The early posts of the old West were seldom solidly constructed forts as we conceive of them today. Often there were no high stockades or permanent buildings. Sometimes there was only a blockhouse or two at opposite corners of the area being inhabited. Occasionally an underground shelter was the fort. Many fortifications were constructed by traders to protect their businesses and by settlers to protect their homes.

As more and more settlers moved west, the U.S. Army was called upon to move with then. Occasionally the Army would occupy fortifications already constructed by early settlers. Usually the soldiers were required to build their own forts. The material used in constructing these forts varied with the geography of the surrounding countryside. In the desert, adobe was used; in forested areas, wood was the material of choice; in rocky areas, rock was used if masons were available to shape it.

During the years of western expansion, Army posts were established on the basis of anticipated use. As the Indian tribes of the East moved to new reservations in the west, the Army was called out to keep the tribes from waging war with each other. As settlers cleared new lands, the Army moved their posts to protect the fledgling settlements from hostile Indians and to protect the Indians’ lands from being encroached upon by settlers and merchants. After gold and silver were discovered, the mass migration of miners and settlers began crowding the large Indian territories. As the Indians had no place to move, war between the whites and Indians intensified. The Army was ordered to subdue the Indians and keep them on their reservations.

Reacting to the fast changing needs of the country the Army would set up a post and then abandon it when no longer needed. In order for a post to be designated a fort, however, a contingent of troops had to be permanently assigned to it. Regardless of the life of the fort, each new outpost opened a new era in the history of the frontier, a new chapter written in courage by the soldiers, settlers, and Indian braves who fought, built, bled, and often died while creating the history of the country’s growth westward. These western forts are monuments to this heritage, and to the rich history of the period known as Idaho's Indian Wars.

Little or nothing is known of Indian warfare in Idaho prior to the arrival of horses of Spanish origin in the eighteenth century; until about that time, though, most of Indians had not organized into bands capable of carrying on anything resembling wars. Various western Indian tribes gained important advantages in warfare when were able to get horses and guns of European origin. White explorers and fur traders who reached the interior Pacific Northwest found the Indians eager to acquire the white man's weapons. By that time, the peoples now regarded as the Indians of Idaho ranged over a large area, and other lndians - particularly the Blackfeet - often raided into the Snake River country. Not many accounts of the Indian battles of that era are preserved, and none but a few of the very last of them are known at all. British traders who became active in Idaho as early as 1808 found that Indian inter-tribal warfare interfered seriously with fur hunting, and soon they managed to get the local Indians to bring their fighting to a halt. From that time on, when Indians fought each other, they generally did so only during white campaigns when Indians served as scouts for white armies against other Indians.

In the years of the fur trade, the Indians of Idaho had no major wars with the white newcomers. Hostilities were limited to minor incidents aside from a battle or two. The most important early fights were Finnan MacDonald's chastisement of the Blackfeet in the Lemhi country in 1823, and the battle of Pierre's Hole which pitted a Gros Ventre band against the combined forces of the trappers and the Nez Perce in 1832. But the fur trade did not upset the Indian way of life seriously, and most early mining was done in places that the Indians did not care very much about. Farm settlement, however, ruined the country for many of the Indians - especially for those who did not become farmers themselves - and after white farmers and ranchers began to take over more and more of the Indian country serious trouble broke out.

Even before Idaho was established, there was warfare. Practically the entire Coeur d'Alene people had gotten into battles with the United States Army in Washington in 1858, and with the beginning of farming and mining in southern Idaho, military expeditions proceeded against the Cache Valley and Salmon Falls Shoshoni in 1863. In the most colossal Indian disaster in the west, Colonel P. E. Connor's California volunteers wiped out the Cache Valley Shoshoni in the battle of Bear River on January 29, 1863. Volunteers from Boise Basin and from Oregon searched the country west of Salmon Falls, with limited success, in 1863 and 1864. Trouble in southwestern Idaho - where most of the early settlers concentrated continued to plague the army at Fort Boise and soon grew into the Snake War of 1866-1868. Indians from Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and California were involved before General George Crook was finally able to round up the unhappy Shoshoni and Paiute bands and to enforce a peace settlement.

