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History of the Lolo Trail

With the acquisition of the horse in the early 1700's the Nez Perce Indians began traveling the Lolo Trail from their homes in Idaho to the buffalo hunting grounds of western Montana. Their friends, the Flatheads, lived in the upper Lochsa River. Other tribes, such as the Blackfeet, at times used the trail as a warpath to Nez Perce villages and an opportunity to seize horses and hostages.

On September 9th, 1805, the Lewis & Clark Expedition reached Lolo Creek after leaving their dugouts at the headwaters of the Missouri and securing horses from the Shoshonis. The party now included Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, twenty-six hand-picked army troops, Clark’s slave York, interpreters Charbon-neau and Sacajawea and their infant son Baptiste, and two of Sacajawea’s fellow Shoshonis. The explorers rested for a day and a half on a small flat they called “Traveler’s Rest” on the south side of Lolo Creek directly across from The Lolo Creek Steakhouse. Nine months later, on June 30th and July 1st and 2nd, 1806, they again camped here, delighted to have survived a blustery winter on the Pacific coast and to have once again successfully crossed the rugged Bitterroots.

In the same month, 71 years later, more than seven hundred anti-treaty Nez Perce crossed the mountains on the Lolo Trail following several skirmishes and two major battles with the U.S. Army in Idaho. Believing they were not at war with the whites in Montana, the Nez Perce hoped to find refuge in familiar haunts on the east side of the Bitterroots. A little over four miles west of The Lolo Creek Steak House, advance scouts discovered Captain Charles Rawn and a contingent of soldiers and citizen volunteers manning a hastily constructed brush and log barricade across the trail. Rawn had been dispatched from Fort Missoula with the mission of stopping the Indians until General Howard could attack them from the rear.

Nez Perce Warriors

Nez Perce Warriors

For two days Chiefs Looking Glass and Joseph attempted to negotiate an amicable passing, but to no avail. Many of the volunteers from the Bitterroot Valley accepted the Indians’ promise to remain peaceful and, hence, returned to their homes, leaving the barricade with but a handful of soldiers. As an uneasy dawn broke on July 28th, Rawn and his soldiers looked up to see a line of Nez Perce and their 2,000 horses passing along the high ridge to the north of the creek. The soldiers were left guarding a jumble of logs at the site that was later humorously dubbed Fort Fizzle. The Nez Perce returned to the Lolo Trail at Sleeman Creek about a mile and a half west of where you are now dining. An extraordinary sight they must have made – papooses snoozing in cradleboards on their mothers’ backs; teepee skins, blankets, and woven grass baskets tottering on horses backs; the extra stock herded along by boys in buckskin leggings bearing willow switches; gray-haired oldsters trying to keep pace; and the lead stalwart warriors carrying guns.

Nine days later General O.O. Howard, 200 cavalry and 20 Bannock Indian scouts camped at Lolo Hot Springs, at a day’s ride ahead of Howard’s main force of 500 soldiers and packers struggling with ponderous amounts of supplies, ammunition, howitzers, and Gatling guns. By the time Howard reached the mouth of Lolo Creek on August 8th, the Nez Perce had peaceably ascended the Bitterroot Valley and were settling in for a long awaited rest on the Big Hole River. That rest was shattered on the next day’s dawn as their camp was attacked by the forces of Colonel John Gibbon.

You can now enjoy your own “traveler’s rest” on the Lolo Trail at The Lolo Creek Steak House, a crossroads of western history.

General Oliver O. Howard

Oliver O. Howard