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Nez Percé Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


Bounded on the north, south, and east by snow-topped mountains, and on the west by shining waters; holding in its rocky passes the sources of six great rivers; bearing on its slopes and plains measureless forests of pine and cedar and spruce; its meadows gardens of summer bloom and fruit, and treasure-houses of fertility, lies Oregon: wide, healthful, beautiful, abundant, and inviting, no wonder it was coveted and fought for.

When Lewis and Clarke visited it, eighty years ago, they found living there many tribes of Indians, numbering in all, at the lowest estimates, between twenty and thirty thousand ; of all these tribes the Nez Percé were the richest, noblest, and most gentle.

To the Cayuse, one of the most warlike of these tribes, Messrs. Lewis and Clarke presented an American flag, telling them it was an emblem of peace. The gay coloring and beauty of the flag, allied to this significance, made a deep impression on the poetic minds of these savages. They set the flag up in a beautiful valley called the Grande Ronde - a fertile basin some twenty-five miles in diameter, surrounded by high walls of basaltic rock, and watered by a branch of the Snake River: around this flag they met their old enemies the Shoshones, and swore to keep perpetual peace with them; and the spot became consecrated to an annual meeting of the tribes-a sort of fair, where the Cayuse, Nez Per* and Walla Walla Indians came every summer and traded their roots, skins, elk and buffalo meats, for salmon and horses, with the Shoshone. It was a beautiful spot, nearly circular, luxuriantly covered with grass, the hill wall around it thick grown with evergreen trees, chiefly larch. The Indians called it Karpkarp, which being translated is " Balm of Gilead."

The life of these Indians was a peculiar one. Most of them had several homes, and as they lived only a part of the year in each, were frequently spoken of by travelers as nomadic tribes, while in fact they were as wedded to their homes as any civilized inhabitants of the world; and their wanderings were as systematic as the removals of wealthy city people from town homes co country places. If a man were rich enough, and fond enough of change, to have a winter house in New York, a house for the summer in Newport, and one for autumn in the White Mountains, nobody would think of calling him a nomad ; still less if he made these successive changes annually, with perfect regularity, owing to opportunities which were offered him at regularly recurring intervals in these different places to earn his living ; which was the case with the Oregon Indians.

As soon as the snow disappears in the spring there is in certain localities, ready for gathering, the "pohpoh"-a small bulb, like an onion. This is succeeded by the "spatlam," and the "spatlam " by the "cammass" or "ithwa," a root like a parsnip, which they make into fine meal. In midsummer come the salmon in countless shoals up the rivers. August is the month for berries, of which they dry great quantities for winter use. In September salmon again-coming down stream now, exhausted and ready to die, but in sufficiently good condition to be dried for the winter. In October comes the "mesani," another root of importance in the Indian larder. After this they must depend on deer, bears, small game, and wildfowl. When all these resources fail, there is a kind of lichen growing on the trees, of which they can eat enough to keep themselves from starving, though its nutritive qualities are very small. Thus each season had its duty and its appointed place of abode, and year after year the same month found them in the same spot.

In 1833 a delegation from these Oregon Indians went to St. Louis, and through Mr. Catlin, the artist, made known their object, which was "to inquire for the truth of a representation which they said some white men had made among them, that our religion was better than theirs, and that they would all be lost if they did not embrace it." Two members of this delegation were Nez Percé "Hee-oh'ks-te-kin" and "H'co-a-h'coa-h'cotes-min," or "Rabbit-skin Leggings," and "No Horns on his Head." Their portraits are to be found in " Catlin's American Indians." One of these died on his way home; but the other journeyed his thousands of miles safely back, and bore to his tribe the news "that the report which they had heard was well founded, and that good and religious men would soon come among them to teach this religion, so that they could all understand and have the benefits of it."