Major Indian wars did not afflict Idaho until years of friction and minor incidents precipitated two important outbreaks in 1877 and 1878. A clash in North Idaho came first. Part of the trouble was imported from Oregon, where stockraisers had tried for years to drive a Nez Perce band led by Chief Joseph (who was soon to be nationally famous) out from the Wallowa Valley in Oregon into North Idaho, a part of the Nez Perce reservation established by the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.

In 1860 gold was discovered on the Nez Perce lands near Orofino Creek. Soon a gold rush to the reservation was underway. Lewiston became a main supply town for the rush and prospectors began flooding into the area. Encroachment by the whites was in direct violation of the Walla Walla treaty and the Nez Perce petitioned Washington to stop the rush. A company of cavalry was sent to the Nez Perce Reservation in 1862 to attempt to prevent whites from settling on Nez Perce lands. The troops were ineffectual, and a second cavalry company was sent to establish a fort at Lapwai.

Although originally intended to protect the Nez Perce treaty rights the Fort soon became the center for U.S. attempts to convince the Nez Perce to relinquish treaty lands that contained gold. In 1863 the federal government entered a new treaty that reduced the reservation established in 1855 to only 1,000 square miles. The reduced reservation was called the Lapwai Reservation and the Nez Perce were told to move onto it. This treaty became known as the "Thief Treaty" as only about 1/3 of the Nez Perce Chiefs signed the document, yet the U.S. Government insisted it applied to all Nez Perce.

Some of the Nez Perce refused to leave the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. Among them were Old Chief Joseph and his band. TheseNez Perce were allowed to occupy a small strip of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. When Old Chief Joseph died in 1871 his son, Young Chief Joseph (born in 1840) became the leader of the Wallowa Nez Perce. He was given the name Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. Over the next years Chief Joseph would become a national celebrity and earn a place in history as one of the greatest leaders of all time.

In 1877 the Federal government ordered all Nez Perce, including those in the Wallowa Valley, to move onto the Lapwai Reservation. Having no wish to leave their homeland, Chief Joseph argued for the rights of his people to remain in Oregon. They were denied, and an ultimatum was issued by General Oliver Otis Howard, stating that if they did not relocate war would be inevitable. The General imprisoned one of the Nez Perce priests to help with his persuasion.

Chief Joseph was not a military leader (the War Chief of his band was Chief Looking Glass), and did not wish to fight. He also wished to free his friend. Thus, Joseph and his band prepared to move to Lapwai. Before they could do so however a band of Nez Perce led by Chief White Bird ambushed a massacred a group of whites in the Salmon River country in northern Idaho. Although Joseph's people were not part of that band, as "non-treaty" Indians they were now considered hostiles and cavalry was dispatched to avenge the Salmon River incident. It seemed war was now inevitable. Chief Joseph gathered his band and together with White Bird's (and others) they began their famous journey of over 1,200 miles towards Montana hoping to find shelter with the Crows who were traditionally friends of the Nez Perce.

United States military operations in the Nez Perce War commenced with an army campaign which came to an abrupt halt when the Indians routed the numerically superior white force that came out to attack them on White Bird Creek. This became known as the battle of White Bird in which a large number of U.S. soldiers were killed, but the Nez Perce suffered only a handful of casualties. After successfully turning back the forces Howard had sent to White Bird Creek, the Indians did not counter with a military campaign against the United States Army or even against white settlers in the general vicinity. Rather, they crossed the Salmon River so that they might avoid any further military operations. When Howard pursued them across the Salmon, they eluded him again by returning to Camas Prairie and then moving over to the south fork of the Clearwater.

