Chief Red Heart’s saga: Every year the Nez Perce perform memorial ceremonies at battle sites, including Bear Paw, Whitebird and Big Hole. On Wednesday, April 22, 1998 they added a nonbattle site: Fort Vancouver, where they were imprisoned for eight months under the order of Gen. O.O. Howard. The prisoners were Chief Red Heart and a band of his relatives and friends. They were released on April 22, 1878 and taken to the Nez Perce Reservation.
* July 1, 1877 Chief Red Heart and band are captured near reservation
* Aug. 4, 1877 The band boards steamship for journey to Ft. Vancouver.
* Aug. 7, 1877 Band arrives and is placed in cramped stockade with 15-foot walls.
* April 22, 1878 The band is released to return to the reservation after eight months in captivity.
In August 1877, a band of Nez Percé Indians arrived at Fort Vancouver. They did not come by choice. Captured in Idaho, sent by steamboat down the Columbia River and shackled at the fort, the event prompted this news item in The Vancouver Independent:
“Thirty-three Nez Perce Indian Prisoners, men, women and children, arrived at the Post Tuesday evening, under the guard of 19 soldiers. … The Indian men are all stalwart, swarthy looking fellows, and, no doubt know the exact turn of the wrist in lifting a scalp. … The prisoners will be confined in the Guard House until such time as it may be thought best to send them to a reservation.”
The prisoners were Chief Red Heart and his band. They had committed no crime.
They were kept at the fort, the Army jail of the Northwest, for eight months before being released to the Nez Percé Reservation in Idaho.
Little was recorded of their imprisonment, but the story has been kept alive through generations of Nez Percé.
“Chief Red Heart did not want war,” said Wilfred Scott, a member of the Nez Percé Tribal Executive Committee. “He wanted to stay at peace.”
Scott is one of about 25 Nez Percé coming to Vancouver for a reconciliation ceremony April 22, the 120th anniversary of the release of Chief Red Heart’s band.
The Nez Percé
Before white settlers moved into the Northwest in the 1800s, the Nez Percé enjoyed the freedom to hunt, fish and camp as they pleased. A major Northwest tribe, the Nez Percé bred the Appaloosa horse and were dependent on salmon and the camas lily for food.
They were friendly to settlers and consequently fared well, compared with other regional tribes, in the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.
The treaty, wrote researcher Donna Sinclair, let the Nez Percé “maintain sovereignty over nearly 7 million acres in the Pacific Northwest. They retained parts of southeastern Washington, the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon and the adjacent part of Idaho.”
Then came settlers in search of land and, in 1863, the discovery of gold on the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Idaho.
A new treaty was written, and Nez Percé land was reduced to 1 million acres.
A number of Nez Percé leaders, Sinclair wrote, refused to sign the treaty, referring to it as the “Thief Treaty of 1863.”
Chief Red Heart and Chief Joseph, perhaps the most famous of Nez Percé leaders, were among those who did not sign the treaty.
“No one was out to go to war,” said Sinclair, a graduate student at Portland State University and author of a recent research paper on Chief Red Heart’s band. “They simply wanted to remain on their own homelands and didn’t want to go to a reservation.”
Ten years later, in 1873, Gen. Oliver Otis Howard arrived at Fort Vancouver Barracks, the center of operations for military campaigns against tribes in the West.
Howard’s mission was to move the nontreaty Nez Percé onto the million-acre reservation in Idaho.
In July 1877, tensions between regional tribes and the soldiers were high. Howard, under orders to find a quick solution, called for the capture of Chief Red Heart’s band to set an example to other nontreaty Nez Percé: Move to the reservation, or else.
Capture and lockup
The band was located in Idaho and promised an escort to the reservation if it went peacefully.
The soldiers were lying. The band was marched 60 miles to Fort Lapwai, Idaho, then put on a steamboat and sent down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver.
A diary entry reads: “One old man cut the bead ornaments off his moccasins and left them for his wife.”
The band was lodged in a guardhouse, cramped quarters where they spent nights.
A 15-foot-high stockade was built to hold them during the day.
For the 5,000 residents of Clark County, The Vancouver Independent reported the “corral” as a “success.”
The 33 prisoners – among them nine women, including Chief Red Heart’s daughter and one woman who may have been his wife – endured the long, cold winter and the wet spring.
All except one, an infant who died in the fall of 1877. Historical records suggest the men were forced to labor while women did sewing and weaving.
Plans for a trial were dismissed; no accusations of crime were ever recorded.
“Rather than being released on the reservation they were held at Fort Vancouver,” Sinclair said. “And they were also treated and viewed as criminals. ‘Nontreaty’ doesn’t mean criminals. But in those days, it did.”