Sweeping mountains recede into distance. In foreground, dead tree and rocks serve as marker
"Indian Post Office" in Bitteroot Mountains on the Lolo Trail.


In September 1805 the Lewis and Clark expedition, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to map the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, arrived on the Weippe Prairie near the Clearwater River in what is now Idaho. The upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin along the Snake, Clearwater, and Salmon Rivers are the homelands of the Nez Perce, and it was here, at this critical juncture in the journey, that Wetxuwiis, a Nez Perce woman, told her people to trust these travelers from the East. Wetxuwiis played a significant diplomatic role that led to the opening of trade with white settlers and provided the Corps of Discovery with critical information to help them reach the Columbia River and the Pacific coast, the location of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

The young girl who grew up to be Wetxuwiis belonged to the band of Chief Red Bear of the Ni Mii Puu, also known as Nez Perce. Wetxuwiis was kidnapped by Blackfeet or Atsinas people in the late eighteenth century when she was around 14 years old, while her family hunted buffalo on the plains in Montana.1 She later recounted that she was traded from one tribe to another to be a wife, abused by various men, and eventually ended up in the Great Lakes region, where she was purchased by a white man and gave birth to a baby boy.2 A friend of Wetxuwiis’ warned her that this white man planned to take her across the Atlantic Ocean and that she would probably never return. She fled home. Traveling by night, she carried her child on her back. After months of walking, she encountered some white people who helped her, but her child sickened and died before she reached Montana and found her uncle, Chief Red Bear.3

Upon her return, she was renamed Wetxuwiis, which meant “One Who Is Lost and Returns Home,” and her story became well known among the Nez Perce.4 Her experiences led her to advise her people that when they encountered whites they should “treat them kindly as they have treated me.”5 Thus, in 1805, when Nez Perce chiefs began discussing the presence of white travelers, they consulted Wetxuwiis, who understood these “strange people.”6

In September 1805 a group of Nez Perce were camping with Chief Twisted Hair in the Weippe Prairie, some digging roots and others grinding them to make bread, some gathering wood for fires, and others fishing.7 The Lewis and Clark expedition had just crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, and its members were exhausted and starving.8 The sudden appearance of these ragged, bearded men alarmed the Nez Perce: some ran in fear, others prepared for armed defense.9 According to Peo-Peo Tholekt, Wetxuwiis, lying sick in a teepee, reassured them that these were the “strange white people I have been telling you about.”10 She spoke with Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and especially with Sacajawea, a Lemhi Shoshone from Idaho. She advised her people that whites, whom she called Soyapo, would provide important resources for the Nez Perce.11 The Nez Perce therefore offered accommodations and food to the few dozen expedition members.

This encounter with the Nez Perce was critical for Lewis and Clark’s journey. Chief Twisted Hair and others drew maps for the expedition indicating how to travel the river system to the Columbia River. The Nez Perce were familiar with the region, and their knowledge meant the Corps of Discovery could continue on their journey.12 About two or three days after the council with Lewis and Clark, Wetxuwiis died and was buried at Oyi-pe.13 Her words opened relations between the Nez Perce and whites and expanded trade relations, which also contributed to US continental conquest.14 Indigenous women such as Wetxuwiis, who developed cross-cultural skills as a kidnapped teenager, were essential parts of this complex legacy connecting people over thousands of miles through trade, Indigenous slavery, Native knowledge of land and people, and US imperial ambitions.


This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946

1 Frederick E. Hoxie and Jay T. Nelson, eds., Lewis & Clark and the Indian Country: The Native American Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 139–141; Dennis Baird, Diane Mallickan, and W.R. Swagerty, eds., Encounters With the People: Written and Oral Accounts of Nez Perce Life to 1858 (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2015), 59; Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 37–38.

2 Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians, 37; “Beatrice Miles on Wetxuiis,” interviewed by Judy Wohlert, February 14, 2002, housed at Nez Perce National Historic Park.

3 Baird et al, Encounters With the People, 57–58, 67; Allen V. Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” in Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., ed., Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 156.

4 Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” 156.

5 Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” 156.

6 Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” 155–156. Nez Perce oral historians helped identify Wetxuwiis’ age when she was kidnapped and when she encountered Lewis and Clark, though her precise birth date is not known. “Beatrice Miles on Wetxuiis,” interviewed by Judy Wohlert, February 14, 2002, Nez Perce National Historic Park; Baird et al, Encounters With the People, 57–59; James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 159.

7 Baird et al, Encounters With the People, 56–57; Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians, 159.

8 Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians, 159; Baird et al, Encounters With the People, 3.

9 Baird et al, Encounters with the People, 67.

10 Baird et al, Encounters with the People, 43, 52, 56–57, 59.

11 Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” 140; Josephy, The Nez Perce Indians, 38.

12 Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 160; “Beatrice Miles on Wetxuiis”; Pinkham, “We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo,” 143.

13 Baird et al., Encounters With the People, 59.

14 Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, 159–160; Hoxie et al, Lewis & Clark and the Indian Country, 142.

Part of a series of articles titled Women's History in the Pacific West - Columbia-Pacific Northwest Collection.

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Nez Perce National Historical Park

Last updated: March 28, 2022