Throughout the Pacific Northwest there are 38 Nez Perce historical sites with White Bird Battlefield being one of them. Boomer and I visited the battlefield on our trip down Idaho Highway 95, which is located just south of Grangeville Idaho.
We stopped at an overlook off the side of the highway and took in the full view of the battlefield. Although there was information regarding the battle between the Nez Perce Indian Tribe and the United States Army here, we took a short drive down the mountain to find an interpretive path, giving us more insight as to what happened here June 17th, 1877.
I parked the truck in a small parking lot located near the trailhead and grabbed some waters as per the recommendation from the pamphlet located at the trailhead. Note that there are no services located at this site. Pack it in, pack it out and remember to use the restroom before you go (the small town of White Bird is located just down the road if needed)
Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail so of course Boomer accompanied me along this hike that I will later refer to as the hike to hell. Although there was fair warning about the extreme temperatures during the summer months I was ill prepared as I was wearing jeans and a black tee-shirt. Who hikes in jeans!?!?
To give you a little history about the events leading up to the White Bird Battle, tensions started in 1855 with the Nez Perce being pressured into signing a treaty that created a 7.5 million acre reservation for the tribe. With the reservation in place it allowed for the settlers from the east side of the United States to move into the rest of the Native lands of Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
As the years passed by and the gold rush in California began to dry up people started to look north for gold. By 1863 gold was found and unfortunately it was found on the Nez Perce reservation. Another treaty was written up and reduced the reservation down to a measly 750,000 acres. You can see why the Nez Perce were upset, right?
Along the interpretive stops we learned about “Day Late Howard”, or General Howard as he would probably like to be referred to. He earned the nick-name “day late” as he was always a day behind the Nez Perce while pursuing them.
In the summer of 1877 Howard caught up with the Nez Perce and gave them 30 days to round-up everything they owned and move to the 750,000 acre reservation. The Nez Prece did what they could in the 30 days and packed up their village in an attempt to avoid bloodshed.
By June 16th some of the reluctant Nez Perce had set up camp near White Bird, which was not on the new reservation. Complaints from settlers in Grangeville arose and Captain Perry was sent from Fort Lapwai to look into the situation.
The morning of June 17th 1877, Perry and the army had followed the Nez Perce into the canyon near White Bird. Knowing that they were being followed the Nez Perce sent a peace party of 6 men carrying a white flag as they did not want any problems with the army. A trigger happy volunteer for the army opened fire on the peace party and chaos ensued. There is no explanation as to why this volunteer fired at the Nez Perce but we can all thank him for starting the fight that day.
After a tense battle between the Nez Perce and the army it was a lack of preparation and disorganization on they army’s part that forced them to retreat. The army suffered most of the losses during the battle with 34 dead and 4 injured. The Nez Perce had 3 injured and no dead.
Although the Nez Perce seemed to have won this battle the fighting did not end. On the run for another 5 months and another major battle at Big Hole where the Nez Perce were broken in to two groups. One group who escaped to Canada and one group who surrendered on October 5th 1877. The surrendering group including Chief Joseph, were exiled to Oklahoma and then later moved to the Colville reservation, located in northern Washington state.
Although we were not able to complete the hike (it got much to hot in my jeans) we did gather some interesting history about the Nez Perce which would later become helpful during our visit to Big Hole National Battlefield later in our trip. I will throw this out there in fairness to Boomer and I. The trail got smaller and smaller as we proceeded on – meaning I don’t think I was the only one to give up hiking to the end!
If you would like to visit the White Bird Battlefield it is located 17 miles (27.35 km) south of Grangeville Idaho on Idaho Highway 95. Turn left onto White Bird Road and right onto River Street. Directions are a little vague on how to get there but I would say it is about a mile after you get onto River Street. The entire trail is 1.5 miles (2.5 km) and is a 460 feet (45.7 m) gain in elevation. Water is a must if you visit on a hot day. Also watch out for this bush that attacked me on the way out.