National Historic Trails - Nez Perce National Historic Trail

Jurisdiction: Forest Service
Established: 1986
Route: 1,170 miles (1,885 km)

This trail route honors the heroic and poignant attempt by the Nez Perce Indians to escape capture by the U.S. Army. In 1877, the Nez Perce were forced to leave their ancestral homelands and move to a reservation east of Lewiston, Idaho. During this journey, hostilities broke out between white settlers and some groups of the Nez Perce. The U.S. Army was called in. The resisting bands headed east, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and hoped to find refuge in Canada. Led by several commanders, including Chief Joseph, they eluded capture for months, traveling through the newly established Yellowstone National Park and out onto the Great Plains. Just short of reaching the Canadian border in Montana, most of the party were overtaken near the Bearpaw Mountains.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 (Nee-Me-Poo) Trail, extending approximately 1,170 miles from the vicinity of Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bears 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 mistreatment and injustices on the Nez Perces. To cope with the crisis, 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 act 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 "nontreaty" Nez Perce.

For some years, the nontreaty 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 nontreaties to turn over their countries to the whites and move onto a small reservation. Rather than risk war with the Army, the nontreaty chiefs decided to move onto the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho. Pent-up emotions, stemming from years of highhandness and mistreatment 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 nontreaty 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 modern 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 nontreaty Nez Perces only 250 of them 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 Bears Paw Mountains just short of the Canadian border and safety on October 5, 1877.

There is irony in the tragic fate of the Nez Perces. 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 which whites usually associated with Indian warfare. Following what the whites regarded as a civilized code of conduct, the Nez Perces refrained from scalping, mutilating bodies, or torturing prisoners, and generally avoided attacks on noncombatant citizens. Nevertheless, as defeated Indians, the surviving Nez Perces were sent to several years of exile in present-day Oklahoma before they were allowed to return to reservations in the Northwest.

Guides and Books

The Flight of the Nez Perce, Mark Brown, University of Nebraska Press, 1967
The Nez Perces: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau, Frances Haines, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978
The Nez Perces and the Opening of the Northwest, Alvin Josephy, University of Nebraska Press, 1965
Chief Joseph's People and Their War, Alvin Josephu, Yellowstone Library and Museum Association, 1964
Forlorn Hope, John D. McDermott, Idaho State Historical Society, 1978
Hear Me My Chiefs!, Lucullus V. McWhorter, Caxton Press, 1940
Yellow Wolf: His Own Story, Caxton Press, 1952
Noon Nee-Me-Poo (We the Nez Perces), Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, 1973.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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