In 1984 I was very eager to see the Chief Joseph Battleground, as many historians and residents called it 30 years ago. Here in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army, which had pursued Joseph and his followers across most of Montana, starting in Beaverhead County in the southeast corner, extending as far east along the Yellowstone as present-day Laurel, and then striking north for the Canadian border. They made it as far as this wind-swept prairie 15 miles south of Chinook.
In 1984, on a cold winter morning, the site was spectacular and I gave a tip of my hat to the local residents who had made the effort to preserve the site–and acquire enough land that you could gain a strong sense of place, and of destiny. The level of interpretation at the battleground was disappointing. There was a mounted bust of Chief Joseph (not full-sized; it looked lost on the vastness of the space) which has since been moved. There were metal plaques noting Chief Joseph’s surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles, erected by the DAR and the citizens of Blaine County in 1929 and by Congress in 1930. And most recently, a 1966 marker to C. R. Noyes, the local
rancher who had played the key role in saving the battleground. There was not much else to explain the significance of the Nez Perce campaign nor what happened there in the fall of 1877. When I next visited in 1988, the story was the same.
In 1989 the National Park Service designated the Chief Joseph Battleground as a National Historic Landmark–the first step in a new future for the park. Then it became a key property in the Nez Perce Historical Park, which has units from Idaho to Montana. New interpretive trails and interpretive markers are the most recent additions, telling a much broader story than the old metal markers were capable of doing.
The experience today is far different than 1984. There is still no visitor center–the new one at Big Hole Battlefield in Beaverhead County is superb however–and the Blaine County Museum in Chinook still carries that burden of interpreting the story. But there is truth in the landscape now, as never before. The trails, markers, and landscape combine to create a deeper understanding of why the Nez Perce stopped here, why it was difficult to escape the U.S. army, and what that trek and all of those stories might mean today.
The two layers of interpretation–that of the early 20th century and that of the 21st century–co-exist within a special place. Here is one preservation success in the last 30 years that deserves to be better known.
A bit farther down the road is Cleveland. In my time in Montana, it hosted one of the most famous (or was it infamous) local rodeos around. Its bar/cafe/post office spoke still to the first part of the 20th century. People there in 1984 were friendly, and it was a good place that I looked forward to revisiting. But the doors were shuttered in Cleveland. The corrals were still there, sorta. And there was no Cleveland Bar. Wish I could have been here one more time before it went away.