CLARK, Wyo. — Back in 1877, at a point not far from here, a band of Nez Perce Indians slipped from the Absaroka Mountains onto the prairie, eluding the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry in hot pursuit.
The Nez Perce ran their horses in circles to confuse Army scouts before moving onto the Wyoming flatland and making a run north into Montana.
While the Nez Perce managed to confuse the Army commanders that September, they also succeeded in confusing historians. The exact route of their great escape remains a mystery 135 years later.
“We want to figure out how the Nez Perce got off that mountain and crossed into Montana,” said Jim Evans, director of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation. “We want to figure out where the route is so we can preserve and protect it for future generations.”
Led by archaeologists from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, a team of volunteers set out recently to carefully walk several miles of terrain near the Absaroka Front, hoping to find artifacts that might pinpoint the route taken by the Nez Perce during their 1877 flight.
The teams walked transects along the Montana-Wyoming border, covering several miles of ground in rattlesnake country. They turned up a stone cairn built to mark the border by an earlier geological survey, along with a few rusting artifacts likely stemming from mid-20th century agricultural activities.
They also found a prehistoric stone scraper that was impossible to date on location.
“Because it’s an isolated resource found on the surface, we wouldn’t be able to assign a date to it,” said Kierson Crume, an archaeologist with the BLM who led the trip. “I wouldn’t be able to say one way or another if this was carried by the Nez Perce when it’s isolated like that.”
The Nez Perce were chased from their homeland in Oregon, Washington and Idaho in 1877 and ordered to reservations by the U.S. government. Some in the tribe resisted the orders and fighting broke out. Members of the tribe began their historic 1,170-mile flight across the West, looking to reach freedom in Canada.
Over the next few months, the Nez Perce would cross great expanses of rugged country, fending off the U.S. Army in battles at the Big Hole Valley in Montana and at Camas Meadows in Idaho. They crossed Yellowstone National Park and travelled through the Absarokas before emerging on the Wyoming prairie somewhere near the Clarks Fork Canyon.
By September 1877, Col. Samuel Sturgis and his men had joined pursuit. They waited for the Nez Perce near the mouth of the canyon, certain the band of Indians would emerge at this most likely geographical point.
A map rendered by the National Park Service shows the Nez Perce on a path crossing the mountains south of Clarks Fork Canyon, closer to an area known as Bald Ridge. It also has them fording the Clarks Fork and entering Montana on the west side of the river.
But a Forest Service map shows the Nez Perce using the area between Bald Ridge and the canyon. It also shows them crossing the river two different times and entering Montana east of the river.
A third map rendered by historian Stan Hoggatt in 2007 has the Nez Perce entering the prairie from the canyon itself. The map also has the band travelling north and west of the Clarks Fork, never crossing as they moved into Montana.
“We try and accommodate these discrepancies by thinking of it as a corridor,” Crume said. “It’s moving north, north-east out of Wyoming into Montana. It was a one-time pass and the Nez Perce probably left less of a mark than the pursuing 7th Cavalry would have left.”
On this trip, organized in part to celebrate National Trails Day, volunteer crews didn’t find any evidence indicating the passage of the Nez Perce or of the 7th Cavalry.
But in a landscape this large and varied, results don’t come overnight. Crume plans to continue the investigation, working with private landowners who farm along the Clarks Fork.
“The cavalry may not have been right behind them,” said Crume. “Different bands may have gone different ways. There’s also a good chance they were down there in the bottoms, as close to the river as they could get.”
Down in the river bottom is where the cavalry expected the Nez Perce to be. Sturgis had been waiting with troops near the river, and Gen. Howard wasn’t far away.
According to historians, scouts also had gathered information on the movement of the Nez Perce. But relaying that information back to commanders over rugged terrain was slow and difficult.
“The cavalry wasn’t as mobile as the Nez Perce were,” Evans said. “Several times they thought they were going to catch them, but they didn’t.”