The Nez Perce National Historic Trail follows US Highway 191 from Judith Gap through Lewistown and on to Hilger. At Hilger it turns to the north and follows Montana Highway 236 along Dog Creek to Winifred. From Winifred, the trail follows the Knox Ridge Road to the Two Calf Road and then the Two Calf Road to the Woodhawk Trail. It follows the Woodhawk Trail to the Deweese Ridge Trail, and from Deweese Ridge it drops down to the Missouri River at Cow Island. It goes up Cow Creek to Suction Creek, then Suction Creek to the Bears Paw Battleground on Snake Creek.
The flight of the Nez Perce to Canada was an epic journey to escape confrontation with U.S. military forces. General Sherman called the saga of the Nez Perce "the most extraordinary of Indian wars." Pressed into a fight by the rash actions of a few vengeful braves, some 750 "nontreaty" Nez Perce fought for their lives in two pitched battles in Idaho, then sought escape from the pursuing Army. Their circuitous route through four states, dictated by terrain and strategy, measured over 1,170 miles. From first to last, a warrior force that never exceeded 250 men fought 20 engagements with pursuing forces which totaled some 2,000 soldiers plus uncounted civilian volunteers and support from Nez Perce enemies.
The Nez Perce campaign, with its series of battles and skirmishes, yielded greater casualties than the Battle of Little Bighorn. About 300 of the 750 fugitive Nez Perce - men, women and children - died before reaching the Bears Paw Mountains, or shortly thereafter as prisoners. The Nez Perce campaign was a "Freedom Flight," a life-or-death effort by peaceful people, demonstrably wronged, to escape from their violated homeland to seek distant lands in which they might again live their own lives.
Their fighting was defensive, not aggressive. Their primary goal was to avoid conflict with the Army. There is irony in the fate of the Nez Perce. In contrast to the behavior of some other tribes, their actions were exemplary. Their help to Lewis and Clark assured the success of the famed explorers. Fur traders admired the Nez Perce. They were superb warriors and horseman. They were the first Indians in the Pacific Northwest to request missionaries. When miners and ranchers invaded their homelands, they showed great patience despite growing abuses, while looking vainly to the Government for justice. They left their Oregon and Idaho homeland in May, and with the U.S. Army in pursuit, made their way east to Yellowstone National Park and then north through their old hunting grounds in central Montana. The route was familiar to them. They followed traditional trails, which had long been a source of joy and sustenance. But the fond memories of hunting the buffalo, trading with old friends and visiting, were replaced by the reality of flight and conflict; their route now became a trail of sorrow. The beleaguered Indians reached the Missouri River on Sunday, September 23, 1877.
Some 50 tons of steamboat freight at Cow Island Landing was being guarded by Sergeant William Moelchert, 11 soldiers and 5 civilians. The Nez Perce asked for supplies, and at first were refused. Eventually, Sergeant Moelchert and his troops gave them some of their own hardtack and bacon. It wasn't enough, and the Indians returned in force, this time taking what they wanted and burning the rest. They continued their flight up Cow Creek, eventually camping 6 miles north of the Bears Paw Mountains where they were finally captured on October 5 by Col. Miles, just 45 miles short of their Canadian goal.
Chief Joseph's surrender speech is well known. "Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yea or no. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; on one knows where they are - perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
For more information on the Nez Perce, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/npnht/