Nez Perce Conflict of 1877

   

What is sometimes referred to as the "Nez Perce War of 1877," though more accurately called the "Conflict of 1877," actually began long before weapons of war were used. When the Treaty of 1863 was being negotiated with such Christianized leaders as Lawyer (appointed originally by Spalding and Stevens as "head chief), members of the Wallowa Band in northeast Oregon refused to cede their traditional homelands around Lake Wallowa.  Those lands had been acknowledged and secured in the Treaty of 1855. Compare the Treaty of 1863 with original Nez Perce Treaty of 1855.  Along with other non-Christian bands, the Wallowa band did not take part in signing a treaty that would eliminate their ancestral homelands from the newly reduced Nez Perce Reservation. See Joseph band.  The schism between the Christians and Traditionalists had manifested itself among the Nimíipuu. 

Interestingly, in 1873 President Grant, acknowledging some level of legitimacy in the argument put forward by the Wallowa bands, created the Wallowa Reservation for those bands not signing onto the Treaty of 1863.  But demands on the lands of the area from an influx of settlers caused President Grant to restore the area to public domain in 1875.

After a council with the non-treaty chiefs failed to persuade Wallowa bands to move to the new reservation, Gen. Oliver O. Howard gave a 30-day ultimatum demanding the Indians' prompt "voluntary" relocation." While the non-treaty chiefs such as Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass preparations to comply, a handful of young Nimíipuu warriors, seeking retribution for past transgressions, attacked and killed eighteen hostile white settlers trespassing and living along the Salmon River.   To view a map of the traditional lands and treaty boundaries of the tribe, and the meaning of the term "Nimíipuu".

Word of the attack quickly spread to Fort Lapwai and General Howard. Knowing that a successful Nimíipuu uprising could be contagious, General Howard, with no contact or direct knowledge of the situation, sent out 103 men from Fort Lapwai. Howard's goal was to effectively put an end to the killings and provide safety for the white settlers by "silencing" the Indians.  

Eagle-feather Staff: the Indian Flag, at the Big Hole Battle Site, 2001.  Each year members of the tribe return to commemorate and honor their deceased relatives and the events of 1877.

The soldiers first encountered the Nimíipuu at White Bird, resulting in the initial battle of the Nez Perce conflict. During the battle, the Nimíipuu let it be known that they were a force to be reckoned by defeating a third of General Howard's disorganized army with no losses of their own. After their victory at White Bird on June 17th, the Nimíipuu launched their three month 1,600 mile struggle to find aid and refuge. The war pitted the non-Treaty Nimíipuu bands against a force of 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers, citizen volunteers, and Indians from various tribes. You can listen to this honor or chief song recently sung at the White Bird Memorial (Recorded by Antonio Smith, June 1999).  

You will need RealPlayer to access the songs and video in this page. For a free version, .  

The three-month, 1,300 mile-long flight took Nimíipuu across the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho Montana border, through Yellowstone National Park, then north through Montana. While seeking the help first from the Flathead and then the Crows, the final objective was to find safety with Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull after crossing the U.S. Canada border. Although normally friendly to the Nimíipuu, neither the Flathead nor Crows wanted any part in this war. Some 750 non-treaty Nimíipuu were involved, only 250 of them were warriors, the rest were women, children, and elders. After their skillful victory at White Bird, the Nimíipuu and the U.S. Army were involved in five additional battles.

Chronology of Battle Events

Clearwater Battle, July 11-12: Though indecisive, the Nimíipuu forces were strengthened because the warrior Looking Glass and his band joined the fight.

Big Hole Battle, August 9: Some 90 Nimíipuu lives were lost in this battle, many of them women and children. Today, the Big Hole battlefield is a National Historical Site. You can listen to this flag song sung recently at the Big Hole Memorial in Montana (Recorded by Antonio Smith, August 1999). See map.

Otis Halfmoon recounts the story of the battle  

Otis Halfmoon is a noted oral historian with the Nez Perce Tribe.

Otis Halfmoon tells of the journey leading up to the Big Hole Battle. Part 1 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

Otis Halfmoon tells of the significance for him of the Big Hole Battle. Part 2 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

Otis Halfmoon tells of the warnings before the attack. Part 3 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

Otis Halfmoon relates what was occuring in the Nimíipuu camp on August 8th, 1877, just prior to the attack. Part 4 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

Otis Halfmoon tells of the initial attack on the camp. Part 5 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

The attack continues, as told by Otis Halfmoon. Part 6 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

The attack is repulsed by the Nimíipuu, as told by Otis Halfmoon. Part 7 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

The "terrible sounds that happened," in the aftermath of the battle, as told by Otis Halfmoon. Part 8 (Interviewed by Dan Kane, August 2001)

Camas Meadows Battle, August 20: The Nimíipuu slowed Howard's advance by stealing some 150 mules in this conflict.

Canyon Creek Battle, September 13: Although an Army unit managed to catch up to the Nimíipuu, their advance was repelled.

Bear Paw Battle, September 3 to October 5, only about 40 miles from the Canadian border: The Nimíipuu were intercepted by Col. Nelson Miles, with both sides in this final battle sustaining great losses. Being trapped and weary of his people's suffering, on October 5th, Chief Joseph negotiated an end to the fighting, surrendering with over 400 Nimíipuu, and gave his speech that has since become famous, concluding with, "Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more, forever."  

During the 3-month conflict, some 123 soldiers and 55 civilians were killed, while an estimated 155-200 Nimíipuu died and some 90 were wounded. 

Although some Nimíipuu survivors were able to escape to Canada with Chief White Bird, those that surrendered in hope of returning to Idaho were instead relocated to Oklahoma's Indian Country. Eventually, in 1885 the U.S. government allowed Nimíipuu who had converted to Christianity to return to the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho. Chief Joseph and 150 others, who chose to retain their traditional religion, were exiled to a reservation at Colville, Washington.   Chief Joseph died in 1904.

Read a little about the stories of two key warriors, Yellow Wolf and Peo peo TholektAll biographical texts written by Nakia Williamson, of the Nez Perce Tribe's Cultural Resources Program.

 

Gathering at Big Hole-Flags 320.jpg

At the Big Hole Battlefield, August 2001. Photo by Dan Kane and Jason Goldammer.

For additional information and background on the Conflict of 1877, see:

Jerome Greene  

    2000 Nez Perce Summer 1877. Montana Historical Society Press. (with maps and illustrations; on the web)

                Alvin Josephy 

                    1965 The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest.  Houghton Mifflin.

                Lucullus McWhortor, 

                    1940 Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caxton Printers.

                    1952 Hear Me, My Chiefs!: Nez Perce Legend and History.  Caxton Printers.

 

 

The contents of this page are from the Lifelong Learning Online Project.  Lead PI, Rodney Frey.

They were reviewed and approved for publication by the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, 2002.

© Nez Perce Tribe 2002

 

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