Broken treaties with Indians were the norm in the early days of the settlement of the West. So much so that the general assumption is that they are all null and void. That’s not the assumption of the Nez Perce, who are known as Nimiipuu in their language. They have a stronger claim than most tribes because the Treaty of 1855 was signed by all 56 bands of Nimiipuu.
The government often assumed that tribal authority must ultimately rest with a single individual, the “chief” of the Tribe. Most tribes didn’t work that way, so signing a treaty with a leader from one band did not—in the view of the tribes—mean that all bands agreed.
The Tribes Gather
Bands from the Wallawallas, Cayuses, Umatilass, Yakamas, Kootenais, Coeur d’Alenes and others gathered to consider the treaty. They hoped to get an agreement that protect traditional rights and stop the flow of settlers coming into their homeland. Thousands of them came to the Walla Walla Valley and stayed for more than a week to discuss terms. General Isaac Stevens, who was also the first governor of Washington Territory at that time, presided over the negotiations. Unlike the other tribes, all 56 bands of the Nez Perce signed the Treaty of 1855. That puts the Tribe on more solid legal footing than tribes signing other treaties.
So, what did the treaty contain? The Nimiipuu gave up 7.5 million acres of land but significantly retained hunting, fishing, and gathering rights there. Less significant, they were also to get:
- two schools (including furniture, books, and stationary)
- two blacksmith shops
- a tin shop
- a gunsmith shop
- a carpenter shop
- a wagon and plow shop
- a sawmill
- a flour mill
- 13 people to work at and maintain the abovementioned buildings for 20 years
- a hospital stocked with medicines and a trained physician
- $200,000 (almost 6 million dollars in today’s money)
- Each tribe’s headman/chief would also receive a house and a stipend of $500 a year ($15,000 today) for twenty years.
Treaty? What Treaty?
White miners paid little attention to the treaty boundaries. That resulted in nearly immediate conflict with most of the Tribes. The Nimiipuu avoided conflict, believing that getting along with the Americans would pay off in the long run. In 1858, the Tribe fought alongside of whites in two battles against other Tribes.
Elias Pierce and others began mining operations on Nez Perce reservation land in 1860, in clear violation of the Treaty of 1855. Many Nimiipuu resented this, but a few saw it as an opportunity.
Getting a Lawyer Involved
Hallalhotsoot, better known as Lawyer, had known the Americans for decades. He was a young boy when his father, Twisted Hair, befriended the Corps of Discovery. A statue in Boise depicts that meeting with Lewis and Clark, showing Lawyer playing at their feet.
Lawyer welcomed the miners and businessmen that followed them. He saw it as an opportunity to sell them livestock and supplies. In his mind, they would take their gold and be gone.
Lawyer signed an agreement that opened up the reservation north of the Clearwater to settlement. His band was to receive $50,000.
Meanwhile, the other bands of the Nez Perce were frustrated, waiting for the promised money and services laid out in the Treaty of 1855.
A Temporary Town
In 1861, the Americans founded the town of Lewiston. Lawyer, who had yet to receive the promised $50,000, confronted the settlers. They assured him that everything was temporary. As soon as the gold was mined, Lewiston would no longer exist. The buildings would be temporary.
By 1862, the “temporary” town of Lewiston had 20,000 residents, and Lawyer still didn’t have his money.
The Treaty of 1863
Congress—better at reading the intentions of those who had settled in and around Lewiston than Lawyer was—drafted a new treaty in 1863. Unlike in the Treaty of 1855, there was a schism between the Nez Perce bands. Lawyer and others signed the new treaty; Chief Joseph and others refused to give away more of their land and their rights. Joseph publicly tore up his copy of the 1855 treaty and rode off.
Seemingly oblivious to the discord in the Tribe over the 1863 treaty, government officials assumed that the new treaty represented the wishes of all Nez Perce. At least, they acted that way.
The “treaty” Nez Perce were viewed by the government as compliant and law-abiding. The “non-treaty” bands were outlaws. The situation simmered along until 1877 when it boiled into the Nez Perce War.
The 1855 Treaty Matters Today
Today, the Treaty of 1855 is so important to the Nez Perce that they make it a part of their branding (see below).