The Nez Percé Indians had lived in the Salmon, Snake and Clearwater River valleys for centuries, traveling and trading as far away as the Midwestern plains. In 1805 Lewis and Clark wintered-over in Nez Percé villages, where they were well treated and impressed with these industrious people. Their explorations brought this region to the attention of the fur trappers of the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company, who was rapidly gaining a monopoly on trade in the Pacific Northwest.
Throughout most of the first half of the nineteenth century, the traders and trappers maintained peaceful relations with the Nez Percé. But in the mid-1840’s, the United States government developed the Oregon Trail and began encouraging emigration to the Oregon Territory, in order to invalidate the British claim on all of the Pacific Northwest.
The natives’ claims to the area were given little consideration during the dispute between the United States and Britain, but after the boundaries were settled, the U.S. signed treaties with many of the tribes granting them permanent territorial rights to most of their native lands. Permanent, that is, until gold was discovered.
The man most responsible for starting the North Idaho gold rush was E.D. Pierce, a veteran of gold fields in California and the Frazer River area of British Columbia. Pierce had discovered gold in the North Fork of the Clearwater River, and he became obsessed with opening up Nez Percé lands for mining. For several winters, Pierce lived in the village of a friendly Nez Percé chief, Timothy, all the while smuggling mining equipment into the area.
Pierce organized an expedition of twelve men, and with the help of Jane Silcott, Chief Timothy’s daughter, they furtively entered Idaho from the north on a seldom-used trail. When they stopped at Orofino Creek, near the Clearwater River, one of the men, W.F. Bassett, discovered a rich gold deposit, and the rush was on!
Finally in 1863, faced with the irresistible onslaught of gold miners and their followers, some of the Nez Percé chiefs negotiated new, much smaller "permanent" territorial boundaries with the government. But not all of the Nez Percé tribes were willing to go along with the land cession. These "non-treaty" chiefs included White Bird, Looking Glass, Eagle-from-the-Light, Toohoolhoolzote, and Old Joseph.
As happened repeatedly throughout the expansion of the United States, the government insisted that the signing of treaties by some leaders of the tribe made the treaty obligatory upon all members of the tribe. The non-treaty chiefs disagreed, and over the next fifteen years, many of their followers became increasingly violent in their unwillingness to abandon their ancestral lands.
As Old Chief Joseph lay dying in 1871, he told his son: "Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother." Young Joseph resolved to live by those words. Ultimately, he would die by them.
Incursions by whites into the territories legally claimed by the non-treaty Nez Percé resulted in increasing numbers of violent confrontations throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s. By 1877, the situation was so bad that the non-treaty chiefs agreed to a council with General Oliver O. Howard, who perhaps more than any other white man in the Northwest understood the ancestral land claims of the Nez Percé.
Despite that understanding, Howard was obliged to carry out his orders from Washington, and force the Nez Percé to sign-away their lands. During the council, Chief Toohoolhoolzote became involved in an altercation that landed him in the guardhouse, and in order to secure his release, the other chiefs agreed to inspect the vacant reservation land that they were being offered in trade for their homeland.
While far from pleased with what they saw, the non-treaty chiefs recognized the futility of further resistance and reluctantly resigned themselves to move to the Lapwai Reservation. They were given 30 days to relocate.
For the Wallowa Nez Percé, the task was especially difficult. The tribe’s 6,000 half-wild horses were ranged over many miles of rugged terrain around the Wallowa Mountains. After organizing a hasty round-up, Joseph’s people sorted through their lifetime’s possessions, deciding what to keep and what to abandon. Only the most cherished things could be taken.
The Snake River, at peak high water stage, presented a formidable obstacle, but somehow the tribe crossed with minimal losses, and in June, 1877 the tribes of Joseph, White Bird and Toohoolhoolzote set up camp about six miles west of Grangeville, Idaho to rest and regroup before going on to the reservation. That stop has become known as the "fatal pause."
Frustrated young Indians exchanged stories of wrong-doing and humiliation, and their anger rose. Days passed and war-like feelings began to envelop the camp. Those feelings exploded violently, when a party of unruly young warriors rode out to seek revenge for the wrongs that had been put upon them. On June 13th and 14th, they murdered a man along the Salmon River near the mouth of Slate Creek, a rancher near John Day Creek, and two other men in the area. The Nez Percé War had begun.
