THE NEZ PERCE FLIGHT THROUGH YELLOWSTONE

For two weeks in the late summer of 1877, Yellowstone National Park was visited by 800 reluctant travelers. These unhappy migrants (along with 2,000 head of their stock) were members of five bands of the Nez Perce Indian tribe who had fled central Idaho on an epic flight to Canada.The Nez Perce were a peaceful people and had long been considered friendly to the white man. It was through their cooperation and guidance that the Lewis and Clark expedition succeeded in their exploration mission to the Pacific Northwest. For many years following that first encounter with white Americans, the Nez Perce had lived cooperatively and peacefully with settlers and missionaries in their homeland, which included land in
northcentral Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. In the 1860s all of that changed. There was an influx of miners and, later, ranchers to the region, and they pressured the Nez Perce to give up most of their lands. Some of the tribe’s numerous bands agreed to the loss of their land and moved to a reservation in western Idaho. But, five bands of the tribe resisted, and, eventually, some young warriors in a fit of anger
killed four settlers. The military arrived to restore order and force the recalcitrant bands onto the reservation. Initially, the five bands tried to surrender by raising a white flag, but the military fired on them, and in the resultant battle, the military lost. The dissident bands, including one led by Chief Joseph, fled on a circuitous 1,300 mile trek to Canada. The Nez Perce were convinced that if they could just reach Canada they would find sanctuary and be able to live their lives in peace. However, the military was not about to let them escape, and General O.O. Howard was sent in hot pursuit.

The Nez Perce entered Yellowstone in mid-August 1877 in the vicinity of the present West Entrance. They were somewhat familiar with the Yellowstone region as it was along one of the routes they had historically followed when traveling to the grasslands of Montana in pursuit of bison. The fugitives traveled upstream along the Madison and Firehole rivers, heading east and then south towards the Old Faithful area. On August 24, near the Lower Geyser Basin they captured 2 prospectors and 9 tourists from Montana who were visiting
the park. While there was no intent to harm these white captives, the Nez Perce did not want them reporting the tribe’s whereabouts to the pursuing army.

Before reaching the Old Faithful area, the Nez Perce left the Firehole River and followed Nez Perce Creek upstream and across the central plateau of the park. By this time, one of the group of Montana tourists, George Cowan, had had enough, and in the ensuing shouting match with his captors, was shot and left for dead (he survived and was later rescued). Eventually, all of the captives escaped or were released. The Nez Perce continued their trek along the southern edge of Hayden Valley and crossed the Yellowstone River at
Buffalo Ford (also called Nez Perce Ford) and went on to the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. Camping near Indian Pond, they were almost overtaken by Army Captain S.G. Fisher and his Bannock scouts. Fisher pursued the Indians up Pelican Creek about 10 miles, but returned to his camp where he had to spend two days recovering from a stomach ailment.

The Nez Perce headed north, continuing to try and avoid encounters with the military. To this end, the Nez Perce relied on information from several scouting/raiding parties. Throughout their time in Yellowstone, these scouting/raiding parties made forays into the surrounding countryside. One of these parties charged a group of tourists at Otter Creek, leaving one tourist dead. Another looted and burned the ranch of the Henderson brothers below present-day Gardiner, Montana. Another group of scouts killed a tourist in the doorway of McCartney’s Hotel in Mammoth. And, another burned Baronett’s bridge on the Yellowstone River to prevent the military from following them.

By the time Captain Fisher resumed his pursuit of the Nez Perce, they had moved their camps over the Pelican Creek divide and were at the headwaters of the Lamar River, which is at the base of the Absaroka Mountains. Eluding Fisher’s pursuit, at least part of the Nez Perce went through the Hoodoo Basin at the head of the upper Lamar and dropped down to the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon and travelled out of the park toward the Yellowstone River. Another group is thought to have exited the park 10-15 miles south of Cooke City, Montana.

The Nez Perce had sent representatives ahead to enlist the aid of their traditional friends, the Crows, but the Crows were unwilling to help. When Crow assistance did not materialize, the Nez Perce continued their flight north. They were pursued to Snake Creek, Montana (near Chinook), within 40 miles of the Canadian border, where they surrendered October 5, 1877, after a final battle with the Army.

The flight of the Nez Perce is recognized as an important event in our nation’s history. Look for Nez Perce National Historic Trail signs at the West Entrance and Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone where they mark the approximate locations of the entrance and exit routes of the Nez Perce.