Nez Perce National Historic Trail

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Congress passed the National Trails System Act in 1968 establishing a framework for a nationwide system of scenic, recreational, and historic trails. The Nez Perce (Ne-Me-Poo) Trail, extending approximately, 170 miles from the vicinity of Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana, was added to this System by Congress as a National Historic Trail in 1986.

The Nez Perce Indians, composed originally of a number of independent villages and bands, were long known as friends of the whites. They had welcomed Lewis and Clark, fur trappers, and missionaries to their homeland in the mountains, valleys, and along the rivers of southeastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and northcentral Idaho. In 1855, Washington Territorial governor, Isaac I. Stevens, responding to increasing white expansion, negotiated a treaty with the Nez Perce chiefs, recognizing their peoples’ right to their traditional homeland and establishing it as a reservation of some 5,000 square miles.

In 1860, prospectors, encroaching on Nez Perce lands, struck gold. In the ensuing rush, thousands of miners, merchants, and settlers, disregarding Stevens’s treaty, overran large parts of the reservation, appropriating the Indians’ lands and livestock and heaping miscreant and misjustices on the Nez Perce. To cope with the situation, the United States Government engaged the angered Nez Perce in new treaty talks that culminated in a large treaty council in 1863. Nearly all tribal bands were represented. When the Government tried to get some of the bands to cede all or most of their lands, they refused to do so and left the council. In their absence, other chiefs, without tribal authority to speak for the departed bands, did just that, ceding the lands of those who had left the council. Their actions resulted in a division of the tribe. Those who had signed were praised by the whites as “treaty” Indians; those who did not sign became known as the “non-treaty” Nez Perce.

For some years, the “non-treaty” bands continued to live on their lands, insisting that no one had the right to sell them. But conflicts with the growing white population increased, particularly in the Wallowa country of northeastern Oregon, the homeland of Chief Joseph’s band. In May 1877, the Army finally ordered the non-treaties to turn over their countries to the whites and move onto a small reservation. Rather than risk war with the Army, the “non-treaty” chiefs decided to move onto the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho. Pent-up emotions, stemming from years of highhandedness and miscreant by whites and from the order to leave their homelands, moved several embittered young warriors to ride out to the Salmon River and kill some whites, avenging the past murders of tribal members. The hope for a peaceful move to the small reservation at Lapwai thus ended, and the flight of the Nez Perce began on June 15, 1877.

Pursued by the Army, the nontreaties left Idaho, intending initially to seek safety with their Crow allies on the plains to the east. When this failed, flight to Canada became their only hope. Their long desperate and circuitous route, as they traveled and fought to escape pursuing white forces, is what we now call the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

This route was used in its entirety only once; however, component trails and roads that made up the route bore generations of use prior to and after the 1877 flight of the “non-treaty” Nez Perce. Trails and roads perpetuated through continued use often became portions of transportation systems, though some later were abandoned for more direct routes or routes better suited for modem conveyances. Most abandoned segments can be located today but are often overgrown by vegetation, altered by floods, power lines, and other manmade structures, or cross a variety of ownerships.

General William Tecumseh Sherman called the saga of the Nez Perce “the most extraordinary of Indian wars.” Precipitated into a fight they did not seek by the impulsive actions of the few revengeful young men, some 750 “non-treaty” Nez Perce only 250 of the warriors, the rest women, children, and old or sick people, together with their 2,000 horses, fought defensively for their lives in some 20 battles and skirmishes against a total of more than 2,000 soldiers aided by numerous civilian volunteers and Indians of other tribes. Their route through four states, dictated by topography and their own skillful strategy, covered over 1,100 miles before they were trapped, and surrendered at Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains just short of the Canadian border and safety on October 5, 1877.

There is irony in the tragic fate of the Nez Perce. In addition to having been loyal friends and allies of the whites for almost three-quarters of a century their conduct during the war was free of traits that whites usually associated with Indian warfare. Following what the whites regarded as a civilized code of conduct, the Nez Perce refrained from scalping, mutilating bodies, or torturing prisoners, and generally avoided attacks on non-combatant citizens. Nevertheless, as defeated Indians, the surviving Nez Perce were sent to several years of exile in present-day Oklahoma before they were allowed to return to reservations in the Northwest.

Reprinted from Forest Service Brochure

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