Incorporating Nez Perce Lands

Throughout the 1800s the United States incorporated lands on which Indians had lived for centuries. Supporting white gold miners and development of the trans-Pacific railroad in the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. government pressured the Nez Perce people into ceding their lands by exploiting divisions caused by Christianizing efforts.

In 1855 several members of the Nez Perce nation negotiated with the United States and were persuaded to sign a treaty that required them to remain on a reservation. Later a group under Chief Joseph, refusing to sign a treaty that would greatly reduce their lands, fought back. They evaded capture but upon surrender were banished to military camps in Indian territory.

Niimiipu, The Nez Perce

By 1700 more than 4,500 Niimiipu lived in the Northwest plateau region, now the states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. In 1805 they saved members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starvation, receiving them with hospitality. English, American, and French fur trappers followed, with the French giving the Niimiipu the name of Nez Perce.

Chief Tamason, who had converted to Christianity, was a delegate to Washington, D.C., for the Nez Perce, around 1880s

Chief Tamason, who had converted to Christianity, was a delegate to Washington, D.C., for the Nez Perce, around 1880s

Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Rabbit Skin Leggings, of the Nez Perce tribe, painted by George Catlin while in St. Louis, around 1831

Rabbit Skin Leggings, of the Nez Perce tribe, painted by George Catlin while in St. Louis, around 1831

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The Nez Perce and the Horse

Nez Perce culture was distinguished by elaborate and ornamented horse trappings. Introduced by the Spanish in the 1600s, the horse greatly changed their way of life by the 1730s, extending possibilities for trade and transport and enlarging their hunting grounds. The Nez Perce learned the art of selective breeding, developing the spotted Appaloosa.

 

Nez Perce with their horses, 1900

Nez Perce with their horses, 1900

Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Chief Joseph’s Surrender

Chief Joseph resisted U.S. efforts to take more land, after an initial treaty had greatly decreased the Nez Perce reservation. His people fought back against the U.S. Army for more than 1,500 miles. Chief Joseph’s struggle to protect his displaced people, including children and elderly tribe members, touched the American public, yet this did not prevent their relocation.

Chief Joseph’s surrender to General Miles, Montana Territory, 1877 

Chief Joseph’s surrender to General Miles, Montana Territory, 1877
 

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Chief Joseph, around 1890

Chief Joseph, around 1890

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Nez Perce Idaho reservation, 1899

Nez Perce Idaho reservation, 1899

Courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington, L97-18.71