March 4, 2009
On the Trail with the Nez Perce
In 1877, on a daring journey that started from Wallowa Lake, Oregon and ended tragically at the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana, the Nez Perce crossed Yellowstone National Park in an attempt to flee the U.S. Army. This extensive path—the Nez Perce National Historic Trail—was designated a site of National Historical Importance by Congress in 1986. Today, archeologists are investigating new evidence of the events that took place in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone would like to better manage the Trail as it crosses Yellowstone, and to share its history with visitors, but requires more information to do so. The Yellowstone Park Foundation funded a survey that brought together oral histories relayed by tribal leaders with historical records compiled by researchers. The goals were to investigate the Nez Perce route and to help Yellowstone tell the story of the journey.
Survey activities included visual assessments of the land features, and searches with metal detectors and other equipment for artifacts. All positive findings were flagged and recorded with GPS markers. The project resulted in the identification of four previously unknown historic sites, documentation of artifacts at three other sites, and reassessment of an additional five sites.
Some of the artifacts found during the survey, and subsequently identified as dating from the late 19th century, include several cartridges and musket balls, and a ‘rosette’ from a horse bridle.
Project researchers also discovered a sign (left) that was originally posted in 1904 and was thought to have been destroyed by wildland fire. It marks where the "Helena Party" were attacked by the Nez Perce—a key event associated with the Nez Perce in Yellowstone.
The results of the inventory will help inform future educational programs, materials, and signage about the Nez Perce Trail, and ultimately help visitors gain a better understanding of the related events in history.