|Nez Percés Chief Lawyer, ca. 1861.|
University of Washington Special Collections.
By 1845-1850, white settlement between the future border of Idaho and the Cascade Mountains had significantly intruded on native tribes there. This resulted in series of clashes, the “Cayuse War,” that ran on until 1855. At that point, the government “negotiated” treaties that forced several tribes onto small reservations. In fact, the restrictions in those treaties led to yet another Indian war three years later.
Officials also negotiated a first treaty with the Nez Percés in 1855. However, unlike the other tribes, the Nez Percés received a reservation that included most of their traditional homeland. Space precludes a full discussion of all the white misconceptions concerning the tribe and this treaty. Basically, white officials felt they were benevolently “granting” the Indians an expansive domain. Conversely, the Nez Percés saw the treaty as recognition of their sovereignty over lands they had held since before whites settled in the New World.
Also, the Indian Agent disliked dealing with fifty-plus band chiefs. Thus, he arbitrarily designated a Head Chief who would ostensibly speak for all. His chosen one was a man known to whites as "Chief Lawyer.” Indian leaders, who composed a council of equals, put up with this foolishness, but not to the extent of letting the so-called Head Chief do anything important. Thus, fifty-eight band chiefs signed the 1855 reservation treaty.
Events proceeded without severe problems even though white settlers almost immediately began to push onto Nez Percés treaty lands. The numbers were small at first. As time passed, however, more and more stock raisers began to compete for Nez Percés range.
Given time, this friction might have been resolved. But then prospectors discovered gold on the reservation lands in Idaho. Local chiefs feared permanent settlers, but transient miners seemed to pose no particular threat. The Indians agreed to the construction of a warehouse where steamboats could offload shipments for transfer to pack trains. Nothing more, however, was to be built there.
|Lewiston, 1862. Nez Perce County Historical Society.|
Whites violated that agreement almost immediately. The full tent city of Lewiston sprang into being on Nez Percés land and grew explosively.
Government officials had a far greater agenda than just solving the Lewiston situation when negotiations for the 1863 treaty began. Land-greedy settlers wanted the territory alloted by the 1855 treaty. With glowing promises, officials "persuaded" Chief Lawyer to accept, for the whole tribe, a small allotment stretching from near Lapwai to around Kamiah.
Naturally, tribes living on the “ceded” lands refused to sign the new treaty. The Nez Percés were thus split into "treaty" and "non-treaty" factions. By some chicanery, officials scraped up over 50 signatures for the treaty, even though the agreement covered only about a third of the bands.
Amazingly, this untenable situation held, despite rising tensions, for fourteen years. (As usual, few of the glowing promises were ever honored.)
|Jerome A. Greene, Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poos Crisis, Montana Historical Society Press: Helena (2000).|
|Francis Haines, The Nez Percés: Tribesmen of the Columbia Plateau, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1955).|