Kate and Sue McBeth, Missionary Teachers to the Nez Perce


As though it were a direct result of the promise of Lewis and Clark, however, fur traders from both Canada and the United States soon afterward began to get past the Blackfoot barrier and appear among the Nez Perces and other Plateau tribes. Beginning in 1807, David Thompson and other traders and employees of the Canadian North West Company, having finally found a pass across the Canadian Rockies, turned south and coursed their way along many of the rivers of the Northwest, building fur posts and opening trade for furs, provisions, horses, and supplies with the Kutenais, Flatheads, Spokans, and others. The Canadians did not at first find their way into Nez Perce Country, but the Nez Perces quickly learned of their presence and traveled to trade at posts the whites had built. On March 11, 1810, Thompson noted in his journal at the Saleesh House, a post he had erected in the Flatheads' country on the Clark Fork River near present-day Thompson Falls, Montana, "Traded a very trifle of provisions from the Nez Perce. . . ." It is the earliest-known use of that name for the tribe and appears to be the term being used by Thompson's French-speaking trappers, who believed they saw some of the Nez Perces wearing bits of shell in their noses. By that same spring, Thompson's records also show that he had already traded more than 20 guns to the western Indians, and that summer a war party of 150 Nez Perces and Flatheads used their new weapons to drive off an enemy group of Piegans on the Montana plains.

In the meantime, American trappers and traders, many of them inspired by Lewis and Clark's reports of abundant beaver in the Rocky Mountains and the Northwest, were also heading west, traveling up the Missouri or across the northern plains. For a time, the Blackfeet and their allies had more success in interfering with their trade with the western tribes, killing many of the Americans, driving them back or dispersing their parties. There is evidence of one large but little known group of 42 Americans being wiped out to a man by Blackfeet in northwestern Montana about 1807 after having traded with the Nez Perces. Others seem to have met and traded with buffalo-hunting groups of Nez Perces on the plains from Montana to southeastern Idaho. In general, the white Americans came to regard the Nez Perces and Flatheads as friends and the Blackfeet as mortal enemies.

In 1811, a teen-aged Massachusetts trapper named Archibald Pelton seems to have wandered through southern Idaho in a crazed condition after Blackfoot attacks on his party. Eventually, Nez Perces found him, and he spent part of the year living in a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater River. Later that winter he was discovered by the first party of white traders known to have entered the Nez Perce Country—a ragged and starving group of 11 members of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. They were part of a larger body that had come overland from St. Louis under Wilson Price Hunt to erect a fur post at the mouth of the Columbia River. After many accidents and misfortunes in southern Idaho, they had disintegrated into smaller groups, and 11 men under a herculean, 136-kilo (300-pound) trader named Donald McKenzie had struggled north through part of Hells Canyon of the Snake River and across the mountains to the Nez Perce villages.

The Nez Perces were as friendly and hospitable to them as they had been to Lewis and Clark, and when McKenzie and his men regained their strength and set off down the Columbia, they promised to return and open a trading post among the Nez Perces. McKenzie was as good as word. In August 1812 he erected a small Pacific Fur Company post on the north side of the Clearwater River eight kilometers (five miles) above present-day Lewiston. The project was not successful. The Nez Perces were willing to trade things they owned or produced, like clothing, food and horses, but they were not willing to become beaver trappers and laborers for the whites. At the same time, McKenzie's men were high-handed and demanding. Soon tension and an icy hostility developed between them. Increasing numbers of competitors were arriving in the Plateau country from Canada, and when news circulated that the United States and Great Britain had begun the hostilities of the War of 1812, McKenzie closed the Clearwater post and withdrew to the Pacific Fur Company's main post, Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia. On October 16, 1813, the Astorians, threatened by the superior number of their competitors and by word that an English warship was on its way to the Columbia, sold out to the North West Company and the next year left the Northwest.

Meanwhile, during the evacuation, a hot-tempered Astorian trader, John Clarke, had had an altercation with a group of Nez Perce and Palouse Indians at the mouth of the Palouse River on the Snake in southwestern Washington and had hanged one of them. The brutal action had outraged the Nez Perces and other tribes and had turned them against all whites, and for a while violent confrontations occurred between the Sahaptian-speaking peoples and the North West Company employees who were trying to develop the trade opportunities purchased from the Astorians. Peace was finally reestablished in 1814. But the whites stayed away from Nez Perce Country, and the Nez Perces had to barter for guns, ammunition, and other goods with the Spokans, Flatheads, and others among whom the North West Company maintained trading posts. Despite this indirect method, white men's goods streamed into many Nez Perce villages, enriching their material culture.

