SPALDING, IDAHO — A silver medal that may have been given to a Nez Perce Indian chief by Lewis and Clark in 1806 as a symbol of America's emerging power has made an improbable journey from the rolling Clearwater Valley to New York City's concrete canyons.
Its provenance isn't ironclad, but some historians believe the Jefferson Peace Medal minted in Philadelphia went up the Missouri River in a pirogue, was buried and exhumed from an Indian grave by Northern Pacific Railroad workers and eventually landed with Edward Dean Adams, the New York financier and J.P. Morgan contemporary.
Long considered stolen, the medal surfaced around 2002 in the American Museum of Natural History's South American collection.
Allen Pinkham, a distant nephew of Cut Nose, the chief believed to have received the medal, is now pushing for its return to Idaho. Pinkham sees it as a step in correcting two centuries of injustices since the "extreemly hungry and much fatiegued" adventurers -- Lewis and Clark's own words and spelling -- tromped into his great-great-great-great-uncle's village and changed the tribe's world forever.
"It is an injustice. It was grave robbing," Pinkham told the Associated Press. "When we quit stealing from one another, then we become one people. This is also part of that recovery."
Historians say the medal -- with President Jefferson's image on one side and hands clasped to represent friendship on the other -- is a numismatic Forrest Gump that bore witness to Manifest Destiny in action: the opening of the frontier, the laying of the rails, Edward Adams' Wall Street -- in short, America's rise to power and Indians' fall from it.
"It's this portal to all these stories," said Mike Venso, a former Idaho journalist now living in St. Louis who helped trace the medal to museum storage in New York. "That's the magic of this object."
When Lewis and Clark left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, they brought about 90 medallions to impart a clear message on the Indians who received them: A U.S. juggernaut spanning the North American continent was rising to replace the French, Spanish and British trappers who had plied trade routes along the Missouri for a hundred years.
"Your great father . . . could consume you as the fire consumes the grass of the plains," Lewis warned one tribe in 1804, on the consequences of not cooperating.
"These objects were very much delivering the message that there's a new and dominant government overseeing these areas," said Robert Miller, a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and author of "Native America, Discovered and Conquered."
After wintering on the Pacific Ocean, the explorers had just entered what is now Idaho when they encountered a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater. Though first unimpressed by its leader, they gave him "a medal of the small size with the likeness of the President," according to a May 5, 1806, entry that also described the scars on Cut Nose's face, which had come from a lance wound in battle.
"This is the residence of one of 4 principal Cheifs of the nation whom they call Neesh-ne-park-ke-ook or the cut nose from the circumstance of his nose being cut by the snake Indians with a launce in battle," Lewis wrote. "He may be a great Chief but his countenance has but little intelligence and his influence among his people seems but inconsiderable."
Their estimation appeared to grow -- especially after Cut Nose helped bring about the return of a stolen tomahawk that belonged to Charles Floyd, the only expedition member to die along the journey.
In fact, Lewis and Clark's encounters with the Nez Perce, like Cut Nose, left them with a glowing impression of the tribe, especially after the petty thievery and harassment the exploration party suffered from Indians downstream on the Columbia River, said Gary Moulton, a University of Nebraska historian and Lewis and Clark journal editor.
"In the Nez Perce, they found people that were distinguished, welcoming, generous and friendly," Moulton said.
In all, the journals mention Cut Nose on 12 dates -- including a June 12, 1806, entry describing how the chief borrowed one of the explorers' horses to capture young eagles, which the Indians raised for their feathers.
After the June 23 entry, Cut Nose made what under ordinary circumstances might have been his last cameo appearance in documented western U.S. history: He was at an 1834 rendezvous with Protestant missionary Jason Lee, according to the book "The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest," by Alvin Josephy.
But in 1899, workers building the Northern Pacific Railroad where the Potlatch River runs into the Clearwater some 15 miles east of Lewiston unexpectedly unearthed several Indian graves. Items exposed included beads, a flintlock rifle, rusty hatchets -- and the peace medal "carefully wrapped in many thicknesses of buffalo hide," according to a 1919 railroad history written by Olin Wheeler.