After you’ve topped White Bird Pass, look to your left as you enter the rolling farm country around Grangeville. If you’re there in the early spring you can see patches of blue sometimes so thick they look like rippling ponds. If you’re paying attention you might pull over and read the Idaho Historical Society marker that explains that swatch of color. Camas. The flowering root was a key part of the diet of the Nez Perce.
If you’re a fan of historical markers, you probably already stopped at the one part-way up the steep White Bird grade that marks the beginning of the Nez Perce War. The first shots in that months-long running battle were fired from the top of a low hill as the Indians created a diversion there that allowed Chief Joseph and his people, who were camped on the prairie above, to slip away from soldiers.
When we talk about Camas Prairie, we could be talking about that one. Or we could be talking about the other Camas Prairie near Fairfield. It wasn’t part of the Nez Perce War, but it was the site of a war over the edible bulb itself, just one year later.
Farmers and ranchers were encroaching on land promised to the Bannock Tribe in 1878, and no one took the Tribe’s complaints seriously. The dispute turned into a war when hogs were found rooting in the camas fields. One can imagine the seething anger of the Bannocks when they saw pigs tearing up the plants that had been a staple for them for time beyond memory.
The Indians went on a rampage, stealing cattle and horses, attacking and burning a wagon train, and sinking the ferry at Glenn’s Ferry. The Bannocks joined up with Paiutes pillaging across southeastern Oregon. Troops pursued them and the Indians suffered a final defeat in the Blue Mountains, though small raiding parties trickled back into Idaho stirring up trouble well into the fall.
There’s a historical marker about the Bannock War on U.S. 20 near Hill City.
So, now we know there are two… Wait. There’s ANOTHER historical marker on Idaho 62 between Craigmont and Nez Perce that talks about THAT Camas Prairie. Lalia Boone, in her book Idaho Place Names, A Geographical Dictionary, says that “Camas as a place name occurs throughout Idaho,” and doesn’t even bother to count up all the prairies and creeks so named.
If you’re still confused just know that camas is a beautiful flower that has been a key part of the unwritten and written history of this place we call Idaho.