Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington: Nez Perce National Historical Park

Chief Looking Glass
Chief Looking Glass as photographed by the US Army in 1877.

National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Identifier 530914)

A park dedicated to preserving the traditions, culture, and land of an entire people, Nez Perce National Historical Park includes 38 sites stretching across four States—Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The park focuses on three broad themes: Nez Perce culture, the “discovery” and mapping of America, and westward expansion during the mid-1800s. The arrival of settlers from the east, treaties that defined Nez Perce land, and conflicts between settlers and the Nez Perce profoundly altered the more than 11,000-year-old Nez Perce culture. In the park, visitors will learn about the endurance and resilience of the Nez Perce people.

Orientation information, such as films and museum exhibits, is available at several visitor centers associated with sites in the park. The main visitor center in Spalding, Idaho offers a film and exhibits about the Nez Perce, seasonal guided walks, and tipi demonstrations. At the visitor center at Big Hole National Battlefield, visitors can learn about the 1877 Nez Perce War and Big Hole National Battlefield. Bear Paw Battlefield interprets the Nez Perce War and its impact.

The Nez Perce

Nez Perce National Historical Park includes some of the homelands of the Nez Perce that are culturally and spiritually part of the past, present, and future of the tribe, which today is composed of three separate bands. Early settlement sites include the Lenore Site, where the Nez Perce lived more than 10,000 years ago. In a rest area along Highway 12 in Idaho, interpretive panels describe the village that was located nearby. Elsewhere in Idaho, the Hasotino Village Site and Weiss Rockshelter are two other traditional areas. An exhibit in the visitor center at Hell’s Gate State Park provides information on Hasotino Village. At the Weiss Rockshelter, which was inhabited between 8,000 and 600 years ago, a wayside exhibit describes how the Nez Perce lived and displays some archeological records found at the site.

Visitors can learn about Nez Perce storytelling and culture at several sites that figure in traditional Nez Perce stories, such as Ant and YellowjacketCoyote’s Fishnet, and The Heart of the Monster. The stories use the landscape of Idaho to tell about the life of Coyote and other spirits and communicate important cultural lessons. Interpretive signage at Ant and Yellowjacket and Coyote’s Fishnet recounts the stories. A walking trail and audio tour at Heart of the Monster give visitors the background and story. More information on these legends—including directions to the sites—is available here. Ancestors of today’s Nez Perce also left behind sacred sites. Just as important to the Nez Perce culture as the legends are the pictographs and petroglyphs made by their ancestors along the Snake River at Buffalo Eddy, south of Lewiston, Idaho. Visitors can see these images by boat.

Camas bloom in Weippe Prairie
Camas bloom in Weippe Prairie.
Courtesy of the National Park Service
(Nez Perce National Historical Park)

The land is very important to the Nez Perce, who seasonally relocated from high to low ground and returned to favored hunting and gathering locations. In Idaho, visitors can learn about collecting camas, a traditional food, at Camas Prairie along US Route 95. The Camas Prairie site, which looks out over Tolo Lake, was an important meeting place for the Nez Perce and the location of some of the initial fighting during the Nez Perce War of 1877. Other root gathering sites include the still used Musselshell Meadow and Weippe Prairie. Confluence Overlook near Lewiston Grade offers a view of the Nez Perce homeland. In Oregon and Washington, visitors can see other Nez Perce lands at Joseph Canyon Viewpoint off Oregon State Route 3 north of Enterprise, the site of a typical winter living place. Traditional summer campsites are at the confluence of the Lostine and Wallowa Rivers at Lostine Campsites. The Nez Perce Nespelem Campsites are another seasonally inhabited area.

Exploring and Mapping America: Lewis & Clark
To people in the East, the Nez Perce lands were a great unmapped western wilderness. Following the addition of the Louisiana Territory to the United States, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in 1804, led the “Corps of Discovery” to describe this new land and find a way to the Pacific Ocean by water. The Corps traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean on a more than two and a half year trip fraught with danger.

Journeying through Nez Perce territory, Lewis and Clark followed the traditional Lolo Trail west across the Bitterroot Mountains on a route that connects present-day Idaho to Montana and the Great Plains. Weather delays and a lack of food hampered their progress. Visitors can learn about the Lolo Trail by following US Highway 12 or the Lolo Motorway (Forest Road 500) stopping at a seasonally open visitor center. The expedition first encountered the Nez Perce on the open plains next to the Bitterroot Mountains. Interpretive signs on the highway at Weippe Prairie provide information on the site.

Visitors to the Canoe Camp site along the Clearwater River can see where, in 1805, the Nez Perce helped the members of the expedition carve canoes that the Corps used to reach the Pacific Ocean. The Nez Perce agreed to watch their horses while the expedition headed west in the newly made canoes. A reproduction canoe and wayside exhibits line a trail at the site today. Overwintering in present-day Oregon, Lewis and Clark returned to where they had met the Nez Perce in the fall of 1805, hoping to retrieve their horses and return further east. Poor weather forced them to camp for a month at a site called Long Camp at Kamiah, Idaho, where the explorers again spent time with the Nez Perce. Clark, a physician, tended injured Nez Perce. When the weather cleared, Lewis and Clark departed, leaving the Nez Perce as good friends.