In all these various moves, they suffered almost no losses. They had routed the first unit (numerically a force equal to their own) which Howard had sent against them, and with commendable skill they had avoided further warfare - except for some incidental skirmishes which they had won with little difficulty. But nearly four weeks later, at the end of the battle of the Clearwater, July 12, the fighting Nez Perce - still outnumbered, but now grown to a maximum strength of 325 men in four bands - were dislodged from their stronghold. Even Joseph had to concede that Howard would continue to annoy them unless the non-treaty bands moved away from that part of the country. So the entire group decided to join their old friends, the Crows, in Montana. This move is often described as the Nez Perce retreat over the Lolo Trail. Except for the fact that it was an exodus in which the Indians were bringing along their women and children and hauling all their possessions, the trip resembled a traditional hunting expedition to the buffalo country. The Indians paid no attention to Howard, who followed too far behind to pester them.

After they entered Montana, a small military force from Missoula failed to hold them on Lolo Creek. Finally an army under Colonel John Gibbon caught up with them at Big Hole on August 9. Recovering from the surprise of Gibbon's attack at dawn, the Indians proceeded to besiege him. But two days later, they abandoned the siege and continued their journey when they found that Howard's army was catching up with them. Their route from Big Hole took them back across the Continental Divide into Idaho, which they crossed on their way to Yellowstone Park. Then Looking Glass (one of the four band leaders) proceeded to consult the Crows only to find these old friends less than enraptured at the thought of having any part of the Nez Perce War wished off onto them. With the Crows promising nothing better than neutrality, the Nez Perce force had to turn north to seek refuge in Canada. lf the Nez Perce had suspected that they were being pursued by still another army unit, they might have speeded up their pace and reached their destination without further incident. But they were not engaged in a military campaign, nor were they retreating; they were simply leaving a hostile area (originally their homeland and now overrun by white intruders) where they had been made to feel entirely unwelcome. Hence they were traveling in a leisurely fashion when, as they approached the United States-Canada boundary, they were overtaken by United States Army troops commanded by General Nelson A. Miles on September 29, while resting a short distance south of the border.

In their final major battle of the Bear Paws, the Indians were able to hold back the white attack. However, they could not extricate their entire band to continue their journey northward a few miles to Canada. After several indecisive days, Joseph at last negotiated his long-wished-for agreement with the army by which his band would relocate to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. (That had been his original objective in June, and finally it seemed he had a chance to get settled there, although his route had been somewhat roundabout.) White Bird along with the greater number of warriors decided it would be safer to go on to Canada than to return to Idaho. They feared, with good reason, that they would be far from welcome. Joseph had remained firm in his belief that the lesser evil was to move to the reservation. He had been reluctant to fight, and now that he had the opportunity to accomplish his objective by peaceful means, he accepted it. Unfortunately, the United States government disregarded the settlement Miles and Joseph had reached. Instead of recognizing the terms of the agreement, which allowed Joseph and his followers to return to Idaho, the government exiled them to Kansas and then Oklahoma, where they remained for eight years. Eventually they were relocated to the Colville Reservation in Washington. Joseph's greatest triumph - upon which his reputation largely rests - came when he at last persuaded the United States government to return his band to the Idaho even though he himself was not allowed to leave Colville.

Those who interpret the Nez Perce War in terms of a United States Army campaign have all too frequently presented a military picture which distorts Indian operations during that conflict. The use of military concepts and terms is appropriate when explaining what the whites were doing, but these same military terms should be avoided when referring to Indian actions. True, the Indians did fight a number of battles which lend themselves to military description. Yet much of what they did - particularly between battles - was not at all in the nature of a white military operation. General Howard was indeed engaged in a military campaign, but the Indians certainly were not. In the process of trying not to fight a war, they had made Howard's military campaign look foolish. But to describe their success in avoiding war (under the considerable handicap of having the United States Army out trying to fight a war against them) as some kind of successful military strategy simply confuses the issue. The Indians did not even have an army. Their forces consisted of a group of individual fighters with leaders who could recommend but not command, either in battle or in peace. Indian objectives during the Nez Perce War provide an explanatory key. In the first place, Joseph, White Bird, and Looking Glass would have preferred to remain as non-treaty Indians living in their old homelands (generally off the reservation). But by the beginning of the war, Joseph had concluded, with deep regret, that he had no choice but to move onto the reservation. General Howard had left him no alternative short of war. In choosing the lesser of two evils, Joseph had rejected war. As matters turned out, Joseph became involved in a war anyway as a result of the White Bird incident. Despite the fact that his plans received a setback because of this action, Joseph still hoped to conclude hostilities and to settle on the reservation as soon as the details of such an agreement could be worked out. And that, eventually, was exactly what he arranged to do.

