BEAR’S PAW MOUNTAINS & THE NATIONAL HISTORIC NEZ PERCE TRAIL - NORTHERN MONTANA
What is in a landscape—the wind, the cold, the memory of footsteps, buried relics and remains, the entirety of the past and of the future—is all that is remembered and all that is lost.
In September of 1805 Lewis and Clark crossed into Nez Perce country. The Nez Perce debated whether to attack the the Corps of Discovery or to assist them. When a female elder urged her people to do them no harm, the expedition was welcomed. Seventy-two years later they were on the run, out of peaceful options for their removal to the Lapwai Reservation.
The northern plains on the highline of Montana are one of the windiest and coldest places in the lower 48 states. After crossing the Missouri River in late September, 1877, some 750 Nez Perce camped at the north end of the Bear’s Paw Mountains near present day Chinook. Here the U.S. Army caught up with them for their third and final battle.
The non-treaty Nez Perce (those who had not relocated to a reservation) had fled through Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, and into Montana seeking refuge in Grandmother’s Land (Canada). They hoped to join Sitting Bull of the Lakota who on May 5th of ‘77 had done what many Americans talk about doing when the government becomes oppressive and all options are spent—headed North.
The Nez Perce were caught in three major battles and multiple skirmishes over four months on their 1,170-mile trek—the last one just 42 miles from freedom.
At Bear’s Paw on October 5, 1877, after five days of fighting, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Howard and Colonel Miles, handing over his 1866 .45 caliber Winchester.
His speech to the Generals: "Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led the young men [Ollokot] is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Chief Joseph and his band surrendered, but a smaller band of Nez Perce under White Bird did escape to Canada, still fighting other Indian tribes along the final stretch to the North.
While Joseph had negotiated a return to the reservation near their homeland for himself and several hundred other Nez Perce, they first endured a lengthy detour, including eight months of internment at Kansas’s Fort Leavenworth and years spent at a reservation in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
The Nez Perce were finally returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1885, but Chief Joseph and many of his people were never allowed to return to their home in Oregon’s Wallowa River Valley. Jospeh died on September 21,1904.
We tend to think of these events as ancient history, but the oldest living person right now in 2013 would have been six years old when Chief Joseph died.
To the surviving Nez Perce the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon to the Bear Paw Battlefield in Montana, is a sacred reminder of their journey, past and future.
Guide note: For more information on the Nez Perce National Historical Park (including the Bear Paw Battlefield), visit its National Park Service website. For more information on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, visit its page on the Forest Service website.
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Montana State Guide Chris Chapman was born and raised in the fields of Indiana, spent time in Michigan, California, Washington and Maryland, but has called Montana home since the days before it had speed limits or open container laws. Now married with two young kids, he documents family friendly adventures: canoeing, fly fishing, hunting, hiking and camping, throughout the state. Chris’ Tumblr home is j-appleseed.tumblr.com. His other web home is ChrisChapmanPhotography.net.