Last updated: June 22, 2021
The Corps of Discovery and the Nez Perce
Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery traveled through Nez Perce country in the fall of 1805. After some initial apprehension, the Nez Perce embraced the expedition and provided help when the party was nearing starvation. After journeying further west, Lewis and Clark returned in the spring of 1806. They spent more time with the Nez Perce than any other tribe encountered during their expedition.
Lewis and Clark engaged in a diplomatic exchange with Nez Perce chiefs. The captains sought to establish trading posts and intertribal peace in the region. The Nez Perce were willing to cooperate as long as guns and other weaponry were provided to the tribe.
Like their Shoshone neighbors, the Nez Perce were without guns or ammunition. This left them vulnerable to their enemies who could obtain weapons from Canadian traders and also hampered their ability to hunt buffalo. The Nez Perce were known for their horsemanship and breeding, especially the Appaloosa horses, which provided a great advantage in traversing long distances in order to hunt and fish.
The Flight of 1877
Chief Joseph’s father refused to sign the 1863 Treaty. On June 15, 1877, The Wallowa Band of Nez Perce (Nimíipuu) fled their homelands in Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon to escape being forced to move to the reservation in Idaho. They hoped to evade violent engagements with settlers and the United States Army and find a more peaceful existence living according to their traditions. An estimated 750 to 800 men, women and children and 250 warriors were pursued by military which included the 7th Infantry and 7th Calvary of the U.S. Army. They set off near Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon and traveled a circuitous 1,170 miles over five months through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The Tribe planned to ally with the Crow for security, but when the Crow refused aid, the Tribe headed toward the Canadian border.
Route through Yellowstone National Park
They entered Yellowstone National Park on August 23. Only a small part of the route taken by the Nez Perce who fled from the US Army in 1877 went through Yellowstone (established in 1872), and they largely eluded their pursuers while there.
During their time here, the Nez Perce encountered about 25 visitors in the young park, some more than once. Warriors took hostage or attacked several of these tourists, killing two. The group continued traveling through the park and over the Absaroka Mountains into Montana.
Nez Perce Commemorative Sites in Yellowstone
Although none of the officially designated historic sites associated with the Nez Perce are located in Yellowstone, the historic trail goes through the park, and it is considered a sacred place by many Nez Perce who have continued to honor their ancestors and carry on their memories through ceremonies conducted in the park.
End of the Flight
Leaving Yellowstone, the Nez Perce continued their flight to Canada. Along the way, the Nez Perce warriors valiantly fought U.S. military and citizen volunteers across a series of battles. But starved and exhausted from the journey and persistent clashes, the brave Chief Joseph surrendered following a battle near Bears Paw Mountains in Montana, less than 40 miles from the Canadian border. It is here that it is believed the flight ended and Chief Joseph said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
Led by Chief White Bird, nearly 300 Nez Perce men, women and children managed to escape the battle at Bears Paw and make their way into Canada where they joined Sitting Bull and the Lakota near Fort Walsh. Following surrender, the Nez Perce were sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and eventually to reservations in Oklahoma, where deplorable conditions led to the death of most babies born on the Indian Territory. Today, the trail represents a sacred journey, connecting the surviving Nez Perce people to the past, present and future.
- Travelers can retrace the Nez Perce National Historical Trail by car along more than 1,500 miles of federal, state and county roads narrated by the Auto Route, with trail signs along the way.
- Auto Tour Pamphlets with maps, history and points of interest of all eight segments of the trail
- Google Map of Nez Perce Historic Trail Auto Tour
- Trail Map with modern-day travel routes and sites to visit along the trail.
- Essential Trail Companion: Following the Nez Perce Trail, A Guide to the Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail with Eyewitness Accounts by Cheryl Wilfong
- Outdoor Safety & Ethics & FAQs
- Each summer, the Nez Perce Trail Foundation offers a week-long driving, hiking and camping educational tour of the trail, visiting sites that include Wallowa Valley, Lolo Trail, Nez Perce National Historical Park, Big Hole Battlefield and Tamkaliks Celebration & Friendship Feast.
- Bear Paw Battlefield is the site of the final conflict of the Nez Perce War and Flight of 1877.
- Beartooth All-American Road: Lush forests become alpine tundra in just a few miles on the highest elevation road in the Northern Rockies, with access to Yellowstone National Park.
- The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in northwest Wyoming links the town of Cody with the Beartooth Highway and the Northeast Gate of Yellowstone National Park. The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after the Native American chief of the Nez Perce Tribe. Following the Battle of the Big Hole in Idaho in 1877, Chief Joseph fled east through Yellowstone.
- Located on the banks of the Clearwater River south of Kamiah, the Heart of the Monster is the legendary birthplace of the Nez Perce Tribe, where Coyote defeated a monster and, in turn, created the Nez Perce people. A walking path takes you to an interpretive shelter and another to a small seating area where audio stations tell the legend in English and Nez Perce.
- The Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center tells the Nez Perce story and preserves tribal customs and culture. The center hosts the Tamkaliks Celebration & Friendship Feast each July.
- NPS Nez Perce Historical Park consists of 38 places important to the history and culture of the Nimiipuu. https://www.nps.gov/nepe/index.htm