Saturday, March 16, 2013

Following the Flight of the Nez Perce

One of the most tragic events in American history began with the definition of the word, home.  To the settlers of the newly-opened West, it meant a permanent house with a barn on a piece of tillable land. To the Nez Perce tribe, or Nimiipuu, “home” encompassed a wide swath of northeastern Oregon, southwestern Washington, and central Idaho. A nomadic tribe, their ancestors had lived here for generations following their seasonal food sources of camas root, salmon, and game. From their first encounter with white men, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Nez Perce lived in harmony with their new neighbors. However, a revised reservation boundary drawn up in 1863 forced the tribe into 700,000 acres near Lapwai, Idaho. A number of Nez Perce, including Chief Joseph’s Wallowa band, refused to sign and relinquish their “home;” they became known as “non-treaty” Indians. Relations grew tense and in 1877, the U.S. Army, under the command of General O.O. Howard, was ordered to remove the non-treaties to the Lapwai reservation, triggering a 1,100-mile pursuit across Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Nez Perce Nat'l Historic Park Visitor Center
To follow the actual route the Nez Perce took requires a four-wheel drive and, perhaps, a horse, but a passenger car will get you close enough to understand the human endurance required to make this journey. The fact that the route passes through some of the most scenic landscape in the West is an extra bonus. A good starting point is the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center on US 95, east of Lewiston, Idaho. Located on the site where Henry and Elizabeth Spalding established their Presbyterian mission, the center offers a video, display of Nez Perce artifacts, along with a selection of books and maps.

White Bird Overlook
Continuing on US 95, a slight detour south of Grangeville leads to the White Bird Battlefield overlook.  Interpretive signs tell the story of the first encounter between Howard’s army and Nez Perce warriors. At the end, 34 soldiers were killed.  While they suffered no casualties, Chief Joseph’s band of 750 people and 2,000 horses realized their best hope of safety was to travel east to Buffalo Country, and seek help from their allies, the Crow tribe.

U.S. 12 crosses North Central Idaho
Their journey followed the Lolo Trail over the Bitterroot Mountains in central Idaho, a route closely approximated today by US 12. Not completed until 1962, this winding, two-lane road follows the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers through some of the most pristine, remaining wilderness areas. Known as the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, It parallels the route used by Lewis and Clark and ends at Lolo Pass on the Montana border.

Bitterroot Valley, Western Montana
When the Nez Perce arrived here they falsely assumed they had left the war and pursuing army behind them, and turned south following the Bitterroot Valley. US 93 is the primary route through this lovely valley today, but this busy stretch of road can be avoided by traveling on parallel highway 269.  Not only is the scenery better, but the road passes through the small towns of Stevensville with its old Catholic mission, and Hamilton where you can tour the 25-room mansion of Copper King, Marcus Daly.

Big Hole National Battlefield Site
At the end of the valley, the route crosses the Continental Divide into the Big Hole. By this time, the Nez Perce were feeling comfortable enough to stop for some much needed rest. They set up their teepees along the banks of a stream and settled in. Before dawn on August 9, Colonel Gibbons and the 7th Infantry fired on the unsuspecting, sleeping village and the Big Hole Battle began. By the end of the carnage, both sides had sustained large losses. After burying their dead, the Nez Perce quickened their retreat across southwestern Montana, headed toward Yellowstone Park.

The road to Bannock Pass
A visitor center at the Big Hole National Battlefield Site offers a broad view of the valley where the fighting took place and an excellent video describing events. Beyond here, the road over Bannock Pass and eastward across Idaho is gravel, but well-graded and easy except for the occasional recalcitrant cow.

At Yellowstone, the army established traps at every exit to the east, but, once again, the Nez Perce managed to evade them. However, it soon became apparent that the Crow would be of no assistance and their only remaining hope was to travel north to asylum in Canada. By then, this ragtag band, now largely women, children and the elderly, had covered over a thousand miles and were exhausted.  Pausing at the Bear Paw Mountains, they were overtaken by the army and after a six-day siege, Chief Joseph surrendered his band, only 40 miles from the Canadian border. A monument marks the lonely, windswept spot.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this excellent description, my wife and I are even travelling along their route. Fascinating American history.
    Many thanks, Terry and Sally