Wallowa Lake--Ancestral home of Wallowa Band


Preparing for Riderless Horse Ceremony
October, 1996, Fort Walsh, Canada




Back in Time

Approximately 65 million years ago, the Pacific Plate and North American Plate collided. Part of the Pacific Plate submerged beneath the North American Plate while pushing East with unbelievable force. The force caused a buckling of portions of the North American landscape thus accelerating the mountain building process. The Rocky Mountains were pushed to their highlest level during this period. In some instances, peaks along the Rocky Mountain range towered upwards of 18,000 feet. Geological activity continued if not intensifying. Finally, about 60 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions occurred in the area of present-day Yellowstone Park. There were many eruptions and their magnitude was massive. Ash began to fill the atmosphere and covered much of North America. In the process, massive cloud covers of ash formed and began cooling the earth. As the earth continued to cool, the first of several glacial periods in North America began with the last beginning to recede about 10,000 years ago. During this violent earth building process, the horse along with other animals perished from the North American Continent.

Anthropologists and historians are not altogether clear about when the horse was acquired by the Nez Perce. It is generally believed and accepted that horses were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish about 1730 and that the Plains Indians soon acquired them. However, the Appaloosa, or spotted horse, has been found in pictographs of Asian and Chinese art. Prominent anthropologists have theorized that the Nez Perce and other Pacific Northwest tribes may have migrated across a land bridge that may have existed between the Asian and North American Continents somewhere near the Bering Straits off the coast of Alaska shortly after the last glaciers on the North American Continent began to recede. If this is true, then, perhaps the Nez Perce and the Appaloosa horse were interlinked much longer than thought.


Nez Perce Mobility and Pride in Appaloosa Horse

Whatever the case may be, we know from reports of Captains Lewis and Clark that the Nez Perce were fond of Appaloosas and raised beautiful horses. Lewis noted that on their return trip from the Pacific in 1806, while staying with the Nez Perce, that the Nez Perce had the largest horse herd on the Continent. The horse was an important form of transportation to the Nez Perce people. It enabled them to travel great distances to visit other tribes, to participate in the Trapper Rendezvous, and to travel to the Buffalo country of present-day Montana and Wyoming. In 1835 Chief Lawyer met Reverend Marcus Whitman and Reverend Samuel Parker at the Green River Rendezvous. Later, Chief Lawyer would play an important role in helping the missionaries pursue their work among the Nez Perce. He often traveled between the Whitman Mission located near present-day Walla Walla and his ancestral lands near Kamiah where he lived. It was during one of these long journeys that he helped resolve the intense personality conflict that existed between Reverend Marcus Whitman and Reverend Asa Smith. He encouraged Asa to travel to Kamiah and set up a mission there and work on a Nez Perce language dictionary which Asa did. Chief Looking Glass, a famous warrior and hunter, traveled to Montana numerous times to hunt buffalo. We know, for example, that in 1873 Chief Looking Glass was in present-day Montana where he helped the Crow defeat the Sioux at the Battle of Pryor Creek.

Source of Wealth and Income

The Appaloosa horse was not only a source of pride and transportation for the Nez Perce people, it was also a source of wealth. During the 1800s, the Nez Perce were considered to be wealthy people by any standard you would care to measure wealth. Chief Joseph's own experiences and comments provide us with important glimpses into the significance of the Appaloosa as a source of wealth.

In 1870 ranchers rode up to the Wallowa Plateau in search of grass for their cattle, since cattle in the Grand Ronde area had been suffering from severe drought. One of the ranchers remarked to his companions as he stood gazing at a meadow on the slopes of Joseph Canyon that "there must be 10,000 head of horses in that meadow." In July of 1872 Joseph began a diplomatic initiative working for the removal of settlers from Joseph's ancestral lands in the Wallowas. A series of diplomatic meetings resulted in Joseph's stature and influence being raised. He was considered by his adversaries to be eloquent, logical and to possess a keen intellect. One particular intense meeting between Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory, T. B. Odeneal, and Nez Perce Reservation Indian Agent, John Monteith, on March 27, 1873, was very important. Joseph's response provides us with insight into his views of Nez Perce wealth and the importance of the Appaloosa horse to the economic well being of his people.


" I will not (move to reservation). I do not need your help; we have plenty, and we are contented and happy if the white man will let us alone. The reservation is too small for so many people with all their stock. You can keep your presents; we can go to your towns and pay for all we need; we have plenty of horses and cattle to sell, and we won't have any help from you; we are free now; we can go where we please, our fathers were borh here. Here they lived, here they died, here are their graves. We will never leave them."

Source: Howard, Helen Addison, Saga of Chief Joseph,p.92-93. Requoted from the Report of The Secretary of Interior, 1872-73.