In 1816, Donald McKenzie, now in the employ of the North West Company, returned to the Northwest and, after making peace with the Nez Perces, built a substantial fur post on the Columbia near the mouth of the Walla Walla River, about 19 kilometers (12 miles) below the confluence of the Snake and Columbia, which he called Fort Nez Perces. Here he intended to trade with the Nez Perces, as well as the Cayuses, Wallawallas, Palouses, and other tribes in the vicinity. At the same time, he initiated a new era of leading brigades from the fort through various regions of the Northwest to do their own trapping. The brigades, composed of French-Canadian, Hawaiian, English, American, and eastern Iroquois Indian employees of the North West Company, concentrated initially on the Snake River country of southern Idaho and for a time were caught in the continuing warfare between the Nez Perces and Cayuses and their Western Shoshoni and Bannock enemies. By patient negotiations however, McKenzie was at last able to bring about an enduring peace between them, and from time to time bands of each of those tribes began to camp with and help provision the brigades. . . .

Though few Nez Perces ever took to trapping beaver themselves, they found a market for their horses, food supplies, and various products at Fort Nez Perces, and some increasingly frequented that post. In 1821, the British Hudson's Bay Company merged with the North West Company and the next year changed its policy to having its fur-gathering brigades depart from its post in the Flatheads' county of northwestern Montana and work their way down to southern Idaho through the beaver-rich valleys on the eastern side of the Bitterroot Mountains. The change brought them into close contact with the buffalo-hunting bands of Nez Perces, who regularly roamed through much of that country with the Flatheads and Kutenais and who now periodically attached themselves to the brigades, greatly increasing their trade for firearms and other manufactured goods, and joining whites in skirmishes with their mutual enemies, the Blackfeet and Atsinas.

Beginning in 1824, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and other American trappers and traders from St. Louis entered the area and by outbidding the Hudson's Bay Company greatly enhanced the Indians' position. At Fort Nez Perces and in their own country, the Nez Perces continued to sell the British horses and provisions, but on the plains the bands increasingly transferred their friendship and allegiance to the "bigger-hearted" Americans, The appearance of the Americans created the beginning of a crisis for the Hudson's Bay Company. Since 1818, Great Britain and the United States had observed a joint occupancy of the Oregon Country, with freedom within it for citizens of both nations. Although the British had operated without competition from the Americans since the departure of the Astorians, it was evident that a growing number of Americans would now be appearing. Believing that the joint occupancy would end in 1828, and that the two nations would then divide the territory, with the Columbia River as the boundary, the Hudson's Bay Company made plans to move all its posts, including Fort Nez Perces, to the northern side of the Columbia and by 1828 trap to exhaustion all of southern Idaho, which would become American-owned.

Joint occupancy actually did not end until 1846, and then the boundary line was the 49th parallel, far north of the Columbia. Meanwhile, opposition by the Nez Perces and other tribes forced the British to abandon plans to move Fort Nez Perces. But at the same time, in 1826, they built a large new post, Fort Colvile, in what they thought would be secure British territory in the northeastern part of the present State of Washington. Their efforts to trap and outbid the Americans failed to halt the influx of American trappers or the wavering loyalty of the tribes. The bands continued to move back and forth between the white competitors, looking for the highest prices for their products, but generally the Nez Perces and their Flathead allies preferred traveling and trading with the democratic, easy-going American mountain men, who often paid no attention to fixed prices, as the British company traders were forced to do, but offered goods as free agents in accordance with their needs and desires. Nez Perce buffalo-hunting bands wintered in sheltered valleys with the Americans, fought side by side with them against the Blackfeet, and frequently permitted Nez Perce women to become the wives of trappers. Starting in 1827, the Nez Perces, together with Flatheads and Eastern Shoshonis, showed up regularly at the Americans' rendezvous, sharing in the celebrations, feasting, gambling, and general jollity of those annual summer gatherings of the fur men. At the 1832 rendezvous, held in Pierre's Hole (the present-day Teton Basin) in southeastern Idaho, seven Nez Perces and Flatheads were killed and many others wounded fighting alongside white trappers and traders in a ferocious all-day battle against an interloping war party of Atsina Indians.

In their own homeland, the Nez Perce villagers, still with only supplies and horses to trade, continued to attract the attention of few whites. Occasionally, a small party of American trappers would appear out of the mountains, visit briefly, and go on. Some Hudson's Bay Company traders based at the old Fort Nez Perces, which the British were beginning to call Fort Walla Walla, would travel occasionally to Nez Perce villages to buy horses. . . . (pp. 52-57)