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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Lapwai

Monday, December 5, 2016  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Lapwai City Hall

The city of Lapwai (pronounced Lap-way), the seat of government for the Nez Perce Indian Nation and the northern Idaho location of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, lies in the Lapwai Valley on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Gentle rolling hills overlook the valley through which Lapwai Creek flows.

Three miles north, Lapwai Creek combines with the Clearwater River. Lewiston is 12 miles west.

Historic Tidbits

In 1805 assisted by Nez Perce Indians, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery floated hewn canoes down the Clearwater River as they passed through the area on their quest to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1836 Henry and Eliza Spalding, Presbyterian missionaries, established a mission at this location that they named Lapwai, a Nez Perce word meaning "the place of butterflies." The Spalding’s taught Christianity and farming principles to the Nez Perce and opened a school. Soon Nez Perce families began cultivating garden plots near the mission.

In 1841 the first overland migration of settlers came into what was then called Oregon Country, a territory claimed by tribes of American Indians, England and the United States.

Also in 1841 Colonel William Craig, a mountain man who had married a Nez Perce woman, settled on Lapwai Creek, eight miles from Spalding’s mission. Craig befriended the Nez Perce and taught irrigation and farming skills. He was a respected mediator between the Nez Perce and federal representatives. He defended the Indians from Spalding’s sometimes abusive treatment and protected Spalding when the Indians wanted to punish him. The Nez Perce Treaty of 1855 exempted Craig’s property from Nez Perce reservation land, and in 1920 the citizens of Craigmont named their town after him.

In 1942 as part of its "Manifest Destiny" philosophy, Congress sponsored an exploration party led by Captain John C. Fremont to map trails and write physical descriptions of the land that pioneers could follow in settling the West. As soon as Congress published Fremont’s maps and findings, tens of thousands of settlers began heading west on the Oregon Trail, many headed to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

In the Treaty of 1846 between the U.S. and Great Britain, England released claims to Oregon Country below the 49th Parallel.

In 1847 when prospectors found rich deposits of placer gold in California, the ensuing gold rush brought an even larger migration. The California Gold Rush prompted a flow of fortune seekers scouring the mountains and streams throughout the West.

In 1855 the Nez Perce chiefs entered into a treaty with the federal government that included specifying Nez Perce reservation lands generally in Northern Idaho and western Washington.

However, in the ensuing years non-Indian gold prospectors and settlers moved onto reservation land. In 1860 prospectors found gold at Pierce. A gold rush ensued with thousands coming into the region. Almost overnight, Lewiston, which was then on reservation land, became a tent city as miners, traveling by boat up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Lewiston geared up before making their trek to the Pierce gold fields and beyond.

In 1862 in response to Nez Perce complaints about non-Indians invading reservation land in violation of the 1855 Treaty, the U.S. Army built Fort Lapwai. However, the military’s ability to stop and remove the thousands of prospectors from the reservation proved ineffective.

In 1867 Congress, seeking to promote settlement and appease the demands of prospectors and settlers, ratified a new treaty that had been crafted in 1863. In that treaty, the Nez Perce ceded significant portions of 1855 Treaty reservation land, including land around Lewiston and the gold mining areas around Pierce, to the federal government.

Some of the Nez Perce chiefs did not sign the treaty, and they were angry about the loss of reservation land. In 1877 a series of military battles ensued wherein the Nez Perce eventually surrendered to the U.S. Army and most of the surviving Nez Perce returned to live on their smaller Lapwai Reservation.

In 1889 the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads formed a partnership called the Camas Prairie Railroad. It connected Lewiston with the agriculture and timber areas of the Palouse and the Camas Prairie. By stopping in Lapwai, the railroad had an important effect on the city’s economy, providing transportation for the city’s commerce and residents.

Even though the treaty of 1863 was not signed by all of the Nez Perce chiefs, it established the Lapwai Reservation and led to the establishment of Lapwai, subsequently becoming the seat of government for the Nez Perce Nation and the Northern Idaho location for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On January 30, 1911, Nez Perce County Commissioners approved incorporation of Lapwai as a village.

The Dawes Severalty Act and the Checkerboard Effect

On February 8, 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act. The Act authorized Native American tribal reservation lands to be surveyed and specific acreages allotted to tribal members. Congress deemed land not so allocated as surplus and available for non-Indian settlement. In 1935 Congress repealed the law; however, by that time ownership of most former reservation lands was in the hands of non-Indians.

On November 18, 1895, Nez Perce Reservation land became open for settlement by non-Indians. An estimated 5,000 people participated in the land rush. Most of the Camas Prairie settlements began around this time.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The Lapwai City Park is located next to City Hall and includes playground equipment, a sand pit, lighted horseshoe pits, picnic tables and a powered arbor for performances or concerts.

The 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA), including the 960-acre Hells Gate State Park, is located approximately 20 miles west of Lapwai. The HCNRA includes North America’s deepest river gorge, which forms the Idaho/Oregon border. On the Oregon side, the gorge lies more than a mile below the rim. On the Idaho side, the gorge is more than 8,000 feet below He Devil Peak of the Seven Devils Mountains.

The HCNRA provides opportunities for hiking, camping, swimming, boating, horseback riding, hunting and fishing.

The Spalding Museum and Memorial Park are located four miles north on the Nez Perce Reservation in Spalding. The museum includes artifacts and exhibits of the historic Spalding mission to the Nez Perce tribe.

The Nez Perce National Historic Park is comprised of 38 sites scattered across Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. Old Fort Lapwai, located in the city, is one of these sites; Spalding is another.


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