Events Leading up to Various Treaties

The Nez Percé Indians are a powerful and populous tribe, who, for centuries, have made their home in the Snake, Salmon, and Clear Water Valleys in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. When the great tide of civilization, which for years flowed toward the Pacific Coast, finally spread out into these valleys, questions arose between the emigrants and Indians as to the ownership of certain lands claimed by the latter, and the United States Government sought to settle these questions amicably. Commissioners were appointed and sent out to investigate and define the rights of the Indians, and in 1853 (I only find treaty of 1855), a treaty was concluded between the United States and the head chiefs and fifty-two of the principal men of the Nez Percé tribe, defining the boundaries of the country claimed by them, and ceding to the Government certain other lands which they had formerly occupied, but to which they had set up no valid claim.

In 1863, another treaty was made, modifying these boundaries to some extent, and in 1868, still another was negotiated at Washington that was finally signed by ” Lawyer,” head chief of the Nez Percés, and by ” Timothy” and ” Jason,” sub-chiefs, all of whom claimed to be, and in fact were, acting for the entire tribe by virtue of authority given them by the tribal laws, and by a general council of their people assembled for that purpose.

In this treaty, the Indians agreed, for certain considerations that were entirely satisfactory to them, to relinquish certain portions of their reservation which they agreed were not needed or used by them, and to remove from said lands within one year from that date; to locate and live upon the reservation therein designated and described.

The tract relinquished to the United States in this instrument included the Wallowa Valley. When the chiefs returned to their people and reported their action, Young Joseph repudiated the treaty, and refused to be bound by it. He claimed the Wallowa Valley as the special home and inheritance of himself and his people, and said he would continue so to claim it, and to occupy it whenever he chose, against all other claimants, white or red.

In^ this dissension he was in time joined by White Bird, Looking Glass, To-hul-hul-sote and other sub-chiefs, and several hundred warriors. These became known henceforth as the “Non-treaty Nez Percés.” Joseph and his band had never really occupied the valley permanently, and had never before made any special claim to it as against any other portion of the tribe. He had frequently gone into it during the summer to fish and hunt, in common with various other bands of the tribe, but had never staid more than a few weeks at a time, and had made his home during the greater portion of each year in the Imnaha Valley near the Snake River.

In 1871, a few whites settled in the Wallowa Valley. Joseph protested, became obstreperous, ordered them away, and threatened violence if they remained, but so far did nothing more than threaten. Other whites came in the following years and the complications increased. Complaints were made to the Government that the Indians were annoying and threatening the settlers, and in 1875 President Grant issued an executive order, proclaiming that the Wallowa Valley was a part of the public domain and open to settlement by white people.

In May, 1877, Joseph and his band became more arrogant than ever, and again threatened immediate and violent measures against the settlers if they did not at once withdraw from his country. Some acts of violence were committed, and at the request of the settlers a company of United States cavalry was sent to the scene of the disturbance.

The Indians were temporarily quieted, but the feeling of discontent and hatred against the whites was growing.

General Howard, then commanding the Department of the Columbia, repaired to the scene of the disturbance, and, with J. B. Monteith, agent of the Nez Percés, held several councils with the malcontents, and argued patiently and persistently to convince them that the treaty, whereby the Wallowa Valley had been ceded to the Government, was duly signed and ratified by the properly constituted chiefs of the tribe; that it was valid, and that every member of the tribe was bound by it; that the white men were only exercising their legal rights in settling on the land; and the Indians were assured that the whites would be protected in these rights by the white soldiers if necessary.

They were told in mild but positive terms that they must go on the reservation set apart for them by their chiefs and the agents of the white father at Washington; and warned that, in the event of their persistent refusal, soldiers would place them there by force, or so many of them as should survive in case they resisted. The three chiefs Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass finally agreed to go on the reservation, and asked for thirty days’ time in which to collect their people and their horses and place them on the reservation. This was granted, and the council dispersed.

