Nez Perce and Bannock Flight Through Yellowstone National Park

The Nez Perce and Bannock Wars were sparked by increasing federal involvement in Indian affairs and Native rejection of reservation life and its implications. During both wars, groups traveled through the newly created Yellowstone National Park, hoping to find refuge in familiar territory as they tried to reach Canada.

By the late 1870s, the United States government was fully engaged in the process of forcing American Indians in the West onto reservations. In 1855, Nez Perce in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington signed a treaty in which they accepted a 5,000-square-mile reservation. Later, in 1869, their reservation was reduced in size following the discovery of gold on their land. A division grew between some converted Christian Nez Perce who supported treaties and traditional Nez Perce who refused to live on the reservation. One traditional Nez Perce leader argued, “I belong to the land out of which I came.” Groups led by White Bird, Looking Glass, and Chief Joseph separated from the treaty group. In June of 1877, a violent outburst from White Bird’s group left four white settlers dead. The anti-treaty Nez Perce feared retaliation and fled in an effort to join Sitting Bull in Canada.

The Nez Perce headed through Yellowstone National Park in late August. Yellow Wolf recalled that Nez Perce scouts “knew that country well before passing through there in 1877. The hot springs and high-shooting water were nothing new to us.” On their second day in the park, scouts found a group of tourists and held the party captive for two days. Following a skirmish that left one of the tourists severely wounded, they were released. Some anxious scouts would attack other groups and kill two tourists. The Nez Perce were able to outmaneuver the army as they exited the park, and almost reached Canada before being forced to surrender in October at the Battle of Bear Paw. Around sixty Nez Perce were able to escape during the battle, including White Bird and Chief Joseph’s daughter, who successfully joined the Lakota in Canada. Between 1878 and 1880, many of them returned to Idaho.

Similarly, in 1878, Bannocks faced starvation at Fort Hall. Ranchers had destroyed important camas bulb pastures, their main source of food, and the government neglected to supplement with sufficient rations. Many Bannocks left the reservation and clashed with white farmers and federal troops. A small band headed north, following the Nez Perce route through Yellowstone National Park, hoping to reach Canada. They were ambushed east of the park in September, and the uprising was eventually quelled by federal troops. Restrictions were placed on the Fort Hall Reservation and most of the insurgents were split up between allotments and other forts.

These conflicts damaged Yellowstone’s public relations image and park officials would work hard to assuage tourist fears of an Indian threat. Some tourists found the battles exciting, and in efforts to live out fantasies about the ‘wild west’ joined expeditions following the path used by the Nez Perce and Bannock. Others feared continued Indian contact and avoided the area altogether. The wars also caused a shift in military management of the park; officials would use the conflict to justify military necessity to the park’s success and took a firm stance against Indian presence in the park.

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The location selected is the site of a marker describing the "Chief Joseph Story" and some of the Nez Perce War.