In 1877, a group of Nez Percé Indians, under the leadership of Chief Joseph, fled out of the Wallowa Valley of Oregon, hoping to make it either to their Crow Indian allies in Eastern Montana, or else to Canada. The Indians were living on a reservation that they had been confined to in Oregon after an earlier treaty, but because of gold prospectors, the government wished to move them to another part of their reservation, a high plateau in Idaho that was on the fringe of their traditional homeland, and could not easily support their way of life. Although many of the tribe moved to the reservation, many refused to accept it, and the United States military quickly took objection to this. Although Chief Joseph refused to either fight or move, some in his band started the war on their own by attacking and killing white settlers, and he knew he had to flee. A somewhat contradictory series of events, since the Nez Percé, refusing to move to Idaho, were ready to flee further.
What followed was an epic movement of the Nez Percé, both warriors and women and children, as well as their large herd of Appaloosa horses, from the Wallowa Valley of Oregon to 40 miles from the Canadian border in North-Central Montana. The chase took four months, as the Nez Percé zigzagged from camp to camp, pursued by cavalry detachments from different forts. There was several battles along the way, which was particularly hard on the Nez Percé since they had their women and children with them. Even without the military engagements, though, the road would have been a very hard one. The most obvious fact about the terrain that the Nez Percé moved through was that it was very mountainous, and even today requires a bit of forethought to travel through by automobile. The idea of riding on horseback through such passes as Lolo Pass and Chief Joseph Pass, accompanied by a large population of civilians, as well as a supply train, is a very incredible feat. One of the few things that made it easier for the Nez Percé is that they set off during the summer, although in the Rocky Mountains, this is a very short time. When they finally were surrounded and forced to surrender, it was because they had run out of supplies, and the winter had set in, in early October.
Portions of the Nez Percé's route is still kept today, as part of the larger, discontinuous Nez Percé National Historical Park, which combines 38 sites that were important to Nez Percé culture or history. In some places, such as the Bitterroot Valley, the trail follows the route of modern roads. It is possible to tour the route the Nez Percé took, in places, and investigate the various battlefields. However, as mentioned the Nez Percé also took a rough, wandering route, so it would probably be very difficult to follow their route exactly. Also, while it is a good pursuit to understand American history and the tragedies it encompassed, tourism of what could be viewed as a series of atrocities against another culture could be seen as a somewhat ghoulish pursuit. When I visited one of the sites on the tour, the Big Hole Battlefield, I had mixed feelings about the modern facility, complete with gift shop, used to explain what was a terrible battle.