The Nez Perces call themselves Nimíipu, meaning "we the people" or "the real people." According to tribal legend, the Nez Perces were created from the heart of monster, whose gross body completely filled the valley of the upper Clearwater River in what is now north central Idaho. When monster had devoured nearly all the animals in the land, coyote slew monster by jumping down its throat and cutting out its heart. Coyote then dismembered the body and flung the pieces to distant parts of the land, where different peoples sprang up. Last of all, coyote took monster's heart and squeezed the blood out of it. These drops of blood from monster's brave heart mingled with the earth and created the noblest of tribes, the Nez Perce people. 
The homeland of the Nez Perces centered upon the Clearwater, lower Snake, and lower Salmon rivers and their tributaries. It extended to the northeastern edge of the Columbia Plateau where it meets the Bitterroot Valley. Lapwai Creek was considered the dividing line between the buffalo-hunting Nez Perces, who took the Lolo Trail to the hunting grounds east of the Continental Divide, and their fishing and hunting fellow tribesmen.  By the time the Nez Perces acquired horses in the early 1700s, the tribe had come to occupy a strategic location as intermediaries between the Flatheads and Crows on the northeast and the natives of the Columbia Plateau on the north and west. Trade generally fostered good relations with these peoples. The Coeur d'Alenes to the north, and the Shoshones and Bannocks to the south, meanwhile, were the Nez Perces' traditional enemies. There were raids back and forth, but sometimes the Nez Perces traveled with the Coeur d'Alenes to the buffalo grounds.  By the early nineteenth century, the Nez Perces had numerous permanent villages on the Clearwater River, at least eleven villages on the Snake River as far upstream as the Imnaha River, three permanent villages on the Salmon River and its tributaries, six villages between the Grande Ronde River and the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon and on the Snake River below the Clearwater, and three villages in what is now the southeast corner of Washington state. 
As early as 1805-06, when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through their country, the Nez Perces became known for their friendship with Americans. In 1831, Nez Perces participated in the native expedition to St. Louis in search of the "white man's religion." This resulted in the establishment of a mission at Lapwai in 1836 by the Reverend and Mrs. Henry H. Spalding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and another at Kamiah in 1839 by the Reverend Asa Bowen Smith. However, the American Board mission was abruptly terminated following the killing of the Reverend Dr. and Mrs. Marcus Whitman and others at their Waiilatpu mission, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, in 1847. 
The missionaries left a legacy of dissension between Christian and nativist (non-Christian) tribal factions, which deepened as the tribe became more entangled in the westward expansion of the United States. The U.S. government formed Washington Territory in 1853, and dispatched the first appointed governor and ex-officio superintendent of Indian affairs, Isaac Stevens, to negotiate land cession treaties with the Pacific Northwest Indians. The rival factions of Nez Perces and other tribes convened with Stevens at the Walla Walla Treaty Council in 1855. Governor Stevens offered terms that satisfied Lawyer, whom Stevens recognized as the head chief of the tribe, but angered Looking Glass and other head men among the nativist Nez Perces. Still, the governor coerced all the Nez Perce head men into signing the treaty. Compared to most other tribes, the Nez Perces retained a large part of their lands in a reservation of some 7,694,270 acres. 
After gold was discovered on the reservation in 1860, the federal government did little to prevent prospectors from intruding on the reservation. The towns of Lewiston (a supply center on the lower Snake River) and Pierce (in the heart of the gold fields) were illegally established in Indian country. In 1861, federal officials negotiated an unratified agreement with the Nez Perces that allowed Americans to conduct mining operations in the area lying north of the Snake and Clearwater rivers and granted a right-of-way through the area south of that line. The agreement also provided that troops be stationed on the reservation. This the government accomplished in 1862 with the establishment of Fort Lapwai. In 1863, a federal commission negotiated a new land cession treaty with the Nez Perces. Lawyer again led numerous other head men in signing the treaty, but now his authority to represent the whole tribe was even more doubtful than in 1855. The new reservation was approximately one tenth its former size and many bands had been dispossessed without consent. The rift between Christian and nativist Nez Perces that was born in the missionary period widened as the nativist faction refused to accept the treaty. Old Joseph, leader of the Wallowa band of Nez Perces, tore up his New Testament in protest of the government's treatment of his people.  Reverend Spalding returned to the Lapwai area in the early 1870s and conducted revival meetings, reinforcing the Presbyterian Nez Perce community in the face of growing Roman Catholic and nativist influence.
The so-called "non-treaty" Nez Perces continued to dwell in their traditional areas off the reservation. They experienced growing difficulties from encroachment by white settlement. In May 1877, federal officials gave the non-treaty Nez Perces an ultimatum that they must move to the reservation or face war with the U.S. The non-treaty Nez Perces decided to yield. However, on their way to the reservation, some young members of the tribe rode out of the Nez Perces' camp at Tolo Lake and killed a group of white settlers in revenge for past injustices done to them. This precipitated the battle of White Bird Canyon and the onset of the War of 1877.
Seeking to avoid further encounters with the U.S. Army, the non-treaty chiefs led their people on a 1,170-mile journey over the Bitterroot Mountains, southward and through Yellowstone National Park, and finally northward toward Canada. During their trek, the Nez Perces fought additional battles at the Clearwater, Big Hole, Camas Meadows, Canyon Creek, and finally near the Bear Paw Mountains in north central Montana, where most of the surviving non-treaty Nez Perces surrendered.
The flight of the non-treaty Nez Perces left a complicated legacy. In addition to the suffering and loss of life during the war itself, the bitter memory of the war widened the breach between tribal factions. The defeated Nez Perce were scattered in many directions. A few escaped to Canada. Most were taken as prisoners of war to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) where dozens of them perished in the hot climate. Eventually they were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest: some to Lapwai, others with Chief Joseph to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, and still others to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.
Yet the legacy of the war was not entirely bitter. As capable foes, and ultimate victims, in the last major Indian war of the nineteenth century, the Nez Perces secured for themselves a place of honor in the history and myth of the American West. Americans found the Nez Perces' story all the more poignant given the tribe's reputation as a proud and noble people who began the nineteenth century with an exceptionally friendly disposition toward the United States. In the twentieth century, various historians and anthropologists gave substance to this popular conception of the Nez Perce. The historian Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., went one step further and advanced the thesis that the tribe had played a key role in the opening of the Pacific Northwest. The creation of the Nez Perce National Historical Park in 1965 and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail in 1986 further attested to the popular appeal and historical significance of the Nez Perce story.
Last Updated: 01-Jun-2000