"Bannack, Montana--Impact on Native American Life & The Nez Perce Connection"
Bannack, Montana's colorful and rich past provides us with a sense of pride as we consider the growth of our nation and our Western heritage. Still, there is another aspect to Western settlement and development--the violent settlement of the West and the permanent displacement of Native American life and culture. The story of Bannack, perhaps like few other places, personifies the clash of cultures in America's settlement of the West.
Our story begins in the early 1800s when President Jefferson succesfully negotiated for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France with the conclusion of a treaty signed April 30, 1803. Earlier President Jefferson in a "secret" session of Congress asked for funds to explore this vast territory. Funding was provided and the Discovery Corps lead by Captain Meriwether Lewis, who was joined by his friend and fellow officer William Clark, began one of the most incredible explorations in the history of our nation. Their exploration of the Pacific Northwest eventually paved the way for others who would follow.
The first group following Lewis & Clark into this vast area were trappers and mountain men. Trappers and mountain men were soon followed by missionaries and then immigrants. America had been settled to a large extent by economically disenfranchised Europeons. When the American West was opened up to settlement, large numbers of the economically disenfranchised and economically dislocated people caused by the Civil War began migrating West on the promise of wealth and a brighter future. Unlike Canada, where the rule of law was established prior to settlement, Western settlement in America was often violent and without the rule of law except in rare instances in crude forms. Congress also played a role in the violent settlement of the West by passing the Pre-Emption act of 1841. Under the pre-emption act a man could enter a piece of land, which need not be surveyed, settle on it by building a house and cultivating part of it, and, in six months time he could buy this claim by paying $ 1.25 an acre for it. No title could be obtained until the land had been surveyed. This act was not only the basis for property disputes and conflicts among neighbors, it sactioned the perceived right of immigrants to take from the Indians whatever land they could. They were turbulent violent times fueled by greed, hope, and aspirations for a better tomorrow.
In 1860, gold had been discovered on the Nez Perce Reservation at a location which would become known as Oro Fino Creek on August 8, 1860. The discovery of gold created a massive onslaught of miners onto the Nez Perce Reservation which the Nez Perce were powerless to stop. Gold fever rose and the search for gold in every Western valley, creek and stream bed was on at full speed. On July 28, 1862, one such group including John White stopped at a creek previously named Willard's Creek by Lewis and Clark. Gold was discovered, and the creek became known as Grasshopper Creek. A mining camp began to flourish and in time the camp would become a city and the first Territorial Capital of Montana.
James and Granville Stuart had been successfull with their mining activites around Grasshopper Creek, and they wanted to expand their search for gold. They sought to search for gold along the Yellowstone which was on the Crow Indian Reservation. Being very much aware of the fact that a search for gold on the Yellowstone was in violation of the Treaty and thus against the law, as scant as it was, and knowing they could not search for gold alone, the brothers began to advertise for miners to join them and to form an expedition to search for gold. The expedition was organized; and in the early spring of 1863, the expedition departed. Not everyone left as planned, though. Staying behind purchasing supplies were eight men which included William Fairweather, Henry Edgar, Tom Cover, Barney Hughes, Mike Sweeney, Harry Rodgers, Lew Simmons and George Orr.
This group of men were trying to catch up with the main group when they were stopped by Red Bear and Little Crow of the Crows. The Crows advised the group that, if they continued on down the Yellowstone, they would be attacked and killed. If they returned from where they had come, their lives would be spared. The men, with the exception of Lew Simmons who stayed with the Crows, decided to return and en route back to their homes stopped near present-day Virgina, City. Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar discovered gold on a creek running through the valley which they named "Alder." In time, this area became known as Alder Gulch. The rush to the Montana gold fields intensified.
Two enterprising men by the name of John Bozeman and John Jacobs saw another opportunity. They decided to intersect immigrants on the Oregon Trail and provide them with a shorter route to the Montana gold fields for a fee. The proposed route could save many months of travel and would be attractive to many anxious to reach the gold fields.
Bozeman and Jacob went to a settlement on the Oregon Trail called Deer Creek which is not far from present-day Casper, Wyoming. There, they persuaded settlers to join them in a wagon train headed for the Montana gold fields. They were stopped by Indians and told they were on hunting grounds of the Sioux and Cheyenne and to turn around. The wagon train eventually turned around, but the rush to the Montana gold fields over this route had begun. Bozeman and Jocobs sought the help and protection of military forces in the area. At first, officers were reluctant to provide help, since Bozeman was on the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Reservation in violation of their Treaty. Then, the government became a party to the quest to reach the gold fields through Indian hunting grounds. Over a short period of time the government built three forts to protect immigrants on the trail which became known as the Bozeman Trail. The three forts, Fort Connor, Fort Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith were on the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Reservations. The Sioux led by Chief Red Cloud and a warrior named Crazy Horse responded by attacking the military forts and eventually forcing the Government to abandon the forts. Thus, the Bozeman Trail became known as the "Bloody Bozeman."
On May 26th, 1864, Montana became a new territory, and Bannack became Montana's first Territorial Capital. Conflicts and tensions between miners and settlers continued to rise. By 1863, lawlessness in the area was rampant; and included in the list of notorious outlaws was non other than the sheriff--Henry Plumber. To protect themselves and their economic interests, citizens formed the Vigilantes. On January 10, 1864, Henry Plumber himself had been hanged alongside several of his "Road Agent" friends. In June of 1876 General Custer was defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne. General Custer who was trying to force the Sioux and Cheyenne back onto their reservations led the fatal attack on the Indian village in the valley below. His attack was repulsed and his command retreated to higher ground where it was surrounded and destroyed.
The following year in 1877 General Howard was re-locating the Nez Perce onto the Nez Perce Reservation when war broke out. The Nez Perce War was an epic military struggle and is a classic story of man's will to persevere. The Nez Perce People and their leaders fought gallantly against overwhelming odds for their beliefs (including religion), their principels, and their ancestral homelands in 18 separate engagements--4 of which were major battles. The Nez Perce under the leadership of Chiefs Joseph, Lean Elk, Looking Glass, White Bird and others fought in the Big Hole Valley just west of Bannack near present-day Wisdom, Montana. Following the attack, the Nez Perce fled south from their pursuing enemy over Horse Prairie Flats.
The Nez Perce War was the last of the Major Indian Wars. To be sure, violence in the West would continue and places like Wounded Knee would become etched in the American conscience forever. The Big Hole Battlefield commemorates the courage of the Nez Perce people and their leaders in their struggle with the government. The Big Hole Battlefield is a short distance from Bannack and has been established as a National Historic Battlefield site. You may like to include a visit to this historic site on your trip itinerary when you visit Banack, Montana.