Nez Perce
Forlorn Hope: The Battle of White Bird Canyon
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On May 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill that authorized the establishment of Nez Perce National Historical Park in north central Idaho. The purpose of the act was to facilitate the preservation and interpretation of certain sites in Nez Perce Country, which the law defined as an area that ran as far north as the town of Pierce and Lola Pass, as far south as Riggins, and as far east and west as the boundaries of the state. The act specifically named sites that related to early Nez Perce culture, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the fur trade, missionary activities, gold mining, logging, and the Nez Perce Indian War of 1877, but did not restrict consideration of other properties. The only condition was that each site had to have exceptional value in illustrating the role of the Nez Perce Country in the history of the United States.

One of the 22 sites selected by Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall was White Bird Battlefield, the scene of the initial engagement between the United States Army and nontreaty Nez Perce on June 17, 1877. Almost unchanged after 90 years, the site lies about one mile northeast of the small community of Whitebird and about 20 miles southwest of the town of Grangeville. U. S. Highway 95 skirts the battlefield and provides easy access.

In order to provide the general information needed to guide developments and interpret White Bird Battlefield, the Director of the National Park Service, George B. Hartzog, Jr., requested his historical research staff to make a study of the engagement during fiscal year 1967. The historical research unit of the National Park Service is the Division of History, headed by Robert M. Utley. It was my pleasure to receive the assignment.

It was decided that the study would concentrate on the acts of bloodshed that precipitated the conflict and on the Battle of White Bird Canyon and its consequences. The first part of the volume deals with the period June 13 through June 27, starting with the day that the first settler on the Salmon River met his death at the hands of three revengeful Nez Perce and ending with the burial of the military dead on White Bird Battlefield by troops under the command of Brig. Gen. O. O. Howard. Later chapters treat the court of inquiry prompted by the defeat and attempt to pinpoint the reasons for the Nez Perce victory.

Research began with an examination of the standard books on the Nez Perce and the Nez Perce Indian War. Two things became immediately apparent. First, very little space in the volumes had been devoted to the Battle of White Bird Canyon. Most authors covered it in a page or two, apparently not because of lack of interest but because of the lack of material. Although Cyrus Townsend Brady, one of the early chroniclers, had mentioned that fact of a court of inquiry, no one had attempted to locate or consult the transcript of it. Second, there was little or no agreement among authorities concerning the sequence of events that occurred between June 13 and June 17. The number of settlers killed, their names, their places of residence, in fact, practically everything about them, varied considerably. Even the more recent volumes were as contradictory as some of the older works.

As the study progressed, a third fact became clear. In addition to the transcript of the court of inquiry, there were many other important documents in the National Archives that related to the first encounter and to the Nez Perce Indian War in general that had escaped the view of historians working in the field. This was due in part, perhaps, to the fact that many military papers had already been printed as Congressional documents and that the file kept by the Adjutant General relating to it had been microfilmed by the National Archives and made available to scholars at a low cost. The easy availability of the material apparently gave historians a false sense of security and a belief that National Archives sources had been exhausted. A search for other manuscript materials in other repositories also proved fruitful, and contemporary newspapers yielded much material. An early local history, either ignored or overlooked, proved especially useful.

With the recent publication of books by Merrill Beal, Alvin Josephy, and Mark Brown, it has become fashionable for reviewers to state that the Nez Perce Indian War has been thoroughly researched and the subject laid to rest. While all three of the volumes are excellent in certain respects, and each of them makes a contribution to knowledge, they are definitely not the comprehensive works that reviewers would have potential readers believe. There is much that needs to be done, not only to expand and illuminate episodes, but to correct and re-evaluate accepted "facts" and interpretations. If this study succeeds in reopening the question, it will have served an additional purpose.

It was not possible in the time allotted for the project to discuss the background of the Nez Perce Indian War in detail and to trace the interaction of the two races that led to its inception. There are a number of books that handle the subject well. Let me especially recommend those by Alvin Josephy, Francis Haines, Helen Addison Howard, and Mark Brown. The two volumes by Lucullus McWhorter are essential in understanding the Indian viewpoint.

For those readers who do not have the volumes readily available, a few words of introduction are in order. Contacts with the Nez Perce followed traditional patterns. The first whites to meet them were the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the fall of 1805. Mountain men, both British and American, were the next to visit them, and a profitable trade was established. The first missionary to settle in the heart of Nez Perce Country was henry Harmon Spalding in 1836.

