The Nezperce Story
A History of the Nezperce National Forest


Lewis and Clark spent several weeks in the Kamiah Valley in the spring of 1806. They were waiting for the snow to melt along the Lolo Trail so they could continue their eastward journey to St. Louis. It is doubtful if either of the two leaders set foot on lands now within the Nezperce National Forest but their hunters ranged far and wide in the search for game, and it is entirely likely that some of them did get onto future Nezperce lands. In any event, game was scarce and the salmon were late running. In order to avoid a nearly complete vegetable diet, the party killed and ate a number of horses.

The record shows that the Nez Perce Indians owned large numbers of horses of fine quality and were generous with gifts of some elegant animals to members of the party. Some horse racing was indulged in at intervals, and it was said that several of them would be thought swift horses in the Atlantic States. The generosity was not all one sided; Lewis and Clark gave freely of their time for treating the sick.

The only game animals mentioned were deer and bear, with grizzlies apparently being more numerous than the black variety. Today the grizzlies are no more; black bear and deer are losing ground. Elk can now be found in many localities visited by the hunters in 1806. The great number of Indian horses of that time have practically disappeared. Motor vehicles have taken their place as a means of travel for the remaining tribe members.

The next recorded visit by white men to the area was in 1831 when John Urb and his Hudson Bay trappers passed over the route taken by Lewis and Clark. Several other white men, among them Colonel Craig and John Meek, paid the section fleeting visits.

In an article prepared for the Northern Region News, Roy A. Phillips states:

In 1853 there is chronicled the event of two expeditions from Cantonment Stevens in the Bitterroot Valley to the Camas Prairie, the purpose of which was to scout the practicability of a railroad route through the Bitterroot Mountains. One of these parties made the trip in dead of winter on snowshoes and the route of journey, camping places, and distances traveled daily is easily traced on the ground.

While a feasible railroad route was not found, the map made by this party was exceptionally accurate, in fact much more so than any of the early Forest Service maps.

Roy also says: "It was not long after Lewis and Clark made their epic journey that the advance guard of civilization followed in their footsteps. The famous mountain men, trappers in search of fur, soon invaded every watershed." However, the real settlement of the area began in the spring of 1861 when a party of gold seekers, spreading out from Pierce, found what they were looking for in the vicinity of Elk City.

The History of North Idaho, published in 1903, states that:

A recorder's office was established at once with Capt. L. B. Monson as recorder. The first entry was dated June 14, 1861. Shortly after the discovery, two brothers, James and William Galbraith, started an express. Inside of 10 days more than 300 people were enroute or already at the diggings. By fall a town became a necessity and Elk City was accordingly laid out. The camp's prosperity was at its height during the mining season of 1862.

The origin of the name is nowhere given specifically, although it is believed that a few elk were found in the vicinity or that there was evidence that elk had existed there in the past. The first authentic record of an elk kill in the area was in 1902 when one was taken at a salt lick near the present John Asker ranch on Red River. Another was killed on Clear Creek in 1904.

Gold was discovered in the Florence basin on August 20, 1861, and a town was laid out on Summit Flats at the head of Baboon Gulch. There is a difference of opinion as to whose wife, daughter, or sweetheart the town was named for, but it seems certain that someone in that category had the honor.

A way station at the foot of Mt. Idaho was erected by Moses Milner and his partner Francis, the men who cut the pack trail from the site of the town of Mt. Idaho to Florence mining camp in the spring of 1862. Prior to that time the route to Florence was up Salmon River to the divide between Slate Creek and John Day Creek, up the divide to the summit of the mountain, and then on to Florence.

A station was established early at the mouth of Slate Creek by Charles Silverman. In the spring of 1862 John Wood purchased the station. In the summer of 1862 Henry Elfers and John Wessel took a claim on John Day Creek. In 1863 A. Berg squatted on land on the main Salmon River 2-1/2 miles above the mouth of the Little Salmon. That same year J. Allison settled on a claim 6 or 7 miles above the Berg place. These ranches are still the base property for current grazing permits.

Newsome, no doubt, came into being along with or shortly after Elk City, since it was on the route to that place. The town was named in honor of John Newsome, an early pioneer and settler. Dixie was probably founded in 1862, although some have the date as 1864. One of the discoverers was from Dixie, Georgia. Adams Camp (location of Adams Ranger Station) was a favorite stopping place on the old Milner road. It dates back to 1862.

