Hells Canyon


The biggest single cause of this change was the Nez Perce War of 1877—one of the most shameful events in the canyon’s history. The Nez Perce claimed the canyon and the lovely, lofty Wallowa Valley to the west of it, both by tradition and by the terms of an 1855 treaty. White stockmen and miners wanted both, and forced a new treaty through in 1863. The Hells Canyon and Wallowa bands of Nez Perce, led by Toolhoolhoolzote and Joseph, refused to accept the new treaty. Fourteen years of stubborn negotiations, during which Joseph died and was replaced by his son Young Joseph, culminated in a tumultuous ten-day conference in May, 1877, at Lapwai, Idaho. Toolhoolhoolzote was thrown in the guardhouse; the shocked Young Joseph agreed at last to move from the Wallowa. He was ordered to be on the drastically shrunken reservation defined in the 1863 treaty by June 14.

A little over two weeks later, the Wallowa band of Nez Perce, some four hundred strong, together with several thousand head of cattle and horses, gathered forlornly on the Oregon bank of the Snake at a place now called Joseph’s Crossing, deep in Hells Canyon. The Snake was at flood stage, a roiling, swollen yellow torrent about a hundred yards wide. Joseph had expected this, and had begged at Lapwai to be allowed to wait until September to travel to the reservation so that the crossing could be made at low water. He had been met with a curt and entirely adamant refusal. Hazardous as it was, the crossing would have to be made now.

Rafts of hide bundles were fashioned; the rafts were heaped high with baggage and gear. Young men, stripped naked and riding bareback on horses known to be strong swimmers, entered the water in groups of four, one to each corner of a raft. Bobbing, yawing, and spinning helplessly in the powerful current, the little flotilla moved slowly out from the bank. Here and there rafts got away from their handlers, hobbling downstream or upsetting and spilling their contents into the turbulent Snake. One story has it that while the Indians’ attention was occupied with the baggage rafts, thieves crept up to their herds and cut out several hundred head to be driven back up to the Wallowa and branded with white men’s brands. It is certain, however, that much of the livestock was lost in the river.

Next came the people themselves—the women and children, the old and infirm, the men with families, all except those responsible for the livestock. Mounted on the tribe’s best horses, they rode apprehensively into the broad, swift river. And amazingly—miraculously—all made the swim in safety. There was not a single loss of human life.

When the livestock had been brought across, the bedraggled little band began the long climb out of the canyon and toward the reservation, still twenty-five miles away and across another deep gorge. They never made it. The war began a few miles short of the boundary, touched off by three young Indians who were goaded into it by an old man who should have known better. Four months and a thousand miles later it ended in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, a heartbreaking fifty miles from the sanctuary the Nez Perce sought in Canada. Toolhoolhoolzote was killed in the last hours of the fighting; Joseph died many years later, on September 21, 1904, at the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. At the time of his death he was still trying to get permission to move back to the Wallowa Valley, where a town had already been named for him—a town in which he was not allowed to reside. It is little wonder that the official cause of death, as listed on the death certificate prepared by the reservation doctor, was “a broken heart.”

White stockmen and miners had been moving into Hells Canyon as early as the mid-i86o’s; now, with the Indians out of the way, this process accelerated. Homesteaders came, clinging to precarious 160-acre patches of ground scattered through all but the very deepest portions of the great gorge. Here and there post offices sprang up (including one called “Joy” because the settlers in that neighborhood were so pleased to be getting mail service at last). It is from this period that most of the place names in the canyon may be dated; many of them demonstrate the sardonic humor necessary to survive in such grim terrain. PO Saddle, a narrow, deep pass on the west rim, is officially a shortened form of “Peep Over,” though you will find it listed on the early maps as Pissover Saddle. Alex Warnock was bucked off his horse near a small stream north of Saddle Creek in the main gorge; his hat lodged in a bush out of reach, remaining there for many years and giving its name to Hat Creek and, because the creek headed out up there, to Hat Point. Sleepy Creek was so named because the sun hit it so late in the day that the cowhands who named it got several extra hours of sleep the night they camped there.