Retreating to the bottom of White Bird Canyon, the Nez Percé assembled at camp called Sapacheap, where they would be safe from surprise attack. Meanwhile, General Howard sent a force of 90 soldiers and 11 volunteers under Captain David Perry toward White Bird Canyon to suppress the uprising. Perry made a reckless attack in the morning of June 17, and was soundly defeated by a force of 70 Nez Percé warriors, many of whom acquired their weapons from fallen soldiers during the battle.
Following the White Bird battle, the Indians had moved northwest and crossed the Salmon at Horseshoe Bend, then marched south to high ground in the area upstream from Hammer Creek. As summer wore on, battle followed battle as the retreating Nez Percé skillfully outmaneuvered the army on a 2,000 mile, 3 month odyssey across Lolo Pass into Montana, then down the Bitterroot Valley to Big Hole, and into Wyoming and Yellowstone, back into Montana, and nearly to safety in Canada. On October 6, 1877, at Bear Paws, Montana, just 30 miles from the Canadian border, Joseph surrendered the last weary remnants of his force in order to save what was left of his tribe.
The terms of the surrender included a provision for the Nez Percé to be returned to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. But General William Sherman, who was famous for his devastating Civil War march to the sea and later for his comment that "The only good Indian I ever saw was dead" arranged instead to have the Nez Percé marched 800 miles to Fort Lincoln at Bismarck, South Dakota. The difficult winter march, without adequate supplies, became known as the Trail of Tears, and many died from untreated injuries, malnutrition and disease along the way. At Fort Lincoln, the 450 Nez Percé were ordered into railroad cars and taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they spent a difficult winter as prisoners of war.
Finally, in 1885, the surviving 268 members of Joseph’s Nez Percé were returned to the Northwest, to live on the Colville Reservation, north of Spokane, Washington. Chief Joseph died in 1904, still clinging to the hope that he might be able to return with his people to the land of his ancestors. The Colville Agency doctor reported that Joseph had died of a broken heart, while sitting before his teepee fire.
Indian Life Along the Salmon River
Although the Nez Percé lived in the mountains as well as on plateaus within the river valleys, most of their villages were located near the confluence of small streams and rivers.
Some pit houses, village sites and burial locations have been found, but interestingly, no large shell mounds, which would indicate long-term habitation, have been reported. The few small heaps that have been found were probably where only single meals were eaten. Fireplaces, sweat houses and camas steaming ovens were built along the river, and remains of these are occasionally exposed by high water. These sites are identified by pieces of charcoal, scorched stone and burned animal bones.
The site of a village can be recognized by a series of rings where circular houses had been built. One such site is located near the popular campsite at Billy Creek. These pit house rings are from eighteen to thirty feet in diameter, and up to three feet deep in the center. Long oval rings, as much as eighteen feet across and sixty to eighty feet long, mark the locations of large communal houses.
Teepee rings are rounded river rocks placed in circles ten to fifteen feet in diameter. There is little, if any center depression in a teepee circle. Some camp sites have been found to have up to 400 teepee rings, indicating that as many as 1,000 people occupied the camp.
Several sites examined by anthropologists are of interest. West of Grangeville, the Weis Rock Shelter, near the confluence of Rocky Creek and Grave Creek, was occupied from 7,500 years ago until about 600 years ago. The rock shelter was near the geographical center of the Nez Percé territory, and in the midst of their camas root gathering fields. The large number of animal bones there are mostly from deer, bear, bison, sheep, coyote, rodents and birds. A few fish bones were scattered among these, but deer bones were the most prevalent.
Most artifacts from the rock shelter were made of worked, rounded river stones, identical to those found on the floor of Rocky Canyon. Some bone and antler tools have been found, along with a few shell objects and piles of obsidian flakes. The source of obsidian, which was used for making knife blades, spears and arrow heads, is unknown. It is believed that it must have been acquired through trade with peoples to the east and south, where obsidian may be found.