In 1863 the Joseph or Wallowa Band Nez Perce lived quietly in the Wallowa Country, isolated by mountains on three sides and the Snake River Canyon to the east. There were no white settlers—though a couple of French trappers married to Nez Perce women had lived among them from time to time—just a few hundred Indians who gathered summers in the Wallowa valley and at the Lake to hunt and socialize and catch and dry fish, and then spread out in family groups along the tributaries of the Snake River in colder times.
In 1863, to the north, over high timbered country and across what is now called the Grande Ronde River and then more high country and then about at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, white men made new lines on maps drawn at Walla Walla in 1855 that had promised the Wallowa Country and a total of almost 8,000,000 acres total to the Nez Perce people forever. The new lines would exclude the Wallowas and whittle the Nez Perce Reservation down to fewer than 800,000 acres.
|Nez Perce arrive at Walla Walla in 1855|
The reservation lines of 1855 had been made impossible by the discovery of gold and the intrusion of 18,000 white miners on the Reservation and a Civil War in the East that needed the gold and left no time or desire on the part of the federal government to understand and protect Indians from the economies and the greed of its white citizens.
I had wondered why the new lines needed to omit the Wallowa Country. The Wallowa Nez Perce were not engaged in all that was going on in the outer world—the mission churches, the alcohol, the gold commerce that was growing like cancer to the north. Old Joseph, who had once invited the Reverend Spalding in, had given up his Bible after the doings in Walla Walla, no gold had been found, and there were no white settlers demanding land in the Wallowas.
If the 1863 treaty had allowed the Nez Perce to keep the Wallowa country, I reasoned, the War of 1877 might not have happened. What were Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Washington Territory Calvin Hale and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the new state of Oregon, W.H. Rector, and their white colleagues thinking? And Lawyer and the other Indian treaty signers?
In the end, after carefully reading the Josephy chapters in the big Nez Perce book and related chapters in his Civil War in the West book and looking at a map, I realize that I was the simple thinker. Joseph and his small band and the Wallowa Country were an island in a growing sea of whites and rapidly changing economies and religious activities that were transforming the region
The Nez Perce, who had escaped with ceding only small portions of their territories in the 1855 Treaty, were awash in white miners, missionaries, and, maybe most importantly, changing attitudes towards land. At Walla Walla, Indian chiefs argued that the land was their mother and could not be divided and sold. But others had started talking about the sale of land, and, in essence, agreed to compensation for ceded lands. Some tried to hold both ideas in their heads simultaneously.
In 1861 gold was discovered on Nez Perce lands, and soon the Nez Perce, some of whom now spoke and wrote in English, many who called themselves Christians, met and traded with the hoards of white miners. They operated ferries and sold them meat, and took their gold. Of course whites didn’t wait for the Nez Perce to build their cities and overrun their land, and 3,000 Indians had little overall power over 18,600 whites who had bounded onto reservation lands by 1862. The Indians were divided, and increasingly powerless, people.
And the white miners weren’t only on the Clearwater to the north, but also east, across the Snake River, where the city of Florence boasted 9,000 whites. To the south, there were gold strikes in Powder River country—not Nez Perce land, but land bordering the Wallowas.
To the west, in the Grande Ronde Valley, settlers were growing crops, building towns, raising cattle, and looking for more grazing ground over the mountains. Joseph and the others had been told at Walla Walla that the whites would come like grasshoppers—and they were.
Old Joseph did not sign the new treaty in 1863, but left Lapwai and came back to the Wallowas. He lived until 1871 or 72, long enough for the Civil War in the East to end, for the surveyors to come into the valley, long enough to see the first grasshoppers, but not to see the War that would drive his people away. His sons, Young Joseph and Ollicot, would have to deal with the swarms and the armies—released now from that other War—who would come to take the Wallowa country from them.
# # #