On the western end of the Lolo Trail across the Bitterroot Mountain Range, Weippe Prairie in Clearwater County, Idaho, elevation 3,000 feet, is a beautiful upland prairie of about nine by twenty miles of open farmland bordered by pine forests. It was on the Weippe Prairie that the Nez Perce tribe befriended the Expedition led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805-1806. President Thomas Jefferson had sent the Lewis and Clark expedition west to explore the new Louisiana Purchase from St. Louis to the West Coast, with an eye to scientific exploration and opening contact with various Indian nations for commerce. Lewis and Clark called the prairie the “camas flats,” “quawmash flats,” or “quamash ground,”. The Nez Perce fed the nearly starving expedition cakes made of the camas root, gathered on the prairie, where the plant still grows.
A Columbia Plateau Tribe, the original territory of the Nez Perce covered a large portion of central Idaho, and sections of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. Speaking a dialect of the Penutian language, a native American language group that stretched from Washington to California, with an isolated northern pocket, the Nez Perce called themselves the Nimi'ipuu, translated into English as “the people” or ‘the real people.” The name Nex Perce Is French for “Pierced Noses,” and was given to them by the French interpreters with the Lewis and Clark expedition. At the time of their contact with the expedition the Nez Perce were becoming dominant in the region, with neighboring tribes using their language for communication and trade. Probably the greatest known Nez Perce was Chief Joseph, who led the Nez Perce in 1877 during their forced march toward Canada, battling the U.S. Army in a brilliant campaign before surrendering just 30 miles short of their goal. Chief Joseph delivered one of the most profound and moving speeches ever made, with the oft-quoted line: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
In 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition established the first contact between the Nez Perce and represenatives of the American government. Stumbling down from the Bitterroots, the Corps of Discovery reached the western terminus of Lolo Trail by late September 1805 and ventured out onto Weippe Prairie. Clark and seven of the men had pressed ahead arriving September 20th, shortly ahead of the rest of the group that made it to the prairie by the 22nd. Spanning several thousand acres, the open flatland was a welcome sight after the crew's brutal trek through the Rockies. Even more welcome were the friendly faces of the local Indian nation, the Nez Perce. On September 20 Clark wrote:
The Nez Perce showed the explorers an efficient way to make dugout canoes, fed and housed them, nursed them back to health, and cared for their horses during the winter of 1805-1806. Upon their return to Nez Perce country in the spring of 1806, the explorers settled into "Camp Chopunnish," which was the longest camp of any save their three winter encampments (after one attempt to cross the Lolo Trail on June 15 they finally succeeded on June 24-June 30, 1806, arriving at Traveler’s Rest). The Corps had to wait until the snow melted in the mountains so that they could pass over the Continental Divide and return to the east. During this period they freely interacted with the Nez Perce, learning many of their customs and playing many types of games with them, including footraces and "prisoner's base". The Nez Perce also provided guides to the explorers for their over mountain trek. Without the assistance of the Nez Perce the Lewis and Clark Expedition would have been a failure.
The prairie is still relatively undisturbed and remotely located, used primarily for wheat farming, except for the small town of Weippe in its center. Within the Weippe Prairie three specific historic sites have been identified as the probable areas of the Lewis and Clark campsite of 1806 and the two Nez Perce villages visited by them in 1805, within the general area of the southern half of Weippe Prairie which provides the historic setting for the camps and the various activities of the explorers during their two visits to this area.
The Weippe Prairie was designated a National Historic Landmark on October 15, 1966.
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