Such a procedure was as foreign to Miles as the concept of surrender was to the Nez Perce.

In 1965 the United States Government founded the Nez Perce National Historic Park. Thirty eight sites, scattered across the states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana, have been designated to commemorate the legends and history of the Nee-Me-Po and their interaction with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, gold miners, and farmers who moved through or into the area. The Park was also created to honor Chief Joseph and his brave band. The areas encompassing these sites display the great diversity of the American West — topography, rainfall, vegetation, and scenery, ranging from the semi-arid regions of Washington, to the lush high mountain meadows of Idaho and Oregon, to the prairies of Montana. As you travel from site to site you gradually sense the importance of the land in contributing to the rich and diverse cultural history of the Nez Perce people.

source: Digital Atlas of Idaho
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Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph. (Photo: MPI/Getty Images)
(click image for larger size)

Chief Joseph: The Tragic Journey That Led to His Famous Surrender

On October 5, 1877 Chief Joseph and his tribe the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army. Learn about the tribe’s way of life and their final act of defiance.

by B. Myint

It was called the Nez Perce War, but for the native people of the Wallowa Valley, it was a fight for survival. In 1877 the federal government pressured the Nez Perce to give up millions of acres of their homelands to the feed the gold rush. Refusing to be forced onto a reservation, a band of about 700 men, women, children, and elders treked 1,400 miles from what is now eastern Oregon, crossing through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in an attempt to reach Canada. Along the way, they faced exhaustion and starvation while battling 2,000 U.S. soldiers.

Sadly, they never reached their goal. Just 40 miles shy of the Canadian border, the group found themselves surrounded by the U.S. Army. By then, the frigid weather, dwindling supplies, and endless miles of merciless terrain had taken its toll. On this day in 1877, the war ended when Chief Joseph surrendered to U.S. General Nelson A. Miles, famously uttering: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

A Nez Perce warrior. (Photo: Edward S. Curtis via Wikimedia Commons)

They call themselves Nimipu, the real people. Long before white settlers ventured into their territory, the Nez Perce occupied an estimated 28,000 square miles. Experts at breeding horses, they climbed atop their appaloosas and roamed across the vast stretches of grasslands west of the Rocky Mountains. Throughout the year, they would travel to where food was most available; crossing the Bitterroot Mountains to hunt buffalo, salmon fishing in the Columbia River, and harvesting camas root near the Clearwater River.

Named Nez Perce by French Canadian fur traders, the tribe had peaceful relationships with outsiders. When Lewis and Clark first met the Nez Perce in 1805, the weary and hungry explorers were greeted with a meal of buffalo, dried salmon, and camas bread. The tribe enjoyed strong relationships with members of their expedition, exchanging gifts and passing on local knowledge, such as canoe building.

Nez Perce tribesmen and an Appaloosa, circa 1895. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But eventually those relationships began to fray. Although they had welcomed traders, missionaries, and explorers, the Nez Perce soon felt the oncoming tidal wave as more whites began to appear, attracted by the rich resources of their ancestral home. Chief Joseph once remarked: “It has always been the pride of the Nez Perce that they were the friends of the white men. But we soon found that the white men were growing very rich very fast and were greedy to possess everything the Indian had.”

In 1855, the chiefs grudgingly signed a treaty with the U.S. government, giving them a reservation that included most of their traditional homelands. But soon after, gold was found within their territory — a tragic discovery for the Nez Perce. Tens of thousands of Americans rushed to their reservation, in violation of the treaty. The U.S. government pressured the tribe to sign a new treaty, which took away 90% of the land away from the tribe. Some groups complied. Others, including Chief Joseph’s group, did not. Forced to leave the land of their ancestors, the group was relocated to Idaho. Along their journey, three young Nez Perce warriors, were believed to have massacred a band of white settlers. Fearing retaliation by the U.S. Army, the chief helped lead one of the great retreats in American military history.

Although it was a victory for the U.S. Army, for the Nez Perce the war was a tragedy. Forced to leave the land of their ancestors, the group journeyed through unforgiving wilderness for over three months. Many were killed, horses were lost, and members of the tribe were eventually taken prisoner or sent into exile.

Even today, Chief Joseph’s famous surrender speech immortalizes him as a great leader during a deeply tragic time:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. 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.

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Nez Perce, 1904 – in Regalia, with horses


source: Betsy Roberts
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Nez Perce Powwow, Lapwai, 1904


source: Idaho State Historical Society
courtesy: Betsy Roberts

Further Reading:

Tough Trip Through Paradise, 1878-1879

by Andrew Garcia (Author)

This book grew out of a manuscript left by Andrew Garcia on his death in 1942. Ben Stein acquired the manuscript and edited it to tell Garcia’s story of the 1877 war between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce people, the end of the buffalo herds and other historic events in western life.

link: Amazon

page updated June 18, 2020