On a blue-sky July day in tiny Joseph, Oregon, a carpet of golden grassland stretches north to the horizon, hemmed by a line of sturdy, white-topped mountains. So much land, so few people. You'd think there would have been enough to go around. And there almost was. Until some shiny yellow metal showed up.
It's easy to see why Chief Joseph was reluctant to leave the beautiful Wallowa Valley. Blessed with a network of sparkling rivers and creeks fed from the surrounding ranges, the vast fertile plain spreads between the Wallowa Mountains and Summit Ridge, the precipitous cliff that lines Hell's Canyon to the east. The valley drains north along Rattlesnake Canyon into the Snake River system on the Idaho border. The altitude (around 3,500 feet) moderates the summer heat, and spring snowmelt replenishes the soil, while the Blue Mountains fend off the searing winds of Oregon's central plain. It's a small piece of paradise.
So thought many pioneers on the Oregon Trail, following what is now the Interstate 84 corridor northwest between the Snake and the Columbia. Turning north along the Grande Ronde River and around the Wallowas, many stopped here and settled the sweeping grassland.
But this was the traditional territory of the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce Indians. At first, the sociable native people lived alongside the newcomers, helping them, just as they had helped the Lewis and Clark and John Jacob Astor expeditions on their treks west. But as more settlers arrived, this peaceful coexistence was destined to end.