Idaho: Nez Perce National Historical Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historical Park does not focus on one location but rather comprises a unique cooperative arrangement of public and private lands administered by the National Park Service, state, tribal, local, or other federal agencies. The complete route of thirty-eight sites in four states includes locations of important encampments, missions, battles, trails, and other areas significant to Nez Perce and related U.S. history; the Idaho route alone comprises about four hundred miles of travel. The park sites’ varying topographic and climatic features exemplify the wide diversity of Nez Perce country, which is largely still wilderness.

Site Office

Superintendent

Nez Perce National Historical Park

P.O. Box 93

Spalding, ID 83551

ph.: (208) 843-2261

Web site: www.nps.gov/nepe/

The history of the Nez Perce Indians shows how the expansionist, commerce-based culture of the United States came into conflict with the nature-based, hunter culture of the Northwest’s largest group of natives. The sheer novelty and might of the U.S. forces–religious, commercial, and military–complicated by the personalities of extraordinarily influential individuals on both sides, led to significant changes for the Nez Perce, including the near eradication of the economic, social, and spiritual bases of their culture.

Early History of the Nez Perce

Before the first visits by white men, the Nez Perce roamed a territory that stretched from the present Montana-Idaho border, across the Idaho panhandle, and into southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. By about 500 b.c.e., there were already villages of Nez Perce ancestral groups in parts of the southeastern Columbia River Plateau. As villages developed along the Clearwater, Salmon, Snake, and other rivers, the people added salmon to their diet of bison and the edible bulbs of camas lilies. By 1700 the Nez Perce population was about 4,500 and resided in 125 permanent villages that averaged 35 residents each. By about 1730 the Nez Perce had acquired horses, undoubtedly from Southwest Indians who had encountered the Spaniards, and eventually became expert horse breeders.

In about 1755 their Indian enemies–the confederated Blackfeet tribes–acquired British and French guns, putting the Nez Perce and their allies on the defensive. About a decade later, bison disappeared from the Nez Perce’s hunting grounds, probably as a result of overhunting. Hunters now had to travel farther afield to find food. And in 1781 and 1782, the Nez Perce lost much of their population to smallpox, which had been introduced to other tribes by white traders.

First Encounters with Whites

The Nez Perce first encountered white men directly in 1805, when the Indians came to the aid of the bedraggled Lewis and Clark Expedition. The party had just emerged from a brutal portage through the Rocky Mountains. They spent two months with the Nez Perce, who provided food, made elkskin maps, and served as guides. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s further friendly relations with the tribe in the spring of 1806 cemented a tradition of Nez Perce cooperation with whites.

In 1811 members of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company became the first white traders to enter Nez Perce country. Through white traders, the Nez Perce at last secured guns to defend themselves against the warring Plains tribes. In August, 1812, Donald McKenzie of the Astor group opened a post on the Clearwater River in the hope that the Indians would trap beaver for him. His expectations were untenable, and the post soon closed. The resulting tensions led to hostilities in 1813 and 1814–including the hanging of an Indian by one of the company’s traders. Peace was reestablished, but only after the Nez Perce and whites had avoided each other for several years.

Eventually, mutual economic interests ameliorated the rancor between the Nez Perce and the white traders. In 1816 McKenzie opened the Fort Nez Perce fur trading post on the Columbia River for the North West Company. He induced the Nez Perce and other tribes to make peace with each other and participate in his trapping brigades.

Trappers and Traders

In 1821 the British Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the North West Company, and the company’s expanded forays into beaver-rich Idaho brought trappers into frequent contact with the Nez Perce’s buffalo-hunting bands. In 1818, however, the Americans and British had begun a joint occupancy of the Oregon Country, and the Nez Perce were most anxious to deal with Americans. The Americans simply offered better bargains than did the British. The Nez Perce rapidly became the most influential Indians on the Columbia Plateau and eventually assumed a pivotal role in the relations between the U.S. government and the Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

The Nez Perce’s material success did not greatly affect integral aspects of their culture, such as their animistic beliefs, their gender roles, or their buffalo-hunting tradition. Yet the determined efforts of Presbyterian missionaries eventually led to deep and lasting changes. A series of lectures in 1829 and 1830 by Spokan and Kutenai youths who had studied at the Red River mission school extolled the benefits of Christianity, and in 1830 the Nez Perce sent two youths to the mission. Christian influences spread among the tribe, to the point that one group of Nez Perce would not join an American trapping brigade for a Sunday hunt.

Arrival of Missionaries

In a significant gesture, four Nez Perce warriors accompanied an American fur-trading group to St. Louis in 1831. There the Indians told William Clark, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, and the Roman Catholic bishop that the Nez Perce needed Bibles and Christian missionaries. The Indians likely sought increased social prestige and material enrichment more than spiritual benefits. Nonetheless, in 1835 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent Presbyterians Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman to the Nez Perce. Whitman headed back east, but returned to the Nez Perce in 1836 with his wife and another missionary couple, Henry and Eliza Spalding. The Whitmans then left to minister to the Cayuse, and the Spaldings remained with the Nez Perce.

