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The Montana Traveler

The Montana Traveler

Crossing a Landscape of Sorrow:

The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo)

National Historic Trail

by Dan Gard

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Autumn 2001), 65-67; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2001.

Big Hole National Battlefield Photo by:Donnie Sexton

Few stories of the American West capture the imagination more than the saga of the Nez Perces’ nearly twelve-hundred-mile flight in 1877. From White Bird Canyon in western Idaho to northeastern Montana, approximately eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children for months eluded a well-armed and far larger military contingency.

            Their tragic story is commemorated in the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. Created by Congress in 1986, the 1,170-mile national historic trail was dedicated in a grassy meadow near Montana’s Lolo Pass in 1991. From Oregon’s Wallowa Valley through northern Idaho to Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and onto the windblown plains of northeastern Montana, the trail winds its way across spectacular country. Thanks to the designation of an official auto-tour route, travelers can now follow the approximate route of the trail, well marked with highway signs, and experience the impressive landscape for themselves.

            Near Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon, the trail begins. When your eyes first catch sight of the towering peaks bordering this beautiful valley, it is easy to understand why Chief Joseph and his band were uncooperative when terms of an 1863 treaty ceded their land to whites. Yellow Wolf, a Big Hole National Battlefield Photo by:Donnie Sextonfamous Nez Perce warrior, later said, “We had fine lodges, good clothes, plenty to eat, enough of everything. We were living well.” To learn more about the Nez Perces and the spectacular Wallowa Valley, visit the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, located one mile west of Enterprise, Oregon, on Highway 82.

            Compelled by the United States government to move to the Idaho reservation in spring 1877, the Nez Perces headed east to the Snake River Canyon. In the canyon’s depths, they forded the swollen river with hundreds of head of cattle and horses in tow. Today, reaching Doug Bar requires a long drive on a narrow, winding, one-lane road.

            On June 14, 1877, the lives of the Nez Perces took a dramatic turn. While camped at Tolo Lake near Grangeville, Idaho, a group of warriors set out to avenge abuses suffered by the tribe. Within two days at least fifteen settlers died and many were wounded. As apprehension set in, the main Nez Perce camp quickly packed and moved south to the bottom of White Bird Canyon. There on June 17, in the first battle of the war, soldiers and volunteers under the command of Captain David Perry attacked the camp, triggering the Nez Perces’ flight. White Bird Battlefield is now a unit of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. An interpretive facility located along U.S. Highway 95 on White Bird Hill vividly describes the story.

            Leaving White Bird Canyon, the Nez Perces made a clockwise loop and headed east toward the Clearwater River. The winding U.S. Highway 12 roughly parallels this portion of their route and offers spectacular views of the beautiful Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.


            With General O. O. Howard in pursuit, the Nez Perces made their way along the rugged and heavily wooded Lolo Trail. Portions of this trail were so thick with trees that soldiers reportedly found blood and horseflesh stuck to broken branches, and they complained of having to dig their beds into the steep hillside.

            As they descended Lolo Pass, the Nez Perces encountered a barricade hastily built by Captain Charles Rawn and the Seventh Cavalry from Missoula. Though ordered to surrender, the Nez Perces simply circumvented the fortification, earning this site the name Fort Fizzle. Interpretive panels and a replica of the barricade are on view at Fort Fizzle, located five miles west of Lolo, Montana, on U.S. Highway 12.

            The Nez Perces rode peacefully through the Bitterroot Valley, crossed the Continental Divide near Lost Trail Pass, and descended into the Big Hole Valley. Believing they had left the conflict behind them, they rested, cut tepee poles, and cooked camas in preparation for their journey to the buffalo country of eastern Montana. At dawn on August 9, Colonel John Gibbon’s Seventh Infantry from Fort Shaw launched a surprise attack on the sleeping village. More than ninety Nez Perces and thirty civilians and soldiers died in this battle. This site is now part of Big Hole National Battlefield, located on Montana Highway 43 five miles west of Wisdom. Park rangers offer interpretive tours of the battlefield, and the visitor center holds a small museum.

            With their wounded strapped to travois, the Nez Perces made their way through the Big Hole and Horse Prairie valleys. They crossed the Continental Divide at Bannock Pass and turned south down the Lemhi Valley. The ten thousand-foot peaks bordering this high-elevation valley today dwarf travelers just as they did the Nez Perces in 1877.

            From the Lemhi Valley the Nez Perces traveled east across the sagebrush plains toward Dubois, Idaho. A major skirmish took place north of Dubois at Camas Meadows. Here, among the black lava outcroppings, Nez Perce warriors executed a daring predawn raid on General Howard’s camp. Intending to steal the army’s horses, the Nez Perces instead came away with most of the mule herd, a fact the warriors did not realize until sunrise. Look for interpretive signs at the rest area in Dubois.

            On August 23 the Nez Perces entered Yellowstone National Park, established only five years earlier. They captured and released several park visitors, including one who found himself guiding the Nez Perces through Auto Route Signportions of the park. The group moved quickly along the Madison River, then north to the Hayden Valley. They passed Yellowstone Lake and exited the park through Hoodoo Basin.

            Upon reaching the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River, the Nez Perces headed north. Although they had hoped to join the Crows in eastern Montana, the chiefs decided to seek asylum among Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada. A skirmish at Canyon Creek (near Laurel, Montana) spurred them on. After raiding a supply depot at Cow Island, the Nez Perces crossed the Missouri River. It seemed that little stood between them and the Canadian border.

            In the end, however, the Nez Perces lost their bid for freedom. Following an attack by soldiers under the command of Colonel Nelson Miles, they endured a six-day siege that ended with the arrival of General Howard’s forces on October 5. On that cold, snowy morning just south of Chinook, Montana, and only forty miles from Canada, Chief Joseph surrendered his rifle. Though Chief White Bird managed to lead a small contingent to Canada, most of the group ended up in Oklahoma, which the Nez Perces called “Eekish Pah,” the hot place. There they remained in exile for eight years.

            Although books about the Nez Perce flight abound, only by traveling all or part of the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail auto tour can the vast panorama upon which this story unfolded be appreciated. An outstanding travel guide for those interested in touring the route is Cheryl Wilfong’s Following the Nez Perce Trail (1990). Those looking for an in-depth history will enjoy Jerome A. Greene’s Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis (2000). For more information on the trail and the auto-tour route contact the Lolo National Forest, Building 24, Fort Mis­soula, Missoula, Montana 59804, or call (406) 329-3814.

DAN GARD is an archaeologist and historian based at the Lolo National Forest Supervisor’s Office. He is also project manager for the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail.


The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail commemorates the 1877 flight from Idaho of approximately eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children who crossed mountains and plains in a quest for sanctuary. Believing they had left conflict behind, they camped on the banks of the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana in early August. At dawn on August 9, John Gibbon’s Seventh Infantry launched a surprise attack on their sleeping village at the site now known as Big Hole National Battlefield. More than ninety Nez Perces and thirty civilians and soldiers lost their lives here.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (August 2001), 65-67; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.

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