outgoing
Nee-me-poo National Historic Trail
A century is but a blink in the history of the Rocky Mountains. It has taken eons of time to shape these ragged peaks and hidden valleys. Many generations have been spent raising up these pine forests and sagebrush prairies.
           
The past hundred years have changed the face of this country with freeways and ranches and scattered communities. But much remains the same -- the quaking stands of aspen, the -swift-flowing snow-fed streams, the herds of elk and deer that graze on lush meadow grasses.
           
And even though these hills lie calm and hushed today, the echoes of fierce fighting and a desperate chase still issues from the land.
           
Chief Joseph Art Print In 1877, the U.S. Cavalry pursued several bands of Nez Perce Indians across 1,700 miles of the northern Rockies in order to force them to accept the terms of a treaty that took away their beloved Wallowa country. Pitched battles and skirmishes were fought along the way as the Nez Perce, led by a group of chiefs that included Chief Joseph, came within a few miles of escaping across the Canadian border before being captured.

"I will fight no more forever," said Chief Joseph at
the end of the long struggle.
        
The chase began in mid-June on the Camas Prairie near present-day Grangeville, Idaho. It ended four months later on the banks of Snake Creek near Havre, Montana.
        
In between, the Nez Perce fought dozens of skirmishes and several pitched battles with U.S. soldiers and citizen volunteers. An estimated 120 Indians and 180 whites died in these engagements, which ranged southeast along the Continental Divide to Yellowstone National Park and then north toward Canada. Of the 750 Nez Perce that began the 1,700-mile retreat, 431 were captured and sent to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma; about 200 Indians successfully escaped into Canada.
   
The major battlegrounds and much of the trail followed by Nez Perce in 1877 are recognized today as the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, or Nee-Me-Poo Trail,  which was recently added to the nation's network of historic pathways. It winds through Oregon, Idaho, and Yellowstone Park before ending in Montana.
   
The trail begins in the Nez Perce homeland, the Wallowas of northeast Oregon, where the Indians grazed their many horses on lush mountain meadows and hay fields. White settlers started moving into the Wallowas in the early 1870s and it wasn't long before there were disagreements about who owned the land.
   
"You say your people are too well settled to be disturbed," Chief Joseph told the whites, "and I say the Indians are too well settled to be disturbed. So it is better to leave the Indians alone."
   
A monument to Chief Joseph, located a little more than a mile south of the small town of Joseph, is where the Nez Perce National Historic Trail officially begins. The Wallowa County Museum, located on Joseph's Main Street, has a Nez Perce exhibit that traces the history of the Indians' flight and artifacts of their lifestyle.
   
From the Wallowas, the trail moves into northern Idaho, where the Nez Perce National Historic Park is located. Big Hole Encampment

Approximately 60 miles east of Lewiston on Highway 12, the park shelters two dozen historic sites, including Fort Lapwai. Here General Oliver Otis Howard met with the non-treaty Nez Perce in early May, 1877. The council ended with an ultimatum from Howard: be on the reservation within 30 days or be moved there by soldiers.
   
The war, or the chase, did not begin until June 14.  Five bands of Nez Perce had camped at Tolo Lake near present-day Grangeville, Idaho, to dig camas bulbs and discuss their move to the reservation. During  their stay three young warriors, embittered with a settler who murdered one of their fathers, left camp on a raiding party and killed four white men.
   
When the news got back to camp, the Nez Perce bands quickly dispersed. Two bands hurried back to the reservation. Bands led by chiefs Joseph, White Bird and Toohoolhoolzote fled south to the home territory of Chief White Bird.
   
On White Bird Hill, just east of a steep grade of Highway 95 south of Grangeville, the Nez Perce met troops of the First Cavalry in their first battle. Ambushed on their way downhill, the cavalry lost 34 soldiers before retreating. Three Nez Perce were slightly wounded. A roadside historical display identifies the site and describes the battle.
   
After crossing the Salmon River and moving north, the Nez Perce bands turned toward the buffalo country of Montana. Their plan was to join up with their old allies, the Crows. They never suspected they would not be welcome, or that their friends were already helping the soldiers.
   
