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Nez Perce Trail Article

Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer


The Nez Perce’s long flight from the U.S. Army through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana ended near Chinook, Montana, and resulted in exile to Canada and Oklahoma. The Nez Perce were just “40 miles from freedom” in Canada when they surrendered.

For hundreds of years, the Nez Perce lived in the scenic Wallowa Valley near the intersection of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. They were acknowledged as a peaceful tribe and known for their non-aggressiveness toward settlers. Chief Joseph, their leader, was said to be “diplomatic” and “wise.”

Throughout the West, Indian land was being encroached upon by white settlers, and the Wallowa Valley was no exception. In 1855, pioneers descended into the valley, and since there wasn’t enough space for both, the government asked the Indians to cede tracts of their land and move to a reservation. Chief Joseph, whose highest priority was to take care of the tribe’s women, children, and elderly, chose this option, for it allowed him and his people to remain in their homeland.

But a few years later, gold was discovered. In addition to gold, the Wallowa Valley was superior grazing land, and the infringing settlers desired it. Pioneers arrived in throngs, and in 1863 the reservation was scaled back to one-quarter its originally agreed upon size. The Nez Perce were directed onto the smaller reservation and given only three weeks to comply. This angered five bands of the Nez Perce, and when they refused to sign the new treaty, they became known as the “non-treaty tribes.” Against government orders, the settlers claimed the land. The Nez Perce were harassed in the expectation that they would leave, but this time Chief Joseph refused to relinquish the Wallowa. The government ultimately ordered the Nez Perce to depart and head to a designated reservation within a set time frame. Unable to move its herds in the winter, the tribe was granted a delay. 

Their inevitable departure turned deadly when a young Nez Perce avenged his father’s murder at the hands of a white man years earlier. Mindful of an earlier defeat at the Little Bighorn, military troops were called in. Thus began a succession of conflicts that favored the Nez Perce, who knew the rugged landscape better than their shadowing cavalry.

When Chief Joseph’s band sought safety in White Bird Canyon (in present-day Idaho), Captain David Perry followed. They moved on to the Clearwater River, where General O. O. Howard caught up with them. Tribe members raided Howard’s camp, stopping his advance when they ran his horses and pack animals off. 

They arrived in the Big Hole Valley near Wisdom (now Big Hole National Battlefield) thinking that Howard’s troops were one or two days behind. Colonel John Gibbon’s troops surprised the Nez Perce with an early morning attack on their sleeping village. It was then that Chief Joseph concluded the white man would never stop hounding them and decided to head to southeastern Montana, where they could reacquaint with their allies, the Crow. 

Big Hole National Battlefield started as a military reserve in 1883; the area became a national monument in 1910 and was designated a national battlefield in 1963. Here the National Park Service maintains an interpretive center,  museum, and bookstore and offers guided tours and movies; three self-guided walking trails are also available.

Trails start at the bottom parking lot and branch off to several points. The “Nez Perce Camp,” where soldiers surprised the sleeping tribe, is hallowed ground. The “Siege Area” denotes the location where soldiers were besieged for nearly 24 hours as the Nez Perce fought to save their families from impending death. A steeper walk leads to the “Howitzer Capture Site,” where soldiers suffered a serious setback as Nez Perce warriors captured and dismantled the military weapon. 

At Yellowstone National Park, the Nez Perce discovered that their former friends, the Crow, were now scouts for the cavalry. So Chief Joseph decided they should travel to Canada, where they could find safety with Sitting Bull and the Sioux. 

Another remaining site along the Nez Perce Trail, Cow Island Landing is a remote army supply depot at the western limit of low-water navigation on the Upper Missouri River, where soldiers refused to sell supplies to the Nez Perce. In a September 1877 skirmish, the Nez Perce destroyed the depot’s supplies before continuing north up the Cow Creek drainage toward Canada. It is accessible only by boat. 

On September 30, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered at Bear Paw. The 1,300-mile trek had taken a heavy toll on the tribe’s horse herd, and the tribe had little food or shelter. Located 16 miles south of Chinook on Route 240, Bear Paw Battlefield is a tribute to the Nez Perce people and the battle ending the Nez Perce War of 1877. From here the trail divides: Some of the Nez Perce escaped to Canada, while others were relocated to Oklahoma.

In 1925 and once more in 1932, survivors Chief White Hawk, Black Eagle, and Many Wounds walked the grounds and documented what had happened. A self-guided walking tour has markers where Chief Joseph surrendered and where leaders were killed. Handfuls of feathers, pipes, sweetgrass, and other plants have been left by visitors to pay their respects. An annual commemoration takes place the first week of October. 

For more information:
Big Hole National Battlefield, 16425 MT 43, Wisdom, MT 59761, (406) 689-3155
Nez Perce National Historical Park, Bear Paw Battlefield, 15 miles south of Chinook, Montana, on Highway 240, (406) 357-2590