General Howard did not, however, place implicit faith in the promises of the wily chiefs. He suspected that this was merely a ruse of the Indians to gain more time for manufacturing sympathy among other members of the tribe, for gaining accessions to their own ranks, for procuring additional arms and ammunition, and, in short, for making all necessary preparations for active hostilities. He therefore proceeded at once to concentrate all available troops in his department within easy striking distance of the malcontents, in order to be prepared for any emergency.

Before the thirty days asked for had expired, some of White Bird’s band appeared in the Wallowa Valley and murdered a number of defenseless white men and women.

All the Indians in the neighborhood became extremely belligerent and insolent. White Bird rode through the valley and proclaimed to the whites that the Indians would not go on the reservation; that they were on the war path and would kill all the whites, soldiers or citizens who should oppose their wishes.

As soon as news of this disturbance readied General Howard, he sent two companies of cavalry, under Captains Perry and Trimble, to the scene of hostilities, with orders to arrest the perpetrators of the outrages if possible, and bring them in. Captain Perry found the Indians in force in White Bird Canon. They opened fire on him as soon as he came in sight, and he at once assaulted them. After sharp fighting for an hour, he w^as repulsed and compelled to retreat to Grangeville, a distance of sixteen miles. The Indians pursued him, and a running fight continued all the way. He lost thirty-three enlisted men and one officer killed. Mean time, over twenty white men and women had been massacred at and near Mount Idaho, and a number of other women outraged in a most brutal and shocking manner.

General Howard then took the field in person, determined to punish the Indians who had committed these crimes, and to capture and place them on the reservation. Strong detachments of troops were sent in various directions, with orders to strike the hostile Indians wherever found. A number of sharp skirmishes and two severe fights occurred on and near the Clear Water River, resulting in severe losses to both whites and Indians. The troops moved so rapidly as to harass the Indians at every turn, and in several .cases to intercept them when attempt ing to leave the country, and turn them back.

Finally, the main body of hostiles, numbering about 400 warriors and 150 women and children, by breaking up into several small bands, succeeded in evading the troops, concentrated their forces on Weyipe Creek, and started for the u buffalo country” in Montana, by way of what is known as the ” Lo Lo trail.” As soon as this fact became known to General Howard, he sent couriers to the nearest telegraph station with, a mes sage to General Gibbon, then commanding the district of Montana, with headquarters at Fort Shaw, stating the facts, and requesting him to send out troops to intercept the hostiles, if possible, while he should follow them with such force as could be spared for the purpose.

On receipt of this message, General Gibbon sent an order to Capt. C. C. Rawn, then in command at Fort Missoula, to watch for the fugitives, to head them off, hold them if possible, or turn them back. Rawn immediately dispatched a scouting party, consisting of Lieut. Francis Woodbridge and three men, with orders to proceed up Lo Lo Canon to the summit of the Rocky Mountain Range, ascertain, if possible, whether Joseph was really coming on that trail, and if so, to report the fact to him (Rawn), at the earliest possible moment. Rawn in the meantime prepared his little command for action. Woodbridge failed to return within the allotted time, and fearing he had been killed or captured, Lieut. Q. ,&. Coolidge ordered to take two men and scout in the same direction, search for him and for the Indians, and especially to examine a trail that branches off from the Lo Lo on top of the Rocky Mountain Divide, some sixty miles from Missoula, and ascertain whether the hostiles had gone that way.

These officers met on the divide, but no trace of the Indians could be found, and it was believed that they had either turned back or taken some other route. Both parties returned to their post, and reported the facts. Within a few hours after their arrival, however, two Indian runners came through, bearing messages from Joseph to the commanding officer at Missoula and to the citizens in the Bitter Root Valley, to the effect that Joseph and his band were coming over the Lo Lo trail ; that they desired to pass through the Bitter Root Valley, en route to the “buffalo country,” and assuring the people that if allowed to do so peaceably they would not harm the settlers or their property.

It subsequently transpired that Joseph find just behind reached the summit of the range only three hours after Coolidge and Woodbridge had started on their return to the post. Joseph’s messengers were promptly arrested, placed in the guard-house, and kept there until the end of the campaign. But the news they brought spread like wild fire, and the whole country was alarmed. Captain Rawn’s command consisted of only two companies his own and Capt. William Logan’s (A and I), of the Seventh Infantry.

