Shortly after purchasing the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson ordered an expedition to explore and map the newly acquired territory and establish an American presence before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and establish trade with local Native American tribes. To lead the expedition of U.S. Army volunteers, Jefferson chose his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, an intelligent and literate man who also possessed skills as a frontiersman. Lewis in turn solicited the help of Second Lieutenant William Clark, whose abilities as draftsman and frontiersman were even stronger.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition began on May 21, 1804 when they and 33 soldiers and others departed from their camp near St. Louis, Missouri. The first portion of the expedition followed the route of the Missouri River during which they passed through places such as present-day Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska.
As the expedition crossed the Bitterroot Mountains along the border of Montana and Idaho, a party of six hunters led by Clark went ahead of the main body searching for wild game and other foodstuff. Near the western end of the Lolo Trail, the group came across a small camp of Nez Perce. Having a long association with French trappers and missionaries, the Nez Perce – many who had converted to Catholicism – welcomed the American explorers, treating then with generosity and respect. They also resupplied and aided the Army expedition.
After staying with the friendly Indians for days, the explorers continued their journey by boat to the Pacific. Horses were left with the friendly Indians to care for until the explorers returned. Faithful to the trust, the Indians returned the horses to the Americans without serious difficulty.
Unfortunately, like many other western tribes, this original goodwill would change due to westward movement of European Americans and the discovery of gold on traditional Indian lands.
For the Nez Perce tribes, it was when prospectors found gold on their reservation in 1860. This discovery led to a rush of settlement on the tribe’s ancestral lands. Tensions inevitable grew as the settlers appropriated traditional native lands and prospectors searched for gold with no regards toward their nomadic lifestyle.
Realizing a serious problem was growing between the friendly Nez Perce and the European Americanbelieving it was their Manifest Destiny (which held that the U.S. was destined to expand from coast to coast), the U.S. government took the same action they had done repeatedly when it came to relationships with the Indians: instead of forcing the white settlers to leave, the government’s solution was to reduce the land on which the Indians could live, forcing them into smaller and smaller reservations.
Like Indian tribes throughout America, the Nez Perce did not have one chief in charge of the entire tribe. Instead there were many Chiefs who were each leaders of small bands of Indians.
When the United States tried to reduce the Nez Perce tribe’s land, they negotiated mostly with the Chiefs that were on their side. This led to the Nez Perce spitting into two groups: one side – the farmers and livestock herders – accepted the coerced relocation to a reservation. The non-treaty group refused to give up their ancestral homeland in Idaho and Oregon and continued living in the tradition they had been doing for hundreds of years.
The non-treaty Nez Perce suffered many injustices at the hands of settlers and prospectors, but out of fear of reprisal from the militarily superior Americans, Chief Joseph of the Wallowa band never allowed any violence against them, instead making many concessions in hopes of securing peace.
In 1873, Chief Joseph negotiated with the federal government to ensure his people could stay on their land in the Wallowa Valley. But in 1877, the government reversed its policy, and Brig. General Oliver Howard threatened to attack if the Wallowa band did not relocate to the Idaho Reservation with the other Nez Perce. Joseph reluctantly agreed.
The day following the council, Chiefs Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass all accompanied Howard to look at different areas. Howard offered them a plot of land that was inhabited by whites and Native Americans, promising to clear out the current residents. Joseph and his chieftains refused, adhering to their tribal tradition of not taking what did not belong to them.
Unable to find any suitable uninhabited land on the reservation, Howard informed Joseph that his people had 30 days to collect their livestock and move to the reservation or face a war they could not win.