Joseph's agreement with General Nelson A. Miles is usually reported as a surrender. From the Army point of view it was - and much was made over this "surrender," perhaps to conceal the obvious fact that Miles had not won the battle. Only 79 Nez Perce warriors elected to return to Idaho, and 98 decided that it would be wiser to seek refuge in Canada. Since Miles's objective had been to round up all the Nez Perce warriors, he could hardly boast of a victory. As a matter of fact, he deceived himself by construing the war as a two-sided military operation and by supposing that when he dealt with Joseph, he was dealing with the military commander of the Nez Perce Indians. Actually even during the battles, the Indians had no single military command in the white man's sense. Thus, when Joseph was negotiating with Miles, he was speaking only for himself and for those who wished to follow him. By Nez Perce standards, White Bird and those who elected to go on to Canada were perfectly free to do so. And the Indians were adhering to their own standards, not to some white military tradition of which they were probably unaware. Under the white man's system a surrender meant that the Nez Perce commander, had there been one, would have been held responsible for the surrender of his entire army, which in this case did not exist, at least not as the kind of organization the white man understood. Little of this made sense to the Indians, who were not surrendering anyway. General Miles probably could not have succeeded in explaining to Joseph the white man's concept of a military surrender, even if he had thought to try. And in any event Joseph had no army to surrender and no authority to make other Nez Perce warriors come to any agreement or terms. Thus, since Miles was unable to capture the Nez Perce warriors, he was forced to abide by Nez Perce procedure and deal with the lndians as individuals. Such a procedure was as foreign to Miles as the concept of surrender was to the Nez Perce.

Look at a map of the Nez Perce route to the Bear Paws.

In 1965 the United States Government founded the Nez Perce National Historic Park. Thirty eight sites, scattered across the states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana, have been designated to commemorate the legends and history of the Nee-Me-Po and their interaction with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, gold miners, and farmers who moved through or into the area. The Park was also created to honor Chief Joseph and his brave band. The areas encompassing these sites display the great diversity of the American West -- topography, rainfall, vegetation, and scenery, ranging from the semi-arid regions of Washington, to the lush high mountain meadows of Idaho and Oregon, to the prairies of Montana. As you travel from site to site you gradually sense the importance of the land in contributing to the rich and diverse cultural history of the Nez Perce people.

Look at a map of the Nez Perce National Historic Park.

Go visit the Nez Perce National Historic Park Web Site for a complete virtual tour of the Park.

CLICK below to look at some of the Nez Perce War sites found in the park:

* Bear Paw
* Big Hole
* Camas Meadow
* Camas Prairie
* Clearwater
* Dug Bar
* Fort Lapwai
* Lolo Trail
* Tolo Lake
* White Bird

