Dead_Indian_Pass (1)
View from Dead Indian Pass

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Yesterday we had a cold snap here in Gardiner. It rained most of the day. The high was 48 and the low was 32. Tonight the low is supposed to be 27. Being a born and bred southerner, it’s hard to wrap my head around temperatures in the 20s and 30s in June.

We had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway today— a National Scenic Byways All-American Road that winds its way through southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming. Unfortunately, it snowed in the higher elevations last night so the pass was closed. The irony is the Beartooth Highway just opened for the season yesterday. Traditionally, it opens on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend—this year the opening was delayed until June 1st this year because there was so much snow on the Wyoming side of the pass.

Plan B was to drive the 47-mile Chief Joseph Scenic Byway on Wyoming Hwy 296. The route runs between the Beartooth Highway (US-212) near Cooke City, MT, and Highway 120, north of Cody, WY. The Beartooth Mountains and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River lie to the north of the road, and the Absaroka Mountains and North Absaroka Wilderness are to the south.

The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after Chief Joseph, the chief of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce Indians. Chief Joseph’s given name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, or Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. He was born in 1840 in the Wallowa Valley, in what is now northeastern Oregon.

Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain was widely known as Joseph or Young Joseph. His father had taken the Christian name Joseph after missionary Henry Spalding baptized him. Young Joseph’s father was one of the first Nez Perce people to convert to Christianity.

When white settlers started moving into the area, Young Joseph’s father was initially hospitable to the newcomers. However, he grew wary when they demanded more Indian land for farming and grazing livestock. In 1855, the governor of the Washington Territory organized a council to designate separate areas for natives and settlers. The elder Joseph and the other Nez Perce chiefs signed the Treaty of Walla Walla with the United States, establishing a Nez Perce reservation encompassing 7,700,000 acres in present-day Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The Nez Perce maintained much of their traditional lands, including the Wallowa Valley.

In 1863, gold was discovered on land covered under the treaty, attracting an influx of new settlers. Government commissioners tried to convince the Nez Perce to accept a new, much smaller reservation of 760,000 acres situated around the village of Lapwai in western Idaho Territory. In exchange, they were promised financial rewards, schools, and a hospital for the reservation. Chief Lawyer, a leader of the Nez Perce, and one of his allied chiefs signed the treaty on behalf of the Nez Perce Nation. The elder Chief Joseph and several other chiefs were opposed to selling their lands and did not sign the treaty.

The elder Chief Joseph died in 1871, and Young Joseph was elected to take his father’s place. The new chief led his band of Nez Perce during the most turbulent period in their history, when the United States government forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands onto a reservation in the Idaho Territory. Like his father before him, Chief Joseph, along with fellow Nez Perce leaders, Chiefs Looking Glass and White Bird, balked at the relocation plan. In 1873, a federal order to remove white settlers and let Chief Joseph’s band remain in the Wallowa Valley made it appear that he might be successful in retaining his lands. But the federal government soon reversed its decision, and in 1877, General Oliver Otis Howard threatened a cavalry attack to force Joseph’s band and other holdouts onto the reservation. Believing military resistance was futile, Joseph reluctantly led his people toward Idaho.

Sadly, they never got there. About twenty young Nez Perce warriors, infuriated at the loss of their homeland, staged an attack on nearby settlements, killing several people. The army began to pursue Joseph’s band and the others who had not moved onto the reservation. Although he had opposed war, Joseph aligned himself with the war leaders.

Over the course of the next four months, Chief Joseph and his 700 member band of men, women, and children, embarked on a 1,400-mile march toward Canada, seeking asylum from persecution by the U.S. government. Only 200 of Chief Joseph’s followers were warriors. None the less, the  journey included several impressive victories against a U.S. force that numbered more than 2,000 soldiers.

Joseph led his band through Yellowstone Park eastward into the Absaroka Mountains. From the Absarokas, the Indians searched for a route to the Great Plains. However, the U.S. Army had anticipated that the Nez Perce would attempt to break out of the mountains onto the Plains and had stationed *General Samuel D. Sturgis and 600 cavalry near the base of the mountains to intercept the Indians. Sturgis’s forces were strategically placed where they could move quickly south or north toward known trails along the Clarks Fork Canyon. Unfortunately, Sturgis failed to take into account the Clarks Fork exit from the mountains, believing it would be impossible to pass through the lower several miles of Clarks Fork, as it was a narrow canyon with vertical walls.

On September 8, 1877, the Nez Perce reached Dead Indian Pass, about six miles from Sturgis’s force on the Plains below. Their advance scouts observed the soldiers far below awaiting their appearance. They evaded capture by sneaking back north and traversing Dead Indian Gulch down to the Clark’s Fork River, taking Dead Indian Gulch, a narrow, steep-sided slit in the rock that dropped almost vertically for 1,000 feet and was barely wide enough for two horses to go side-by-side.

But the retreat took its toll on the group. By the fall of 1877, Chief Joseph and his people were exhausted. They had come within 42 miles of the Canadian border, reaching the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, when the U.S. army finally cornered and defeated the Nez Perce at the Battle of Bear Paw.

The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is open year-round. The road closely follows the path taken by the Nez Perce as they fled the U.S. Calvary in 1877. Several historical and interpretative signs along the road provide more information about the flight of the Nez Perce. The road passes through a series of picturesque valleys surrounded by craggy forested hills. There are countless twists and turns as the road rises and falls as you slowly make your way to the 8,061 foot summit at Dead Indian Pass.

The are two schools of thought as to the origin of the name “Dead Indian Pass.” The first refers to the Nez Perce flight in 1877. A member of the Nez Perce band was supposedly killed near the pass. The second theory is that in 1878, Colonel Nelson A. Miles and his soldiers encountered a group of Bannock Indians. The Crow Indian scouts killed a Bannock and buried him at the top of the pass.

As I’ve researched the places we’ve visited in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, I cannot help but notice that the government’s seizure of Indian lands seems to be a common theme, especially where gold is concerned. If you’ll recall, this is the same thing that happened to land they had been ceded to the Indians in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The treaty stated that the Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills. The  government later reneged on the treaty after gold was discovered in the region in 1874. The U.S. government issued an order to the Indian agencies that all Indians return to the designated reservations by January 31, 1876, or be deemed hostile. The improbability of getting that message to the hunters, coupled with its rejection by many of the Plains Indians, made confrontation inevitable.

I don’t know about you, but I would fight back too, if someone tried to take my land.

*Sturgis, SD, home of the annual motorcycle rally, attended by 480,000 people in 2017, was named for General Samuel D. Sturgis. General Sturgis’s twenty-two-year-old son, Lieutenant James G. Sturgis, was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn. His remains were never identified.

Metal sculptures at summit of Dead Indian Pass
View of Absaroka Mountains from Dead Indian Pass


Sunlight Bridge over Dead Indian Gorge
View of rock outcroppngs on our way to Dead Indian Pass
More rocky hills along the way. Reminded me of the scenery in an old western movie
Roosevelt Arch
Finally got a decent shot of the Roosevelt Arch on our way back to the campground after driving the The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway

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