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Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Weippe Prairie
Nez Perce National Historical Park

Location: Clearwater County, adjacent to Idaho 11, along the southern edge of the town of Weippe. The part of the prairie north of the town bears no special relevance to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As of 1992, it is now a part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

On this prairie, the western terminus of the Lolo Trail over the Bitterroot Mountains, Lewis and Clark first encountered the Nez Perces on their westbound journey in 1805 and camped there the following year just prior to recrossing the trail. In both instances, the friendly Nez Perces, who had never seen white men before, provided valuable assistance. The cordial relations the explorers established with them remained unbroken for more than seven decades, until the encroachment of white settlers on their lands led to the Nez Perce War (1877).

Leaving behind mountains and forest and entering the southeastern corner of the elevated, open prairie, which had earlier been sighted in the distance, on September 20, 1805, Clark and an advance party of six men proceeded about 5 miles to a Nez Perce village. Just before then, they had met the first tribesmen. The next day, Clark and his group moved to another village about 2 miles to the northwest. From there, they sent back Reuben Field and an Indian with food for Lewis and the main party, which arrived at the easternmost village on September 22. The two captains called the prairie the "camas flats," "quawmash flats," or "quawmash grounds." The Nez Perces obtained from it an important part of their food supply—camas, or quawmash, roots.

Weippe Prairie
Weippe Prairie, looking to the northwestward toward the city of Weippe, Idaho. On this upland prairie, western terminus of the Lolo Trail and long a camas-digging ground of the Nez Perces, Clark and his advance party met the first tribesmen in September 1805. (National Park Service (Mattison, 1958).)

The Indians helped the famished and weary explorers recover from the ordeal of the Lolo Trail, particularly by giving them camas roots, dried fish, and berries from their own small supply. The tribesmen also provided some encouraging news: the Clearwater River was navigable and led to the Pacific via the Snake and Columbia Rivers. On September 24, leaving the prairie, the party moved a few miles northwestward to the Clearwater at what has come to be known as Canoe Camp (described in Nez Perce National Historical Park). There, the Nez Perces helped locate trees that were large enough for the construction of canoes. And, on October 7, after about 2-1/2 weeks among the tribe, the expeditioners left their horses behind for safekeeping with the tribe and moved downriver.

On the return trip the next year, the explorers stayed much longer among the Nez Perces, some 7 weeks, while waiting for the snow in the Bitterroots to melt sufficiently to permit a crossing. Most of the horses that had been left with the tribe the year before were recovered. The last camp prior to recrossing the Bitterroots was on Weippe Prairie, roughly a mile southeast of the easternmost of the two villages where the Nez Perces had first been encountered the previous year. On June 10 Lewis and Clark moved up to the camp from Camp Chopunnish. On June 15 they made their first attempt to cross the Lolo Trail but were driven back to their base camp on June 21 by deep snow and frigid cold. On June 24 they set out once again and this time successfully crossed the trail, in 6 days.

Weippe Prairie
Weippe Prairie. (National Park Service (Nez Perce National Historical Park).)

Weippe Prairie, interpreted to the public today as part of Nez Perce National Historical Park, is still a beautiful upland prairie, bordered by pine forests. Looming against the sky in the distance to the east are the dark Bitterroots. Although a few farmhouses and some fencing are present, enough open area remains to suggest the unspoiled prairie that Lewis and Clark visited. The property in the area is privately owned or held by the town of Weippe.

The site of the westernmost of the two villages visited by the expedition in 1805 is about a mile southwest of the town; the easternmost, about 2 miles southeast of the other village. The expedition's 1806 campsite was located approximately a mile farther east, or about 2 miles southeast of the town of Weippe, between two branches of Jim Ford Creek.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004