The first public school in Idaho was opened in Florence in 1864 with a Mrs. Robinson as teacher. Frank A. Fenn was a pupil. In 1869 the miners voted to admit the Chinese to Florence.

Up to June 1, 1869, the county seat of Idaho County was located at Florence when the honors and prestige belonging to the seat of local government was transferred to Washington in the Warren mining district. The boundaries of Idaho County were changed, and Mt. Idaho became the county seat in 1875.

Several books have been written about the Nez Perce Indian War but no history of the area would be complete without mention of the event. Here is a brief account by Earl McConnell published in the Northern Region News in the late thirties. Earl was then a ranger on the Nezperce:

The Nez Perce Indian War
By Earl McConnell

From the time of Lewis and Clark's visit and the establishment of the Lapwai Mission by the Reverend Mr. Spaulding, the Nez Perce Indians had been a peaceful tribe and friendly with the white settlers. Gradually more white people settled the country and as a result the Indians were losing their stock range and hunting grounds. In 1877 the Nez Perce Indians planned to surprise and massacre the whites at a celebration and picnic to be held near Mt. Idaho on July 4. Three of the younger braves, however, excited by too much firewater, upset the plan by going on the warpath on June 14. They surprised the people at the John Day Ranch on Salmon River and killed three men: Robert Breckenroads, Robert Bland, and Henry Elfers. From there they traveled down the river, killing the settlers. Tolo, an Indian woman who is a noted character in Idaho history, made her famous ride from Freedom (Slate Creek) to Florence to warn the white people of the uprising. This ride was made at night through the mountains, a distance of 20 miles by trail. Moc-Mox, one of the three braves who started the massacre, was a brother of Tolo.

At the battle of Whitebird, the Indians formed a perfect ambush for the soldiers and volunteers, and but for the impatience of a lone Indian who fired on the advancing troops prematurely, there might have been a complete massacre. Notwithstanding this timely warning, 37 men of the garrison from Fort Mt. Idaho were killed and the Indians won a signal victory. Major Frank A. Fenn, a pioneer forester, took part in this engagement and was instrumental in saving the remnants of the regular detachment from annihilation.

With the arrival of General Howard and his regulars, Chief Joseph started one of the greatest strategic retreats in history. Chief Joseph personally did not want to fight the white man, but when he could no longer control his braves, he put up a valiant fight, although greatly outnumbered in practically every battle, and when he finally surrendered after the final battle in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana to General Miles, he made the following historic statement, "From where the sun now stands I will fight the white man no more."

* * *

An Idaho County Free Press item on May 17, 1898, states:

The G&B pack train of 59 mules passed through town last Friday loaded with 25,000 pounds of merchandise. (These mules were really loaded! It figures out at approximately 425 pounds per mule.)

The legislature which met in the winter of 1891-92 appropriated $8,000 for a wagon road from Camas Prairie to Elk City. (This amount would scarcely buy engineering stakes for the survey of a present day road.)

On April 5, 1896, the miners of that district in mass meeting assembled decided upon the location of a new town to be called New Florence. (No reason for the change was given but it could have been zoning or local improvement districts but more likely it was easier to move than clean up the old town.)

It was during the early part of 1896 that the initial steps were taken toward establishing the Bitterroot and Priest River Forest Reserves, the executive order for the purpose bearing date of February 22, 1897. This order provided that all prospecting should cease after March 1, 1898, but fortunately Congress modified this feature and provided that prospecting might always be carried on within the preserves under the same conditions as elsewhere, also that land might be taken for agricultural purposes. Patrols are maintained, however, to see the forests are properly preserved. The Bitterroot Reserve, which most intimately affects our county, is situated in both Idaho and Montana and covers the entire Bitterroot Range. The mining camps of Elk City, Dixie, and Buffalo Hump are included within its limits.

The time of establishment of Orogrande or Callendar could not be found, although both are mentioned in some records. Orogrande probably followed Elk City closely and Callendar was no doubt a suburb of Buffalo Hump. Ray R. Fitting, a former supervisor of the St. Joe, told the writer that he worked in a mine at Orogrande in 1902 and worked the winter of 1908 at Callendar. The old town of Midasville on 4th of July Creek near Dixie was established in 1897.