Two years later the Methodist Episcopal Society and the American Board both sent missionaries to Oregon. Before this the religion of the fur-traders was the only white man's religion that the Indians had had the opportunity of observing. Eleven different companies and expeditions, besides the Hudson's Bay and the North-west Companies, had been established in their country, and the Indians had become only too familiar with their standards and methods. It was not many years after the arrival of the missionaries in Oregon that a traveler there gave the following account of his experience with a Nez Percé guide; "Creekie (so he was named) was a very kind man; he turned my worn-out animals loose, and loaded my packs on his own; gave me a splendid horse to ride, and intimated by significant gestures that we would go a short distance that afternoon. I gave my assent, and we were soon on our way; having ridden about ten miles, we camped for the night. I noticed, during the ride, a degree of forbearance toward each other, which I had never before observed in that race. When we halted for the night the two boys were behind; they had been frolicking with their horses, and, as the darkness came on, lost the trail. It was a half-hour before they made their appearance, and during this time the parents manifested the most anxious solicitude for them. One of them was but three years old, and was lashed to the horse he rode; the other only seven years of age-young pilots in the wilderness at night. But the elder, true to the sagacity of his race, had taken his course, and struck the brook on which we were encamped within three hundred yards of us. The pride of the parents at this feat, and their ardent attachment to the children, were perceptible in the pleasure with which they received them at their evening fire, and heard the relation of their childish adventures. The weather was so pleasant that no tent was spread. The willows were bent, and the buffalo robes spread over them. Underneath were laid other robes, on which my Indian host seated himself, with his wife and children on one side and myself on the other. A fire burnt brightly in front. Water was brought, and the evening ablutions having been performed, the wife presented a dish of meat to her husband and one to myself. There was a pause. The woman seated herself between her children. The Indian then bowed his head and prayed to God. A wandering savage in Oregon, calling on Jehovah in the name of Jesus Christ! After the prayer lie gave meat to his children and passed the dish to his wife. While eating, the frequent repetition of the words Jehovah and Jesus Christ, in the most reverential manner, led me to suppose that they were conversing on religious topics, and thus they passed an hour. Meanwhile the exceeding weariness of a long day's travel admonished me to seek rest. I had slumbered I know not how long, when a strain of music awoke me.

The Indian family was engaged in its evening devotions. They were singing a hymn in the Nez Percé language. Having finished, they all knelt and bowed their faces on the buffalo robe, and Creekie prayed long and fervently. Afterward they sung another hymn, and retired. To hospitality, family affection, and devotion, Creekie added honesty and cleanliness to a great degree, manifesting by these fruits, so contrary to the nature and habits of his race, the beautiful influence of the work of grace on the heart."

The earliest mention of the Nez Percé in the official records of the Indian Bureau is in the year 1843. In that year an agent was sent out to investigate the condition of the Oregon tribes, and he reports as follows: "The only tribes from which much is to be hoped, or anything to be feared in this part of Oregon, are the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Nez Percé, inhabiting a district on the Columbia and its tributaries, commencing two hundred and forty miles from its mouth, and stretching four hundred and eighty miles in the interior."

The Nez Percé, living farther inland, " inhabit a beautiful grazing district, not surpassed by any I have seen for verdure, water privileges, climate, or health. This tribe forms an honorable exception to the general Indian character-being more noble, industrious, sensible, and better disposed toward the whites and their improvements in the arts and sciences; and though brave as Caesar, the whites have nothing to dread at their hands in case of their dealing out to them what they conceive to be right and equitable."

When this agent arrived at the missionary station among the Nez Percé, he was met there by a large body of the Indians with twenty-two of their chiefs. The missionaries received him "with joyful countenances and glad hearts;" the Indians "with civility, gravity, and dignified reserve."

He addressed them at length, explaining to them the kind intentions of the Government toward them. They listened with "gravity, fixed attention, and decorum." Finally an aged chief, ninety years of age, arose and said: " I speak today; perhaps tomorrow I die. I am the oldest chief of the tribe. I was the high chief when your great brothers, Lewis and Clarke, visited this country. They visited me, and honored me with their friendship and counsel. I showed them my numerous wounds, received in bloody battle with the Snakes. They told me it was not good; it was better to be at peace; gave me a flag of truce; I held it up high. We met, and talked, but never fought again. Clarke pointed to this day to you and this occasion. We have long waited in expectation; sent three of our sons to Red River school to prepare for it; two of them sleep with their fathers; the other is here, and can be ears, mouth, and pen for us. I can say no more; I am quickly tired; my voice and limbs tremble. I am glad I live to see you and this day; but I shall soon be still and quiet in death."

