The first tourists in the Wallowa Country were T. T. Geer and a group of thirteen from the city of Cove, in 1875. They came with horses and a wagon packed with a small skiff, which they used to explore the lake for the vaunted “red fish” that they had heard about from White stockmen. That same August, a military detachment from Walla Walla came into the Wallowa, as President Grant’s 1873 executive order for a “Reservation for the Roaming Nez Perce of the Wallowa Valley” had been rescinded and the valley was opened up again to settlement. Geer, who would become an Oregon governor, didn’t mention either the military or the Nez Perce in his 1912 book, Fifty Years in Oregon. He did include a photo of Wallowa Lake as it had appeared in 1871, before a spree of dam-building began in 1880.
Thus begins the long and complicated history of tourism in the Wallowa—and its relationship to the Nez Perce, the Nimiipuu, who were forcibly removed in 1877 and are still finding their way home today.
The Wallowa Valley is sandwiched between the Snake River and Idaho to the east, the Grande Ronde River and Washington to the north, and the Wallowa Mountains to the south and west. It was bypassed by the Oregon Trail for thirty years, before Union County stockmen looking for grass started coming to the valley through gaps in the mountains. Captain Bonneville had skirted the valley in the 1820s. Missionary Henry Spalding visited in 1839 and tried to name the lake after himself. But the Wallowa Valley was, for the most part, left to its geographic isolation during the early years of the Oregon Trail, until the Grande Ronde Valley to the west began filling up with White settlers in the 1860s, and the first stockmen made their way into the Wallowa Valley in 1871, the same year that tiwi-teqis, the leader of the wal’wá·ma band of the Nez Perce, whom the settlers called Chief Old Joseph, died.
Tourism, the practice of visiting a place for pleasure and experience rather than to make a living, began in the area almost at the same time as the first White settlements were established and Old Joseph died. In the 1870s and into the early 1900s, visitors from the nearby Grande Ronde Valley came to gather fish and game, and to “rusticate” in tents at Wallowa Lake. The goods and ills of tourism, its varied impacts on local residents, including the Nimiipuu, started then and are with us still.
Today, the Wallowa is experiencing the ups and downs of the tourism industry: the hunt for workers and affordable housing; huge rises in gas prices; and worries over COVID. COVID brought a small new group of tourists-turned-settlers to the Wallowa. At the height of the pandemic, RVs housing remote-learning students became common, second homes became first homes, and urbanites wanting out of crowds bought houses and chased the market up. Winters have thinned their ranks.
The general population, those who are not involved directly in tourism, are also impacted by rising housing and fuel costs, and to a lesser extent by competition for favorite fishing, hiking, and backpacking spots. Among the newcomers, there are some who have “found” the Wallowa and want to keep it as they’ve found it; and there are others who want to preach its gospel far and wide. I imagine hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Chief Young Joseph, wanted to keep things as they were. He asked A. C. Smith, an early visitor and entrepreneur from Cove, to honor the Treaty of 1855 and his wal’wá·ma territory and not build the bridge across the Minam River in 1871—the one that T. T. Geer and his party crossed when they came into the country four years later.
Today, the Nimiipuu work to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland. The Nez Perce Tribe owns property and easements. A large 16,000-acre parcel called Héte'wits Wétes, Precious Lands, at the northeast end of current Wallowa County lines, is owned and managed by the tribe as a wildlife area. In 2020, the tribe purchased 148 acres near the town of Joseph that they call Am'sáaxpa, Place of Boulders. In 2021, they accepted an easement from the Wallowa Lake Lodge at the head of Wallowa Lake, the spawning grounds for kokanee—and maybe for a revived sockeye salmon run. Nez Perce from reservations in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon hold an annual powwow, Tamkaliks, on the grounds of the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland. They hold worship services at a new longhouse on the 320-acre Homeland grounds, and serve on the Homeland’s board of directors.
When I arrived in Wallowa County in 1971, an even hundred years after the first settlers, there were fewer than seven thousand year-round residents. Most were involved in agriculture and timber. Others worked for state and federal government agencies. A few businesses catered to tourists. Among the tourists, deer and elk hunters were common. Seasons are now split for different hunts, but the number of hunters is still substantial, in the thousands. The Nature Conservancy, which holds 33,000 acres of Zumwalt Prairie, offers hunting tags to local service organizations to auction or raffle for funding, and does the same with an “antler hunt” each year. They estimate that over $300,000 has been raised for local organizations.
The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve also hosts birdwatchers, researchers, and cooperating cattle-grazers. Marcy Houle came decades ago to do research on raptors. She stayed to write a book called The Prairie Keepers, still in print, that tells the story of a symbiotic relationship among the extensive grasslands, ranchers, raptors, and ground squirrels on the Zumwalt Prairie. The rodents feed ferruginous and Swainson’s hawks, kestrels, prairie falcons, golden eagles, and rough-legged hawks, she found, and thus save valuable grasslands for grazing. The prairie once extended north to Canada, and still remains the largest extant bunchgrass prairie ecosystem in the country.