Charles F. Robbins and Bert Rigley Young discovered and staked the Big Buffalo and Merrimac claims on August 7, 1898. This touched off the Buffalo Hump boom and led to renewed mining activity throughout the area. There were three towns recognized in the Buffalo Hump area: Hump Town, where only some building foundations and a pile of whiskey and beer bottles remain; Frog Town, lower down in the basin; and Concord, where a few buildings were standing in 1954 and which may still be there.

In the Florence Cemetery there are quite a number of graves, but only the following are identifiable from original headboards:

S. Wesselbroade from Ohio, Died January 29, 1862, Age 48
A granite stone with only RMC
Albert Billings, July 15, 1862
H. J. Talbotte, January 5, 1863, 29 years, Native of Georgia
Geo. Bannard, October 24, 1869
N. W. Anderson, a native of Sweden

"Cherokee Bob" was the better known name for H. J. Talbotte. Although he was from Georgia, it is not clear where the Cherokee part came from or the Bob either, for that matter. He was supposed to have been a member of the Plummer Gang that preyed on honest folks in many of the mining camps of the West, although Virginia City or Bannack in Montana was considered home base. Bob drifted into Florence with a red-haired, painted companion "Cynthia," whom he had won from the notorious Mayfield, and became the owner of a saloon. Just why Mayfield is notorious or how "Cynthia" was won is not known.

This brief story of why he became a permanent resident of the cemetery is from The History of North Idaho (1903):

At a ball at Florence on New Year's Eve, a cyprian was ejected from the dancing room whereupon Henry J. Talbotte (better known as Cherokee Bob) and William Willoughby armed themselves and prepared for vengeance. Later they both were killed....

Sister Alfreda in her book, Pioneer Days in Idaho County, states: "Bob was punctured by several bullets and died in his saloon where he was carried on the third day after the gunfight."

The original headboard at Talbotte's grave shows a much better type of lettering and general workmanship than others in the cemetery. Perhaps "Cynthia" was responsible.

The cemetery at Dixie contains but seven graves and none of these date back to the early years of the camp. Ranger Howard Higgins provided the following information on those buried there:

James Lynch, 1898.
Ike Ward, 1899, froze to death at Rabbit Point.
Helen Smith, colored. Died in 1915. Took in washing for a living.
Sam Myers, 1928, born in 1839.
Howard Powelson, died in 1930. For many years the storekeeper and postmaster.
The small daughter of Warren Rice was burned to death in a cabin about 1935.
An unknown, supposed to have been murdered about 1911. Skull and a few bones found in early thirties. Bullet hole in skull.

This cemetery is located across the creek from the road some 1/2 mile below town. The graves are well marked by native granite stones.

There is a cemetery at Newsome which contains about a half dozen graves. Before his death, Ranger Roy Space was attempting to obtain an identity from Nate Pettibone. Whether he was successful is unknown to the writer.

Many individual graves undoubtedly exist, but only a few are a matter of record. Jim Moore is buried on his claim on Salmon River across from the Zaunmiller Ranch. There is a grave in Dead Man Saddle east of Sheep Mt. Lookout, and an Indian child of the Parsons family is buried at Grave Meadow.

Grangeville, the county seat of Idaho County and the headquarters for the Nezperce National Forest, had its beginning in 1876 with the erection of a Grange Hall on land donated by John M. Crooks. Some business buildings and residences soon followed. The name seems to have been a natural and was adopted by a majority vote. The post office probably was also established in 1876. The first postmaster was W. C. Pearson.

Two serious fires occurred in the earlier years of the settlement, one on May 13, 1895, and the other on December 19, 1897.

In 1899 a water system was completed. The same year saw the first electric lights from a steam plant. After more than one attempt the removal of the county seat from Mt. Idaho to Grangeville was approved in the election of 1900. The railroad reached the town about 1908.

Grangeville has experienced some ups and downs over the years; but, for the most part, the growth has been steady. While mining industry declined greatly during World War II, the lumber industry has more than taken its place and, together with agriculture and stock raising, provides a strong economy for the area.

The town of Whitebird figured in the early mining history of the area. The site was a scene of battle in the Nez Perce Indian war. Photo by K. D. Swan, 1925.

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Last Updated: 11-Nov-2008