Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) Trail
Nez Perce National Historic Trail
National historic trail established in 1986. Not regularly maintained.
Maintained every 3 years. Trail classified as moderate to difficult.
The trail follows the route of the Nez Perce War. The 1,170-mile trail
begins at Wallowa Lake, Oregon and travels through Big Hole National
Battlefield, and ends at the Bear Paw Battlefield, Montana near Chinook,
Montana. Several of the Nez Perce War sites are preserved and interpreted
by Nez Perce National Historical Park, the U.S. Forest Service and other
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 north central 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
Steven's treaty, overran large parts of the reservation, appropriating
the Indians' lands and livestock and heaping mistreatment and injustices
on the Nez Perce. 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 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 "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 high-handedness 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
Pursued by the Army, the non-treaties 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 modern conveyances. Most abandoned segments
can be located today but are often overgrown by vegetation, altered
by floods, powerlines, and other manmade structures, or cross a variety
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 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 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
which 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 noncombatant 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.
Bitterroot National Forest
7338 US Highway 93 South
Sula, MT 59871
The 1,170-mile trail begins at Wallowa Lake, Oregon and travels through
Big Hole National Battlefield, and ends at the Bear Paw Battlefield,
Montana near Chinook, Montana.
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