Idaho's other major Indian uprising occurred in the summer of 1878, a year after the Nez Perce War. Trouble had been brewing for a long time among the Bannock element on the Fort Hall Reservation: the reservation was poorly administered, and a better agent was wanted; friction between Shoshoni and Bannock groups on the reservation added to the trouble; supplies promised by treaty did not get distributed to the Indians, and grain was increasingly hard to find; white stockraisers were ruining the Camas Prairie camas grounds reserved for the Indians by treaty; a series of irritations and grievances had built up. One Bannock leader in particular, Buffalo Horn, had gained considerable military experience as an army scout against the Sioux in 1876 and against the Nez Perce in 1877; now he had an important band of followers and was ready to go to war himself. An incident May 30 on the Camas Prairie when settlers released hogs that proceeded to ruin the camas harvest, inflamed the Bannock and led them to leave for the Malheur agency in Oregon to join Egan's band of northern Paiutes and fight to reclaim the Camas Prairie. Egan had his own good reasons for wanting to go to war, and the Bannock were Northern Paiute anyway. On the way Buffalo Horn's group sank Glenn's ferry and drove off a small white force at South Mountain on June 8. Buffalo Horn survived the battle of South Mountain by only four days; but his band continued the war in Oregon under the leadership of Egan, until some misadventures in central Oregon shattered their forces. Scattered in eastern Oregon, the Bannock warriors gradually made their way back to Idaho, where some of them were engaged in yet another battle at Bennett Creek on August 9. The Indians escaped, though, and army units hunted for (and sometimes came across) stray Bannock bands across southern Idaho and on into Montana and Wyoming, where fighting continued as late as September 12. Many of the Indians got back to Fort Hall; others were captured and returned there; while others simply disappeared and have never been found.

With the end of the Bannock War, attention was turned to the Sheepeaters - a Shoshoni group of expert hunters who had the skill necessary to pursue mountain sheep in the Salmon River Mountains. A massacre of five Chinese miners on Loon Creek on February 12, 1879, was blamed on some refugees from the Bannock War who were thought to have spent the winter with the local Sheepeaters. Army units went out in the spring of 1879 to ask the Sheepeaters if they knew who was responsible for the Loon Creek Chinese disaster. Deep snow held back the search for the Sheepeaters, who lived in rough country largely unknown to the whites. Suspicious of army intentions after the Nez Perce and Bannock wars of the previous two years, the Sheepeaters decided to resist. Ten or a dozen of them ambushed and defeated forty eight mounted infantry who were accompanied by twenty or more scouts and packers. After this engagement on Big Creek, July 29, one energetic Sheepeater halted the army retreat on a mountain ridge. The resulting battle of Vinegar Hill turned into an incredible fourteen-hour siege in which a handful of Indians pinned down the entire white force. Another, better-managed army expedition managed to catch up with the Sheepeaters at Soldier Bar, a little farther down on Big Creek, on August 20. Again confronted with overwhelming numbers, the Sheepeaters scattered into the Salmon River wilderness. Soon the army, exhausted by the difficult twelve-hundred-mile campaign, had to retire. Still another military expedition set out on September 16 and, after a two weeks' search, managed to catch up with the elusive warriors. They explained that they had nothing to do with the Loon Creek Chinese massacre but agreed to go out with the army and to settle on a reservation. Thus the campaign ended without a battle, and more than fifty Sheepeaters retired from their wilderness homeland. Most of them were women and children. Only ten to fifteen warriors had participated in the entire campaign, which lasted longer than the Nez Perce War. The perpetrators of the outrage against the Chinese never were found, but the somewhat clumsy military investigation of the incident brought the army campaigns against the Idaho Indians to an end. Some of the Sheepeaters avoided the army, and Eagle Eye's band did not move to the Fort Hall reservation for many years.

Considering the fact that the Indians of Idaho were forced to give up most of their land and to crowd into reservations on which many of them found it impossible to work out a satisfactory way of life, a resort to force was not surprising. Yet the armed clashes which so often terrorized the whites and ruined the Indians between 1863 and 1879 had the effect of "solving" the Indian problem for most of the whites. But for the Indians, the end of the wars simply meant that they no longer had an alternative to a disagreeable and miserable existence on small reservations allowed them by the whites - a poor solution which has never been easy for either side to live with, even to the present day.

Recommended Reading:

* "Chief Joseph's Own Story". Ye Galleon Press. Reprinted, 1999.
* "I Will Tell of My War Story: A Pictorial Account of the Nez Perce War". Discussion of the Cash Book images by Scott M. Thompson. University of Washington Press. 2000.

Supplemental Reading
Rocks, Rails & Trails pages 36-44, 47, 53-54, 57, 165
Also Visit
Exploration & Expansion
Native Americans in Idaho
This module was created by Digital Atlas staff members.