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Lewis & Clark - Early Settlers

While random fur trappers were brave enough to venture into the unknown West, the true migration of Euro-Americans did not occur until after Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery made their venture into the Salmon and Snake River region 1805.  It was the first significant contact between the Nez Perce Indians and Euro-Americans.  On their way west, they made camp at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, near today’s towns of Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington.  After wintering on the Pacific Coast they returned to this area in the early summer of 1806.  During this time Sergeant John Ordway was sent on a fishing expedition and through a careful reading of his journal, historians have determined locations on both the Salmon and Snake rivers that Ordway visited.  Knowledgeable professional guides can point out these places to you.

Not long after Lewis and Clark traveled through, fur trappers began to enter the region in great numbers.  One of the first was Donald McKenzie, who arrived at the confluence of the Little Salmon and Salmon Rivers, near Riggins, in 1811.  He traveled along the Salmon River to the White Bird area before continuing north on his search for areas rich in furs. 

With more white settlers and prospectors moving westward, more and more conflict developed between them and the Native Peoples of the West.  In 1855, the Nez Perce Indians signed a treaty that established a reservation with the understanding that the tribe would retain control over a majority of their territory, which included the entire area surrounding the Lower Salmon River.  But the discovery of gold in 1861 on Nez Perce land shortly thereafter, caused even more chaos.  In 1863, a new treaty was drafted which greatly reduced the Tribe’s territory. Only a few bands of the Nez Perce Tribe agreed to this new treaty.  Those who did not agree were forced to move into the new treaty area in 1877.  All of this pressure as well as a number of other factors instigated a confrontation between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Indians, which erupted into the Nez Perce War.

The first battle was fought at what is now the White Bird Battlefield on June 17, 1877.  After this initial fight in which no Indians were killed, the Nez Perce chiefs led their party across the Salmon River at Horseshoe Bend, near the mouth of Slate Creek.  They traveled across Joseph Plains to the west, then turned north and crossed back over the Salmon River near Billy Creek.  From Billy Creek they went east, passing Cottonwood, and then traveling east on the Nez Perce Trail which is the same trail Lewis and Clark used in 1805.  They dodged the U.S. Army at Fort Fizzle and entered the Bitterroot River valley.  They continued south crossing briefly into Idaho, then east to the Big Hole River valley.  There was another battle there.  They continued through what is today Yellowstone National Park, then north back to Montana where some were finally captured in October of 1877.  About 750 Nez Perce people began this arduous journey of 1,170 miles.  After numerous skirmishes and the arduous trek, only 418 Nez Perce were still with the group when they were captured. Some had and fled across the Canadian border, 40 miles to the north. The others had already been killed.  The trail the party followed has been designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.  See the Further Reading sections for numerous reading options concerning the Nez Perce War or visit Friends of the Nez Perce.


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