Leaving twenty men to guard the post, Captain Rawn moved at once with the remainder of his force, numbering about fifty men, up Lo Lo Creek. He was joined en route by about one hundred citizens from the town and surrounding country. At the mouth of the canon he halted and built a temporary barricade by felling trees across it and up the north wall to a considerable distance, the south wall being deemed impregnable without fortifying. The slope to the right was gradual and cut up with gulches and ravines, some of which extended clear to the top of the mountain.

The next day after Rawn took up this position, Joseph and his followers arrived in front of the works, sent in a messenger with a flag of truce, asking again that he might be allowed to pass quietly into and through the valley. Rawn replied that the only condition upon which he would be allowed to pass, was that he and his warriors should surrender their arms. This the Indians of course refused to do, and a parley was begun that was prolonged through two days. Many of the citizens urged Rawn to allow the hostiles to pass on their own terms. They insisted that to fight Joseph there, with their handful of men, could only result in defeat, and that if he were compelled to fight at that point, and gained a victory, as he surely would, he would then leave a trail of blood and ashes behind him through the whole length of the valley. Others were more confident of success, and were spoiling for a fight then and there, but when, later on, a fight became imminent, several of these same citizens remembered that they had urgent business at home. On the evening of the second day, negotiations having failed, Joseph notified Rawn that he should go into the valley the next morning in spite of all opposition.

Accordingly at daylight, firing was heard on the skirmish line, and it was supposed that the Indians would at once assault the main line. Stray shots continued for some time, and, as all the attention of officers and men was concentrated on the front, a man called attention of Lieutenant Coolidge to the fact that he had seen the heads of a few Indians moving down one of the gulches in the rear of the extreme right. This proved to be the rear guard of Joseph’ s outfit. The wily savage had outwitted the troops. He had left a few men to skirmish with Rawn’s pickets, and while the command was expecting an assault in front he, with his motley band, had filed up and down through the gulches and woods, past the line of works, and was now well on his way down the creek. Rawn at once deployed his forces and pursued the fugitives, but did not overtake them until they had reached the Bitter Root Valley and turned up it.

Three miles above the mouth of the creek, he found them encamped on a ridge in a body of timber, where they had every advantage of position and cover. Their manner was insolent and defiant, for they seemed to consider themselves masters of the situation. Most of the citizens had now deserted Rawn; some because they believed the Indians had escaped and that there would be no fight, others because they believed Rawn would overtake them and that there would be a fight. Rawn’ s force was reduced to less than one hundred men, all told, and he saw that to attack the Indians in their chosen position, outnumbering him as they did, more than four to one, would be madness. He there fore wisely decided to return to his post and await the reinforcements that he knew were coming.

Some of the rear critics, who invariably talk loudest after the danger is over, who are ” invincible in peace” and “invisible in war,” have accused Captain Rawn of mismanagement, in allowing the Indians to pass him in the canon, and of cowardice in not attacking them when he overtook them in the valley; but all who were there, and competent to judge, agree that the escape of the savages could not possibly have been prevented with the handful of men he had, and that he exercised judgment and discretion of a high order in not attacking them on their chosen ground, when such an attack could only have resulted in a repetition of the Ouster massacre. His action proved, in the end, the wisest he could have taken in a strictly military sense ; and, besides, it saved the Bitter Root country from being devastated ; for White Bird said, afterward, that had the Indians been compelled to fight their way out of Lo Lo they would have fired the whole country, and many a ranchman would have lost his crops and his home if not his scalp.

But brave old General Gibbon, the hero of South Mountain, was on the war path. On receipt of General Howard’s dispatch that the Nez Percés were coming his way, he hastily summoned Company F, of his regiment, from Fort Beitfon, and J B from Camp Baker, to move with all possible speed to his post. Meantime he gave orders that Company K and every man that could be spared from Fort Shaw should prepare at once for the field. When Companies F and D arrived there, he took the field at their head, with the troops detailed from his own post, and moved rapidly toward Fort Missoula, crossing the Rocky Mountains through Cadotte’s Pass, carrying a limited supply of provisions on pack-mules. The distance, 150 miles, over a rough mountainous country, was covered in seven days, the command reaching Fort Missoula on the afternoon of August 3.

