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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Nez Perce National Historical Park
Idaho (additional non-Lewis & Clark related-units in Oregon, Montana, and Washington)

Location: Clearwater, Idaho, Lewis, and Nez Perce Counties; headquarters at the Spalding park unit, in Nez Perce County, about 10 miles east of Lewiston; address: P.O. Box 93, Spalding, Idaho 83551.

Situated in the ruggedly beautiful Nez Perce country, which encompasses 12,000 square miles of northern Idaho, this new and unique park allows today's traveler to see the land as Lewis and Clark described it more than a century and a half ago. The park, many sites of which are located within the boundaries of the historic Nez Perce Indian Reservation, is the scene of many significant events in the history of the Rocky Mountain frontier. It interprets not only the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but also the prehistory, history, culture, and religion of the Nez Perces; missionary efforts among them; the invasion of fur traders, miners, and settlers; and the Nez Perce War (1877).

Lewis and Clark, on their westward journey in 1805, were the first nonnatives to contact the hospitable Nez Perces. In 1811 the tribe also aided a small group of Astorians, a section of the overland party, who passed through the area on their way to found a fur post, Fort Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The next year, personnel from the fort established trade relations with the Nez Perces, and other American and British traders soon visited them.

In 1836 the Reverend and Mrs. Henry H. (Eliza) Spalding, the first U.S. missionaries to the Nez Perces, arrived and began a program that lasted many decades. Relations between the Americans and the tribe remained good until the 1860's, when miners and settlers poured into its ancestral homeland of north-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. This led in time to the Nez Perce War (1877), caused by the refusal of the nontreaty Nez Perces to accept assignment to the reservation their fellow tribesmen had occupied. [The history of the missionary movement and the Nez Perce War and their relation to Nez Perce National Historical Park, along with pertinent sites, are treated in detail in Soldier and Brave, New Edition, Volume XII in this series.]

Nez Perce National Historical Park, authorized by Congress in 1965 and expanded in 1992 to include sites in Montana, Oregon, and Washington, represents a new concept in a national park. It is a joint venture of the National Park Service, other governmental agencies, the State of Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, private organizations, and individuals. Of the original 24 sites involved, 20 will remain in the hands of their present owners or under a protective scenic easement. With the expansion of 1992, 14 additional sites, both federally- and privately-owned, were added to the park. Folders available to visitors at National Park Service units give exact locations of all sites and routing information.

Canoe Camp
Site of the expedition's Canoe Camp, on the south bank of the Clearwater River about 5 miles west of present Orofino, Idaho, on Highway U.S. 12. The camp was across and close to the river in the copse of 12 to 15 trees along the bank in the right center of the photograph. While staying there from September 26 to October 7,1805, the explorers constructed five dugout canoes to carry them to the Pacific. (National Park Service (Mattison, 1958).)

The Service administers five major sites: Spalding; East Kamiah; White Bird Battlefield; Bear Paw Battlefield; and Canoe Camp, which is associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This camp, now a 3-acre roadside park, was the approximate location of a key Lewis and Clark camp site, occupied on the westbound journey during the period September 26-October 7, 1805. In Clearwater County along U.S. 12 and about 5 miles west of Orofino, it is situated along the south bank of the Clearwater River opposite the junction of the north fork of the river with the main stream.

This site derives its name and importance from the construction there of the five dugout canoes the expedition used to resume its water journey on the Columbia River system to the Pacific after the difficult crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains from Montana into present Idaho over the Lolo Trail. That arduous trek had debilitated the entire party, which was exhausted and half-starved.

Fortunately, the Nez Perces, first encountered by the advance party on Weippe Prairie at the western end of the trail on September 20, provided a friendly reception. But probably the strange food—camas roots and dried fish—that they furnished the group caused an outbreak of dysentery, which further weakened the men. Anxious nevertheless to continue their trip, they soon moved a few miles westward to the Clearwater, aided and accompanied by many Nez Perces. On September 25 Clark and Chief Twisted Hair found along the river a clump of trees—apparently yellow pine, known today as Ponderosa—that were large enough for the building of canoes. The next day, the main body came up to what has become known as Canoe Camp.

Canoe Camp site
Canoe Camp. (National Park Service (Nez Perce National Historical Park).)

All the men who were able set to work. Instead of hewing the wood, they burned out the tree trunks, the faster and easier Indian method. Before leaving, the explorers branded their 38 horses and left them in Twisted Hair's care over the winter so they could be recovered on the return trip. Nearby, the saddles and some ammunition were cached.

Most of the camp area, narrow and triangular in shape and situated between the river and U.S. 12, is covered with lawn grass, but a few pine trees are scattered about. Unfortunately, modern intrusions are numerous, because level plots along the Clearwater are few, and those that exist are at a premium for building sites. A filling station and several houses are immediately adjacent to the park area. Construction of the Dworshak Dam on the north fork of the Clearwater has resulted in landscape changes and scars on the north bank of the Clearwater, opposite the Canoe Camp site. An exhibit at the site consists of a modern dugout canoe, covered by an open-sided wooden shelter, as well as an interpretive marker.

Two of the sites among the non-Park Service group have major associations with the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Weippe Prairie and the Lolo Trail. These are National Historic Landmarks and are described separately in this volume. The other sites are related to Nez Perce culture, legend, and mythology; the Nez Perce War; military and missionary relations with the tribe; and the mining rush to Idaho in the 1860's.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004