During the month of May in 1877, General Howard of the U.S. Army ordered Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe to move onto the established reservation within 30 days. The Nez Perce would be moving from lands where their people had lived for generations. Those lands now include parts of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The Indians were heartbroken and full of hatred for the white man and his army. (This is part two of the “Nez Perce Trail” that began in the March issue of this magazine.)
The first week of June in 1877, 800 Nez Perce people, including women and children, herded 2,000 horses across the Snake River at Dug Bar. They made their way to Tolo Lake in Idaho where they met with several other Nez Perce bands who were being forced onto the reservation. While the chiefs of those bands met to search for options, life within the camp proceeded as usual.
Earlier that year, an Indian called Eagle Robe had been killed by white men who wanted his land. Although the case went to a court, there had been no retribution and the men were set free. Eagle Robe’s son, Wahlitits, was among those camped at Tolo Lake. As young men discussed their past and future, Wahlitits decided it was time to settle a score for his father’s death. He convinced two other relatives to join him. They left camp on June 13.
When word reached the chiefs that Wahlitits and his friends had killed some settlers, they knew the army would be quick to respond. They packed up their camp and moved to White Bird. Along the way, young warriors within the band killed more settlers. The Nez Perce hatred for those who were taking their land was no longer contained.
On June 17, an army of 106 soldiers and 11 volunteer settlers under the command of General Perry approached the White Bird camp. Perry’s assignment was to arrest those who were involved in killing the settlers and to escort the rest of them to the reservation.
The chiefs did not want to give up their sons and did not want to live on a reservation, but most of all, they did not want a war. They sent riders with white flags to meet the army. One of the volunteers with Perry, Arthur Chapman, had no intention of talking. He fired at the riders. The riders dropped the white flags and returned fire. That single shot from Chapman had eliminated all hope of a peaceful solution. The first battle began between the army and the Nez Perce. The army lost 36 soldiers that day. The Nez Perce lost none.
In those days, orders from the commander were communicated to the soldiers using a bugle. On this day, the Nez Perce first shots took out the buglers. General Perry had no way to communicate his battle plans to his army.
After gathering all the weapons left behind by the soldiers, the Indians crossed the Salmon River and attempted to put time and space between them and the pursuers they knew would come. Apparently, the Salmon River was quite a challenge to cross in those days, but the Indians knew where the safe crossings were. When General Howard arrived, he could see his prey on the other side but could not get to them.
The Nez Perce continued to use the Salmon River to keep their distance from the main army. They wiped out a scouting party of 12 soldiers in one battle and a party of 17 volunteers in another. While warriors moved around quickly drawing fire, the Nez Perce families crossed the Camas Prairie and began the flight that would eventually end in Montana.
4x4s in Nez Perce Country
Happy Jack and Lone Writer picked up the county road in White Bird. Unlike riders from the 1870s, they were traveling within the air-conditioned comfort of Nissan Xterras. With the windows up to keep the dust out and the AC on to keep the interiors cool, they enjoyed spectacular views of wide open Idaho country.
They were boldly going where they had never gone before. The county road crossed vast ranchlands. Along the way, they came across the ranch manager and his helper working on some fences. Both were very friendly and several minutes were spent sharing stories about the Nez Perce. The rancher told Happy Jack and Lone Writer where the county road ended and the private road began. He said he could not give permission to proceed onto the private road.
The 40 miles of county road ended at the entrance to a huge corral. A sign posted on the fence warned the road was private on the other side. The road back to White Bird does not follow the exact route used by the Nez Perce. They had no roads to follow and considered all the land to be their own private property.
There were plenty of scenic views from hilltops overlooking valleys and ravines. Rivers in the area are now controlled with dams. Some of the bridges are one lane wide providing a more primitive experience looking down on the water from both sides of the vehicle.
The town of White Bird is very small and has little to offer a traveler. Its single street has only one intersection providing two exits. One way goes to the highway and the other provides access to more open country including the White Bird Battleground.
The battleground has limited room for parking at the trailhead. The trail is for hikers only. There are numerous historic markers along the trail describing how the battle took place in the valley.
Fight and Flee
The Indians with the white flags approached the army a good distance away from the village. They expected their greeting would not go well and wanted to keep the fighting away from the women and children.
That first battle went well for the Nez Perce. Whether they purposely took out the buglers first or if it was just by chance is not known. In any case, doing so severely crippled General Perry’s chance of forming a strategic attack and his army was slaughtered. His men were trained to fight as a team under his guidance. The Nez Perce fought as individuals with each warrior deciding his own best approach.
After that first battle, the Nez Perce knew they would be hunted by the army. The warriors in the band drew the attention of the soldiers by attacking them from every possible position. In the meantime, the women and children traveled across the Camas Prairie to put as much time and distance as possible away from their pursuers.
The book referenced below has many stories from the soldiers, the settlers, and the Nez Perce who lived through the battles. As with any war, there are tales of compassion as well as tales of brutal actions on all sides of the war. Join us next month as we proceed across the Lolo Trail to the bloody massacre at Big Hole.
Much of the information used in this story was obtained from a well-written guide book called, Following the Nez Perce Trail, written by Cheryl Wilfong.
Maps and other information were provided by the Nez Perce Trail Foundation: 194 Hwy 28, Salmon, ID 83467, (208) 940-0053. You are invited to join the foundation. Your membership fees help to support improvements to the trail.
The Xterra Pro-4X driven by Lone Writer is provided by Nissan. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and mapping software is provided by DeLorme.
|Navigation: GPS Positions|
|The GPS positions below begin at the end of the County Road at the corral. This is the closest point to Dug Bar that can be reached on the north side of the river. The /0 means to reset your trip meter.|
|0||45 50.5638||116 35.6484||Begin the trail at corral.|
|7.3/0||45 54.9753||116 33.6639||Stay right at both intersections.|
|14.3/0||45 52.8064||116 24.6523||Right turn on the switchback road.|
|8.3/0||45 48.2422||116 22.0809||Left fork.|
|6.9/0||45 46.2842||116 20.0458||Left fork.|
|4.0/0||45 45.5994||116 18.1132||Go straight through the town of White Bird.|
|1.9||45 46.8718||116 16.5168||White Bird Battleground.|