Nez Perce: History & Wars

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Nez Perce people and their history of interaction with the U.S. government. Though originally a peaceful tribe, the Nez Perce fled their land in reaction to U.S. government actions in the 1870s.


How many times have you moved? Perhaps you migrated to a different area because you parents got new jobs, or perhaps you moved yourself for school or for better living conditions. If you live in the U.S.A. in the twenty-first century, though you may have migrated for a variety of reasons, chances are you have not moved out of fear for your own safety. However, as recently as 1877, just such a predicament faced what remained of the Nez Perce people and Chief Joseph the Younger.


The Nez Perce people traditionally occupied territory in the Pacific Northwest, in the river valleys of the Columbia River and its tributaries - an area that is now in parts of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Though estimates prior to contact with white settlers vary, dozens of semi-permanent villages existed in the region and the Nez Perce likely had a population of about 6,000.

The Nez Perce practiced a semi-nomadic lifestyle which followed the varying seasons and wildlife routines of the region they inhabited. For example, the Nez Perce would often move west into parts of Montana and Idaho following herds of buffalo, but during the summer and fall salmon runs, they would move east to take advantage of fishing opportunities.


The Nez Perce are remembered largely as a peaceful tribe, and the encounter with the explorers Lewis and Clark - their first contact with white settlers - illustrates this fact. In 1805, as Lewis and Clark traveled west, they ran low on supplies before encountering a Nez Perce village. The Nez Perce shared their food with the hungry travelers and even agreed to keep their horses safe while the expedition continued west to the Pacific by river.

The Nez Perce continued their peaceful terms with the United States government, especially under Chief Joseph the Elder. Originally named Tuekakas, he took the name Joseph when he agreed to be baptized by a missionary in 1838. In 1855, he helped the governor of Washington draw up a large reservation for the Nez Perce people, encompassing over six million acres of traditional Nez Perce land.

Peace, however, did not last. In 1863, following discoveries of gold in Nez Perce land, the federal government unilaterally reduced the Nez Perce reservation by 90% and ordered the Nez Perce to move themselves off of the rest of the reservation. In response, Chief Joseph not only refused, but famously renounced all Nez Perce treaties with the U.S. government, and then slashed his American flag and tore up his Bible.

War and Flight

This contentious relationship came to a head in 1877, when the Nez Perce were led by Joseph's son, Chief Joseph the Younger. In June, a detachment of the U.S. Cavalry under General Oliver Howard was sent west to force the Nez Perce onto the reservation.

Though a portion of the tribe complied, Chief Joseph the Younger refused and fled with 800 Nez Perce men, women, and children. The group, which only contained about 200 actual warriors, skirmished with the U.S. force while fleeing over 1,100 miles, attempting to reach Canada. The group made it to within forty miles of the U.S.-Canadian border before finally surrendering after the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain.

Many of these Nez Perce were relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, though most returned to the new reservation in the Pacific Northwest before the end of the nineteenth century.


The Nez Perce reservation today consists of roughly the same area the government redrew in 1863, mainly in parts of four counties in northern Idaho. The Nez Perce Nation still maintains authority on the reserve, and the Nez Perce language is still spoken by many of the roughly 18,000 Nez Perce living there today.

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