The Nez Perce Trail, as it winds southeast along the Continental Divide and into Yellowstone, is marked by a series of  important battlefields and historic sites:
   
Fort Fizzle. Marked by a wayside picnic area along Highway 12, about five miles west of Lolo, Montana, this was where about 125 soldiers and volunteers set up a barricade in the Lolo Creek Valley to stop the Nez Perce on July 26. The officer in charge, Captain Charles Rawn, demanded that the bands surrender; the Nez Perce refused. But rather than challenging the barricade, the Nez Perce climbed up the ridge and bypassed the fortifications, giving the site its fitting name.
   
Big Hole Battlefield. Located in western Montana near the town of Wisdom, this site is preserved as a National Battlefield. Big Hole National Battlefield

It was here that 162 soldiers and 34 civilian volunteers launched a pre-dawn raid against the surprised Nez Perce encampment, killing dozens of women and children, as well as warriors. Nez Perce sharpshooters fended off the attack and took up sniping positions that kept the soldiers pinned down for two days while the survivors quit the camp and headed south.
   
Camas Meadows Battleground. Two weeks later, as the Nez Perce fled from General Howard through southeast Idaho near Island Park, a small band of warriors raided the Army camp at night, stampeding away many of its horses and mules. Troopers who pursued the raiders were soon surrounded and had to fight defensively until reinforcements arrived. The stolen pack animals were not recovered and Gen. Howard had to wait for replacements before continuing the chase. A small plaque marks the site of the battlefield, located in a small basin of lava rock on state land near the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station along the Kilgore-Yale Road. It is a lonely sight, fringed with aspen trees, in the foothills of the Centennial Mountains to the north.
   
Yellowstone National Park. The exact route of the 700 Nez Perce and their 2,000 horses through Yellowstone National Park is uncertain, but the location of several camps and incidents have been verified. Nez Perce Creek, just south of Madison Junction, was where the tribe was camped when scouts captured a group of tourists. Later, they camped near Indian Pond just north of Yellowstone Lake. Gen. Howard's troopers camped in the Mud Volcano area near Yellowstone Lake and did a fair amount of sightseeing and "hot-potting" (bathing in hot springs) while waiting for supplies to catch up with them. No battles were fought within the park.
   
Bear's Paw. Situated about an hour's drive southeast of Havre in far northern Montana, the Bear's Paw State Monument marks the place where the Nez Perce National Historic Trail comes to an end. The site is bleak and forgotten-looking, decorated with 139 small metal stakes marking the location of rifle pits, tepees, and death sites. Here the travel-weary Nez Perce camp was caught off guard by attacking troops under the command of Col. Nelson Miles and lost most of their horse herd. A siege began that lasted five days before Chief Joseph and 431 Nez Perce surrendered, believing they would be allowed to keep the horses they had remaining and to return home to the Wallowas in the spring. Instead, they were shipped to a reservation in Oklahoma.
   
Few travelers, if any, have followed the Nez Perce National Historic Trail from beginning to end in one continuous trip. Horseback riders usually plan rides along particular segments of the trail between the months of June and October, just as the Nez Perce traveled it, and avoid the winter weather that begins in November and extends into May.
   
Another option is to join one of the group rides that follow the trail. The Chief Joseph Trail Ride of the Appaloosa Horse Club, for instance, crosses more than 100 miles of the Nez Perce Trail in one week every July. Limited to 300 riders, first-come first-served, the ride covers a different section every year. The ride covers the entire trail in 13 consecutive years of riding, then begins again.
   
For information on the Chief Joseph Trails Ride, write to Appaloosa Horse Club, 5070 Highway 8 West, Box 8403, Moscow, ID 83843.
   
In Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone Institute has offered guided horsepacking rides across the Nez Perce Trail in the past. Led by a veteran outfitter, the rides cover two different routes through some of Yellowstone's most rugged backcountry and demonstrate why historians are uncertain which was followed by the Nez Perce.
   
