Aftermath of 1855 treaty

Soon after the 1855 treaty was signed but before the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) or other tribes had received any of their promised payments or materials, General Stevens declared the ceded land open for settlement, and miners and land hunters started to pour into the area. The rough-and-tumble newcomers had little interest in obeying the sovereign property lines of the reservations. Many of them also thought nothing of pillaging and killing Indians. Cruel anti-Indian stereotypes were common at the time. For several tribes (including the Yakamas, Spakans, Coeur d’Alenes, and Palouses) the influx of aggressive and disrespectful Soyapu (white people) was an unforgivable betrayal of the terms of their treaty and they retaliated attacks. Soon, the US military responded. The Nimiipuu, however, still thought that they needed to be allies with the Americans to have the best shot of a bright future. The Nimiipuu fought alongside the Americans against other Indian tribes in two battles in September 1858.

Soon the Nimiipuu had immigrant problems of their own. When gold was discovered in the headwaters of Orofino Creek in 1860, thousands of miners illegally trespassed into the Nez Perce reservation hoping to strike it rich. Though some Nez Perce (notably Lawyer) welcomed the newcomers because they could sell them services, livestock, and food, others mistrusted the miners’ intentions and wanted them gone. Lawyer had a plan. For the promise of $50,000 ($1.5 million today), he signed an agreement opening the reservation north of the Clearwater River to whites. Lawyer reasoned that once the mines went bust, the Soyapu would leave. At this time (1861) the Nez Perce had still not received any promised funds or services from the 1855 treaty they’d signed six years previously, even though renumerations had been promised within one year.

Nez Perce loyalties were fracturing. Some bands had already abandoned faith in the Americans’ empty promises, while others maintained the belief that continued cooperation was the only way forward and that the Americans would eventually make good on the treaties.

The $50,000 Lawyer had agreed to never materialized and settlers continued to pour in. Soon, a town called Lewiston (named after Meriwether Lewis) was established. When Lawyer protested, he was promised that no permanent structure would ever be built there, and that the inhabitants would leave after the gold mining was over.

The miners continued to come, and the Indian agents, who were sworn by duty to protect the treaty rights of the Nez Perce, either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop them. “To attempt to restrain miners would be, to my mind, like attempting to restrain a whirlwind,” one said in 1861. By the summer of 1862 there were nearly 20,000 whites in the Lewiston area, and they had acquired enough political power to demand the Nez Perce be removed from “their” home.

What happened next? The 1863 treaty.

Last updated: August 26, 2020

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