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Seeing ghosts on the Nez Perce Trail

The 1,170-mile route traces a disgraceful chapter in our history, when peace-loving Native Americans were driven from their homeland.

May 11, 2003|James Dannenberg | Special to The Times

Bear Paw, Mont. — IT is a lonely, wind-swept corner of the northern Montana plains, within sight of mountains to the south and west and a scant 40 miles from the Canadian border. This shallow depression in the rolling grassland doesn't advertise itself, and all that signifies its importance are a few understated memorial placards and the offerings of recent visitors.

This is the Bear Paw, where on Oct. 5, 1877, the Nez Perce tribe's Chief Joseph surrendered after an epic four-month, four-state fighting exodus from the tribe's ancestral home in Oregon's Wallowa Valley. Bound for the safety of Canada, spent from their many Pyrrhic victories over the U.S. Army, the harried remnants of Joseph's people succumbed after a five-day siege. Here Joseph, surrendering to Col. Nelson Miles, said, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more, forever."

I hadn't planned on visiting the Bear Paw, but some busted camping plans last summer left me at loose ends for a few days, and I was eager to hit the road in big sky country.

In 1986 Congress created the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, tracing as nearly as possible the route taken by Chief Joseph and nearly 800 followers from what were known as the "non-treaty" bands of the Nez Perce tribe. It is theoretically possible to walk the entire 1,170 miles, but over the years I have found it easier to drive many of the roads paralleling the trail and connecting with points of interest that are, since 1965, officially administered as the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Nez Perce Trail -- An article in Sunday's Travel section about the Nez Perce Trail misspelled the town of Lewistown, Mont., as Lewiston. Also, the airfare listed from LAX was to Lewiston, Idaho, not Lewistown, Mont. From LAX, service to Lewistown, Mont., is available on America West or Alaska, connecting to Big Sky Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $318.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 18, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Montana town -- An article in the May 11 Travel section about the Nez Perce ("Seeing Ghosts on the Nez Perce Trail") misspelled the town of Lewistown, Mont., as Lewiston. Also, the airfare listed from LAX was to Lewiston, Idaho, not Lewistown, Mont. From LAX, service to Lewistown is available on America West or Alaska, connecting to Big Sky Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $318.

Friends to whites from the time of Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce, or Nimiipu, were as peaceful a nation as ever resided on this continent, but by the 1870s they were the victims of repeated predation by treaty-violating settlers and an indifferent U.S. government.

Festering personal grievances exploded on June 13, 1877, when some warriors sought revenge -- without Joseph's sanction -- by raiding ranches and farms in the Salmon River Valley area. Joseph saw that his band's only chance of salvation lay in leaving the Wallowa Valley and marching to refuge in Montana with his allies the Crows, or in Canada with Sitting Bull's Sioux.

Less than a year after George Armstrong Custer's demise at Little Bighorn, the country was disinclined to allow a band of armed Indians free rein outside reservation lands, so the Army immediately mobilized to stop Joseph.

It wasn't up to the task. The historically peaceable Nez Perce outgeneraled, outshot and outfought every unit thrown at them until they were eventually overwhelmed at Bear Paw.

Joseph's retreat crossed some of the most difficult and spectacular country in the American West, reason enough for the casual traveler to learn a little history while on the road. And it's a history of battle: The major points of interest -- White Bird Creek, Clearwater Creek, Ft. Fizzle, Big Hole, Camas Meadows, Yellowstone, Canyon Creek Field and, finally, Bear Paw -- mark the bloodletting endured by Indian and soldier during that summer and fall of 1877.

If it's the beginning you're looking for, start in the Wallowa Valley at Joseph, Ore. The park's headquarters, a museum and a visitor center are located at Spalding on Highway 95, about 10 miles east of Lewiston, Idaho. More than half of the 38 interpretive sites in the historical park are in the small area encompassing the intersection of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The first conflict was at White Bird Creek. On June 17, 1877, the 1st Cavalry fired on an Indian truce party. Thirty-four soldiers were killed but no Nez Perce. Today an interpretive site overlooks the spot, on U.S. 95 about 15 miles south of Grangeville, Idaho.

After regrouping, the Army pursued and on July 11 attacked with artillery and Gatling guns at the Clearwater River. The battle was something of a standoff, but the Nez Perce successfully retreated. An interpretive site on Idaho 13 is about two miles south of Stites.

The retreat began in earnest along the Lolo Trail, traveled earlier by Lewis and Clark, but not before another -- this time bloodless -- confrontation at "Ft. Fizzle." A detachment from the 7th Infantry, supported by 150 civilians, barricaded the trail near the Clearwater River. In a parlay the Nez Perce convinced the defenders that they would not surrender and that they meant no harm. Resistance crumbled, and on July 28 they simply moved around the barricade without a fight.

Today U.S. 12, the Lewis and Clark Highway, generally follows the Lolo Trail about 100 miles over the Bitterroot Mountains by way of Lolo Pass, where there is a seasonal visitor center.

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