For information on these and other trail rides offered in Yellowstone National Park, contact The Yellowstone Institute, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.
   
There is no single government agency responsible for providing maps and information on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. For further information on particular sections of the trail, contact the closest district office of the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Additional information on the trail is available from The Nez Perce National Historic Trail Foundation, P.O. Box 20197, Missoula, MT 59801.
Let Me Be Free
Let Me Be Free


In 1877, the U.S. Cavalry pursued several bands of Nez Perce Indians across 1,700 miles of the northern Rockies in order to force them to accept the terms of a treaty that took away their beloved Wallowa country. Pitched battles and skirmishes were fought along the way as the bands of Nez Perce, led by a group of chiefs that included Chief Joseph, came within a few miles of escaping across the Canadian border before being captured.

"I will fight no more forever," said Chief Joseph at the end of the long struggle.

The chase began in mid-June on the Camas Prairie near present-day Grangeville, Idaho. It ended four months later on the banks of Snake Creek near Havre, Montana.

In between, the Nez Perce fought dozens of skirmishes and several pitched battles with U.S. soldiers and citizen volunteers. An estimated 120 Indians and 180 whites died in these engagements, which ranged southeast along the Continental Divide to Yellowstone National Park and then north toward Canada. Of the
750 Nez Perce that began the 1,700-mile retreat, 431 were captured and sent to  reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma; about 200 Indians successfully escaped into Canada.  

David Lavender's stirring history is billed as a narrative of this Nez Perce War, but in truth it is much more than a war chronicle. Just as Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" covers more than the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is more than the story of the Ghost Dance massacre, "Let Me Be Free" is as much a study of cultures in collision as it is a history of treaties, battles and resettlements.

Two-thirds of Lavender's volume cover the 72 years between the Nez Perce's first encounter with whites -- the Lewis and Clark expedition -- and their desperate flight for freedom from the future the newcomers eventually staked out for them. As Lavender surmises, the tribes quickly realized the whites were a force to be reckoned with:

"Clearly they were a race apart. Some of the seven had startling amounts of hair on their faces. All wore odd-looking headpieces. They carried guns that were beautiful to behold... When the main party came up, more surprises appeared -- a man who was black all over, a Shoshoni woman and her baby (what could be made of that?), and the biggest dog the Nez Perces had ever seen. Should such people be trusted?"

Lewis and Clark impressed the Nez Perce, as did the British and American trappers who followed them into the Northwest. The tribes sought to learn the white man's power and even invited missionaries to settle among them to teach their language and religion.

The Nez Perce learned early on, through communication with other Native Americans and their own experiences, that the whites were far too numerous and powerful to resist by force.
They relied instead on negotiation and accommodation to maintain peaceful relations with the trappers, missionaries, miners and settlers, only to be betrayed by their own sense of honor and trust.

As Lavender makes clear in this book, the Nez Perce culture was poorly understood by whites of the 1800s. As a people, they had no single leader. Instead, they were a rough collective of mostly autonomous bands, each with their own chiefs and territories.

Many bands of Nez Perce became Christians and farmers and signed treaties with the U.S. government establishing reservations. Others refused to give up their culture and their native homelands, reluctantly fighting a war they knew they were bound to lose in the end.

Chief Joseph, a leading member of a non-treaty band in the Wallowas, has been mythologized as the cunning warrior who master-minded a succession of surprising victories over the U.S. Army during the Nez Perce War. But in truth, as Lavender documents, he was a "camp chief" in charge of keeping the band's village in order as it moved from place to place. Although an eloquent speaker and a tough negotiator, Joseph was never the sort of "war chief" the whites made him out to be, nor could he have "ordered" his men to battle as the Army generals did. Leadership and decision-making among the Nez Perce was an act of consensus.

Had Joseph truly been in charge, Lavender suggests, his band would have made its last stand against the U.S. Army in its beloved Wallowas rather than seeking sanctuary in Montana and then Canada.

Like all tragedies, "Let Me Be Free" reverberates with fateful moments when a people's destiny turned on a single decision or seemingly random act. It makes for riveting history and heartrending drama.








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