One of the most famous Indian battles in Montana history involved an Indian tribe that’s not indigenous to the state. The Nez Percé homeland was the region where Oregon, Washington, and Idaho meet. There the Nez Percé made their way as seminomadic fishers, hunters, and gatherers. The Nez Percé Nation was a largely peaceable confederation of loosely knit tribal units, each under a powerful chief.
By the 1850s, white settlement began to displace the Nez Percé. An 1855 treaty confined them to a reservation; because the boundaries included their traditional homeland, and because the treaty also restricted white settlement on their land, they complied.
By 1863, however, more stockmen, miners, and settlers were encroaching on Nez Percé land. A new treaty was drawn up, reducing the reservation to one quarter of its former size. The Nez Percé chiefs whose land was still within the reservation signed the new treaty; those chiefs whose land was being taken away refused. On the pretext that the signature of any Nez Percé chief represented the commitment of the whole tribe, the U.S. government ordered the “nontreaty” Nez Percé onto the new reservation.
While both the Indians and the U.S. Indian Bureau dallied for several years without strict enforcement of the order, increasing pressure from settlers—especially after Custer’s rout in 1876—made compliance a priority. In 1877 the U.S. Army was sent in to compel the delinquent Nez Percé onto the reservation.
At this time, a band of young warriors attacked and killed four white settlers in Oregon, whom the Indians believed guilty of earlier murders of Nez Percé elders. Fearing harsh retaliation and foreseeing a dismal future for the tribe, five bands of the nontreaty Nez Percé—about 800 people—fled eastward from the Wallowa Lake area of northeastern Oregon.
After two skirmishes in Idaho, where the Indians eluded the army, the Nez Percé realized they had to leave the area completely. They crossed over to Montana, intent on journeying to Crow country on the Yellowstone, where they hoped to reestablish the tribe, but they would meet the army again at The Battle of the Big Hole .