Prairie is a broad meadow
sandwiched between the thickly forested mountains of the Clearwater
of northern Idaho. It is populated with small farms and lumber mills
but during the 19th century it was a traditional camas-gathering site
the Nez Perce Indians, who congregated here in large numbers in the
summer to dig the sweet and nutritious bulbs of the blue camas flower.
Quiet and remote, Weippe seems like the sort of place that time passes by without much notice, but 200 years ago it was the setting for events that changed the course of American history and lives of its peoples.
Captain William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition set out from what's now known as Sinque Hole Camp on the west side of Lolo Pass with a party of hunters on the morning of September 18, 1805 to find provisions for the 34-member "Corps of Discovery."
Winter was descending early in the mountains, dropping six inches of snow on the camp, and food supplies were critically low. The party had killed and eaten the last of its horses and all around them was a seemingly endless wilderness of heavily forested ridges.
"I proceeded on in advance with six hunters to try and find deer or something to kill and send back to the party," Clark wrote in his journal. "The want of provisions, together with the difficulty of passing the mountains, dampened the spirits of the party, which induced us to resort to some plan of reviving their spirits."
The survival of the Corps, the success of its mission, and the future of the United States' presence in its newly purchased western frontier all hung in the balance. Not only was frostbite and starvation a real possibility, but the small party of explorers was probably at risk of being massacred.
"Proceeded on through a beautiful country for three miles to a small plain in which I found many Indian lodges," wrote Clark in his journal entry for September 20. "At the distance of one mile from the lodges I met three Indian boys. When they saw me, they ran and hid themselves in the grass."
The place Clark stumbled onto is known as the Weippe Prairie and the Indians he found living there were Nez Perce. The explorers were sorely in need and finding friendly Indians willing to share their campsite, food and knowledge of the terrain saved the expedition, but it might well have been different...
"According to Nez Perce legends the Nez Perce considered massacring the party of Clark at Weippe but were persuaded by one of their women named Wat-ku-ese, who had been befriended by white people when a captive among Indians to the east, to treat them kindly," writes historian Ralph Space in The Lolo Trail.
"Captain Clark knew of no such incident, but he did say that they met an Indian woman who had been as far east as the Mandan village. This statement strongly supports the Indian story."
Ironically, the success of the Lewis and Clark mission contributed to the demise of the Nez Perce's way of life by encouraging settlement of the frontier by white people. The last time the Nez Perce visited the Weippe Prairie as a free-roaming tribe was 72 years later as they were being chased by the U.S. Cavalry during the months-long Nez Perce War that utlimately led to their exile.
The Lolo Trail:
A History and a Guide to the Trail of Lewis and Clark by Ralph S. Space
Historic Montana Publishing, 2001
The second edition of The Lolo Trail, originally published in 1970, includes a forward by historian Stephen Ambrose, who describes the author as "the expert on the Lolo Trail. (RalphSpace) lived and breathed the Lolo Trail and with this book he has left us with a superb history but also a practical guide that's very useful for visitors who may want to discover the Trail during the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition."
In day-to-day succession, Space's history describes Lewis and Clark's odysseys on The Lolo Trail in 1805 and 1806. He analyzes Lewis and Clark's decisions and tells about the Native Americans who used this ancestral route to the buffalo.
The book also serves well as a guide to the rugged geography along the Continental Divide, so much of which has remained unchanged over the past 200 years.
Historian David Lavender, author of many books on 19th century U.S. history, tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Lavender prepares us for the journey with background on the politics behind the expedition, then recounts the transcontinental Corps of Discovery on its way from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean and back again.
"Napoleon's affairs had come to a crisis... A renewal of war with England was imminent," Lavender writes, explaining the Louisiana Purchase. "Restoring France's New World empire, in short, had become irrelevant, and the first consul was willing to give up the enormous territory he had wrenched from Spain only two and a half years earlier for a mere one hundred and twenty million francs."