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Nez Perce Trail: Part I

Nissan Xterra Front View
Larry E. Heck | Photographer
Posted January 3, 2012

Flight of the Nee-Me-Poo

When the Lewis and Clark expedition first set foot in the land of the Nee-Me-Poo, they were received peacefully (in English, the word Nee-Me-Poo means Nez Perce people). The year was 1805. The man who would become chief of the Nee-Me-Poo was 19-year-old Tuekakas. The Indians acted as guides and led the expedition to the Pacific Ocean using canoes. The expedition left their horses behind introducing the Indians to a new way of travel. Through many years of careful breeding, the Nez Perce developed the Appaloosa breed known for strength and intelligence; the animals were identified by the beauty of a spotted coat.

Fur traders first arrived in the land of the Nee-Me-Poo about 1834. They were followed in 1835 by missionaries who introduced Christianity. In that process, Tuekakas was baptized and named Joseph. He became known as Old Chief Joseph. A few years later, Joseph had a son who was baptized as Ephraim. He became known as Young Chief Joseph. The Nee-Me-Poo became known as the Nez Perce.

As the United States grew, the Washington Territory was established. The lands of the Nez Perce were divided by territorial boundaries. At first, the United States recognized the Nez Perce claim to parts of the territories and even signed a treaty in 1855 granting seven-million acres to call their own. That treaty lasted eight years.

The Nez Perce became divided into bands. Each band had a distinct designation and its own chief. Chief Joseph was among the most respected and most influential of all the chiefs, but he did not have the final word over all others. His band was called the Wallowa.

In 1863, all the Nez Perce Chiefs were called to a meeting held by representatives of the government. In that meeting, they were told to sell all but 700,000 acres of land in the original treaty to the government. That would decrease the size of their land by 90 percent. Chief Joseph refused and walked out of the meeting with four other chiefs. They considered the lands occupied by their bands to be excluded from further negotiations.

On the other hand, the U.S. government looked upon Nez Perce lands as being one piece of land occupied by many bands. In their view, getting one chief to sell the millions of acres of land occupied by the Nez Perce was as good as getting all of them to sell. For that reason, when the meeting ended, the government concluded they had just purchased 6.3 million acres of land from the Nez Perce People. That included lands occupied by Chief Joseph’s Wallowa band.

Old Chief Joseph died in 1871 and Young Chief Joseph assumed his role as leader of the Wallowa. In that same year, settlers began homesteading on land still claimed by the Nez Perce. Two of those settlers murdered an Indian, but were set free after a trial. Tempers flared causing the relationship between the Nez Perce and the settlers to deteriorate rapidly. It is hard to imagine the hatred each side had for the other as family members were attacked.

In the eyes of the government, Chief Joseph’s Wallowa Band was living on lands they no longer owned. In early May of 1877, the army delivered a message to Chief Joseph giving him 30 days to comply. He was not given a choice but rather an order to move onto the reservation designated in the meeting held fourteen years earlier. The meeting his father had walked away from.

Chief Joseph knew he could not defeat the army. On the other hand, living on a reservation was not acceptable. Without giving an answer to the army, he began assembling his people and their stock. His intent was to cross 1,170 miles in an effort to escape to Canada. With 800 people, including women and children, they herded 2,000 horses across the Snake River at Dug Bar. Their journey would take them across Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

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