Hells Canyon of the Snake River, the deepest gorge in North America, divides Oregon and the Wallowa from Idaho. Local outfitters run trips on the Snake, and on the Grande Ronde and Salmon Rivers. Outsiders come to run rivers, fish, hunt, hike, and spend time
in the mountains and waters. Red’s Horse Ranch, a remote dude ranch on the upper Minam River, once hosted Gary Cooper and other Hollywood luminaries. A spot on the Grande Ronde River was supposedly the “secret” fishing spot of legendary fishing journalist Roderick Haig-Brown in the 1950s.
The most famous inhabitants and current returnees to the Wallowa were and still are the Nez Perce. Chief Old Joseph, tiwi-teqis, was first buried near the confluence of the Wallowa and Lostine Rivers, just upriver from what is now the town of Wallowa. The homesteader plowed around the grave site for a time, but grave robbers kept disturbing it, finding and stealing artifacts, finally digging up the old chief’s skull and displaying it in a Baker City dentist’s office.
Some settlers were upset by this, and some saw an opportunity for publicity. In 1926, a group led by early county historian Harley Horner moved Old Joseph’s remains to a spot on the Terminal Moraine above the outlet of Wallowa Lake. There was a huge celebration. Schoolchildren contributed pennies to establish the grave site, school in Joseph was let out, and the procession, which included Old Joseph’s remains on a horse-pulled travois, was joined by visitors from far and wide who enjoyed a feast put on by the Indians. The newspaper claimed that over 4,500 visitors attended, maybe the earliest large convocation of visitors in the Wallowa.
The five-acre grave site had been purchased by the Department of the Interior for a token dollar, paid to the irrigation company that owned and controlled the dam at the foot of Wallowa Lake, and was to be “held in trust” for the Nez Perce. The site fell into disrepair, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s, an all-Indian Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew from the Umatilla Reservation cleaned it up. They built a stone wall demarcating the grave site and put a power ram atop a nearby hill that fed a drinking fountain near the grave marker. There were speeches by prominent tribal representatives at the 1941 rededication, when a big crowd of Native and White people again assembled at the site.
No water flows today, but the fountain still stands, and thousands of visitors stop to read the grave marker and sometimes leave keepsakes on a bush near the marker—bracelets, earrings, key chains, and paper messages asking for the old chief’s help or understanding.
Shortly after Old Joseph’s death, a series of broken treaties and settler demands resulted in the forced expulsion of the Nez Perce from the Wallowa, in 1877. The Nez Perce War—the subject of numerous books and the first point of contact with the tribe’s history for most non-Natives—ensued. For five months and across almost 1,500 miles, the Nez Perce engaged in a valiant fighting retreat in the face of large, well-armed US armies. Their retreat ended at Bear Paw in Montana, just forty miles short of Canada. Some Nez Perce did escape to Canada, but most, including Chief Young Joseph, were exiled to Kansas and Oklahoma Indian Territory. Although they were allowed to return to the Northwest in 1885, they were not allowed to return to Oregon. Some war survivors who did escape to Canada, and others who escaped along the way and avoided eight years in the “hot country” drifted back to Lapwai in Idaho, to the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, and to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Old Joseph’s bones remained buried in the Wallowa, and Young Joseph spent his remaining years trying to return to the place of his ancestors. Unsuccessful, he died on the Colville Reservation in 1904 of what the doctor said was a “broken heart.” The New York papers claimed that the “most famous Indian in America” had passed.
Among settlers, there have always been White Americans who wanted Indians gone, physically and culturally, alongside those who valued Native people and their knowledge. Some have also valued their appeal to tourists. In 1946, the Joseph Chamber of Commerce, along with movie star Walter Brennan, who owned a ranch in the valley, concocted the rodeo to attract tourists and to celebrate Harley Tucker, a rodeo stock provider who lived on a ranch near Joseph. They named the rodeo after the last Nez Perce headman, who had been forced out seventy years earlier. The first event was held on the East Moraine above Wallowa Lake, but the rodeo soon settled into its own permanent arena in the town of Joseph—also named after the Native chief.
In the almost 150 years since Geer’s visit—and the forced removal of the Nez Perce from the Wallowa in 1877—tourism has grown exponentially, and Wallowa Lake remains at its center. A new book, Stories of Wallowa Lake, by Rita Ehrler and Ellen Morris Bishop, traces the growth of tourism from Geer’s time to the present. It chronicles buckboards from Joseph and early steamboats, a pleasure park with a merry-go-round and fine dining in the early 1900s, the construction of Wallowa Lake Lodge, Alpenfest, the advent of the Wallowa Lake State Park, and the construction of the Wallowa Lake Tramway, a gondola that takes visitors up Mount Howard at the lake’s edge. It also tells the story of the dams and the sockeye salmon.
