Nez Perce and Smallpox - Nez Perce History
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Nez Perce and Smallpox

Nez Perce girls on horseback
Nez Perce girls

Because the Nez Perce lived pretty far from the Pacific Coast, they didn't meet European explorers until the 1700s AD, more than two hundred years later than the Iroquois and Cherokee, and even later than their Chinook and Shoshone neighbors. But their isolation did not protect the Nez Perce from catching European diseases: many died of smallpox that they caught from their neighbors. On the other hand, the Nez Perce were also able to trade with the Shoshone to get horses. The Nez Perce used their new horses to spend more time on the Great Plains, hunting buffalo. They got enough buffalo skins to begin covering their longhouses and tipis with buffalo hides instead of grass mats.

Nez Perce longhouse
Nez Perce longhouse, late 1800s

Not long after 1750, the Nez Perce saw their first Europeans - French fur traders traveling along the Columbia river in canoes. In 1805, Lewis and Clark also came through the Columbia Gorge and met the Nez Perce, who were eager to trade with Lewis and Clark in the hope of getting some guns. (The Shoshone already had guns). In exchange for the guns, the Nez Perce agreed to take care of Lewis and Clark's horses for them through the winter.

Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph, about 1880 AD

Just as the Nez Perce were among the last of the Native Americans to meet Europeans, they were also among the last to surrender to the United States. By the middle of the 1800s, the United States government was pushing the Nez Perce to move to a reservation in Idaho. About half of the Nez Perce agreed to move; the other half fought back for a generation. But by 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the United States Army. It was the last big battle between Native Americans and the United States.

Today many Nez Perce still fish for salmon and raise horses. While they control much less land than they did before the Europeans invaded, there are more Nez Perce today than ever before: about 18,000 Nez Perce live on the reservation today.

Nez Perce neighbors: the Chinook
More about the Shoshone

Bibliography and further reading about Nez Perce history:

Chinook people
Shoshone people
American History
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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