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May 14, 2015

The role of Fort Leavenworth in Nez Perce History

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In 1877, one year after Custer’s defeat, the Army basically fought the last of the Indian Wars. It was against the Nez Perce of eastern Oregon and Idaho. Actually, the war ranged over several states, including several days in the new Yellowstone National Park, and covered about 1,300 miles, ending at Snake Creek near the Bear Paw Mountains in northern Montana, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

 

The previous year, the Indians that had defeated Custer and killed 1 percent of the entire U.S. Army had fled across the same Medicine Line into Canada. Although they were fully aware of the predicament in which the Nez Perce were situated, they were informed by the Canadian authorities that while they were welcome to stay in Canada as refugees, they would not be welcomed back into Canada if they went to the rescue of the Nez Perce in Montana.

So in late 1877, Joseph and Yellow Wolf agreed to surrender to the U.S. troops in order to save the lives of the 400-plus Nez Perce women, children, elderly and the few remaining warriors who were trapped with no chance of escape into Canada. The agreement was that they would give up their weapons and horses and be allowed to return to the reservation in eastern Idaho. Unfortunately, the folks in Idaho and Oregon did not want them to return because they had plans for the land formerly occupied by the Nez Perce.

Instead, the Nez Perce were escorted to Bismarck by boat and by wagon where they eventually boarded the train to be delivered to Fort Leavenworth. If you stand on the corner of the road that crosses the railroad tracks into Sherman Army Airfield, you can look past the hangars and you can visually follow the Road To Rialto that led to the incarceration site.

This being a cavalry post, there were lots of horses, and soldiers liked to race their horses in their spare time. The so-called Victorian Era Horse Race Track was at least the second race track on the fort and was located at the present-day intersection of the Road To Rialto and the levee road, also named Chief Joseph Loop.

The Nez Perce were provided shelter within the confines of the race track and they were provisioned with food and water and security was provided by the Army, although I would hesitate to say that they were totally confined or imprisoned. In fact, with worldwide press coverage of the last of the Great Indian Wars or Nez Perce War, the fact that Chief Joseph was here drew a lot of curious people who wanted to see Joseph and the other real Indians.

The Fort decided to create a curfew to provide the Indians some peace because people were showing up at all hours to see them. Supposedly, the Nez Perce spent some of their time making things for the public to purchase. Since they arrived in the fall, I believe that they may also have spent plenty of time collecting native pecans to eat from the woodlands that were on the fort’s floodplain. Those pecans and plenty of new ones are still there.

It did not take long for the fort to grow tired of housing 400 Indians and caring for them as it got to be pretty expensive and the commander complained to Congress that he would release them immediately if Congress did not provide reimbursement for his costs. The commander argued that he was not equipped to operate a prisoner of war camp and that he would set them free if they were not removed.

Just eight months after they arrived at the fort, they boarded the train in downtown Leavenworth and were transported to Oklahoma where they stayed for about seven years before they were finally allowed to returned to Idaho.

Matt Nowak is a retired natural resources specialist and lives in Lansing.
Nez Perce Indians
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