On the 4th’, with his command reinforced with Captain Rawn’s company, and Company G of the Seventh from Fort Ellis, General Gibbon left Fort Missoula in pursuit of the Nez Percés. His command now numbered seven teen officers and 146 men. A wagon-train was taken from Missoula, wherein the men were allowed to ride wherever the roads were good.

The Indians had passed out of Lo Lo Canon and started up the Bitter Boot on July 28, and were therefore several days ahead of the troops. They knew that General Howard was yet many days’ march behind them; that Rawn would not dare attack them with his little force of ” walking soldiers,” and not yet having learned the mysterious power of the telegraph wire to carry words, faster than the swiftest bird can fly, had not the remotest idea that another and larger force was on their trail.

They therefore moved slowly up this valley, resting and grazing their horses, trading off those that were worn and foot-sore for fresh ones, and buying from the ranchmen and merchants such other supplies as they needed, including guns and ammunition. Some of these avaricious whites not only sold the Indians all the supplies they could while passing, but actually loaded wagons with meat, vegetables, and such other marketable goods as they had, and followed up the dusky horde, selling them every penny’s worth they could, as long as they remained in the valley.

The Nez Percés had for years been traveling through this valley on their annual trips to and from the buffalo country, on the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and Chief Joseph and some of his followers had many personal acquaintances among the settlers.

Some of these whites openly boasted of their acquaintance and “influence” with the red handed murderers, and gloated over the fact that it enabled them to sell them more goods than they could have done had they been strangers to the Indians. It is a -well-known fact that there are a number of ranchmen and merchants in the Bitter Root country so greedy, so avaricious, so passionately fond of the mighty dollar, that they would not scruple to sell a weapon to an Indian, though they knew he would use it to kill a neighbor with, if only they could realize a large profit on it. In this case, they bartered openly with these cut-throats and assassins, receiving in payment for their goods gold that they knew was stained with the blood of innocent settlers, lately massacred on the Clear Water and Camas prairies, and from whom this gold had been pilfered.

They provided the fugitives with fresh horses and other means of evading their pursuers, and so of escaping justice. A noble exception to this rule was exhibited, however, in the case of a Mr. Young of Corvallis, who courageously refused to receive their blood money, closed his store in their faces, and dared them to do their worst.

Of course, there are many good, fair-minded, honorable men in the Bitter Root Valley; but there are also a number of sharks, as I know by personal experience. There are men there who will charge a stranger, or even a neighbor, three or four prices for some commodity, and then if he ventures to protest against the extortion, will invariably answer him with that ancient bit of alleged humor, so familiar to the ears of travelers in the far West, to the effect that they are not out there for their health.

Joseph was reinforced in this valley by eighteen lodges of renegade Nez Percés, who lived off the reservation, under the leadership of the disreputable chief, ” Poker Joe.”

The hostiles did not keep their pledge with the ranchmen strictly. Near the head of the valley lived a man by the name of Lockwood, who, when he heard of the approach of the Indians, took his family to a place of safety. The Indians passed his ranch daring his absence, broke into his house and rifled it of everything it contained that was of any value to them, including several hundred pounds of flour and bacon.

During the passage up the valley, White Bird is said to have scented danger, and to have counseled a more rapid movement toward the great plains. But Looking Glass replied: ” We are in no hurry. The little bunch of soldiers at Missoula are not fools enough to attack us. We will take the world easy. We are not fighting with the ranch men of this country.” Poor, misguided savage! He deemed himself the wisest and most cunning of his kind; yet little did he know of the ways and resources of the white man.

Shields, G. O. "Coquina" The Battle of the Big Hole. A History of General Gibbon's Engagement with Nez Perce Indians in the Big Hole Valley, Montana, August 1877. Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, Publishers, 1889.

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