The Christian influence exerted by Spalding and others tended to divide the Nez Perce into factions. One group began to adopt the white man's culture and to take his advice. The other tried to remain apart from the intruders and follow the old ways. Finally, in the early 1860's, they separated into two distinct groups. The catalyst was gold.

The discovery of gold in Idaho in 1860 brought thousands of white adventurers pouring into Nez Perce Country, and, as settlements grew, the demand for Indian land increased. In 1863 the more acculturated Nez Perce signed a treaty that reduced the holdings of the tribe by almost seven million acres. Opened for settlement in Oregon were the Wallowa, Imnaha, and Grand Rhonde river valleys. Ceded in Idaho were the Snake and Salmon river valleys, part of Camas Prairie, and lands along the upper Clearwater. The other group of Nez Perce, however, refused to sign the document or recognize it as binding upon them and continued to occupy their traditional homes outside the boundaries of the new reservation. Because of their refusal to accept the treaty, they became known as the nontreaty Nez Perce.

Principal among the nontreaty Nez Perce were the Wallowas in the Wallowa and Imnaha valleys of southwestern Oregon the Lamtamas along the Salmon and its tributaries, the Pikunans on the highlands between the Salmon and the Snake, the Palouse in the big bend country west and south of the Snake, and the Alpowai on the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. One of the most adamant in his refusal to accept the treaty was Old Chief Joseph of the Wallowas. Tearing a copy of the treaty to shreds and destroying his New Testament, he returned to his homeland in disgust. On his deathbed, his instructions to his eldest son were clear: "My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father's body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother."

Young Joseph was not put to the test immediately, because the Wallowa Valley proved barren of gold. Nevertheless stockmen coveted the land, and Governor Leonard A. Grover of Oregon clamored for action. Indian Bureau representatives who inspected the land in 1872 found that it was not particularly suited for cultivation and recommended that the upper reaches of the valley, the lake, and the bordering mountains be reserved as a permanent hunting grounds for the Nez Perce tribe. Consequently, President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order on June 16, 1873, that set aside 1,425 square miles of land for the purpose. However, the boundaries established by the executive order did not correspond to those claimed by Joseph or those recommended by the investigating committee, and all parties voiced their dissatisfaction. Two years later, the Indian Bureau had the order rescinded, and settlers renewed their efforts to wrest the valley from the Wallowas. Hostility reached the combustion point in 1876. Only the timely arrival of 1st Lt. Albert Gallatin Forse and a company of regulars from Fort Walla Walla prevented a clash between white ranchers and Joseph's band in September.

In response to the new evidence of unrest, Secretary of the Interior Zachary Chandler appointed a five-man commission to make a study of the problem. The commission consisted of David H. Jerome of Michigan, A. C. Barstow of Rhode Island, William Stickney of Washington, D. C., Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, Commander of the Department of the Columbia, and Maj. Henry Clay Wood, a member of Howard's staff who had previously studied the controversy. After meeting with the chiefs at Lapwai Agency in November, the commission recommended that the nontreaty bands be required to occupy unallotted lands inside the boundaries of the reservation, by force if necessary.

On January 6, 1877, Commissioner of Indian Affairs J. Q. Smith gave Lapwai Indian Agent John B. Monteith authority to implement the recommendations of the commission. Pursuant to instructions, Monteith sent Indian ambassadors to the camps of the nontreaty Nez Perce to inform them that the Government wished to have them permanently encamped on the reservation by April 1. With Joseph's brother, Frog, acting as emissary, the nontreaty Nez Perce were able to postpone the date of removal and received permission to speak with Howard at Lapwai on May 3.

The Lapwai council convened on schedule. Although Howard permitted the Indians to recount their grievances, he considered the issue closed. When Sound, a medicine man, defied the general by questioning his authority and the right of the United States to take Indian land, Howard had the old chief ushered to the guard house. Realizing the futility of further resistance, the chiefs agreed to terms.

On May 8, Howard began a tour of the reservation with the principal chiefs, and each of them selected a settlement site before the journey's end. On May 14, Howard addressed the Indians for the last time and informed them that they had 30 days in which to make the move. It was a solemn moment. The Nez Perce had expected more time, and many protested, but Howard was firm. On May 15, the nontreaty Indians sadly departed for their homes to gather their belongings. In a short time, they were on the road to the reservation, and by June 2 they had gathered at Tepahlewam, Split Rocks, an ancient rendezvous site at the head of Rocky Canyon near Tolo Lake, about six miles west of Grangeville and about eight miles south of the southern border of the reservation. It is here that our story begins.

J. D. M.

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Last Updated: 09-Mar-2003