This Christian crusade set the stage for the first significant rifts within the tribe since they had met white people. Anxious to keep the Nez Perce under his influence year-round, Spalding encouraged them to give up their annual buffalo hunts and farm instead. By May 1, 1837, the Indians were cultivating about fifteen acres of vegetables. Acceptance of the new lifestyle was not universal; some males objected to manual labor as being women’s work, while others saw agriculture as a desecration of Mother Earth. The religious conversion was not total either, especially when material benefits and social status failed to accrue.

Even so, the Christian following was strong enough by 1840 to allow Spalding to baptize two leading tribesmen. One of these men was Tuekakas, leader of the Nez Perce in the Wallowa Valley of present-day Oregon; Spalding named him Joseph. Spalding also baptized Joseph’s son born in 1840, presumably the future Chief Joseph.

U.S. Government Intrusions

While the Presbyterian missionaries interfered substantially with Nez Perce culture, their efforts were subtle when compared with the government’s attempts to control the Indians. In 1843 the federal government developed a set of laws directing the Indians to organize under a single high chief. This concept was completely alien to the Nez Perce, who operated with a number of headmen in charge of individual, small bands. Ultimately government officials selected the thirty-two-year-old grandson of the warrior chief Red Grizzly Bear, Ellis, who was one of the tribe’s first Christian converts. The headmen mostly ignored this upstart, and antimissionary sentiments continued.

Meanwhile, the missionary movement expanded to include white settlers, including one thousand in covered wagons heading for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This incursion, combined with the murder in 1844 of the leading Wallawalla headman, who had relatives among the Nez Perce, further incited antiwhite sentiments. The Indians also became convinced that a measles epidemic was a plot by the missionaries to kill the natives and free the land for white settlers. The Cayuse killed the Whitmans and eleven other whites at their mission on November 28, 1847, and the Nez Perce looted the Spaldings’ mission. These events drove the first generation of missionaries out of Nez Perce country.

White Encroachments on the Land

Removal of the missionaries did not mitigate the Nez Perce’s problems. By 1848 the Indians faced the increasing threat of white encroachment into their homeland. Compounding the Indians’ fears was uncertainty about the intentions behind the U.S. military’s promotion of white settlement in the new Oregon Territory.

Despite the development of serious conflicts and confusion following the missionaries’ departure, the Nez Perce continued the tradition of peace and cooperation that had served them well in the past. The government, aware of the Nez Perce’s clout on the plateau, reciprocated by inviting some 250 tribesmen to a peace council on March 6, 1848, at Waiilatpu. Meanwhile, however, roving bands of American volunteers invaded Indian villages in pursuit of the Cayuse who had murdered the whites at the Whitman mission. Five Cayuse leaders were hanged for the crime in 1850.

In an opportunistic gesture that had serious long-term ramifications, a Nez Perce camp crier named Lawyer–a personable man who knew English and thus was able to ingratiate himself with the whites–accompanied several prowhite Nez Perce chiefs to see the new territorial governor in 1849. The Americans inferred that Lawyer was the main spokesman for the Nez Perce, and they treated him as chief when it came time to sign treaties in 1855 and 1863.

The Coming of the Railroad

When the Washington Territory was created in 1853, its first governor, a thirty-five-year-old military man named Isaac I. Stevens, also served as superintendent of Indian affairs. His goal was to run a railroad through Nez Perce country and over the Cascade Mountains to allow maximum movement of settlers into his territory. Stevens’s entrance heralded a new era of tragedy and displacement for the Northwest Indians.

The government gave Stevens permission in 1854 to secure treaties from the tribes of the Northwest, including the Nez Perce. From May 29 to June 11, 1855, Stevens hosted the largest Indian council ever in the Northwest, with several thousand natives present. Conveniently for him, the anti-American Nez Perce were off hunting buffalo in Montana, and the pro-American headmen again chose the articulate, decidedly pro-American Lawyer to be their spokesman.

Dealing with Stevens was to be a lesson in American duplicity. It was not until June 4–well into the council–that Stevens finally got to the crux of the meeting: his plan to contain the Plateau Indians on two reservations, one in Yakima country, and one in Nez Perce country. Lawyer’s arguments and Stevens’s reassurances that most bands’ ancestral homelands would be included in the reservation persuaded the Nez Perce to agree to occupy some five thousand square miles of territory. The 1855 treaty–the only one that the Nez Perce unanimously ratified–has remained the guiding treaty between the federal government and the Nez Perce ever since, although the United States subsequently appropriated more and more land for its white settlers.

