previous next

Nez Perce Indians,

A family of the Sahaptin nation which derived their name, given by the Canadians, it is said, from a practice of piercing their noses for the introduction of a shell ornament. Lewis and Clarke passed through their country in their explorations early in the nineteenth century, and made a treaty of peace, which they kept inviolate for full fifty years. They had a fine grazing country on the Clearwater and Lewis rivers, in the Territories of Idaho and Washington, and their number was estimated at 8,000. In 1836 missions and schools were established among them by the American board of missions, and efforts were made to induce them to till the ground and have an organized government. They were then about 4,000 strong. But they preferred to live in the heathen state, and, as late as 1857, they had only fifty acres under cultivation. The mission was suspended in 1847, after the murder of the Rev. Mr Whitman by a band of another tribe of Sahaptins. In the Indian war in Oregon, in 1855, the Nez Perces were friends of the white people, and saved the lives of Governor Stevens and others. A treaty had been made the year before for ceding their lands and placing them on a reservation, but a part of the tribe would not consent, and remained in their own beautiful country. By the terms of this treaty (1854) a part of the Nez Perces went on their reservation; the others hunted buffaloes and fought the Sioux. Finally, those on the reservation were disturbed by gold-seekers. The advent of these men was followed by the introduction of intoxicating liquors, and a general demoralization ensued.

For some years the great body of the Nez Perce Indians had been on the Lapwai reservation, in the northwestern part of Idaho. Chief Joseph, who had about 500 Indians as his following, had long laid claim to the boundaries as established by the treaty of 1855, more especially to that country west of Snake River in Oregon and the Wallowa Valley. These Indians had never made their homes in this valley, although they contended that it was theirs. President Grant conceded it to them in his executive order of June 16, 1873, but on June 10, 1875, this order was revoked, and all that part of Oregon west of the Snake River, embracing the Wallowa Valley, was restored to the public domain. General Howard in his work, Nez Perce Joseph, does not think the real cause of the Indian war “came from the reduction of the reserve, nor from the immediate contact with immigrants, and the quarrels that sprung therefrom. These, without doubt, aggravated the difficulty. The main cause lies back of ideas of rightful ownership, back of savage habits and instincts; it lies in the natural and persistent resistance of independent nations to the authority of other nations. Indian Joseph and his malcontents denied the jurisdiction of the [453] United States over them. They were offered everything they wanted if they would simply submit to the authority and government of the United States agents.” To return to the revocation, it is not wholly clear who, besides Governor Davis, of Oregon, was responsible for it. However, in the early part of 1877 the United States decided to have Chief Joseph and his followers removed from the Wallowa to the reservation in Idaho. Orders were issued to Gen. O. O. Howard “to occupy Wallowa Valley in the interest of peace,” and that distinguished and humane soldier endeavored to induce Joseph to comply with the plans of the government. On May 21 General Howard reported that he had had a conference with Joseph and other chiefs on May 19, and that “they yielded a constrained compliance with the orders of the government, and had been allowed thirty days to gather in their people, stock, etc.” On June 14 the Indians under Joseph from Wallowa, White Bird from Salmon River, and Looking-glass from Clearwater, assembled near Cottonwood Creek, in apparent compliance with their promise, when General Howard, who was at Fort Lapwai, heard that four white men had been murdered on John Day's Creek by some Nez Perces, and that White Bird had announced that he would not go on the reservation. Other murders were reported. General Howard despatched two cavalry companies, with ninety-nine men, under Captain Perry, to the scene, who found the Indian camp at White Bird Cañon, and on June 17 made an unsuccessful attack, with the loss of one lieutenant and thirty-three men. General Howard then took the field in person with 400 men, and on July 11 discovered the Indians in a deep ravine on the Clearwater near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, where he attacked and defeated them, driving them from their position; the Indians lost their camp, much of their provisions, and a number of fighting men. It was on July 17 that the famous

Chief Joseph.

retreat of Joseph began, followed by the troops of General Howard.

No parallel is known in the history of the army in the Northwest where such a force of soldiers was longer on the trail of a retreating foe, and where the troops endured such indescribable hardships more bravely. First General Gibbon, who was then in Montana, started in pursuit with a force of less than 200, and came upon the Indians on a branch of the Big Hole or Wisdom River, and attacked them Aug. 9, but was compelled to assume the defensive, as he was greatly outnumbered. and the Indians withdrew the next night. General Howard arrived on Aug. 11, with [454] a small escort, and resumed the pursuit. On Aug. 20, when he was at Camas Prairie, the Indians turned on him and stampeded and ran off his pack-train, which were partially recovered by his cavalry. The fleeing Indians then traversed some of “the worst trails for man or beast on this continent,” as General Sherman described it. Their course may thus be briefly given: The Nez Perces, after leaving Henry's Lake in Montana, passed up the Madison and Fire Hole Basin into the Yellowstone Park, and crossed the divide and the Yellowstone River above the falls and below the lake; then they crossed the Snowy Mountains, and moved down Clark's Fork, with General Howard on a hot trail. On Sept. 13 General Sturgis had a fight with them on the Yellowstone below the mouth of Clark's Fork, capturing hundreds of horses and killing a number of the Indians. Then the Indians crossed the Yellowstone, passed north through the Judith Mountains, and reached the Missouri River near Cow Island on Sept. 22, and the next day they crossed the Missouri and proceeded north to the British possessions, with a view to join the renegade Sioux, with whom Sitting Bull was hiding. General Howard's troops were fearfully worn down by the long pursuit, but steadily followed the fleeing Nez Perces. Howard had meanwhile sent word to Colonel Miles at Tongue River of the movements of the Indians, and that officer started with fresh forces to head off the band. On Sept. 30, he came on them near the mouth of Eagle Creek, had a fight with them, and finally captured the entire band, numbering between 400 and 500 men, women, and children. As the fight was closing General Howard came up with his troops. This ended “one of the most extraordinary Indian wars of which there is any record,” said General Sheridan. And he added: “The Indians throughout displayed a courage and skill that elicited universal praise; they abstained from scalping; let captive women go free; did not commit indiscriminate murder of peaceful families, which is usual; and fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines, and field fortifications. Nevertheless, they would not settle down on lands set apart for their ample maintenance; and when commanded by proper authority they began resisting by murdering persons in no manner connected with their alleged grievances.” After the war and the capture of the hostiles the Nez Perces of Joseph's band were removed to Indian Territory, where they were placed in the Ponca, Pawnee, and Otoe agency. There they were peaceable and industrious; nearly half of them in 1884 were reported members of the Presbyterian Church; they had schools, etc., and were apparently doing well. In May, 1885, they returned to their old home in Idaho and Washington.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: