Tag Archives: Nez Perce

On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 3

This post is part 3 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2

A Road

Seeing their peaceful submission slip away in the three days following the attacks, the Nez Perce retreated from the Camas Prairie south to White Bird Canyon and the village. Now a small town at the base of the White Bird Grade, White Bird has a population that rises and falls near the number 100. The town itself is retired under an expansive canyon bridge that hurdles air-conditioned travelers to their desired destination and is just shy of occupying 0.1 miles.

The Old Whitebird Grade winds into White Bird, Idaho across the Whitebird Battlefield, bringing with it Yellow Wolf Road.

In June the canyon of White Bird is just beginning to see the heat of the coming summer. The crickets bellow their lungs and scratch their knees, trees hide in the streams of spring rain and snakes run their bellies across the black rock. Dewy eyes and velvet noses of a rancher’s cattle search for food by the roadside grave of an army calvarymen. We wind down the hairpin turns of the old grade, past the rolling hills of the canyon. Two days from our arrival the White Bird Battlefield, which has its own history, celebrates its 133rd anniversary but we’re more interested in the road signs that pin to narrow gravel lanes that square plots of land: Baker Gulch Road – named for James Baker, a rancher who was killed in the June attacks – and my favorite, Yellow Wolf Road.

Chief Yellow Wolf. Image from the U.S. Forest Service.

The story of Yellow Wolf is as easily known as the tales of his cousin, Chief Joseph so the street sign strikes my fancy for reasons of proportion. Less like a lottery and more like the painter’s wheel the more prominent players get the broader strokes – Chief White Bird was the area’s leader and so gets the town, the battlefield and later still the highway grade as his landmarks. The rest are left with subtle shading by way of street names or knolls such as the case with Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce scout and then chief. What eludes me in this area, however, is a color for Toolhoolhoolzote which seems odd: Toolhoolhoolzote was considered the Nez Perce nation’s ‘war chief’, a role more influential it seems than Chief Joseph’s role of ‘administrative chief.’ But again, history has a way of writing itself like a sieve, the more compelling stories rest on the surface.  

What’s in a Name?

Curiosity about the entymology of names that give presence to the spaces around us, like a search for truth, plunges a curious mind into a Rubik’s Cube of fact and interpretation. Rather than sussing the truth, I think the adventure is better served by digging into the story and then simply acknowledging that one exists. That the land before you bore witness to a myriad acts of minutia before you alighted. Shortly after leaving the Camas Prairie to head for Hell’s Canyon I contacted my mother to clarify the location of the Nez Perce crossing from Grangeville into the White Bird canyons. We had assumed it was a place similar to the current highway, a seemingly natural path across a Mount Idaho saddle.  Instead, the traditional crossing was the Grangeville-Salmon road. A winding ascent from the edge of the prairie past the now dismantled town of Mount Idaho and into the forest on the edge of the Gospel Hump Wilderness a land of timber and cougars where teens now light bonfires on the service flats. A road that runs right past my former mailbox.


On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2

This post is part 2 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? 

History 

In May of 1877 Nez Perce Chiefs Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote received orders to move onto the reservation designated by the Treaty of 1863 by the middle of June. The Nez Perce had already divided, some consenting to the 1863 agreements, moving their homes onto the grounds centered around Lapwai, and others holding to the tribal norms that no governing body could control an individual’s rights. The treaty had reduced the size of the tribe’s previous agreements with the United States by almost ninety percent – from 7 million acres to just under 800,000. In their place towns and farms sprung up overnight, each with their own hopes and dreams, competing with each other for the dollars of weary travelers and boasting the promise of the new frontier. 

A Town 

From the little town of Fenn to the saddle where it crests Mount Idaho, Hwy 95 makes a sweeping arc around Tolo Lake to include Grangeville, the county seat. If, while traveling legal speeds from Fenn to Grangeville, you happen to glance toward the hills, you might catch the town of Denver. 

Denver Cemetery Road

The intersection of Canyon Road and Denver Cemetery Road marks the way past or through the town of Denver, Idaho, now a field of black loam and wheat.

Located in the exact geographic center of the Camas Prairie, Denver was founded by investors from Moscow, Ida., Pullman, Wash. and the Camas Prairie. 

The investors purchased a total of 2,720 acres from Hon. L.P. Brown of the town of Mount Idaho, selecting 640 acres to be the townsite. In the book The Oregonian’s Handbook of the Pacific Northwest, a mass of information on Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana gathered by the newspaper The Oregonian, Denver is described:

 …it was a necessity, from a commercial standpoint, of a town at this point, that induced its location here. The syndicate, in choosing this point, located a young city that would be easy of access from all points and where it would naturally command the trade of a vast territory that, from its resources alone, must become thickly settled in the near future…The promoters of the new townsite claim that Denver is destined to become the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho. 

It was hoped that Denver would replace the then county seat of Mount Idaho as “the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho.” Research into Denver’s dates of creation and demise are unclear but by one account it existed as early as 1863 and as late as 1906. So by all accounts it was well established when the Nez Perce bands agreed to occupy the reservation. It’s hard to stand at the edge of a field and reconcile a town on the GPS with only a canvas of wheat and rape, absent the bustling streets of a metropolis that once claimed its own newspaper, The Denver Tribune, two hotels and a livery stable. Denver’s population reached a bustling 200 when it was just more than a year old. Now the postmaster delivers to addresses designated “rural route” and only a signpost, Denver Cemetery Road, remains. 

Tolo Lake, Camas Prairie, ID

Tolo Lake on the Camas Prairie. The town of Fenn, Idaho, population of around 40, sits about five miles in the distance.

A Lake 

In the twilight of the arrival of settlers and missionaries and left with little alternative, White Bird, Toohoolhoolzote, Joseph and Looking Glass agreed and began to make arrangements to move to the reservation. In early June 1877 a final gathering was organized between members of five non-treaty bands at a traditional camping ground on the Camas Prairie five miles from Grangeville and just eight miles from the reservation border: Tepahlewam or Tolo Lake. 

It was here that White Bird’s band held a tel-lik-leen a traditional, peaceful ceremony in which past triumphs were remembered in salute to a collective history. As night fell on June 14 three young men broke from the band to seek revenge for a father’s murder – a successful outburst that dominoed into more attacks on settlers in areas including Cottonwood, now a town, originally a halfway house, and Grangeville. Of the tel-lik-leen and what caused the men to seek revenge West writes: 

Whatever inspired it, this tel-lik-leen provided the spark that set loose the greatest modern crisis of the Nez Perce people…At some point on the circuit, something happened. By one account, their horse stepped on some drying camas roots; by another, they frightened a child. Someone then taunted Shore Crossing and his honored place in the ceremonial (tel-lik-leen) train: “If you’re so brave, why don’t you go kill the white man who killed your father?”…Overnight, Shore Crossing decided to right the imbalance.

The attacks continued for three days across the praire. Knowing they would soon meet the retaliation of the U.S. Army, the tribes abandoned their move and turned back to the canyon of White Bird’s village. 

Now infamous for its entombment of a resurrected woolly mammoth and a favorite of local fishermen, Tolo Lake is an unassuming spot on the prairie. A small blue watering hole easily overlooked within the vast fields of rape and alfalfa, barbwire fences and stock horses line the oiled gravel roads leading to the lake. The hum of 18-wheelers on Hwy 95 becomes a lull with the sound-offs of robins and ravens. 

Standing on the edge of the lake, placid to an empty sky one can almost see the grasses trampled by hundreds of horses. Looking north to the unhindered horizon it’s not hard to understand the heartbreak and tensions those assembled must have felt and their desire to create a ceremony around their loss. And it’s easy to imagine what the settlers saw and interpreted. Here the prairie is flat to the horizon, a rare place for a state as rugged as Idaho. Horses grazing three miles away can be seen by a standing man. Hundreds of Nez Perce gathered, performing a ritual ceremony that was, in fact, celebrating past battles, may have easily been interpreted as a cry for war. 

Up Next… “A Road, What’s in a Name?” 


On the Road: What’s in a Name?

Notes from the Road: Grangeville, ID – Before leaving on this road trip I was given a book entitled The Last Indian War by Elliott West. A non-fictional account of the year 1877, West reveals a pivotal time in U.S. history when American Indian nations were driven headlong into the unyielding power of the United States government. Specifically, he details the Nez Perce, the events leading to the Nez Perce War and finally the land that resolved to be the tribe’s homeland, the state of Idaho.

Map of Nez Perce War

Map of Nez Perce War. Click to see full size. http://www.nps.gov

Seizing an opportunity to find out more about the landscape on which our teenage years alighted we took West’s book and a knack for asking questions and planned our first leg to follow the Idaho panhandle across the now finite boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation. This path would take us to our hometown of Grangeville 17 miles outside the Nez Perce borders. There we would cross the Camas Prairie, its purple flowers and retired trestles patched with fields of young wheat and furrows of black loam, and follow Hwy 95 to the canyons of the White Bird Battlefield, home to the battle that launched the Nez Perce War.

Deciding on a Story

With West’s book as companion, we decided to skip the 38 historic Nez Perce landmarks in lieu of elsewhere revelations. We were more concerned about Tolo Lake, Yellow Wolf Road, the town of Denver and others. Places where stories embodied the minutia left off the historical markers or out of the mainstream history books due to simple limitations of space and time. In his book, West writes:

Segmenting time, or periodization, is something we have to do if we want to organize the past and give it meaning. But it’s dangerous. By choosing some dominating event and saying that its period starts here and ends there, we run the risk of neglecting other events that don’t fit well into the scheme we’ve created, and that in turn risks distorting our view of how events have worked and built on each other to make the America we have come to know… History is not the same, no matter how you slice it.

I was very aware that even by reading West’s book, centered on 1877, I was in effect “slicing history.” But that’s a risk I was willing to take. It’s easy to know you live near a battlefield when the road to a favorite beach is impregnated with historical markers. Like some giant historical painter’s wheel or even an epic lottery, smaller stories lend their names to sign posts on gravel roads and prairie knolls by edict of the historical society or the simple weight of history.

And these were what we were after.

Up next… “History, a Town, a Lake”


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