GREAT FALLS — Fort Benton will be added to the Nez Perce National Historic Trail this weekend for its role in the 1877 flight of the Nez Perce tribe from their homeland.
A small military detachment from Fort Benton and nearly 40 volunteers were charged with intercepting hundreds of fleeing Nez Perce men, women and children — led by Chief Joseph — before they reached the Cow Island steamboat landing.
The soldiers were too late to stop the band from taking supplies from the landing and a wagon freight train and setting fire to the rest. A skirmish around the wagon train left one civilian volunteer and two Nez Perce warriors dead.
"When they got down there the Indians were tougher than they thought," said Jack Lepley, chairman of this weekend's Fort Benton Summer Celebration, during which Fort Benton will be added to the trail Sunday.
The site falls outside of the congressionally designated trail corridor, but the designation will certify it as being associated with the trail, said Christine Bradbury with the trail's headquarters in Idaho.
"If, in the future, anyone petitions to extend the trail, this effectively shows it as a site associated with it," she said.
Similar designations have been bestowed on sites in Kansas and Oklahoma.
The trail retraces the flight of about 750 Nez Perce from their homeland through much of Idaho, the Yellowstone National Park area and modern-day Montana. The band was trying to avoid being moved onto a reservation, and was being pursued by the U.S. Army.
Two weeks after the encounter at Fort Benton, Chief Joseph delivered his famous surrender speech near the Canadian border, saying, "I will fight no more forever."
The process to add Fort Benton to the trail began two years ago, when Sharalee Smith of the River and Plains Society met with an administrator from the historic trail office at the Governor's Conference on Tourism.
The site to be dedicated Sunday will feature an interpretive plaque and a large piece of steel artwork portraying three Nez Perce warriors on horseback by a Nez Perce artist, she said.
It sits about 40 yards from the new Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Interpretation Center, which also will be dedicated Sunday.