To the Columbia River and History Along the Way

Mileage today: 258 miles Total miles: 3,683

We left Wallowa Lake in bright sunshine and after a short drive along the lakeside stopped at the Old Chief Joseph Grave Site. This is a 5 acre sacred cemetary to the Nez Perce tribe. Old Chief Joseph was a Nez Perce leader who refused to sell his Wallowa homeland and sign the 1863 Treaty. Before he died in 1871, he told his son to defend his homeland and people by saying, “My son, never forget my dying words, this country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.”

Young Chief Joseph led his band of Nez Perce during the most tumultuous period in their history, when they were forcibly removed by the United States federal government from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon onto a significantly reduced reservation in the Idaho Territory. A series of violent encounters with white settlers in the spring of 1877 culminated in those Nez Perce who resisted removal, including Joseph’s band and an allied band of the Palouse tribe, to flee the United States in an attempt to reach political asylum alongside the Lakota people, who had sought refuge in Canada under the leadership of Sitting Bull.

At least 700 men, women, and children led by Joseph and other Nez Perce chiefs were pursued by the U.S. Army under General Oliver O. Howard in a 1,170-mile (1,900 km) fighting retreat known as the Nez Perce War. The skill with which the Nez Perce fought and the manner in which they conducted themselves in the face of incredible adversity earned them widespread admiration from their military opponents and the American public, and coverage of the war in U.S. newspapers led to popular recognition of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.

In October 1877, after months of fugitive resistance, most of the surviving remnants of Joseph’s band were cornered in northern Montana Territory, just 40 miles (64 km) from the Canadian border. Unable to fight any longer, Chief Joseph surrendered to the Army with the understanding that he and his people would be allowed to return to the reservation in western Idaho. He was instead transported between various forts and reservations on the southern Great Plains before being moved to the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington, where he died in 1904.

We visited the route of his flight through the Yellowstone when we visited in 2019 and we thought it was worth the short stop to pay our respects to the father of this inspiring leader who tried to honour his promise to his father and his responsibilities to his people.

As we headed north and west around the Wallowa forest towards Elgin, the smoke thickened again and we could see it was really quite bad in that direction. We kept going, turning north at Elgin towards Walla Walla. As we went the smoke completely cleared which was a relief.

Around lunchtime we arrived at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, just east of town. It was a really peaceful area set in wheat grass beside a stream with mature trees planted around. We began in the visitor centre where we watched a 25 minute film that explained the history of Dr Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa Whitman. They were two highly educated people from the East Coast who answered the call to become missionaries in the Oregon Territory in 1847. They travelled west with other Methodist ministers and their families. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. The Whitmans set up their Mission in the territory of the Cayuse tribe, at the tribe’s invitation. At first things went well, but after the first year or so, things took a tragic turn. The great push west of settlers began and the Oregon Trail passed the mission and began to use it as a stopping point. The incoming settlers brought western diseases: whooping cough, tuberculosis and measles. The tribes were decimated and this lead to great suspicion. Dr Whitman doctored settler and Cayuse alike but whilst the settlers largely recovered, having some natural immunity, the Cayuse all died. They began to believe that he was poisoning their children and practicing bad medicine. In addition there was already tensions caused by the Whitmans’ insistance on the Cayuse changing their traditional ways, to become more “westernised”. In November 1847, a group of Cayuse attacked the Mission, killed the Whitmans and 11 others. 47 other settlers, mostly women and children, were taken hostage. Eventually their freedom was negotiated, but the massacre became a cause celebre and lead to the pursuit of the perpetrators and thereafter the suppression of the tribe and others. 5 leaders were eventually hanged for the attack. It was a great tragic clash of cultures and quite hard to imagine in such a totally serene spot although the causes of it are easy to understand.

It was interesting to visit the Mission. Only the footings are left of the buildings now, but there is the memorial up on the hill and the Great Grave where all the victims are buried. The site is also of interest to the Oregon Trail. There is a full size wagon and quite a section of wagon ruts to see. There is a small museum showing items both Cayuse and settler in origin.

We continued west to the Columbia River and made a stop at the Hat Rock State Park. Thiis is a landmark beside the Columbia that was noted by Lewis and Clark who camped there in 1805 and other settlers who used it as a landmark. It certainly was an extraordinary sight and indeed very much like a hat!

We crossed over to the Washington side and followed Rt 14 along the banks to the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge just after Maryhill. It was a lovely drive. The Columbia is such a huge, wide river. Very blue water, very calm today and of course, tamed by a number of dams in modern times. The bluffs rising from the river and the hills around on either side are golden. They look like they are covered in golden/beige suede leather, dotted with black fingers of occasional rock, the odd tree…. but the overwhelming effect is blue sky, golden rolling, folded hills, blue river….. We were once again following in the footsteps of the intrepid Corps of Discovery and Lewis and Clark who passed this way, canoeing the river and camping on the shores. Clark specifically mentions and draws it in his journals of 1805. There was very little development along the way and hardly a car or a truck.

One thing that was noticeable and broke the relentless gold, was the green of vineyards. Many of the flatter southerly slopes had been densely packed with vines and there were a lot of wineries including the Chateau Saint Michelle, the largest and most venerable vineyard in Washington. It looked beautiful.

Finally, we crossed the bridge back to the Oregon side and travelled a few miles east to our stop for the night in Rufus. It’s little more than a fisherman/truckers hamlet on the banks of the Columbia. Nice little inn and very comfy room with good a/c and all the extras eg fridge, microwave…..

We had dinner in a funky place just down the road called Bob’s Texas T Bone and Frosty’s Lounge. Monstrous portions and all a bit much but good value. It was full of salmon fishermen and truckers.

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