Throughout its history, Yellowstone National Park has been frequented by many native tribes. All of these groups have a unique and cherished history that binds them to the land on which Yellowstone sits, but perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and tragic stories is that of the Nez Perce, or Nimiipu.
In the summer of 1877, 146 years ago, a gold rush and the continued reduction of land reserved by the United States government led to the Nez Perce being driven from their homeland in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. A group of approximately 800 Nez Percé decided against relocation to a newly established reservation, choosing instead to seek a new home. They were led by their soft-spoken and stoic leader, Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (also known as Chief Joseph).
The trip was supposed to be peaceful, but skirmishes with the colonists ensued, often manifesting in back-and-forth revenge for murders committed in previous encounters. As a result, the Nez Perces’ journey 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 pursuing the Nez Perce band as they marched east from the Wallowa Mountains, first making contact at White Bird Battlefield in western Utah. Idaho on June 17, 1877.
As the U.S. Army was greeted by a six-person peace party from Nez Perce carrying a white flag, a civilian volunteer opened fire, sparking a battle that resulted in heavy casualties and triggered the Nez Perce’s flight to Canada.
The Nez Perces would go on to encounter the U.S. military numerous times during their journey, including at the Clearwater Battlefield (northeastern Idaho) and at the Big Hole Battlefield (western Montana). ), before the group entered Yellowstone National Park on August 23, 1877.
Hungry for their losses in the 1876 Battle of Greasy Grass, or as it was also known, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and determined to punish the Nez Perce to discourage other native tribes who might consider rebelling against the United States, the Nez Perces were pursued by more than 2,000 US Army soldiers.
Yellowstone was no foreign country to the Nez Perce, who often visited the park in search of its abundant resources and wild game. While in the park, the Nez Perces encountered 25 tourists, and looting of supplies and multiple revenge killings took place.
Today, you can follow the Nez Perce Trail through Yellowstone National Park along park roads near Nez Perce Creek, Otter Creek, Nez Perce Ford, and Indian Pond. The Nez Perce crossed the Yellowstone River at Nez Perce Ford, through the Pelican Valley and Hoodoo Basin, and through the Absaroka Mountains, leaving Yellowstone National Park and heading north toward the border Canadian, where they hoped to find safety. Before they could reach their destination, the Nez Perces were once again stopped by the U.S. military in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains in northern Montana, just 40 miles from Canada.
This epic Nez Perce journey covered more than 1,170 miles across four states and multiple mountain ranges, and approximately 250 Nez Perce warriors held off pursuing US Army troops in 18 battles, skirmishes, and engagements. Ultimately, hundreds of American soldiers and Nez Percé (including women and children) were killed in these conflicts before the Nez Percé surrendered, and Chief Joseph – one of the last surviving chiefs of the band – gave the now famous speech in which he declared, “From where the sun now stands, I will never fight again.”
Some of the Nez Perces were able to reach Canada, but the others, including Chief Joseph, agreed to be resettled on numerous reservations in the American Northwest. Chief Joseph died in 1904 at the age of 64 on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington of a “broken heart”, according to 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 gaze upon its enchanting landscape. But long before Western society encroached on its borders, Indigenous peoples revered this land for its resources and cultural significance.
The next time you find yourself driving along Wyoming Highway 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, en route to visiting Yellowstone National Park, remember the flight and fate of the Nez Perces, who have walked the very path on which you are leading.
You can visit many of the Nez Perce memorials in Nez Perce National Historical Park along the 1,170-mile Nez Perce National Historic Trail, which stretches from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, to the Bear’s Paw Mountains, Oregon. Montana. For details, see https://www.nps.gov/nepe/