Nez Perce Flight of 1877
During July of 1877 this traditional trail, which had long been a source of joy and sustenance, became a trail of flight, conflict, and sorrow for the non-treaty bands of the nimí·pu· (Nez Perce).
The nimí·pu· withdraw from the Clearwater Battle and camp that eveing near Kamiah, Idaho. Troops occupy and plunder the former nimí·pu· camp on the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
The non-treaty nimí·pu· cross the Clearwater River at Kamiah, Idaho.
The non-treaty nimí·pu· move to and camp near Weippe.
After struggling against the U.S. army for four weeks, the non-treaty nimí·pu· bands head east on the Lolo Trail, hoping to find safety in Montana. Musselshell Meadows was the site of their first camp after leaving the Weippe Prairie. Imagine for a moment you are a young nimí·pu· about to leave the land where you were born, where you played as a child, where you fished or gathered camas as an adolescent. Imagine leaving the land where your grandparents were buried, not knowing if you would ever return. These thoughts must have captured the minds of the nimí·pu· as they camped in this meadow.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army camped upon Temme ilpílp's (Chief Redheart) band on the Weippe Prairie. There were about 20 men, women, and a few children in this camp who were returning from Montana. They had not joined the bands on the flight, but had only met and bid them farewell. One of General Howards Nez Perce scouts came riding in and told them, "It will be best to come on your own reservation. There you will be safe." Most of them answered, "We will go." Instead, they were marched 60 miles on foot in irons in the heat of July to Lapwai, then later sent by boat from Lewiston, Idaho to Fort Vancouver, Washington, where they remained prisoners until April 1878.
Not far from Incendiary Creek, a rear guard of the fleeing non-treaty nimí·pu· ambush a scouting party that General Howard had sent ahead of his other troops. Lepeet Hessemdooks (Two Moons) described the encounter: "...See, we have passed over some of the worst trails and still they keep after us... Let our families travel on while the warriors go back to where we can lay for the enemies. We hid in the brush to get them at close range. Soon the voices grew. It was Nez Perce scouts. Christians of our tribe, working for the government against their own tribe, their own blood people. Rainbow took a shot and wounded one of them . Other shots were fired and I do not know if any others of them were struck." The scout who was hit, Sheared Wolf/John Levi, died from his wounds.
Two companies of the 7th Infantry with Captain Rawn, supported by over 150 citizen volunteers, constructed a log barricade near Lolo Creek at what became known as Fort Fizzle.
The non-treaty nimí·pu· arrived at Lolo Hot Springs, well ahead of the army. Duncan McDonald, a Nez Perce man who reported on the flight in local area newspapers, wrote: "When the Nez Perce camp reached the Hot Springs on the Lolo Trail... three Indians met them in their camp. One of these Indians was Nez Perce, but his home was in the Bitter Root Valley. He told Looking Glass there were some soldiers on the trail watching for them to come." The soldiers he spoke were under the command of Captain Rawn at Fort Fizzle.
In addition to the three Indians, two young men from Stevensville were at the hotsprings on a summer outing. They rushed home to spread the news of the nimí·pu· arrival.
The non-treaty nimí·pu· meet with Captain Rawn at Fort Fizzle to make several things very clear.
- They had no intention of molesting settlers or property.
- They wanted to travel in peace.
- They would not surrender their horses, arms, and ammunition.
- They were not ready to return to the hostile environment in Idaho.
Soon after the meeting on July 26, many settler volunteers returned home. Some reports say they were convinced that the Nez Perce wanted a peaceful trip through the Bitterroot Valley.
Captain Rawn had clear orders. He said the Nez Perce could not pass. However, the barricade failed when the nimí·pu·, with their horses and possessions, climbed a steep ravine behind the ridge to the north and bypassed the soldiers. The previously unnamed barricade thus became the ridiculed 'Fort Fizzle.'
General Howard leaves Kamiah and camps at Weippe.
General Howard's command camps at Musselshell Meadows, more than two weeks after the fleeing non-treaty nimí·pu· had passed through.
General Howard established a five-hour breakfast camp with his cavalry and infantry in Parker Meadows, a favored gathering site for nimí·pu· to gather roots and other food sources. That night his command camped at Lolo Hotsprings, nearly two weeks after the fleeing non-treaty nimí·pu· had passed through.
Learn more about what happened next by following the links below.