Stevens promised the Nez Perce a one-year transition period, then promptly announced in the newspapers that the ceded lands were open for white settlement. This led to immediate conflicts between opportunistic settlers and the other Indian tribes who had also signed treaties with Stevens. The Nez Perce were sharply divided about their role in the matter. Ultimately, the desire to keep American troops out of Nez Perce homelands led them to reaffirm their pro-American stance.

Mounting Conflicts with Whites

As wanton acts of violence against Indians increased, including the hanging of a Nez Perce man, it became more difficult for the Nez Perce to maintain this stance. The tribe’s antitreaty faction was becoming more alienated, and ultimately it challenged the authenticity of the treaty, insisting that Lawyer did not represent them and had sold their homelands without consent.

White settlement surged in 1860 with the discovery of gold on the Nez Perce reservation. Thousands of miners flooded the area, buying Lawyer’s cooperation and bribing the Nez Perce with cash and the promise of new business. The newcomers built trails, wagon roads, ferries, saloons, stores, and log homes. By June, 1862, the eighteen thousand whites on the reservation far outnumbered the Nez Perce themselves. However, the indiscriminate miners moved into nontreaty territory as well, creating additional tensions there.

To formalize the de facto occupation of reservation lands by the whites, the federal government created a new treaty in 1863 (although it was not ratified by Congress until 1867) that left the Nez Perce with a mere 10 percent of the reservation designated in the 1855 treaty and furthermore divided that land into twenty-acre farms, one per family. Significantly, on June 9, 1863, Lawyer again signed for all the Nez Perce, despite the absence of the anti-American bands; the American commissioners could gloat that they had gotten six million acres for less than eight cents each.

Chief Joseph’s Resistance

The Nez Perce who lived outside of the reservation boundaries, including the band led by Chief Joseph in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, would not tolerate Nez Perce complicity in the confiscation of their homelands. The outsiders officially parted company with their pro-American comrades, formalizing the split between “treaty” and “nontreaty” factions.

Furthering this division was a new government mandate that the Nez Perce reservation be administered by the Presbyterian church. The Catholics soon also established a presence among the Nez Perce. The missionaries sought to disengage the Indians from remaining “heathenish” practices. The nontreaty Nez Perce, meanwhile, turned increasingly to nativistic rituals that emphasized their own cultural history.

A number of territorial governors, Indian agents, and military commanders dealt with the Indians in the period between the spurious 1863 treaty and 1877, when war finally erupted between the nontreaty Nez Perce and the white settlers. Some of these government agents finally determined during the 1870’s that the 1863 treaty was indeed invalid because only part of the tribe had signed it. Despite the government’s understanding of the key legal issue–that one Nez Perce could not sell out another’s land from beneath him–it was convinced that more money would set matters right.

Administrators dealing with the Nez Perce simply could not understand the cultural and religious traditions that made Chief Joseph and the nontreaty bands refuse to sell their lands. After another round of fruitless negotiations on November 13, 1876, the government directed the nontreaty Indians to move onto the reservation by April 1, 1877, or face military force. The nontreaty Nez Perce, no match for the U.S. Army, prepared for the inevitable move, selecting reservation lands that would most suit their needs.

The Beginning of War

The various nontreaty Nez Perce bands finally rendezvoused on June 2, 1877, two months after the original deadline for their move onto the reservation, and were due to arrive at the reservation on June 14. In the temporary absence of Joseph and other conciliatory headmen, however, some of the younger warriors decided to avenge the murder of the father of one of them by a white man. The young men never found the murderer, but they killed four other whites known for mistreating Indians. Other bands of Nez Perce raiders followed in the wake of the four warriors, settling scores with other settlers. These isolated murders were not sanctioned by the chiefs, but to all appearances, war had commenced.

General Oliver Otis Howard responded by ordering troops from Fort Lapwai to stop the Nez Perce at their new encampment on the Salmon River. The Nez Perce, hoping to reconcile with the aggrieved Americans, sent out a truce party to negotiate with Howard’s forces. An advance guard of the U.S. troops led by Captain David Perry attacked anyway, and a bloody skirmish ensued. Though fewer than seventy Nez Perce had weapons–mostly bows and arrows or antiquated firearms–they killed a full third of Perry’s ninety-nine troopers; the Indians had but three men wounded. This rout–though small in scale–was reminiscent of General George A. Custer’s debacle a year earlier, and the nation’s newspapers trumpeted “Chief Joseph’s War.” Both the press and Howard assumed that Joseph was behind all the trouble, even though he was but one of several chiefs leading the nontreaty Nez Perce. The violent turn of events left the Nez Perce little option but full flight, and panic swept the Northwest.

General Howard himself assembled a new army of some four hundred men to pursue the Indians, who had crossed the Salmon River on June 19. Howard’s cumbersome militia did not begin to cross the Salmon River until July 1, and the Nez Perce then fooled him by recrossing the river far to the north. Howard lauded Joseph as a military genius, a notion that has persisted despite the fact that the nontreaty Nez Perce continued to form strategy by consensus among several chiefs.