Sockeye salmon are the “red fish” that were the object of T. T. Geer’s 1875 trip. Geer and his companions found the fish at the head of the lake, caught them by hand and with pitchforks, and salted and packed two barrels full to take back to Cove, but their barrels spilled on the way out of town. Unfortunately, overfishing by settlers and a series of increasingly effective dams built at the lake’s outlet destroyed the sockeye run. What’s left is a run of “kokanee,” landlocked sockeye that spawn in streams above the lake but cannot get past the dam to return to the sea. Kokanee are still colorful, still good eating, and tourists come to catch them and see them spawn. A new irrigation district is working to rebuild the aging dam, and Nez Perce and Umatilla fisheries programs are working with them to provide passage and restore the seagoing sockeye.
Wallowa County was named one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon in 2014, and license plates from New York and Michigan joined those from Washington and Idaho on the towns’ main streets. Hikers, backcountry skiers, art patrons, artists, photographers, writers, river rafters, and history buffs join hunters, fishers, rodeo patrons, and returning Nez Perce at local places and events.
They come to a place that is still off the interstate, still remote. There are only two ways in or out: one two-lane road that goes to Lewiston, and another that leads to La Grande. But the roads are straighter and the cars more adaptable to harsh weather than they were when I arrived fifty years ago. RVs and travel trailers have grown in number, and B&Bs and Airbnbs have arrived in the Wallowa Country. Bronze foundries, galleries, art and writing workshops, natural resource confabs, Cycle Oregon, and “Road Scholar” tours entice visitors.
The Wallowa Country is experiencing many of the problems that other tourist areas and the country at large are dealing with. Affordable housing is hard to find, gas prices rise, the economy slips and sputters, and so do visitors and purchases at galleries and stores. Locals who are immediately affected worry; locals who need housing and land for agriculture quietly curse the newcomers whose presence has driven up prices. Local backpackers rue the overuse of some mountain trails. Realtors and builders ride up and down with the changes.
And the Indians—the Nez Perce from Lapwai and Colville; the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation—quietly return. They come to fish. They dig roots for food and medicine on Nature Conservancy ground. They consult on land use and fire. Tribal members work alongside non-Native biologists in fisheries programs, having successfully brought back a coho salmon run and looking to bring back lamprey and now sockeye. Tribes have contributed to Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site, which includes Chief Joseph’s grave site. The Nez Perce Tribe recently joined the Wallowa Land Trust, Wallowa Resources, Oregon Parks and Recreation, and Wallowa County in a successful campaign to save the stunning East Moraine of Wallowa Lake from development.
The rodeo, camping, hunting, and fishing all continue, but the signature event that marks new relationships among residents, tourists, and Nez Perce may be the Sunday of the Tamkaliks powwow, when, after the longhouse service and before the last dances, hundreds of tourists, townspeople, and Nez Perce returnees gather for a meal of elk, bison, and salmon called the Friendship Feast.
Nez Perce tribal holdings in the Wallowa, the 16,000-acre Precious Lands and the 148-acre Place of Boulders, are small in relation to the two million acres that make up Wallowa County. And the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Wallowa live scattered on three reservations in three states, eager to reconnect to a homeland that remains strong in song, story, and generational memory.
4 comments have been posted.
Excellent history from Rich. After moving to the Wallowa in 1979, I quickly learned tourism was scorned by the local status quo. Today, the big sawmills are gone and the locals do their best to manage recreation-based tourism, the new economic driver. The "I'm here so shut the gates" crowd will always complain, but..."You can fence yourselves in, but you can't fence the world out." (JRR Tolkien)
Ric Bailey | June 2023 | Winthrop, WA
Thanks for this Rich...adds to my understanding of the land i came to almost 26 years ago and love to this day.
anand arupo | May 2023 | Joseph, OR
Yes, indeed. An elegant overview of the area's history and tapestry, now known as Wallowa County, Oregon.
Jeffrey Petrillo | May 2023 |
Elegant and accurate! Beautifully written by our good friend who inhabits the literary and historic epicenter of the Wallowa. In addition to his other notable accomplishments, Rich co-founded the Wallowa Land Trust in 2004. Rich mentions Rita Ehrler and Ellen Bishop's recently released book "Stories of Wallowa Lake." On June 29, 2023, Rita and Ellen will do a special public presentation at Wallowa Lake Lodge, during the Lodge's Centennial season.
James Monteith | May 2023 | Joseph, Oregon