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Treeline along the edge of Weippe Prairie
National Park Service photo, courtesy of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site

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:

. . . Proceeded on through a butifull countrey for three miles to a small plain in which I found main Indian lodges. Those people gave us a small piece of buffalow meat, some dried salmon berries & roots . . . They also gave us the bread made of this root, all of ehich we eate hartily . . . They call themselves Cho pun-nish or Pierced noses. I find myself very unwell all the evening from eateing the fish & roots too freely . . . (Jones 2000, 113)

Establishing contact with this group for the first time, Lewis and Clark communicated via sign language with one of the Nez Perce leaders, Chief Twisted Hair. Over the following two and a half weeks, the Corps stayed with the Nez Perce, specifically within their two villages located at the southern end of Weippe Prairie. There, the Americans rested, recuperated, and learned much from the Nez Perce, namely the existence of a navigable water route to the West Coast. Furthermore, they learned why the Nez Perce chose to reside in the shadow of the Bitterroots. Unbeknownst to the pioneers, Weippe Prairie, also known as the "Quawmash flats," was an area rich in the camas plant/root, providing the Nez Perce with a consistent and healthy food source. Aside from giving the expedition their fill of camas, the Nez Perce provided for the pioneers in other ways. Twisted Hair accompanied the Corps to a canoe camp, where the expedition members immediately set to constructing canoes in preparation for their journey down Clearwater River and beyond. The explorers were finally ready to set out for the Pacific by mid-October 1805, by way of the Columbia River.

On their return journey in the spring of 1806, the Corps again stayed with the hospitable Nez Perce of the Weippe Praire. Waiting until the snow melted and Lolo Trail again became passable, the pioneers resided on the "Quawmash flats" for over a month. There they built a temporary structure, of which there are no present-day remains. The crew developed considerable respect for the Nez Perce during their stay, both for the genteel nature of the Indians and the quality of their horses, the Nez Perce-bred Appaloosa.

Weippe Prairie, a National Historic Landmark administered by the National Park Service, is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park. There are two main Visitor Centers, one at Park Headquarters in Spalding, Idaho, 11 miles east of Lewiston and the other at Big Hole National Battlefield, 10 miles west of Wisdom, Montana. The Visitor Center at Spalding, Idaho is open in the winter months from 8:00am to 4:30pm and until 5:30pm in the summer. The Visitor Center at Big Hole National Battlefield near Wisdom, Montana is open in the winter from 9:00am to 5:00pm and in the summer from 8:30am to 6:00pm. Please call 208-843-2261, or visit the park's website for further information. You can also download (in pdf) the Weippe Prairie National Historic Landmark nomination.

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