Commentary

Yellowstone National Park’s connection to the 1877 flight of the Nez Perce

Summer 2023 marks the 146th anniversary when the Nimiipu crossed Yellowstone in an attempt to reach Canada during a running battle with the U.S. Army, write guest columnists Ken Sims and Cole Messa.

July 19, 2022 4:10 am
Map of how the Nez Perce traveled through Yellowstone

This is the route followed by a band of Nez Perce (or, in their language, Nimiipu) in 1877. A band of 800 men, women, and children — plus almost 2,000 horses — left their homeland in what is now Oregon and Idaho as they were pursued by the U.S. Army. The group crossed through Yellowstone National Park until they were ultimately captured by U.S. Army forces in northern Montana. (Courtesy of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Spatial Analysis Center)

Throughout its history, Yellowstone National Park has been frequented by numerous indigenous tribes. All of these groups have a unique and cherished tale bonding them with the land upon which Yellowstone sits, but perhaps one of the most harrowing and tragic stories is that of the Nez Perce, or Nimiipu.

In the summer of 1877, 146 years ago, a gold rush and and the U.S. government’s continued reduction of reservation land resulted in the Nez Perce being driven from their homeland of the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon. A group of about 800 Nez Perce decided to refuse relocation to a newly established reservation, instead opting to seek a new home. They were led by their soft-spoken and stoic leader, Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (also known as Chief Joseph).

Photo of Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (Chief Joseph) taken in November 1877 by O.S. Goff in Bismarck. (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The voyage was meant to be peaceful, but skirmishes with settlers ensued, oftentimes manifesting as back-and-forth revenge for killings committed during prior encounters. As a result, the Nez Perce’s trek to discover a new home, safe from the relentless encroachment of an ever-growing nation, became marked by fear and bloodshed.

After an initial skirmish in Idaho, the U.S. Army began to pursue the band of Nez Perce on their march east from the Wallowa Mountains, first making contact at White Bird Battlefield in western Idaho on June 17, 1877.

While the U.S. Army was greeted by a six-person peace party of Nez Perce carrying a while flag, a civilian volunteer opened fire, sparking a battle which resulted in heavy casualties and ignited the flight of the Nez Perce toward Canada.

The Nez Perce would continue to encounter the U.S. Army on numerous occasions during their journey, including at the Clearwater Battlefield (northeastern Idaho) and the Big Hole Battlefield (western Montana), before the group entered Yellowstone National Park on Aug. 23, 1877.

White Bird Battlefield
The White Bird Battlefield is about 15 miles south of Grangeville, between U.S. Highway 95 and the old Whitebird Grade, approximately 0.5 miles from the town of Whitebird, Idaho. (Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun)

Stinging from their loses at the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass, or as it also known, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and determined to punish the Nez Perce to discourage other indigenous tribes who might consider rebelling against the United States, the Nez Perce were pursued by over 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers.

Yellowstone was not foreign country to the Nez Perce, who often visited the park in pursuit of its abundant resources and wild game. While within the park, the Nez Perce encountered 25 tourists, and looting of supplies and multiple revenge killings occurred.

Today, you can follow the path of the Nez Perce through Yellowstone National Park along park roads near Nez Perce Creek, Otter Creek, Nez Perce Ford and Indian Pond. The Nez Perce forded the Yellowstone River at Nez Perce Ford, traveled through Pelican Valley and Hoodoo Basin, and passed over the Absaroka Mountains, exiting Yellowstone National Park to head north toward the Canadian border, where they hoped to find safety. Before they could reach their destination, the Nez Perce were stopped by the U.S. Army once more in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains of northern Montana, only 40 miles away from Canada.

This epic journey of the Nez Perce covered more than 1,170 miles across four states and multiple mountain ranges, and about 250 Nez Perce warriors held off the pursuing U.S. Army troops in 18 battles, skirmishes and engagements. Ultimately, hundreds of U.S. soldiers and Nez Perce (including women and children) were killed in these conflicts before the Nez Perce surrendered, and Chief Joseph — one of the last surviving chiefs of the band — gave the now-famous speech in which he said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Some of the Nez Perce were able to reach Canada, but the rest, including Chief Joseph, accepted resettlement in numerous reservations throughout the American northwest. Chief Joseph would pass away in 1904 at the age of 64 on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington of a “broken heart,” per his doctor’s account. He is buried near the village of Nespelem, Washington.

Yellowstone National Park is a place of wonder, beauty, and almost spiritual significance to all who look upon its enchanting landscape. But long before Western society encroached upon its borders, indigenous people revered this land for its resources and cultural importance.

The next time you find yourself driving along Wyoming Highway 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, on your way to visit Yellowstone National Park, remember the flight, and plight, of the Nez Perce, who walked the very trail upon which you drive.

You can visit numerous Nez Perce Commemorative Sites of Nez Perce National Historical Park along the 1,170-mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail, stretching from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear’s Paw Mountains, Montana. For details, see https://www.nps.gov/nepe/index.htm.

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Ken Sims
Ken Sims

Ken Sims is an isotope geology professor at the University of Wyoming. His educational goal is to prepare students to understand and safely manage the Earth and its resources for the future. He strives to provide an educational environment where students can learn to think, conduct research, apply their knowledge, and achieve success in a rapidly changing world.

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Cole Messa
Cole Messa

Cole Messa is getting his Ph.D. through the Geology and Geophysics Department at the University of Wyoming. His research interests include isotope geochemistry and volcanology.

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