Treaty of 1863

By 1863, the area around the Orofino mining camps was truly the ‘wild west.’ Violence between miners and Indians was commonplace. Congress decided that something needed to be done. Rather than strictly enforce the no-Soyapu (white people) clause of the treaty of 1855 and remove all the new settlers from the reservation, they instead decided to draft a new treaty so the areas where settlers were living were no longer a part of the reservation at all. Having the mining camps on government-owned land would allow the American style of law enforcement to take place there.

To understand what happened next, it’s important to understand the perceived autonomy of each individual band. Throughout the nimíipuu (Nez Perce) homeland since time immemorial, individual leaders had always regarded their bands as autonomous. Though they would gather with other nimíipuu to trade or socialize, each group considered themselves separate independent entities, villages unto themselves. Every band was self-sufficient, creating their own clothing and tools and getting their own food from the land. There was no overarching government between all the separate tribes; no faraway kings or sheriffs who imposed laws and collected taxes. The American treaty negotiators did not fully respect such a society and continually looked for one “head chief” capable of speaking on behalf of all Nez Perce. After all, it is easier to reach an agreement with one person than with 56 people.

One nimíipuu man (Hallalhotsoot, more commonly referred to as “Lawyer”) assumed the position of “head chief.” He was well known to missionaries and fur traders because of his great English and negotiating skills and his eagerness to learn the ways of the foreigners. He was twelve when Lewis and Clark visited his village and had always been fascinated by Soyapu language and culture. Although he was respected amongst his people, he was not recognized as having the authority to speak on anyone’s behalf. He was considered as more of a language and culture translator than a spokesperson.

Since the American government had never paid up on its promises of the 1855 treaty, many nimíipuu bands were disgruntled, reluctant to hear more empty promises. After a few days of deliberation without agreement, Thunder Eyes declared the Nez Perce Nation dissolved. They would be separate people; the "treaty" group and the "non-treaty" group. Chief Joseph was so incensed he tore up his copy of the 1855 treaty and his Gospel of Matthew (which Henry Spalding had given him years previously) before he rode home.

When Lawyer and other pro-treaty headmen signed the 1863 treaty on June 9, 1863, the US government assumed they had reached an agreement with all Nez Perce. Chief Joseph, Chief White Bird, and other "non-treaty" headmen, meanwhile, thought they would not be held to any agreement that they did not actually agree to. In this way, the 1863 treaty planted the seeds of conflict that would eventually grow to the 1877 Nez Perce War.

Last updated: November 5, 2022

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