At this council the Nez Percé elected a head chief named Ellis, and adopted the following code of Laws:

  • Art. 1. Whoever willfully takes life shall be hung.
  • Art. 2. Whoever burns a dwelling house shall be hung.
  • Art. 3. Whoever burns an out-building shall be imprisoned six months, receive fifty lashes, and pay all damages.
  • Art. 4. Whoever carelessly burns a house or any property shall pay damages.
  • Art. 5. If any one enters a dwelling without permission of the occupant, the chiefs shall punish him as they think proper. Public rooms are accepted.
  • Art. 6. If any one steals, he shall pay back twofold; and if it be the value of a beaver-skin or less, he shall receive twenty-five lashes; and if the value is over a beaver-skin, he shall pay back twofold, and receive fifty lashes.
  • Art. 7. If any one take a horse and ride it, without permission, or take any article and use it, without liberty, he shall pay for the use of it, and receive from twenty to fifty lashes, as the chief shall direct.
  • Art. 8. If any one enter a field and injure the crops, or throw down the fence, so that cattle or horses go in and do damage, he shall pay all damages, and receive twenty-five lashes for every offence.
  • Art. 9. Those only may keep dogs who travel or live among the game. If a dog kill a lamb, calf, or any domestic animal, the owner shall pay the damage, and kill the dog.
  • Art. 10. If an Indian raise a gun or other weapon against a white man, it shall be reported to the chiefs, and they shall punish him. If a white man do the same to an Indian, it shall be reported to Dr. White, and he shall punish or redress it.
  • Art. 11. If an Indian break these laws, he shall be punished by his chiefs; if a white man break them, he shall be reported to the agent, and punished at his instance.

These laws, the agent says, he "proposed one by one, leaving them as free to reject as to accept. They were greatly pleased with all proposed, but wished a heavier penalty to some, and suggested the dog-law, which was annexed."

In a history of Oregon written by one W. H. Gray, of Astoria, we find this Indian agent spoken of as a " notorious blockhead." Mr. Gray's methods of mention of all persons toward whom he has antagonism or dislike are violent and undignified, and do not redound either to his credit as a writer or his credibility as a witness. But it is impossible to avoid the impression that in this instance he was not far from the truth. Surely one cannot read, without mingled horror and incredulity, this program of the whipping-post, offered as one of the first installments of the United States Government's "kind intentions" toward these Indians; one of the first practical illustrations given them of the kind of civilization the United States Government would recommend and introduce.

We are not surprised to read in another narrative of affairs in Oregon, a little later, that "the Indians want pay for being whipped, the same as they did for praying-to please the missionaries-during the great revival of 1839. Some of the influential men in the tribe desired to know of what benefit this whipping-system was going to be to them. They said they were willing it should continue, provided they were to receive shirts and pants and blankets as a reward for being whipped. They had been whipped a good many times, and had got nothing for it, and it had done them no good. If this state of things was to continue, it was all good for nothing, and they would throw it away."

The Secretary of War does not appear to have seen this aspect of his agent's original efforts in the line of jurisprudence. He says of the report which includes this astounding code, merely that "it furnishes some deeply interesting and curious details respecting certain of the Indian tribes in that remote part of our territories," and that the conduct of the Nez Percé on the occasion of this important meeting "impresses one most agreeably."

A report submitted at the same time by the Rev. Mr. Spaulding, who had lived six years as missionary among the Nez Percé, is much pleasanter reading. He says that "nearly all the principal men and chiefs are members of the school; that they are as industrious in their schools as on their farms. They cultivate their lands with much skill and to good advantage, and many more would do so if they had the means. About one hundred are printing their own books with the pen. This keeps up a deep interest, as they daily have new lessons to print; and what they print must be committed to memory as soon as possible. A good number are now so far advanced in reading and printing as to render much assistance in teaching. Their books are taken home at night, and every lodge becomes a schoolroom. Their lessons are Scripture lessons; no others (except the laws) seem to interest them."

