Idaho's Mount Borah
Soaring over the Snake River Birds of Prey NCA Survey pin Teepees at Idaho's Sacajawea Interpretive Center in Salmon Riding Idaho's rangelands Kayaking on Idaho's scenic rivers
BLM>Idaho>River Activities>Lower Salmon>Human History
Print Page

Lower Salmon River - Human History

People have been here for thousands of years. The first human inhabitants of the Lower Salmon River canyon were Native Americans who lived in the canyon 11,400 years ago. Fish from the Salmon River made up half the diet of the Nez Perce. Early explorers dubbed it the “River of No Return” after navigating its rapids. The dynamic Salmon River and the people it nourishes are very special.

Learn about  the first inhabitants of the Lower Salmon River and the arrival of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805.  Mining began along the Salmon River in 1860 and continued through the early 1900s.

Historic | Mining | Agriculture & Ranching | Transportation | Boating History

Pre-Historic - (before written records)

The Last 12,000 years

The first human inhabitants of the Lower Salmon River were Native Americans who lived in the canyon 11,400 years ago. Climatic conditions were cooler than today. People probably relied on deer, elk, small game, fish and a multitude of plant resources found in the canyons and the surrounding area for sustenance.

The climate changed around 8,500 years ago with a peak in aridity and much hotter conditions than today. The human inhabitants adapted to the new conditions by becoming less reliant on big game for food and placing a greater dietary emphasis on plant, river mussel and fish resources. The climate slowly moderated with increasing precipitation and cooler temperatures by 4,000 years ago. During this period, the use of plant resources and river mussels continued to increase, with big game remaining part of the diet.

Some of these pits can still be seen today along the Lower Salmon River. The people who lived in these riverside villages hunted deer, elk and mountain sheep and relied on salmon, steelhead trout and mussels as important food sources.

As the area's population increased, people began to move seasonally with the migrations of large game animals, although they continued to winter in permanent villages composed of pit houses. The importance of salmon, steelhead and root crops as food sources grew. Roots of the cous, found in river canyons, and camas, common in moist upland meadows and prairies, were eaten raw or baked and stored for winter use.

Around 1720, the Nez Perce Indians, long-time inhabitants of the Lower Salmon River area, obtained horses and a new era was born. Horses enabled the Nez Perce to travel greater distances and expand their already extensive trade networks. Trading and hunting trips into what is now Oregon and Montana became common.

Rock art created by pre-historic and historic inhabitants of the Lower Salmon River area is still visible in many places. Pictographs, designs painted on the surface of rocks, can be found along the river. The function of pictographs is unknown. They may have been drawn to represent events, serve as trail markers or send messages to others. Along the Lower Salmon River, the pictographs are usually red. The paint was made by grinding ochre, or iron oxide, and mixing it with oil or grease and resin. Please remember that rock art is fragile. View and photograph these sites, but please do not touch the paintings! Rubbing the figures or even touching them can destroy this early art.

 (Return to Top)


Historic (after written records)

The historic period of the Lower Salmon River region begins with the arrival of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805. It was the first significant contact between the Nez Perce Indians and the Euro-Americans. Lewis and Clark traveled along the Clearwater River to the north. Although they did not visit the Lower Salmon River, Sergeant Ordway, 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. One of the first was Donald McKenzie, who arrived at the confluence of the Little Salmon and Salmon Rivers, near Riggins, in 1811. He traveled along the Salmon River to the White Bird area before continuing north on his search for areas rich in fur.

In 1855, the Nez Perce Indians signed a treaty that established a reservation with the understanding that the tribe would retain control over most of their territory, which included the entire Lower Salmon River. But in 1860, gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, creating pressure from Euro-Americans to change the reservation boundaries. In 1863, a new treaty was drafted which greatly reduced the tribe's territory. Only a portion of the Nez Perce agreed to this new treaty. Those who did not agree were forced to move into the new treaty area in 1877. Before moving to the reservation at Lapwai, several young Indians camped at Tolo Lake near Grangeville and killed some of the white 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 first battle was fought at what is now the White Bird Battlefield on June 17,1877. After this initial fight in which no Indians were killed, Chief Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs led their party across 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 that direction until they arrived in the area of Missoula, Montana. The party then turned south into Idaho, then east through Yellowstone National Park, then north to Montana where they were captured in October of 1877, only a few miles from the Canadian border. About 750 Nez Perce people began this arduous journey of 1,170 miles. After fighting almost the entire way, only 418 Nez Perce were still with the group when they were captured. The others had been killed or escaped. The trail the party followed has been designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

 (Return to Top)



Mining began along the Salmon River in 1860 with the discovery of fine or "flour," gold. The area was mined intensively through the 1880s. Mining activity continued through the early 1900s with another large influx of miners during the Depression years of the 1930s. Miners used several methods to extract gold from placer deposits, the loose gravel and soil deposited by the river in terraces. In the widely used hydraulic method, water was transported from a nearby stream into a reservoir or pressure box where it funneled into a large moveable nozzle called a "hydraulic giant." A stream of high pressure water was then used to break up the hillside. The excavated material was carried away in sluice boxes with artificial riffles installed to catch the heavier gold. The larger rocks were pitched out into tailing piles. Today evidence of hydraulic mining, high vertical banks, extensive rock tailing piles and remnants of ditches, canals and reservoirs can be seen along the Lower Salmon River. The total amount of gold removed from this area is unknown. Miners also attempted to mine copper north of White Bird and near the Salmon and Snake River confluence.

