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Cottonwood Field Office

Cultural History Phases

HISTORIC PHASE of the Lower Salmon River

The next cultural development in the area can be referred to as the Historic Phase, or that phase when Euro-Americans first entered the region to the present day. Although historic records are helpful, the archeologist can still obtain information from historic sites that was never recorded in written records.
Different aspects of the Historic Phase will be outlined. Since many of these activities overlapped or occurred at the same time, no clear sequential ordering of events is possible. Therefore, various historic developments are considered separately.  
The arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1805 began the Historic Phase. Lewis and Clark traveled along the Clearwater River to the north. Although they did not visit the Lower Salmon River, it is believed that a member of their party traveled to an area around the confluence of the Salmon and Snake Rivers. Soon after, fur trappers began to enter the region.
Donald McKenzie arrived at the confluence of the Little Salmon and Salmon Rivers in 1811. He traveled along the Salmon River to the White Bird area before continuing north on his search for areas rich in furs.
In 1855, the Nez Perce signed a treaty establishing a reservation with the understanding that they would retain control over most of their territory which included the entire Lower Salmon River. But in 1860, gold was discovered on their land creating pressure from Euro-Americans to change the reservation boundaries. In 1863 a new treaty was drafted, greatly reducing their territory. Only a portion of the Nez Perce agreed to this treaty. Those who did not agree were forced into the new treaty area in 1877. They had to cross the Snake River during high water in June, which made the crossing very dangerous. While camped at Tolo Lake (near Grangeville) before moving onto the reservation at Lapwai, several young men left camp and killed some of the settlers along the Salmon River near White Bird. This instigated a confrontation between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Indians which erupted into the Nez Perce War.

The initial battle took place at what is now the White Bird Battlefield on June 17, 1877. After this initial battle, the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs, crossed the Salmon River at Horseshoe Bend (near the mouth of Slate Creek). They traveled across Joseph Plains to the west, then turned north and crossed back over the Salmon River near Billy Creek. From Billy Creek they went east, passing Cottonwood, and continued east until arriving near Missoula, Montana. There, they turned south back into Idaho, then east through Yellowstone Park, then, finally, north back to Montana where they were captured in October, 1877.
Looking south from Whitebird Summit

Nez Perce National Historic Trail

About 750 Nez Perce people began the arduous journey of 1,170 miles. They had to fight almost the entire way, and when captured, only about 418 remained. The others had been killed or had escaped before they could be captured. The trail they followed has been designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.