Westward Expansion
In the mid-1800s, Americans believed that it was the Manifest Destiny of the United States to expand across the continent, and settlers began to move west into traditional tribal lands. A treaty in 1855 was intended to define and protect the Nez Perce homeland, but the discovery of gold on that land brought in many outsiders. The US military built Fort Lapwai in Lapwai, Idaho, to help manage the thousands of miners who descended on the Nez Perce reservation. An 1863 treaty reduced the size of the reservation to enable easy access for non-Indians to the lands where gold was discovered. The fort continued to be a military outpost on the reservation and played a role in the later armed conflict between the Nez Perce and the military. Visitors to the fort site can see an Officers’ Quarters building and a later Indian Agency building.

The Nez Perce faced constant change during the 1800s struggling to assert their rights against invading miners and contending with other forces. At Slickpoo, Idaho, St. Joseph’s Mission is a reminder of the missionaries who came in the 1870s to convert the Nez Perce and others to Christianity. When the church is open, guided tours are available. A wayside exhibit gives the history of the Slickpoo community and the mission. Earlier mission sites include the Asa Smith Mission around Kamiah at the Lewis and Clark Long Camp site. The park’s main visitor center at Spalding, Idaho was the site of the mission of Henry and Eliza Spalding in the 1830s. The Spaldings first tried to establish Lapwai Mission. Less than five years after the discovery of gold, the region’s first courthouse appeared in Pierce, Idaho. The Pierce Courthouse offers visitors both indoor and outdoor exhibits on the history of the area and the impact of gold mining on the Nez Perce.

The 1863 treaty dramatically reduced the amount of land allocated to the Nez Perce, and chiefs whose land lay outside the new boundary refused to sign the new treaty. Five bands are known as the non-treaty Nez Perce. In 1877, the government ordered all bands to go to the reservation, whether they had signed the treaty or not. Chief Joseph, a leader of one of the non-treaty bands, objected to the 30-day timetable given to the Nez Perce to get to the reservation, which did not allow them sufficient time to gather livestock or for the water in the Snake River to fall to a level at which it could be easily crossed. Even so, the Nez Perce attempted to follow the order and crossed the river at Dug Bar along the Idaho-Oregon border. In the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area a sign, visible from the river, tells the story of this crossing. In June 1877, at a campsite close to the reservation, three Nez Perce warriors attacked white settlers who had earlier wronged them or their families. More warriors joined in the attack killing 17 settlers. Long a gathering site for the Nez Perce, the campsite is along Tolo Lake, outside of Grangeville, Idaho, where visitors can go birding, fishing, and boating.

Most of the non-treaty Nez Perce went to White Bird Canyon to defend themselves against a retaliatory attack. Two days later, US troops attacked and badly beat them in the first battle of the Nez Perce War. At White Bird Battlefield, visitors can learn about the battle, its effects, and Nez Perce life. The Nez Perce fled east to avoid further attacks. Troops under General O. O. Howard pursued them, and skirmished intermittently with them until a two-day battle along the Clearwater River broke out. A stalemate, this battle ended when Chief Looking Glass’s Nez Perce headed toward Montana to join the Crow. Crossing the Lolo Trail, the Nez Perce thought they were safe, but Colonel John Gibbon’s troops pursued and the two sides engaged at the Battle of Big Hole. Located outside of Wisdom, Montana, Big Hole National Battlefield has a visitor center and trails. The conflicts continued as the remaining Nez Perce moved south and east along the Beaverhead Mountains. They passed through Yellowstone National Park while attempting to join Sitting Bull, who had fled to Canada following the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Approaching the Canadian border, the Indians encountered federal troops at the Battle of Bear Paw. Heavy fighting killed many, including Chief Looking Glass. Under Chief Joseph, the remaining non-treaty Nez Perce surrendered. Approximately 800 began the flight to Canada roughly 1,200 miles away—of these, 200 made it to Canada or hid elsewhere. The remainder either died or were among the 431 who surrendered, ending the Nez Perce War. Visitors can take a self-guided trail through Bear Paw Battlefield following a trail map available at the Blaine County Museum or the battlefield. Metal stakes mark where the Nez Perce fell. Ranger-led tours of the battlefield are available seasonally. The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) trail retraces the flight of the Nez Perce from the army in Oregon to the Canadian border. Information on the trail is available at the Nez Perce National Historic Trail website.

The Nez Perce War and other fighting ended the nomadic traditions of the Nez Perce and confined them to reservations. Today, their culture endures despite great disruption. Nez Perce National Historical Park interprets the history of the Nez Perce, the growth of the United States, and the competing interests in westward expansion.

Nez Perce National Historical Park is focused on 38 sites located across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The Lolo TrailWeippe Prairie, and Chief Joseph Battleground of Bear’s Paw (Bear Paw Battlefield) have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places registration files for the Lolo Trail (text and photos), Pierce Courthouse (text and photos), St. Joseph’s Mission (text and photos), Weippe Prairie (text and photos), White Bird Battlefield (text and photos), and Chief Joseph Battleground of Bear’s Paw (text and photos).

Directions, contact information, and hours of operations for sites within the park, including the visitor centers at Spalding, Idaho, Big Hole National Battlefield, and Bear Paw Battlefield may be found here. For more information, visit the National Park Service Nez Perce National Historical Park website or call 208-843-7001.

Several national trails pass through Nez Perce National Historical Park, including Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Within Nez Perce National Historical Park, the Lolo Trail has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record and Watson’s Store (part of the Spalding visitor center site) by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Sites within the park are also featured in the National Park Service Lewis and Clark Expedition Travel Itinerary and are the subject of an online lesson plan, The Lewis & Clark Expedition: Documenting the Uncharted Northwest. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. Visit the National Park Service Teaching with Museum Collections lesson plans and virtual exhibit on Nez Perce National Historical Park.


Last updated: August 4, 2017