The presence of Chinese immigrants, who came to work the newly discovered gold fields along the Lower Salmon River in the 1860s forms an interesting part of the area's history. Most Chinese mining along the river occurred between 1870 and 1900. Immigrants left extreme poverty in their homeland and came to America to work and save money so they could return to China as wealthy individuals. The Chinese maintained much of their native culture since they planned on returning home, although many eventually decided to stay. They were often victims of discrimination, frequently chased off their claims, robbed and sometimes murdered. The laws of many mining districts prohibited the Chinese from mining. Since the mineral values along the Lower Salmon River were comparatively low, the Chinese were generally allowed to mine there without much interference. The Chinese who lived along the river usually built rock structures containing a fireplace with a wooden framework over the top, probably covered with canvas. Many of these rock structures are still standing today. An excellent example can be found just below Half 'n Half rapids.

Mining was prohibited on land within 1/4-mile of the Lower Salmon River in 1986 when the BLM withdrew the area from mineral entry.

 (Return to Top)


Agriculture and Ranching

Although most of the land along the Lower Salmon is not suitable for agriculture, some gardens and orchards were planted along the river. Some miners, especially the Chinese, maintained garden plots at their mine sites. Most of the land along the Lower Salmon River is, however, suited to ranching. Settlers brought the first cattle to the region in the early 1860s. Grazing from 1890 to 1940 was unrestricted and quite heavy, much heavier than would be acceptable today. Sheep were also brought to the area. Feuds arose between cattle and sheep ranchers over use of the range. The feuds sometimes resulted in poisoned water holes, crop destruction and even murder. All land along the Lower Salmon River is still grazed today, primarily from November through May. Ranching continues to be an important part of the regional economy.

(Return to Top



Ferries were critical to move both people and livestock across the forbidding barrier of the Lower Salmon River in the days before bridges were built. By the early 1900s, many areas in Idaho were settled with a system of trails and roads that led to small communities, homesteads and mines. The stage road between White Bird and Riggins was completed between 1894 and 1898. When highway 95 was constructed in 1931, it obliterated most of the stage road. Northern Pacific completed the first railroad survey along the river from Salmon to Lewiston in 1872. However, construction was not feasible due to high cost. From 1920 to 1940, a road from Rock Creek to White Bird, paralleling the Lower Salmon River, was planned to shorten the distance between cottonwood and White Bird. The road was under construction in 1939 but was abandoned in 1940, reportedly because of political pressure from the nearby town of Grangeville, which would have been bypassed. A three-mile segment of that road now provides access to the Pine Bar Recreation Site.

 (Return to Top)


Boating History

Nez Perce Indians used canoes, ranging from 15 to 40 feet long, and water-tight skin boats on the Lower Salmon River. A fur trapping expedition attempted to boat the Salmon River in a small skin canoe in 1832. The Journey ended in failure when two men drowned and two others walked out of the canyon. Surveyors conducting the 1872 Northern Pacific railroad survey traveled much of the river in boats built in Salmon, Idaho. In the 1870s boating on the Salmon River began in earnest when large wooden scows were built to transport mining supplies down river. These scows were probably patterned after similar boats used on the Mississippi River a century before. The scows, 32 feet long and 8 feet wide, with double hulls and 3 feet high gunwales, could be built in three days. They were steered by two boatmen operating "sweeps," two 22 to 28 feet poles with 12 to 14 feet blades, set on a pivot, one on the bow and one on the stern. At the end of each trip, the scows were dismantled and the wood was sold for building materials since there was no way to get them back upstream. This is how the Salmon River earned the nickname "River of No Return." The most famous river man on the Salmon in the early days was Captain Harry Guleke, who piloted scows down the river from 1896 through the 1930s. His trips included a National Geographic Expedition in 1935. Although you won't see wooden scows on the river today, you can see a replica built for the Idaho Centennial in 1990 on display at the Visitor Center in Riggins on Highway 95.

The first known trip on the Salmon River with inflatable craft occurred in 1929 when four men paddled two 9 1/2 feet rubber boats from Shoup to Riggins. Wooden dory-style boats first appeared in 1936. In 1947, Glen Wooldridge, a Rogue River veteran, ran a 32 feet plywood boat with a 33 horsepower outboard upstream from Riggins to Salmon, forever tarnishing the river's "no return" reputation.

Boating as we know it today with kayaks, canoes, rafts and other crafts began on the Salmon River in the mid-1970s and continues to evolve.

(Return to Top)