Even this missionary seems to have fallen under some strange glamour on the subject of the whipping-code; for he adds: "The laws which you so happily prepared, and which were unanimously adopted by the people, I have printed in the form of a small school-book. A great number of the school now read them fluently."

In the next year's report of the Secretary of War we read "the Nez Percé tribe have adopted a few simple and plain laws as their code, which will teach them self-restraint, and is the beginning of government on their part." The Secretary also thinks it " very remarkable that there should so soon be several well supported, well attended, and well conducted schools in Oregon." (Not at all remarkable, considering that the Congregationalists, the Methodist Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics have all had missionaries at work there for eight years.)

In 1846, the Nez Percé, with the rest of the Oregon tribes, disappear from the official records of the Indian Bureau. " It will be necessary to make some provision for conducting our relations with the Indian tribes west of the Rocky Mountains," it is said; but, "the whole subject having been laid before Congress, it was not deemed advisable to continue a service that was circumscribed in its objects, and originally designed to be temporary." The founder of the whipping-post in Oregon was therefore relieved from his duties, and it is to be hoped his laws speedily fell into disuse. The next year all the Protestant missions in Oregon were abandoned, in consequence of the frightful massacre by the Cayuses of the missionary families living among them.* But the Nez Percé, though deprived of their teaching, did not give up the faith and the practice they had taught them. Six years later General Benjamin Alvord bore the following testimony to their religious character:

"In the spring of 1853 a white man, who had passed the previous winter in the country of the Nez Percé, came to the military post at the Dalles, and on being questioned as to the manners and customs of the tribe, he said that he wintered with a band of several hundred in number, and that the whole party assembled every evening and morning for prayer, the exercises being conducted by one of themselves in their own language. He stated that on Sunday they assembled for exhortation and worship."

In 1851 a superintendent and three agents were appointed for Indian service in Oregon. Treaties were negotiated with some of the tribes, but they were not ratified, and in 1853 there was, in consequence, a widespread dissatisfaction among all the Indians in the region. "They have become distrustful of all promises made them by the United States," says the Oregon superintendent, "and believe the design of the Government is to defer doing anything for them till they have wasted away. The settlement of the whites on the tracts, which they regarded as secured to them by solemn treaty stipulations, results in frequent misunderstandings between them and the settlers, and occasions and augments bitter animosities and resentments. I am in almost daily receipt of complaints and petitions for a redress of wrongs from both parties."

Governor Stevens, of Washington Territory, in charge of the Northern Pacific Railroad Explorations and Survey, wrote, this year, "These hitherto neglected tribes, whose 'progress from the wild wanderers of the plains to kind and hospitable neighbors is personally known to you, are entitled, by every consideration of justice and humanity, to the fatherly care of the Government."

In Governor Stevens's report is to be found a comprehensive and intelligible account of all the Indian tribes in Oregon and Washington Territory. The greater part of the Nez Percé country was now within the limits of Washington Territory, only a few bands remaining in Oregon. They were estimated to number at least eighteen hundred, and were said to be a "rich and powerful tribe, owning many horses." Every year they crossed the mountains to hunt buffalo on the plains of the Missouri.

In 1855 there was a general outbreak of hostilities on the part of the Oregon Indians. Tribe after tribe, even among those who had been considered friendly, fell into the ranks of the hostiles, and some base acts of treachery were committed. The Oregon settlers, menaced with danger on all sides, became naturally so excited and terrified that their actions were hasty and ill advised. " They are without discipline, without order, and similar to madmen," says one official report. "Every day they run off the horses and the cattle of the friendly Indians. I will soon no longer be able to restrain the friendly Indians. They are indignant at conduct so unworthy of the whites, who have made so many promises to respect and protect them if they remain faithful friends. I am very sure, if the volunteers are not arrested in their brigand actions, our Indians will save themselves by flying to the homes of their relations, the Nez Percé, who have promised them help ; and then all these Indians of Oregon would join in the common defense until they be entirely exterminated."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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