Howard subsequently assembled a force of five hundred men and was again outmaneuvered by the Nez Perce. Yet the Seventh Infantry from Montana–unexpected by the Indians–charged into the Nez Perce camp in the Big Hole Valley. The Nez Perce left the infantry depleted and bloodied, but they themselves lost sixty to ninety people, among whom were twelve of their best warriors.

The Search for Allies

The weakened Nez Perce, running for their lives now, hoped to join the friendly Crow nation. They swept dramatically through Yellowstone National Park and continued to elude Howard and other troops sent to head them off in Montana. To the Nez Perce’s dismay, however, the Crow were hostile, and the fleeing bands decided their only hope lay in reaching the Canadian border. Once in Canada, they could join Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Sioux.

The Nez Perce set up their last camp on the Snake Creek in Montana, only forty miles from the Canadian border. Troops led by Colonel Nelson A. Miles from Fort Keogh attacked the camp on September 30, 1877. After the Nez Perce killed fifty-three of Miles’s men and lost twenty-two of their own people, a five-day siege ensued. The Indians were starving and freezing, however, and on October 5, Chief Joseph surrendered at last to Howard, who had belatedly arrived on the scene.

The Nez Perce had fought heroically during their 1,500-mile retreat. Their ranks numbered but 750, with barely 200 of them capable of fighting, yet throughout the summer they had defied some two thousand U.S. regulars and volunteers in four major battles, four serious skirmishes, and nearly a dozen other engagements. The nontreaty Nez Perce paid for this war with eight years of exile in Oklahoma. After repeated debates, Congress finally allowed the remaining 268 captives to return to the Northwest in 1885, sending some to the Nez Perce reservation and others to the Colville reservation in northeastern Washington. None, including Chief Joseph, were allowed to resettle in their original homelands.

Gradual Disintegration

Encouraged by the government and the Presbyterian missionaries, the tribe’s traditional structure continued to break down. The chiefs were soon supplanted by more general councils. In addition, tensions between Christians and non-Christians on the reservation persisted. The federal government passed legislation in 1887 to further assimilate Indians by breaking up reservations into farms. This act ostensibly was to encourage the Nez Perce to prosper as farmers, but it also conveniently created “surplus” lands–a full 70 percent of the reservation–that the tribe was pressured to sell to the United States in 1893. By 1910 the reservation had about thirty thousand white residents and a more fifteen hundred Nez Perce.

It became obvious to the Nez Perce that a central leadership could help them deal with the federal government and its agents. On January 22, 1923, the Nez Perce approved the establishment of the Nez Perce Indian Home and Farm Association. Next, the tribe wrote a constitution, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved on October 27, 1927. With the institution in the late 1940’s of the nine-member Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, the Indians achieved at last a leadership that could help them negotiate with outsiders and overcome their own divisiveness. It is this executive committee that has navigated for the Nez Perce the complex channels of pursuing claims against the federal government. The tribe–including those members who live off the reservation–has benefited from millions of dollars in government restitutions.

Creation of the National Historical Park

In a move to combine business with an new awareness of Nez Perce culture, the Indians and their non-Indian supporters promoted the idea of a Nez Perce National Historical Park. On May 15, 1965, Congress approved a unique entity comprising a total of twenty-four sites managed by the Nez Perce, the state of Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, local governments, and private parties. In 1993 fourteen additional sites in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana were added.

The original twenty-four sites include various places associated with Nez Perce legends and daily living; battlefields where the Nez Perce met Howard’s troops; the U.S. Army’s Fort Lapwai; Donald McKenzie’s trading post; the Spalding home; and several areas related to Lewis and Clark’s activities in Nez Perce country. The additional sites include traditional Nez Perce campsites and wintering grounds; the grave of Chief Joseph; the Big Hole battlefield; and the Bear’s Paw battleground, along the Snake Creek, where Chief Joseph finally surrendered.

For Further Information
  • Haines, Francis. The Nez Perces: Tribesman of the Columbia Plateau. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955. A well-researched chronological account of the tribe.
  • Howard, Helen Addison. Saga of Chief Joseph. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. Focuses on the legendary war chief of the Nez Perce.
  • Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Offers an authoritative account of the Nez Perce’s relations with white men from the very first peaceful encounters with Lewis and Clark through the tragic wars of the 1870’s.
  • Nez Perce Country. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1983. A wide-ranging introduction to the Nez Perce culture and landscape. This eminently readable and well-illustrated book includes an extensive history by scholar Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
  • Stadius, Martin. Dreamers: On the Trail of the Nez Perce. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 1999. A description and history of the Nez Perce National Historical Trail. Includes illustrations and maps.
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